Home Office plans to make public sexual harassment a criminal offence after support from charities and police
A government consulation with women’s charities, the police and the legal sector found that the “significant majority” of respondents were in favour of criminalising public sexual harassment.
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Calls to make public sexual harassment a specific criminal offence have been backed by the government, with sentences set to rise from six months to two years.
Under new legislation brought forward by Tory MP Greg Clark, there would be harsher sentences for people who deliberately harass, alarm, or distress someone in a public place because of the victim’s sex. Home Secretary Suella Braverman has declared her support for the crackdown, insisting every woman should “feel safe to walk our streets”.
Public sexual harassment is already illegal, but does not exist as an offence of its own. Ministers hope that new legislation will make the offence “clearer” to the public and the police, encourage women and other victims to report their experiences, and emphasise the severity of the crime.
It comes after a consultation on making street harassment an offence, launched by former Home Secretary Priti Patel, received overwhelming support from a wide range of sources such as women’s charities, the police, and lawyers. When it first announced the consulation outcome on its website, the government admitted that “the shocking events of 2021 have rightly brought violence against women and girls to the very forefront of public attention”.
Campaigners have long urged the government to take further action to protect women and girls, with figures from Plan International UK revealing that 75% of girls, some as young as 12, have experienced street harassment in their lifetime. Statistics released by the Home Office in May 2022 also reported that:
- One in two women aged between 16 and 34 years experienced one form of harassment in the previous 12 months, with 38% of women aged between 16 and 34 having experienced catcalls, whistles, unwanted sexual comments or jokes, and 25% having felt that they were being followed.
- One in two women and one in six men felt unsafe walking alone after dark in a quiet street near their home.
- 45% of women and 18% of men felt unsafe walking alone after dark in a busy public place.
Greg Clark’s Bill would specify a new offence for public sexual harassment, applying to anyone who committed a crime under the existing definition of “intentional harassment alarm or distress” on the basis of the victim’s sex. He told the House of Commons that the purpose of the Bill is to “help change the culture of society”, adding that he hopes there will be “few prosecutions under the law ever required” but that it is important “the law is there”.
Braverman commented: “Every woman should feel safe to walk our streets without fear of harassment or violence. And that is why we are supporting this Bill to introduce a specific offence on public sexual harassment. It’s a complex issue and we’ve carefully considered the arguments, taking into account a range of views. We are putting the needs of victims at the heart of our decision, which will mean the criminals who commit these acts face the consequences they deserve.”
Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said “any action to tackle the epidemic of violence against women and girls is welcome”, but also urged the government to “go further and faster”. She added: “Labour has a plan to put rape and domestic abuse specialists in every police force in the country, introduce fast-track rape courts and a domestic abuse register, and overhaul police training so that every victim gets the best possible support.”
Charlotte Proudman, founder of Right to Equality, told NationalWorld: “It’s about time the government introduced a specific crime of public sexual harassment. I’ve suffered such abuse and I know other women and girls have. Many have said they tried to report it and the police turned them away. We need a law that makes crystal clear: public sexual harassment will not be tolerated.”
Meanwhile, Gemma Tutton, co-founder of anti-harassment organisation Our Streets Now, added: “Today marks an important step in tacking public sexual harassment in the UK - one of the most common, yet often ignored and belittled, forms of violence against women, girls and marginalised people in our society. We welcome the response from the Home Office and the news that the government intends to support the new Bill, and we hope that this - alongs wider cultural initiatives, such as changes to the curriculum - will send perpetrators a clear message that enough is enough.”
She added that while legislation is a good “starting point”, there is still work to be done to create “cultural change across the UK”, explaining: “Justice is important, but prevention is paramount.”
Partnered with Plan International UK, Our Streets Now has been calling for public sexual harassment to be made a specific offence since 2020, with their #CrimeNotCompliment campaign. The organisation has tracked the progress made on the subject on its website.