How a Multiagency Approach Helped Radically Change the Lives of Vulnerable Women in Ipswich

13th Sep 2015

This is the first in a series of guest blogs by ex Detective Superintendent Alan Caton OBE about the Ipswich prostitute murders .

In the winter months of 2006, I found myself at the centre of the biggest murder investigation ever in the UK. At that time I was the police District Commander for Ipswich and it was then that five young women who worked on the streets of Ipswich as prostitutes were murdered by sex buyer Steve Wright.

In these blogs I will outline what happened in Ipswich, why it happened, the changes that were introduced and the difference that was made to individuals as a result.

As I write this, work is continuing on a national scale to influence the government to change legislation that, in my view, will help vulnerable people caught up in the abusive and exploitative world of prostitution.

By way of introduction, Ipswich had a prostitution problem dating back over many decades and having spent most of my 30-year police career working in and around Ipswich, I witnessed, over those years, the problem move and relocate around various areas of the town after a variety of enforcement models were introduced.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s the problem was located in a small area of Ipswich in and around Portman Road football ground. It was a mixed area, some of which was residential with a mix of social housing along with some of the most expensive homes in Ipswich.

By this time the main driver for women to work on the streets as prostitutes in Ipswich was to support addiction to class ‘A’ drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine, often coerced into doing so by so called partners or boyfriends. At this time it was not uncommon to see up to 12 women working out on the streets on any one night.

This activity had a significant impact on the local community. Often there were complaints of anti-social behaviour on the streets, shouting, swearing and fighting. Male residents reported being accosted by the women ‘looking for business’. The kerb crawlers, trawling the streets looking to buy sex, were regularly accosting the female residents. In addition, other local residents complained of discarded needles, drug paraphernalia and used condoms strewn across their gardens.

Often the women who worked on the streets suffered at the hands of their ‘clients’, with reports of robbery, assault and rape occurring to them, much of which was never reported to the police.

In December 2003 a man, who according to newspaper reports at the time, did not like prostitutes working near his home, savagely beat a young woman working on the streets of Ipswich to death. The offender was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment.

Much thought and discussion took place about the prostitution problem in Ipswich and a multi-agency prostitution panel was set up under the auspices of the Ipswich Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership to ‘reduce prostitution’. Agencies such as police, Ipswich Borough Council, Suffolk County Council, Health and the voluntary sector met regularly to discuss how to deal with the problem.

While a multi agency group was set up and while it met regularly, looking back it was not coordinated in its approach. Some colleagues on the group felt the only way the problem could be dealt with was through enforcement, particularly against those women who were committing offences such as soliciting; it was felt arresting them and taking them off the street would eventually solve the problem. Others were against an enforcement model seeing prostitution as a career of choice and that harm reduction should be the main thrust of activity, providing fresh needles and condoms to help keep the women healthy.

There continued an uncoordinated approach for the next few years and strong consideration was also given to implementing a tolerance zone in Ipswich where prostitution could take place.

All this was to change and bring the issue of street prostitution into sharp focus after the tragedy that resulted in five young women being murdered.

I will outline the details of the reports of the missing women and what turned out to be the largest murder investigation in the UK in my next blog.

Following that I will talk about our response in Ipswich with the outcome of implementing a radical strategy.