Prostitution itself is legal in the UK: a person can buy sexual services and working as a private prostitute or outcall escort is legal – but many related activities are not. This includes kerb crawling, pimping, keeping a brothel, advertising the services of call girls by placing cards (“tart cards”) in phone boxes and having sex in public. The laws apply to both male and female prostitutes and male and female clients.
Under the Street Offences Act 1959, it is illegal for a prostitute to wait for or solicit business in a street or public place, effectively making street prostitution illegal. Although assistance should be given to assist offenders in finding a route out of prostitution, prostitutes may be punished. Usually first or second time offenders will be cautioned, third and fourth time offenders are usually arrested and charged and on the fifth offence an anti-social behaviour order may be issued on conviction.
People under 18 are primarily treated as victims of abuse and the procedure may differ from what is outlined above.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines a prostitute as a person who has offered or given services of a sexual nature to another person in return for financial gain on one or more occasions.
Pimping is controlling prostitutes for financial gain. A pimp profits from the work of prostitutes under their control. If a person is convicted of exploiting the prostitution of others, they may face imprisonment under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Sentence will be determined based on the extent to which the prostitute has been coerced and the involvement of the person in the exploitation of the prostitute.
If there is evidence of mental or physical coercion, the person may be sentenced to between two and five years.
If there is no coercion but the offender is closely involved in the prostitution of the victim, then the person may face from 26 weeks up to two years in custody.
Where there is no coercion and the involvement of the offender is only very small, there is no custodial sentence.
The same law that makes pimping illegal also means that escort agencies are illegal when an agency controls the escorts. Working as an outcall escort is legal.
It is an offence for someone to keep, manage or assist in the management of a brothel. Included in this is a landlord or tenant allowing a premises to be used as a brothel. A brothel is defined as a place where two or more prostitutes work. The people working do not need to charge for sexual services for a premises to be classed as a brothel. The offence carries a maximum sentence of 7 years in prison, though the role played by the offender will be taken into consideration (a receptionist will probably not be charged as severely as a brothel owner or someone more essential to the running of a brothel).
One person can legally work as a prostitute from a single indoor premises without breaking the law.
It is illegal for potential clients to solicit sex from prostitutes in a public place. Child prostitution is illegal for the person paying. In this case, ‘child’ is defined as a person below the age of 18. The law concerning clients is about to change, see ‘the future’, below.
It is illegal for a person to solicit prostitutes from a motor vehicle while on a street or public place under Section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 1985. Kerb crawling is an indictable offence under section 71 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 if it causes annoyance or disturbances to people in the neighbourhood or if it is persistent behaviour.
Kerb crawlers can be penalised with a maximum fine of £1000 and, under Section 1 of the Powers of the Criminal Courts Act 2000, they can be disqualified from driving.
Other measures that can be used to combat kerb crawling include issuing anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) after a person is convicted of kerb crawling, civil injunctions and acceptable behaviour contracts in which kerb crawlers agree to change their behaviour. Local media may be encouraged to name and shame those who are convicted of kerb crawling.
The fate of prostitution is being keenly debated. A loosening of the law and a more tolerant approach to prostitution has been advocated, with people arguing that the UK should follow the examples set by Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand, In 2006, it was even suggested that small brothels could be allowed, but such plans have been abandoned due to fears that this would result in pimps and drug dealers moving into residential areas.
The government is currently reviewing the law regarding prostitution and changes to prostitution laws are being debated in the House of Lords as part of the Policing and Crime Bill 2009. The tide of opinion has recently changed in favour of stricter laws and a far less tolerant approach to prostitution.
One major change planned is to target demand by cracking down on clients. New legislation will make it illegal for a person to pay for sex with a prostitute controlled for the gain of another person, meaning that clients will be breaking the law if they engage the services of a prostitute who is controlled by a pimp or brothel owner. Another planned change is to make it possible to charge a client with rape if they knowingly pay for sex with a person who was illegally trafficked into the country. First time offenders will not be exempt form charges.
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