Street wise

Alex Feis BryceAn award-winning scheme has been protecting vulnerable drug-dependent street sex workers from attack. Its director of services, Alex Feis-Bryce, talks to David Gilliver

The links between problem drug use and street sex work are well known, with street sex workers particularly vulnerable to violence and assault, most of which has tended to go unreported. Run by the UK Network of Sex Work Projects (UKNSWP), the National Ugly Mugs (NUM) scheme was launched in 2012 with the aim of warning sex workers about dangerous individuals and helping the police gather intelligence on serial offenders. This year the scheme was not only winner of the Paolo Pertica Award – which recognises innovation and contributions to public health in a criminal justice context – but also won in the ‘small charity, big achiever’ category of the Third Sector awards.

‘We were quite surprised as that was a really glitzy award ceremony, and we’re not used to getting that kind of mainstream attention,’ says NUM’s director of services, Alex Feis-Bryce.

Around 20,000 sex workers are now engaged with the scheme, with more than 1,000 incidents reported so far, and while all but a few victims are happy to share information anonymously with the police only 25 per cent are prepared to make a formal statement. ‘That means the police are getting vital intelligence they’d otherwise be unaware of,’ he says.

The ‘ugly mugs’ concept originated in Australia in the mid-1980s, when sex workers in Victoria began circulating descriptions of violent men. While the first UK schemes – in Birmingham and Edinburgh – began at the end of that decade, NUM is still the only nationwide, integrated scheme of its kind.

‘The UK Network of Sex Work Projects, ever since they were formed in 2002, have been advocating for a National Ugly Mugs scheme,’ says Feis-Bryce. ‘The Home Office funded a development project, which was basically a big consultation, and then they provided funding for a one-year pilot – it was three months to set up and operational for nine months after that.’ The pilot ended in March 2013, and the scheme has run independently since then.

‘So it’s the first time there’s ever been government funding involved, and the first time it’s ever been national,’ he says. ‘Obviously we’re completely independent of the police, but we do have formal links in terms of sharing data – if we’ve got consent – and that kind of thing. We’re the first of its kind in the world, really.’

The scheme also gets funding from the police, he says, but on an ad-hoc basis. ‘There’s quite a lot of devolved power to every police force, which means we have to go to each individual force, and there are 43 in England and Wales.’ The scheme does have a good working partnership with the police, however, although the partnership is stronger in some areas than others. ‘Some force areas value the scheme more than others, I suppose, but a lot of it is just getting in there and raising awareness.’

Was it easy to establish those relationships – were the police onside from the beginning? ‘We had top-level senior police officers supporting the scheme from the start,’ he says. ‘Part of the consultation process was with the police and the National Crime Agency’s serious crimes analysis section, so that helped us, and ACPO [Association of Chief Police Officers] were also very supportive. But it’s still a slightly different relationship with every force. That’s one of the challenges – knowing exactly who to go to, and how it’s going to be dealt with.’

A number of high-profile cases over the years have highlighted poor police attitudes when it comes to investigating violence against sex workers. Are those views on the way out now? ‘We still encounter it every now and then, I have to say,’ he states. ‘We probably hear more positive than negative stories now, but we still do hear things that are absolutely shocking.’ While officers investigating serious sexual offences are specially trained, there can still be issues with ‘first responders’ to incidents, he explains. ‘But most of the officers who are experienced in investigating sexual offences have no interest in whether the victim’s a sex worker – they just want to solve the crime.’

The stigma around problematic drug use can take its toll, and that’s something that can be massively compounded when sex work is involved. ‘Absolutely,’ he says. ‘Most of the research shows that it’s about 90-95 per cent of female street sex workers who are dependent on drugs and/or alcohol – it tends to be the major driving force of why they’re on the streets working, along with issues of homelessness. Because some of them will already have had run-ins with the police, the levels of trust are really low, and you do get officers who aren’t very respectful. With the other sector of sex workers – escorts and things like that – rates of problematic drug use are incredibly low, but it’s the sex workers working on the streets who are most targeted by the type of perpetrators we deal with.’

And the least likely to report it? ‘Yes, and that’s not just about trust. We’ve had incidents where they want to report it but the court process – particularly with something like sexual assault – is just not set up to deal with people who have chaotic lifestyles. They might be keen to make a statement but often the courts and police aren’t very flexible about how the statement is taken, so there are lots of barriers. I’ve been involved in a serious sex offence trial as a witness, and even for someone who’s able to get the train and make all the meetings it’s an absolute nightmare. So that is a real challenge.’

The project has forged excellent links with treatment agencies, he explains, with around 320 national members including specialist sex work projects. ‘Most projects working with street sex workers will either have strong partnerships with drug treatment agencies or they themselves will provide services like needle exchange and so on,’ he says. ‘We work really closely with them.’

In areas without a specialist sex work project there will be drug services that regularly encounter sex workers, which means raising awareness of the scheme is vital, he stresses. ‘It might only be small numbers of sex workers engaging with them, but what we do is a resource that’s always available.’

A former political advisor, he was faced with a decision about whether to stay in politics when the MP he was working for suddenly died. ‘I’d been volunteering with the Albert Kennedy Trust, which works with young LGBT homeless people, and a lot of the young people they supported did turn to sex work to survive, so I was aware that sex workers were a particularly stigmatised group. I realised that I didn’t want to stay within politics for that much longer, but I had skills from doing that work that I was able to take to something that had a more direct impact on people’s lives. With politics it can be a bit abstract, but this was an opportunity to do something more hands on. The challenge, but also the impact, of working with a particularly stigmatised group had always appealed to me.’

The scheme has already led to 16 convictions that NUM is aware of, and the actual figure may well be much higher, he points out. ‘Once someone makes a formal report to the police they aren’t very good at keeping us informed of the progress, because we have so many that go through to them.’

One conviction earlier this year, however, saw a man sentenced to ten years for a knife-point rape, with the way the case was handled recognised as a model of good practice. ‘She was a Romanian escort who was adamant that she didn’t want to report it to the police, or even tell anyone, but she went for a routine health check with a nurse who was aware of the scheme, and it was part of the process to say, “has anything happened to you that we should report?” A couple of weeks later the police came to us and said, “we think we may have identified the perpetrator – can you go back and ask these questions, and she can still maintain her anonymity?” It was a credit to the police how flexible they were, so she started to believe that they were taking it seriously, weren’t interested in the fact that she was a sex worker, and didn’t disrespect her.’

Eventually she made a full report and, supported by specialist advisers and a translator, went to court. ‘The police use it as an example of why the scheme is important, because they just wouldn’t have known about it otherwise,’ he says. 

Despite positive outcomes like this, however, and having just two full-time and two part-time staff, plus a volunteer, funding has been a constant headache. ‘It’s the bane of our existence,’ he says. ‘The Home Office provided funding for the pilot but said “we won’t ever be able to fund you after that”. They can fund projects to seed but if they funded us beyond the pilot it would be seen as sort of double-funding the police, which is against Treasury rules.’

Another problem is that NUM tends not to qualify for a lot of big grants, he explains. ‘We’re more about sharing intelligence and best practice and information, and that’s just not popular to fund. At the end of every financial year we don’t know if we’re still going to be running in a few weeks’ time, and it’s going to be like that again if we don’t find some kind of sustainable solution.’

And if funding does dry up, the consequences could be grave. ‘An evaluation of the pilot found that 16 per cent of the 20,000 sex workers engaged with the scheme said that they’d avoided an individual directly as a result of one of our warnings, which is almost more powerful than the criminal justice outcomes,’ he says. ‘That’s a large number of crimes potentially prevented.’

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