Pestering women in the street to be outlawed

Asia's Tech News Daily

A new offence of public sexual harassment seems more likely, with the Law Commission likely to recommend it – Ian West/PA Wire

Pestering women in the street or in pubs and making lewd comments at them could become an offence under plans to criminalise “public sexual harassment”, which are set to be announced next week.

A government-commissioned review of hate crimes will call for public sexual harassment and inciting hatred against women to be made criminal offences as part of an overhaul of laws to protect women and girls against violence.

But the review by the Law Commission – the body responsible for framing hundreds of the UK’s laws – will reject demands for misogyny to be made a hate crime because it believes it would be ineffective, according to Whitehall sources.

The new offence of public sexual harassment is seen as a more effective way of protecting women against violence than classing misogyny as a hate crime alongside race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity, Whitehall sources have said.

The Law Commission also decided it could make it harder to prosecute crimes such as domestic abuse and would create two-tier sentencing, depending on whether a sexual offence was shown to be a hate crime.

The move will be part of a week of government crime announcements, which include a crackdown on drug gangs, a new law to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system, and prison reforms to reduce reoffending by getting more inmates into work.

A Whitehall source said: “The Law Commission is not going to class misogyny as a hate crime because it would be ineffective and in some cases counterproductive.

“But it will call for a public sexual harassment offence, which doesn’t currently exist. It thinks this fits with other work the Government is doing on criminalising intimate image abuse and will be more productive and better in protecting women.”

The Law Commission review of hate crimes was ordered three years ago by Sajid Javid, then Home Secretary.

It has since become even more important following the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens, a serving Metropolitan Police officer, which sparked a huge national debate on violence against women.

Sarah Everard’s death sparked widespread protests on the issue of women’s violence – Tolga Akmen/AFP

In the wake of Miss Everard's killing, ministers said they would consider if there should be a new offence of street harassment that would criminalise explicit sexual and abusive behaviour or comments made in public.

Draft legislation prepared by campaigners covers behaviour including intentionally pressing against someone on public transport, persistent sexual propositioning or cornering someone, making sexually explicit comments, leering at a person and cat-calling.

It makes clear that police and prosecutors would have to show the behaviour would cause “harassment, distress or alarm” with an intent to “humiliate or degrade” an alleged victim.

Dr Charlotte Proudman, a barrister who helped draft the proposed bill, said it would also have to be in the public interest to prosecute.

“It could be someone shouting degrading, humiliating comments with lewd language to a woman walking down the street that makes them feel unsafe,” she said.

“If someone came up to you in a pub, didn’t leave you alone, made foul comments about your body, and was persistently following you around, maybe that would be captured.”

It is understood ministers are in favour of the new offences proposed by the Law Commission, as long as it can be shown that they plug gaps in current laws for common assault and public order breaches. Recommendations made by the Law Commission are generally accepted by the Government.

Priti Patel said earlier this year that police must “raise the bar” by taking harassment and flashing of women more seriously after Ms Everard’s death.

The Home Secretary said verbal or physical abuse of women in the street were not “low-level” crimes and could lead to more serious offences. Ms Everard’s killer had previously escaped prosecution for alleged flashing offences.

Wayne Couzens, Sarah Everard’s murderer, had escaped prosecution for alleged flashing offences – Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

Nimco Ali, the feminist campaigner advising the Government on its violence against women strategy, said new legislation was needed to show such behaviour was unacceptable.

“It’s like seatbelt laws or the smoking ban. In order for social norms to change, you have to have legislation and then society will police it,” she said.

But the decision not to make misogyny a hate crime is likely to face a backlash from women’s groups, as it would have enabled police and prosecutors to ask for tougher sentences for some crimes against women.

The Law Commission is also expected to propose extending the offence of “stirring up hatred” to include provoking violence on the grounds of gender.

That is partly in response to the Incel movement – involuntarily celibate men, some of whom have been responsible for violent and fatal attacks on women.

It will also strengthen protections for freedom of speech, so that offensive dinner table comments made in private are not be classed as hate crimes.

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