As John Swinney, among many others, will testify, Margo MacDonald is a hard woman to shut up. In February this year she tried to persuade the Scottish Parliament to pass legislation which would allow local authorities to set up tolerance zones for prostitutes, thus decriminalising soliciting in certain controlled areas. With an election looming, not-too-many MSPs, whatever their personal views, found the courage to support such a bill.
Well, she is bringing it back again in the near future, and the speculation is that this time the executive has ''an open mind'', though some might say ''empty'' was a more accurate description. The arguments for and against zones are as old as the profession itself.
By proclaiming designated areas where the sale of sex is legal, the proponents of the bill argue that it is much easier to provide safety cover, and health checks, for the women involved. For some years we had such a zone in Leith, which operated without too much controversy until it was moved to another part of Edinburgh. Following complaints by residents, the police and city council accepted this was not permissible under current legislation and the scheme was abandoned in 2001.
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Since then, say researchers, there has been a 15-fold increase in the number of attacks on prostitutes, many of whom have simply gone back to selling their wares in the back streets. In Aberdeen there is an unofficial tolerance zone around the harbour area and Grampian police believe it helps improve health and safety issues, and in the gathering of intelligence.
Aberdeen City Council has indicated, without promising to introduce other zones, broad support for Margo's bill. That, I am pretty sure, would be my own authority's position - and mine - though the issue has not been debated for a while.
Yet Glasgow, where several working girls have been murdered, remains resolutely opposed to any relaxation of the law. Its spokesman declared: ''Our goal is to work towards the elimination of prostitution, not the tolerance of it.'' I am sure we would be a more humane society if all the 10 commandments were obeyed, too, but I think it a little unlikely, don't you? This issue seems to undermine the accepted stereotypes of our two main cities. Prim, proper Edinburgh is prepared to turn a blind eye while warm-hearted, friendly Glasgow takes a line which could have come straight from the pulpit of a Victorian Welsh chapel.
There have always been brothels in the capital. The most infamous of them was in Danube Street, not a long clearance from the New Town, where Mrs Dora Noyce was the madam. She ran a very strict house and had her girls regularly checked at a nearby clinic.
Occasionally, following neighbours' complaints or an outburst by a councillor seeking publicity, Dora would be arrested and sent to Saughton for a few weeks. But her absence would have such a detrimental effect on the operation that everybody, police and social workers included, wanted her released as soon as possible. Mrs Noyce, I have to tell you, was a Tory who sometimes, to the mortification of the local MP, turned up at garden fetes. She embarrassed the party even further when she displayed in the window of her house a poster with the slogan: ''Life is better under the Conservatives.'' In recent times we have been well aware that some of the so-called saunas in the city have been used for the sale of sex. There has been an attempt by the council to exercise control over the spread of such premises but no-one is pretending they do not exist. The Glasgow council attitude seems to be self-defeating.
There is absolutely no sign in that city that prostitution is decreasing; rather the reverse. When my son drove through to pick me up from a dinner in a posh west end hotel, he was propositioned five times in half an hour. We didn't mention that fact to his mother.
No-one would ever wish any young girl to go on the game. It is a degrading, dangerous occupation which, even under medical surveillance, can lead to serious health problems in later life. But after thousands of years, not one country in the world has been able to eliminate prostitution. The Dutch and the Belgians are about to legalise and regulate brothels, which is the least awful of all the options. In Holland the girls even pay tax on their earnings.
Let's face it, many of the working women are looking to earn money for drugs. It is a lot easier for the police to nab the pushers in a controlled zone that it is throughout a large city. Regular health checks mean the addicts can be offered treatment, and maybe persuaded to take up another career, while legalised brothels make it a lot more difficult for the pimps to live off other people's earnings.
Many folk, in both our major cities, will be morally offended at the notion that anyone in authority should seek to provide safer conditions for those who wish, or need, to sell their body. I respect their opinions but beg to differ. Anyone who knows Margo will confirm that she has a genuine concern for those in trouble (well, maybe not the SNP). Her bill deserves support.
Brian Meek is a
Conservative member of Edinburgh City Council.