Alex Bryce: How we got funding to look after sex workers

The chief executive of National Ugly Mugs says less popular causes require persistence and strategic thinking

Bryce says most of Ugly Mugs' funding comes from police forces and the Home Office
Bryce says most of Ugly Mugs' funding comes from police forces and the Home Office

It's not easy for any small charity to obtain funding, but add to the mix an unfashionable cause that some people might find immoral and there are even more difficulties. These are the obstacles that National Ugly Mugs - a charity that attempts to make the lives of sex workers safer and bring to justice those who commit crimes against them - is managing to tackle.

NUM, which won Small Charity, Big Achiever at the Third Sector Awards this year, was established two years ago with Home Office funding after 10 years of advocacy by the UK Network of Sex Work Projects. It is the first national scheme to circulate the details of "ugly mugs" - a term used to describe violent clients - to warn sex workers about the dangers such people pose. It also encourages the workers to report incidents to the police, gives advice on access to health care and works towards training police officers to engage better with sex workers.

Alex Bryce, who joined NUM as chief executive in April 2012, says it's a vital service because sex industry workers are far more likely to be victims of violence than workers in any other industry. Sex workers are also less likely to report incidents to the police. NUM costs £120,000 a year to operate and receives 80 per cent of its funding from individual police forces and the Home Office, 10 per cent from private donors - these are often beneficiaries of the scheme and academics who work in the field - and 10 per cent from charitable trusts and foundations.

At a time when policing budgets are tight, NUM provides low-cost access to crucial intelligence and can support the police in reaching a community that traditionally might not engage with us

Chris Armitt, Merseyside Police assistant chief constable

Getting funding to establish the project entailed "gradual, constant lobbying", says Bryce. He advises others with unfashionable causes to be persistent and think strategically: "It's important to make sure that you have a strong evidence base and keep working very hard to demonstrate this and keep lobbying. For example, our work could be funded by the Home Office or by the Ministry of Justice or Health. If what you do benefits people in different ways, try other relevant government departments."

Bryce adds that it is important to speak in both human and monetary terms and to highlight the cost savings of the scheme. For example, the average cost of investigating a rape is £100,000 and a murder costs more than £1m, yet the scheme's running costs are only £120,000 a year. The pilot project found that 16 per cent of the estimated 15,000 sex workers who have used the scheme have avoided a specific individual as a direct result, which the charity estimates is more than 2,400 crimes prevented. "If we prevent one rape or bring about the conviction of one serial rapist, our scheme has already paid for itself," says Bryce.

This claim is supported by Merseyside Police assistant chief constable Chris Armitt, who regards NUM as a "money- saving resource". He says: "As well as the human cost of the offences that NUM helps to prevent, which we should never forget, the financial cost of these crimes is also huge. At a time when policing budgets are tight, NUM provides low-cost access to crucial intelligence and can support the police in reaching a community that traditionally might not engage with us."

A barrier to expanding the project is that funding in many areas in which it works, such as mental health, social care and criminal justice, is localised and cannot be used for a national scheme. The job is made more difficult by having to counteract people's moral or religious views about sex workers. On such sensitive issues Bryce recommends being apolitical and reaching out to the "broad church".

He says: "Ultimately, what we do is purely harm reduction - it saves lives and prevents crime. Find a way of pitching your project in a way that cannot be disputed. Nobody can argue with the fact that NUM should exist and that it does great work."

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