A Luton MP has launched a new initiative to tackle sex trafficking and sexual exploitation in Luton.
Luton Against Sexual Exploitation (LASE) was launched by Gavin Shuker at an event, Turning Off The Red Light, on Monday at Luton based charity Azalea.
Mr Shuker, Ruth Robb CEO of Azalea, and Mia de Faoite, a survivor of prostitution who now campaigns to end demand for sex trade all spoke at the event.
Azalea aims to support women and children caught in sexual exploitation.
LASE will bring together agencies and community members to tackle the issue, by ensuring individuals subject to sexual exploitation are supported, combating demand from sex buyers and holding perpetrators to accounts.
A recent inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution, chaired by Mr Shuker, found the sexual exploitation of women in so-called ‘pop-up’ brothels was “widespread” across the country.
He said: “Luton Against Sexual Exploitation is a groundbreaking new partnership committed to ending commercial sexual exploitation in our community. Our message to any man considering buying sex in Luton is clear: paying for sex is abuse.
“If you pay for sex you will be committing sexual abuse and funding a dangerous and exploitative industry.
“You will also be committing a crime if the person you pay for sex has been forced or coerced – and not being aware of this coercion beforehand is no excuse under the law.
“As community members we must do all we can to make Luton a hostile place for pimps, traffickers and sex buyers – while also making sure that any woman exploited in the sex trade is given the care and support she needs.
“That will require the police, the council, local services and local communities to work together.
“But we also need the Government to step up. Prostitution laws in this country are not fit for purpose.
“To help communities like Luton tackle demand for sexual exploitation it is vital that the Government makes paying for sex a crime in all circumstances. Sexual exploitation is not inevitable. Let’s come together to end it.”
On Sunday, Bedfordshire Police were on patrol in the early hours of the morning in the High Town area in response to residents concerns around anti-social behaviour and the on street sex trade.
During Monday’s event, Mr Shuker said: “Our aim is also to ensure that women exploited in the sex trade are offered support, rather than being criminalised.
“We know that there is a problem of street prostitution here in Luton, but we do not know about the problems behind closed doors, like trafficking, including women who are underage.”
In 2013, Luton Council and Beds Police increased efforts to tackle prostitution in Luton, with more police patrols to target kerb crawlers and dispersal orders.
A spokesman for Luton Council said: “Involvement in the sex trade is caused by many factors and any attempt to eradicate it must take them into account.
“The council recognises that many vulnerable women are exploited by unscrupulous pimps as well as those who pay for their services.
“We therefore welcome Gavin Shuker’s initiative to specifically target those who pay for sex.”
Sergeant John Killick, Luton’s lead for the on street sex trade, said: “We treat this complex issue seriously and work tirelessly with our partners to tackle this problem in Luton in order to protect our communities and reduce associated criminality.
“The force’s priority is to identify people involved in the exploitation of the vulnerable individuals and keep the victims of sex trade safe.
“Therefore we would like to encourage people to come forward with reports of prostitution and anti-social behaviour, as each report allows us build better picture of this issue across our town.
“We are continuing to identify and close properties being used for prostitution and prosecute those involved in the sex trade.
“We will continue to crack down on those people who exploit vulnerable people for their personal gain. We will also continue to work with the vulnerable to offer them a way out and give them a chance of a better life.”