The Government published this blockbuster omnibus Bill last week and rushed it through to the Commons, hoping to swell a law and order narrative ahead of the local elections to distract from the Government’s widespread failings. Along with many sensible and necessary changes to the law that Labour MPs have called for—on child protection, dangerous driving, protecting frontline workers and supporting deaf people to act as jurors—the Bill acts as a Trojan horse to push through divisive culture war issues, including specific offences on damaging statues and cracking down on the public’s right to protest.
Ministers somehow did not foresee that law and order means more than the elements that they have chosen for this Bill. It means keeping women safe. It means supporting women who have suffered violence or sexual violence to come forward, prosecuting the offenders and achieving convictions. It means ensuring that the police and others in authority are held accountable to the public needs, and, yes, it means that the rights to protest, and to express grief and anger, are protected. Is it not a remarkably sad irony that this Bill claims to protect memorials, but could be used to criminalise vigils?
Of course, Ministers should have been able to foresee that violence against women could return to the top of the public’s priorities. Sarah Everard’s tragic death has resonated so viscerally with women not because it was unique, but because, sadly, it was all too typical; she could have been any of us. Last week in the International Women’s Day debate, my hon. Friend Jess Phillips read out the list of 118 women and girls, aside from Sarah, who were killed by men in the past year—one every three days. The real question is how women’s safety ever dropped from the top of the agenda, and yet this Bill never once mentions women.
According to recent figures, 97% of women aged 18 to 24 have experienced sexual harassment, yet the Bill does nothing to address that scourge. Even fly-tipping could get a longer sentence than stalking. As others have pointed out—irrefutably, at a time when less than 3% of rapes even reported to the police lead to charges, let alone convictions—rape has effectively been decriminalised. Last year, rape prosecutions fell to the lowest level on record. Even when a conviction is achieved, sentences can be as short as five years—half of what the Government think is appropriate for despoiling a statue. Addressing this horrifying situation in line with the demands made today by my hon. Friend Ellie Reeves should surely be the centrepiece of legislation that is called the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but the measures she has called for are not even a consideration. I cannot support a Bill that puts protecting monuments ahead of protecting women. Women need concrete action from this Government, not action on concrete.