UK government backs plan to criminalise sexual harassment in street | Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in the street in England and Wales will lead to sentences of up to two years in prison, under plans backed by the home secretary.

After years of lobbying by campaigners, the UK government has backed a private member’s bill, tabled by the former business secretary Greg Clark, which will make sexual harassment in public space a crime.

The backbencher’s bill aims to criminalise behaviour such as deliberately walking closely behind someone as they walk home at night, making obscene or aggressive comments towards them, obstructing their path or driving slowly near them in public spaces. It passed its second reading by unanimous assent in the Commons on Friday and will now go to the committee stage.

Suella Braverman, the home secretary, said: “Every woman should feel safe to walk our streets. 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.”

Research published in 2020 by the children’s charity Plan International and the campaign group Our Streets Now found that a fifth (19%) of young women and girls aged between 14 and 21 had experienced being catcalled, followed, groped, flashed or upskirted, while 75% had experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. A survey for UN Women UK last year found that 86% of women aged 18-24 had been sexually harassed in public.

Rose Caldwell, the chief executive of Plan International UK, said the bill was “a huge step towards a society where no girl feels unsafe walking home”, adding that the safety of thousands of girls depended on it.

“This bill sends a clear signal to perpetrators that this behaviour is not OK, and to women and girls that they will be protected and listened to,” she said.

Stella Creasy, whose campaign for misogyny to become a hate crime was rebuffed by the Law Commission, said the new law finally made sex-based street harassment – which she called “misogyny in all but name” – a crime.

“This is parliament finally recognising, as the police do, that misogyny drives crimes against women and girls,” she said, adding that the law would drive wider change because police forces would now gather data on street harassment.

Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, said she would table amendments to the bill to ensure it covered “foreseeable harm”, so offenders could not claim they did not have any intent to cause offence.

“We have to deal with a culture where women are still called to account for their behaviour when they are offended against, and to take out of the question the idea that men accidentally harass women.”

Andrea Simon, the director of the End Violence Against Women coalition, said efforts to address men’s abusive behaviour towards women were welcome, but that they would be hampered by the damaged state of the justice system.

“We have concerns that a justice system that is already so badly broken won’t be able to implement any new law,” she said, calling for more work to be done to prevent sexual harassment in the first place.

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