The specialist cautions don't require police to follow any of the normal rules, and once they're dished out they make it incredibly hard for women to find work elsewhere.
According to a new study, seven in ten UK sex workers previously worked in care jobs. The research, carried out by Leeds University, revealed that 71 percent of those surveyed had left health, social care, education, childcare or charity roles to take up sex work. Financial hardship was the usual reason for the switch.
Given that most sex workers aren't in it for life, it seems fair to assume that a proportion might eventually choose to go back to their previous line of work. The problem is, for many, this will be impossible.
Sex workers are subject to a particular type of non-statutory reprimand: the " prostitutes caution". As the name implies, it's not quite the same as the regular kind of caution you might be landed with for shoplifting or being caught with a bit of weed.
Regular cautions require that:
- There must be evidence of guilt sufficient to give a realistic prospect of conviction.
- The offender must admit the offence.
In the case of a prostitutes caution, neither of these is required. According to the Crown Prosecution Service:
- The behaviour leading to a prostitutes caution need not itself be evidence of a criminal offence.
- There is no requirement for a man or woman to admit guilt before being given a prostitutes caution and there is no right of appeal.
So sex workers suspected of soliciting (it's legal to buy and sell sex in the UK, but illegal to solicit or work together as a group in a flat) can be slapped with a caution, even if there's not enough evidence to take the matter to court. Want to call foul? Tough: there's no right of appeal.
Cautions remain on your record. If you want to go into work that requires you to interact with children or vulnerable adults (i.e. most care jobs), cautions will show up on an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check (previously called a Criminal Records Bureau, or CRB, check). And if a potential employer sees you've got cautions, there's a good chance you won't get the job. In some cases, it's probably not even worth applying.
Joanne, in her forties, is the primary carer for her severely disabled daughter. Sex work, she says, is simply a way of putting food on the table when choices are limited.
"I've always said I was a part-time prostitute and a full-time mother," she tells me. "I used to go out working when I had bills to pay or things I needed to buy for my daughter."
Joanne's been working on the streets for 25 years. In that time, she's been stopped by the police and has ended up with a record. This record meant that, when Joanne was offered another job, she had to turn it down.
"Social services approached me and asked if I'd be an emergency carer," Joanne says. "I have a daughter who's severely disabled so I'm used to giving injections and tube feeding. I'm used to looking after adults with multiple disabilities. Because my council house has a spare room, I could have done emergency care.
"But because the job involves working with vulnerable kids and adults I'd have to have a full police check. The job would have been ideal for me, but I couldn't even say I was interested or I would have lost my own daughter. As she's classed as a vulnerable adult and I have a record for prostitution, they could have said my house wasn't a suitable environment for her."
It's galling to imagine a qualified, eager caregiver forced to feign disinterest when approached for work by social services. And Joanne's story isn't unique.
"Many sex workers want to go into the caring professions when they leave prostitution," Cari Mitchell from the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) tells me. "Understandably, they often feel uniquely qualified for jobs that require empathy and resilience. Having a caution on your record bars you from any job working with children or vulnerable people. Teaching, nursing and care work are virtually impossible to get into."
The implications of these cautions are far reaching.
"Cautions undermine sex workers' safety," says Mitchell. "Women who report rape to the police with a caution on their record are more likely to be dismissed or even threatened with prosecution for prostitution offences. Fear of getting a caution drives sex workers into side streets away from the police, isolating women from the community and any prospect of help if they're attacked."
And it's not as though these cautions are handed out sparingly. In the West Midlands alone, 800 were dispensed during a two-year period ending in 2014. In a single London borough, 94 were issued between 2012 and 2013.
Nigel Richardson, a criminal defence lawyer with Hodge Jones and Allen, isn't impressed.
"These cautions are a bit odd and anomalous," he told me. "They have no statutory basis and I think came about in the 1950s as part of a police scheme not to prosecute women who were allegedly loitering. But they do not require any admission from the woman, just the record of two officers who believe her to be."
The apparently flimsy basis of these cautions is worrying, given that they remain on your criminal record. Richardson points out that a caution could be brought up during a subsequent prosecution and used as "proof" that a sex worker had persistently loitered.
Liz, another sex worker I spoke to, told me that her son is in jeopardy of losing custodial rights to his child because of her caution, which was mentioned in court. As Liz's son lives with her, the home has been deemed an unsuitable place for a child.
Liz got her caution four years ago. She was working as part of a co-operative of sex workers in a flat and thought she'd be doing everyone a favour by taking the blame and putting her hand up to brothel-keeping.
"There wasn't enough evidence to charge me, but my solicitor said I should accept the caution so it wouldn't go any further," Liz said. "You always accept what your solicitor tells you. I'd happily fight against it now, but at the time I was a bit naïve. It's only four years down the line, but it's too late now."
"Once you've got a record you're stuck on the streets. It's a vicious cycle."
There's no point pretending that having prostitution on your record doesn't carry a particular stigma. The thought of a potential boss having this information about you would be enough to put most people off applying for a job in the first place. But if care work is a field into which sex workers are likely to migrate, and if thousands of cautions are being handed out every year that prevent them from doing so, what amounts is a crisis.
"I don't know many career prostitutes," Joanne says. "I don't know many women who do it through choice. They work on the streets at certain times of their life because they need to. But it takes so many opportunities away and they don't realise it at the time. Once you've got a record you're stuck on the streets. It's a vicious cycle.
"The only thing we can do is decriminalise and clear people's records. It's the only chance people have got for coming off the streets and into other work. At the moment we're treated like criminals, like second class citizens. If the things that happen to us happened to office workers, there'd be an outrage."
Mitchell agrees that decriminalising sex work is the only way out of this mess. When New Zealand decriminalised prostitution in 2003, sex workers' records were expunged. So why not here?
Some names have changed to protect interviewees' anonymity
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