Girls approached for ‘business’ in red-light district as headmaster fears for safety

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Schoolgirls are being approached by clients of sex workers in Britain's first managed red light zone.

One headmaster told how he fears young girls could be abducted as they walk through the Managed Approach Area in Holbeck, Leeds.

Headteacher of The Ruth Gorse Academy, Ben Mallinson, told how his pupils have to walk through the area to get to school and some have been pestered by men.

Since 2015, sex workers have been able to operate in Holbeck's Managed Approach area, a small industrial zone near Leeds city centre where police say there is a “lower likelihood of arrest” for those involved in the sex trade.

But pupils have told the BBC of being approached by men asking if they are "open for business" and having to walk past used condoms and needles.

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Sex workers ply their trade on the streets of Holbeck in Leeds
(Image: © Glen Minikin)

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One said: “I was 13 and was wearing my school uniform walking to school. I barely got down the street and I was approached by a man asking if I was a prostitute.

“I've been asked by sex workers if I was one of them as well walking back from school on a different occasion.

"It will happen to other children probably just as it happened to me and as long as the zone is there it will carry on happening.”

Another told how she was grabbed by a man who told her "I like you" when walking alone when it was dark. She told how she was "really scared" and when she walked faster the man also picked up his speed to keep up with her.

A male pupil told the BBC his friend had been asked for sex.

The Zoen in Holbeck in Leeds is known as a 'toleration zone'
(Image: © Glen Minikin)

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Many of Mr Mallinson's pupils observe sex workers every day as they walk through the area, to and from school.

He told the BBC he became "gravely concerned" that his female pupils could come to harm, having walked through the area to see for himself, and wants the zone to be scrapped.

He said: “There was extensive evidence of drugs and alcohol misuse, and experiencing that every day takes its toll on a young person's mental health and wellbeing.

"Students should be free from harm and be able to travel to and from school without being worried for their own safety and that of their peers."

In November 2018, the Mirror reported how Leeds councillors voted to have an independent review into the managed approach, in Holbeck, after calls were made for it to be suspended.

A sex worker waits for a customer on the streets of Holbeck, the first 'managed' zone for prostitution in the UK
(Image: Getty Images)

Debra Coupar, Leeds City Council’s deputy leader, told the BBC: “I would urge anyone who witnesses any form of indecency or unacceptable behaviour to please contact the police or Safer Leeds partnership immediately so a full and thorough investigation can be undertaken.

"Along with the police, a designated Safer Leeds team also patrols the area of the Managed Approach and we will always take appropriate and firm action against any individuals involved in unacceptable behaviour.

"No incidents that are reported will ever be ignored."

In 2018, a schoolgirl who lives nears the first managed red light zone told the Mirror she had been approached about 12 times by “old men” with one offering her sweets for sex.

Chloe Lynch, 14, said she had been pestered since she was 12 while walking to and from school in her uniform.

Sex workers can operate without fear of prosecution
(Image: BBC/Ben Blackall)

She said: “Once I was in a group walking back and a man offered us sweets.

“Another time an old man asked if I was working and asked me to go in his house.

“It is frightening. Before, I thought prostitute meant some sort of politician. I didn’t even know what one was. But now I know what it means. It’s scary.”

Chloe’s mum Gemma, 35, said locals fear for the safety of their children, who are exposed to sexual activity almost daily.

She told how her youngest child, nine-year-old Charis, saw a prostitute injecting a man in his genitals.

“We don’t let the kids play out now,” Gemma said.

Holbeck Lane is where the sex workers operate but locals say the practice often spreads to the nearby streets
(Image: Glen Minikin/Daily Mirror)

“This managed area was all right at first but now it has spread to residential streets.”

Even the local primary school caretaker had been forced to clear up condoms and used syringes every morning, campaigners claimed at the time.

And a grandmother alleged a man approached her as she pushed a pram and sickeningly asked her for an hour alone with the baby.

Police said they were investigating this claim.

Local shop owner Laura Walton, 39, said in 2018: “The managed area has spread – some can’t be bothered to walk down to the zone.

A CCTV camera in the zone
(Image: Glen Minikin/Daily Mirror)

“There’s used condoms and needles all over Holbeck now. The prostitution seems to have moved to the residential areas.

“People are seeing them having sex outside their homes, in people’s driveways, phone boxes and around St Matthew’s Church. In the summer it gets worse and we have to prepare ourselves.

"I had customers in one day with children and a woman lifted her skirt up at us.

“My friend’s little boy is four and he asked his mum about one woman: ‘She’s not coming back is she, that bad lady?’”

In 2018, desperate women who said there were forced to sell their bodies after getting caught in a poverty trap urged the council not to axe the zone.

One, a 30-year-old mum, said: “I’ve got no criminal record and I don’t take drugs. I’ve never stolen anything in my life. But three months ago I lost my professional job of 10 years and I’ve got nothing to live on.

“I’ve got a claim in for benefits but haven’t had a penny. They tell me to be patient, but being patient isn’t going to feed my child or pay my mortgage.

“A few months ago I’d only ever slept with seven men, now I’m seeing perverts every night.

“I hate it but I’ve got to pay my bills and save my home. This is my secret, my partner thinks I work in a bar. It’s a horrible secret to keep.”

But she urged the council and police not to shut the zone down, adding: “This is an industrial area, there’s CCTV and police patrolling all the time.

"It’s safe for us here. You’re never going to stop this trade, toleration is the key.”