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I am pleased to publish a response from UKNSWP regarding a recent post that illustrated concerns felt within the sex working community with regard to the pilot Nationwide Ugly Mug Scheme.
Alex has asked for feed back, so please either contact him direct or comment on this forum, which would be helpful for any discussion on sex workers concerns with regard to the NUM scheme, or you can email me direct as email@example.com and I will be pleased to pass comments, suggestions on.
UKNSWP is proud to be part of a tradition of “ugly mugs” and third party reporting schemes which give options for sex workers to alert each other and to report crimes. In our reports and public presentations about ugly mugs we have always acknowledged that “ugly mugs” originates from sex workers themselves and that sex workers have been and are resourceful in finding ways to protect themselves, often in challenging legal and social contexts. Before the National Ugly Mugs (NUM) Pilot Scheme was established a year-long development project was undertaken by the UKNSWP which consulted widely with sex workers. We still welcome feedback from sex workers and reply personally to anyone who sends us any comments which we take on board and make changes if we can. The vast majority of the feedback we have from sex workers has been positive and we are constantly told that the scheme is really useful. It has to be remembered that this is a pilot project and thus we are continuously learning from the experiences of scheme participants. The scheme is also being evaluated by two academic members of UKNSWP (on a voluntary basis), and they will be seeking the views of participants early next year to inform the final evaluation report and make recommendations for ways in which the scheme might be improved.
UKNSWP is pleased that there is discussion about NUM amongst sex worker online communities. We would welcome such forums to get directly in touch with us so we can consider their feedback and views through constructive engagement. In fact to date, many of the changes we have made to the scheme have come about as a response to constructive feedback from sex workers or those who run forums or escort sites.
NUM aims to support all sex workers, whether male, female or trans, and whether working on the streets, in parlours, flats, advertising online or working in any sector. Some sex workers do not necessarily have access to the internet or websites for information-sharing and it is important to make reporting as accessible as possible to all sex workers, through a range of options.
We are fully aware that sex workers who take bookings over the phone would find full numbers and profile names useful as it makes it easier for them to block people. For escorts taking bookings over the phone we do try include as much information as possible (if we have it) which might alert people to individuals to avoid such as whether the incident was an in/out call, their name, their accent, their telephone manner, the area they live in and any other details or habits which may come to light before actually meeting the individual in person.
With regards to phone numbers, our current policy is if we have a full phone number to include, this will be included with three digits taken out. This policy was based on the legal advice we took during the development of the scheme. As well as the legal issues with publishing full details of reported perpetrators, we have a duty to individuals making the report not to put them in danger of repercussions if the alert fell into the wrong hands. In compiling any alert we therefore have to consider how any details or content might identify the victim, so this can sometimes limit what is included. The other main reason why we cannot fully identify alleged perpetrators is that it could undermine a prosecution of an ‘ugly mug’ and ultimately lead to a court case falling apart. By fully identifying people we mean by including full details that identify a specific individual – telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, car registration numbers and names of alleged perpetrators are all details which we need to be extra careful about. We must also be mindful of the possibility that malicious reports could be made into the scheme.
For clarification some of the posts about NUM imply that we would include a phone number in an alert with more than three digits removed – we would never do that. In addition, in alerts where there is no phone number included that is because the person reporting the incident didn’t provide us with a phone number. The same goes for descriptions of perpetrators – we include as detailed a description as we can with the information provided to us. We encourage all NUM members to include as much information as possible about perpetrators; this will enable us to provide fuller alerts. We provide alerts in cases of limited information because members have said they want these.
That leads me on to the other main aspect of the NUM Scheme which is to support sex workers in reporting information to the police. Less than 30% of the victims reporting into NUM feel comfortable enough to make a full report to the police. That is why, if and only if the victim gives consent, we will feed the information (including full details about the perpetrators) to the police without giving any information about the victim. We have already seen positive results from this and many police forces are actually investigating them as if they had been formally reported. This is one area where NUM can really complement other schemes, whether being run by forums or escort sites or sex work projects.
We acknowledge that the laws around sex work are problematic and can undermine sex workers’ access to the criminal justice system – that is why we need schemes like this. Currently, whilst challenging laws and policies detrimental to sex worker safety, we are having to work within the existing framework to try to make a difference. Engaging with the police on our terms has already had positive outcomes in many areas.
NUM is supported by a range of organisations and individuals and we hope to build the network of supporters. Although the scheme is supported by some projects and individuals who take an abolitionist approach, the scheme is run independently and autonomously by the UKNSWP, which is fully committed to recognising sex workers’ right to self-determination. It is also important to note that the board members of the UKNSWP are unpaid and the NUM Scheme is run on a small budget by two members of staff who work very hard to manage and develop the service.
It is hard to see how a scheme which raises awareness about how the law and bad police practices contributes to sex workers being targeted by criminals, and makes them reluctant to report to the police, could be used to support abolitionist policies. UKNSWP has a long history of opposing criminalisation of sex work, and if the scheme were ever misrepresented in such a way, we would strongly oppose this.
The purpose of NUM is to complement, not replace, the work of local projects working with sex workers as well as forums, escort sites or agencies who share warnings and alerts. It may not be the perfect model for everyone working in the sex industry and we know that the alerts would be more effective, especially for those who arrange bookings over the phone, if we could identify perpetrators, but we have outlined the legal considerations we are working within that shape our practice.
However, we have already had some positive outcomes in the four months since the scheme launched. Within this short timescale, NUM has already been instrumental in the arrest and charging of 3 criminals wanted for the aggravated assault and robbery of at least 9 sex worker premises in London, the arrest of one male wanted for rape in Merseyside and the recalling to prison of a well-known scammer of male escorts.
Taking on board the feedback we have received, we will re-examine the issue of our legal requirements regarding telephone numbers and other key personal information with our legal advisers. We are also currently looking into the possibility of introducing a number checker which would allow members of the scheme to type in a number to see if it matches any that have been reported to us. As we stress, this is a pilot scheme and we genuinely want to reflect and develop.
National Ugly Mugs Pilot Scheme
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