ELLESMERE Port councillor Pat Merrick’s report on those involved in sex work in the borough has taken a further step forward. DAVID NORBURY reports

Following the murders of prostitutes in Ipswich and Bradford, Cllr Pat Merrick, deputy leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council’s Labour group, was asked to investigate how the council and other organisations work with those who are involved with sex work to ensure they are safe and to help those who wish to change their lives to do so.

Cllr Merrick did not seek to make moral judgments. Her focus was on ensuring that some of the most vulnerable people in the borough were safe from harm.

Cllr Merrick found:

No evidence of street prostitution in Cheshire West and Chester. Between two and five women from the borough work on the streets in Manchester, Stoke and Liverpool.

Massage parlours are ‘relatively discreet’.

Evidence of cruising, dogging and cottaging by gay and straight people in the borough.

A small number of gay men who travel between Chester and North Wales may be working in the pornographic industry.

Her recommendations included:

The council’s supporting people team should specify sex workers as a client group when commissioning new services.

The team should repeat her survey on a six-monthly basis to ensure potential issues are identified.

Information sharing should be improved.

The children’s safeguarding team should review how vulnerable young people and particularly young people in care are made aware of the dangers of sexual exploitation.

She told the council’s ruling Tory-controlled executive in her findings: “I am pleased to report that Cheshire West and Chester does not have a recognised area where prostitutes regularly walk the streets as this is notoriously the most dangerous form of prostitution.

“While there are a few massage parlours, I could find no evidence of coercion or danger.”

Cllr Merrick contacted a range of organisations, including the police, and the 11 which replied concluded there were ‘no known problems with sex workers in Cheshire West’.

She told councillors: “It is only a short report. If you have had time to read it you will share our relief that we do not have a major problem in the borough or the kind of problems the bigger cities experience.”

Visiting councillor Jill Houlbrook (Con), the council’s homelessness champion, had a different view.

Although she welcomed the report, Cllr Houlbrook said: “I hope it is the beginning of a serious in-depth consideration of all the aspects associated with the phrase sex worker.

“The label sex worker, I feel, is a misnomer as it includes people, male and female who are engaged in the exchange of sex for money, goods or simply to survive.

“They do not do this as a job out of choice.

“I just don’t believe that we are the only authority in the whole of the United Kingdom that doesn’t have a problem with sex and sex workers and all that involves.

“I wonder what actual proof Cllr Merrick has that this is the case?”

Cllr Houlbrook referred to her work as homelessness champion and to a group where ‘many clients are involved in alcohol and drug-related activities and the whole of the group feel there is a problem with sex and drugs in this authority’.

She said: “There is a lot of covert and unreported sexual crime that goes on.

“The use of alcohol and drugs is so much that we are actually starting to investigate this ourselves.”

Cllr Houlbrook was also concerned about trafficking for sex, which she did not feel had been dealt with in the report.

“I have tried on my own to find out what kind of problem we have in the authority with sex trafficking and, again, I cannot believe that we are the only authority in the whole of the country that doesn’t have men and women and children trafficked for sex in our area,” she said.

“Sex work is not confined to labels and so much of it goes on under cover.

“I feel that, while this is a very laudable piece of work, we have actually missed a huge opportunity to go further than just dipping our toe into the water.

“I would like to see the authority building on the work that Cllr Merrick has done to actually probe much more deeply into the problems we undoubtedly have.”

Cllr Merrick said her review had met ‘every conceivable group’ which worked with the kind of people mentioned by Cllr Houlbrook ‘and we were assured that as far as they were aware we didn’t have the kind of a problem which might be associated with places like Bradford, Manchester or Liverpool’.

“The very nature of the work is that a lot of it is covert,” she added.

The review had been particularly keen to establish if there was any group of people – whether they were young, looked-after children, women suffering domestic abuse or others – who could keep in touch with the council.

Executive member Cllr Herbert Manley (Con) described the report as ‘a very good piece of work’.

He said the council was already looking at vulnerable people and proposed the executive should accept Cllr Merrick’s recommendations.

“I do think it is a good piece of work; we need to make sure it does not end where it ends now,” said Cllr Houlbrook.

“I am more than happy to work with Cllr Merrick and introduce her to the people who can talk about their clients and what happens.

“I think that would be a really positive way forward.”

Council leader Cllr Mike Jones (Con) described the issue as ‘a very important subject’.

“The themes which come out of it are that we have to be vigilant and we have to work with our partners,” he said.

The council had to make sure the work it did on safeguarding picked up the signals from issues such as abuse, drugs, anti-social behaviour or domestic violence.