A new plan which would make harassing someone on the basis of their sex a specific criminal offence is now one step closer to becoming law.
The Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill received an unopposed third reading in the House of Commons on Friday, and will progress to the House of Lords for further scrutiny. Conservative former minister Greg Clark, who put forward the changes in a Private Member’s Bill, said it was a “historic day”, and was “astonishing” that the law does not already contain such an offence.
While it is an offence under the 1986 Public Order Act to deliberately harass or cause alarm or distress, the new Bill would amend it, to create a new offence which would apply where such actions are carried out because of the victim's sex. The Bill would also introduce harsher punishments for perpetrators, raising the maximum time behind bars from six months to two years.
Clark also secured support for a new clause to the Bill requiring the government to issue advice to police on how to deal with the new specific offence.
During the debate on the Bill, Clark told the Commons: “For the first time in our history, deliberately harassing, following, shouting degrading words at, making obscene gestures at women and girls in public places – and yes, on occasion men and boys in public places – because of their sex, with the deliberate intention to cause them alarm or distress, will be a specific offence, and a serious one at that.
“The astonishing thing is that it hasn’t be so until now,” he added. Labour MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, agreed, saying misogyny was driving crime against women and girls.
"A very simple statement, but a very clear recognition in this legislation for the first time ever that women are being targeted simply because they are women," she said. “At the moment in our society it is women who are paying the price for our failure to understand how misogyny has driven crimes against them and to recognise that within the law."
Creasy added: "By passing this legislation we are sending a powerful message to our young men that they do deserve better than that caricature of boys will be boys.”
Home Office minister Chris Philp confirmed the Government’s backing for the Bill, and said he wanted to see guidance issued to police on the new offence “as soon as possible”. He told MPs: “It is important that this is only one part of a wider piece of work to protect women and girls in particular.
“The defendant for this offence could be a man or a woman, and indeed the victim could be a man or a woman, because as we’ve said, this legislation makes no distinction between men or women," he said. The government has previously said it wants to make the law “clearer” to the public and police, to encourage women to report their experiences, and to emphasise the severity of the crime.