LONDON – The British government wants to make it illegal to pay for sex and is considering a plan to "name and shame" men who visit prostitutes — a move critics say would turn back the clock to Victorian times.
The sex trade is already heavily restricted in Britain, unlike in many of its European neighbors where prostitution and solicitation are tolerated in some form. Denmark has even decriminalized the business.
But Britain wants to go its own way, marking yet another foray into human foibles by a government many people call overly moralistic.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the son of a Presbyterian minister, has already backed a series of sin taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, called for tougher drug laws and scrapped plans for Britain's first Las Vegas-style casino.
Officials say there is also a need for a crackdown on prostitution.
"Basically, if it means fewer people are able to go out and pay for sex I think that would be a good thing," Home Secretary Jacqui Smith told The Guardian newspaper over the weekend, before the government's announcement of the plan's details Wednesday.
Any changes will have to be approved by Parliament, where Brown's Labour Party has a 63-seat majority. Debate is expected next month.
The proposal would make paying for sex illegal and carry additional penalties for men who have sex with women forced into prostitution, the Home Office said. But it declined to give details on fines and other penalties before the formal announcement.
Men who frequent prostitutes could also be identified publicly, as they are in the London borough of Lambeth, where police send warning letters to the homes of drivers whose license plate numbers are caught on closed-circuit television picking up street walkers.
In addition, the plan would make it a criminal offense to pay for sex with a prostitute "controlled for another person's gain" and could bring rape charges against men who knowingly paid for sex with a woman forced to work as a prostitute.
Under current laws in England and Wales, it is illegal to loiter and sell sex on the streets or elsewhere in public. Keeping a brothel is unlawful, but a lone woman selling sex inside is not. Similarly, paying for sex is legal. But solicitation in public — commonly known as "curb crawling" — is not.
Some 80,000 prostitutes are estimated to be working in Britain, the same as during the Victorian Age — an era when a raft of laws were enacted in a vain effort to curb the flourishing sex trade. These days, cards advertising purported escort services and erotic sites on the Web are plastered inside the country's iconic red telephone booths.
Sex workers criticized the government's proposal. They said they might be put at greater risk if they had to ply their trade in remote neighborhoods or to work alone.
"The plan is puritanical," said Cari Mitchell, spokeswoman for the English Collective of Prostitutes.
"If they make solicitation illegal and start outing clients, men are going to be more nervous and women will be forced to make hasty decisions to survive economically. As Britain and the rest of the world face dire economic circumstances, the government should try to help women rather than make things harder."
Britain made global headlines in 2006 when a man murdered five prostitutes in Ipswich, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) northeast of London. Recent headlines, however, have focused on police raids on brothels where women from eastern Europe, Asia and Africa have been forced into the sex trade.
There is growing debate on whether a crackdown would lessen violence or cut down on human trafficking.
Scottish cities such as Edinburgh used to have "tolerance zones" where prostitutes were allowed to work freely.
But when the zones were scrapped in several cities years ago and curb crawling was made illegal, reported attacks on sex workers increased because prostitutes were forced to work in more isolated areas, according to the Scottish Prostitutes Education Project, which represents workers in the sex industry.
In the Pacific nation of New Zealand, where prostitution was decriminalized in 2003, sex workers said the change has given women greater legal protection.
"I do think it's extraordinary that the U.K. is considering such a dreadful turn," Catherine Healy, national coordinator for the New Zealand's Prostitutes' Collective, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "We know from a lot of research ... that sex workers in this country are feeling much safer, better protected."
The Home Office said the government's plan was put together after top officials visited Sweden, where selling sex is legal but paying for it is not. Norway plans to introduce similar legislation.
Prostitution also is illegal in Britain's closest neighbor, France, but it is largely tolerated in Austria, the Netherlands, Spain and Greece.
The sex trade is legal in many parts of Germany. In Cologne, the first German city to introduce a prostitution tax, the government collected more than $1 million in revenue in 2006.
In London, sex workers expressed opposition to the government plan.
"We all support measures to protect prostitutes, but this isn't the way," said a 36-year-old prostitute in London who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the risk of prosecution.
In the United States, where prostitution is illegal except at a few brothels in Nevada, authorities have recently taken aim at cracking down on prostitution arranged over the Internet.
As part of Craigslist's agreement with attorneys general around the U.S., anyone who posts an "erotic services" ad on the Web site will be required to provide a working phone number and pay a fee with a valid credit card, which would make it easier for authorities to track them down.