COUNCILLORS have been accused of driving the sex trade underground after voting to scrap the licensing of saunas and massage parlours.

Edinburgh City Council announced yesterday that six saunas which had previously been granted entertainment licences would lose that protection in 28 days.

The move marks a change in the city's long-standing tolerance of the sex trade and it follows a number of police raids, which were widely regarded as a sign that the policy of turning a blind eye to such premises over the past two decades had come to an end.

The local authority has previously granted public enter-tainment licences to saunas widely known to be used by sex workers since the 1980s, originally in a bid to manage prostitution and tackle the city's HIV infection rates.

But during a meeting yesterday, the council said the arrangement was "no longer effective" and decided it would be scrapped. This does not mean the saunas will close but they will now be open to more frequent raids by the police.

Susan Mooney, head of the council's communities depart-ment, told the licensing committee: "The council cannot use the licensing system to regulate activity which would otherwise be illegal."

The new single police force raided a number of the saunas in June last year, action that resulted in 10 people being arrested for brothel-keeping and living off immoral earnings.

The council, a Labour-SNP coalition, then suspended the licences of six establishments: Paradise, The New Gentle Touch, the Dundas Street Sauna, Scorpio Leisure, Blair Street Sauna and New Town Sauna.

In a report issued in November, council officials said the policy of turning a blind eye to the saunas carried a "reputational and financial risk". It was also being operated in a "contentious climate" following the increased level of scrutiny from the police, which was criticised by Lothians MSP Margo MacDonald, who supports the licensing of saunas.

Mrs MacDonald said that the raids flew in the face of promises to keep policing local after the merger of the eight distinct forces.

Last week, Gavin Barrie, convener of the council's regula-tory committee, said it was no longer appropriate to consider saunas and massage premises for a public entertainment licence.

However, he added: "The council will still take the safety and wellbeing of those working in saunas and massage premises extremely seriously and our Health, Social Care and Housing Committee will scrutinise the harm reduction work under way across the various agencies."

Representatives of sex workers said the decision not to license saunas could put them more at risk. The charity Scot-Pep, which campaigns for the rights of sex workers, said it was disappointed by the council's decision.

Its spokeswoman said: "This will mean women are working in constant fear of traumatising and counterproductive raids on their workplaces.

"Premises will be driven underground, away from service providers such as health workers.

"With Police Scotland persisting in its policy of using condoms as evidence of sex work against the explicit recommendations of the World Health Organisation, workers will fear to keep large quantities of condoms on their premises, as this could be used to criminalise women."

A Police Scotland spokesman said: "We note the decision.

"Police Scotland will work alongside our relevant partner agencies to provide the necessary support to those affected as part of our commitment to harm reduction and protecting vulnerable individuals."