Raids on brothels in the UK will probably evoke little
interest, concern, or sympathy among the vast majority of entrepreneurs.
Yet history shows that when governments misuse their powers
they start by targeting the unpopular – the abuse spreads only gradually and
imperceptibly until we wake up one morning to discover that we are all
So perhaps now is the time we should all start to worry.
British law on prostitution is a typical muddy compromise:
prostitution is not technically illegal but running a brothel is – despite the
fact that prostitutes in brothels are safer, healthier, and less nuisance to
the general community than street walkers.
In practice, the police have usually adopted a common sense
approach: they did not interfere much because they like to know where the
brothels are so they can keep an eye on them.
So why the raids now? The pretext is a crackdown on human
trafficking – a noble objective, certainly. Yet little evidence
of trafficking has been found in the places raided. This is hardly surprising:
the well-established brothels which are the most obvious targets for raids are
in fact the alternative to places run by the traffickers.
The real reason for the raids may be the extraordinarily
aggressive asset seizures that have followed.
Seizure of the proceeds of crime was brought in on the pretext
that it would be used to take the assets of drug dealers, terrorists, and
particularly nasty people. Predictably, little has been seized from such master
criminals. So the authorities – obsessed, like all authorities these days, by
the need to meet goals – are going after soft targets.
The result is an otherwise respectable businesswoman
being told to “pay back” £2.6m. Pay back? To whom? The clients? Of course not.
The government obviously – but the government, one assumes, did not pay her in
the first place, so why “pay back”? The law has become ridiculous. This,
incidentally, in a city infamous for the murder of a street prostitute, who
would still be alive if she had worked in a properly regulated brothel.
The question the vast majority of us who are not Welsh
brothel-keepers should ask is this: once governments start using the criminal
law to raise money by asset seizures for minor offences, who will be next? And
where will it end?