Measures designed to help prostitutes escape the sex trade will backfire and lead to an increase in the numbers being sent to jail, a leading academic warned yesterday.

Jo Phoenix said attempts to encourage sex workers on to drink and drug rehabilitation programmes would effectively act as a "crackdown" against them.

The fact that prostitutes faced prosecution for failing to comply with the support schemes would result in a higher number of prison sentences, the University of Bath lecturer claimed.

This, in turn, would make it even harder for sex workers to leave the industry because they would then have a criminal record, she said.

Speaking before the Sex as Crime conference in Birmingham, Dr Phoenix, who has researched sex crime for the past six years, said: "The Home Office's new strategy offers less support and more punishment to prostitutes even though, quite perversely, it looks from the outset like the opposite is true.

"By any other name it's a crackdown on prostitutes, but has been billed as something entirely different."

The new strategy, introduced by the Home Office earlier this year, encourages police to work more closely with charities running safe houses to help women get out of the sex trade.

The strategy also includes measures to encourage women to get help with drink or drug problems - the major under-lying causes of prostitution in the United Kingdom.

These include creating a new penalty for the offence of loitering or soliciting for prostitution so courts can direct women into drug or alcohol treatment programmes rather than fining them.

Prostitutes can then be bound by anti-social behaviour orders or drug treatment orders to attend these classes, but face criminal proceedings and the possibility of a jail term if they fail to comply with the schemes.

"This is the first time that we have seen women going to prison for prostitution in a generation," said Dr Phoenix.

"Many of the women I speak to through my research have become involved in the sex trade through abject poverty and sheer desperation.

"Rather than helping them, the new strategy will give them a criminal record which will make it even harder to leave the sex trade once they are freed."

Dr Phoenix said that in the 1980s, there were 10,000 prosecutions for prostitution a year, but this had dropped to around 3,000 by the late 1990s - as the authorities looked to support rather than punish sex workers. But the new strategy threatens to reverse the current trend and a return to dealing with prostitutes through the criminal justice system.

"I wouldn't be in the slightest bit surprised if we saw a steady increase in the numbers being sent to jail for prostitution-related offences," she warned.

About 80,000 women in Britain work as prostitutes, and half of those are under 25, according to Home Office estimates.

* The Sex as Crime conference was held at the Birmingham Conservatoire, UCE Birmingham, and was organised by the British Society of Criminology. ..SUPL: