Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 24th March 2023.
I beg to move, that the Bill be now read the Third time.
I am grateful for the debates that we have had in Committee and in the House this morning. The amendments that have been accepted reflect our substantial debate in Committee. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his amendments, which have afforded us the opportunity to clarify some important aspects of the Bill, and have some commitments made from the Dispatch Box that will be useful to us if, as I hope, the Bill continues to make progress.
We have taken some time this morning, and I am conscious that other colleagues have Bills that they are anxious to progress. If those Bills are to be properly scrutinised, that requires me to be brief. If the House decides to give the Bill its Third Reading, it will be an historic day. For the first time in our history, deliberately harassing, following, shouting degrading words or making obscene gestures at women and girls—and yes, on occasion, at men and boys—in public places, because of their sex, and 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 that has not been an offence until now, many years after it was made an aggravated offence to harass someone in public on grounds of their race, religion or sexuality, for example. Indeed, women—it is mostly women, although the Bill also applies to men—have had to alter the way they live their lives: to walk home using different routes; to arrange to be accompanied rather than walk alone; to have, or pretend to have, conversations on a mobile phone while walking alone; to hold keys clenched in their hands as a safeguard.
So prevalent is this that when visiting a sixth form at one of my local schools a few weeks ago, with young men and women of 17 and 18, I asked how many students in the class typically walked home with keys in their hands. Instantly, without conferring, every young woman in the class put up their hand. Not a single young man did, and they expressed some mystification that this happens at all. Such are the changes and accommodations that have, sometimes subconsciously, been made because of the potential and reality of harassment in public.
Our streets belong to women just as much as they belong to men. Women should be able to use our streets as confidently and safely as men do, free from abuse, humiliation, and physical or verbal violence. The Bill makes the specific but important step that harassing women—or men or boys, if it applies to them—in the street with the intention to degrade or terrify is not normal, natural or “just the way of the world”; it is a crime, and a serious one at that. The Bill will address that anomaly and move our legislation forward. I commend it to the House.
This Bill has been a long time in gestation. It reflects years of campaigning about a simple concept, clearly articulated by Greg Clark, and the surprise that those not affected by it feel when they realise and see it: that misogyny is driving crimes against women and girls. It is a simple statement but a clear recognition, for the first time ever in legislation, that women are being targeted simply because they are women; that young girls in our society walk holding their keys, get asked, “What were you wearing?”, are told not to get on buses at a certain time of night, and are made to feel frightened and to be wary in a way that young men are not.
I want to address head-on the point made by Sir Christopher Chope because I agree with him that we have to stand up for our young men. We have to stand up for the bulk of young men who know when they see that and who realise what is happening to their sisters, mums, friends in school, aunties and cousins, and how awful it must be that 51% of our society does not have the same freedom to go about their daily business. Those young men deserve better than the idea that somehow this kind of behaviour is inevitable and that “boys will be boys.” In passing this legislation today, we are standing up not just for men and boys, because the legislation covers men and women equally, but for that quiet majority of young and older men who recognise that this behaviour is completely unacceptable, that it is criminal and that, for too long, nothing has been done about it.
I know that the hon. Member for Christchurch is somebody who very much cares about the evidence, so let me give him the detail. Where those police forces have been taking seriously crimes that are motivated by sex or presumed sex and are recording that data, the story they tell is compelling for why the legislation matters. Twelve of the 43 police forces in England and Wales now use this policy. The crime survey for England and Wales found there were 67,000 reports of hate crime based on gender between March 2015 and 2018, and 57,000 of those were targeted at women. This police policy started in Nottinghamshire, under the leadership of Sue Fish, and it showed a clear difference. I hope all of us in this House will pay tribute to Sue Fish and the tremendous work she has done in recognising the benefits to policing of taking this approach.
In that same time period, Nottinghamshire Police received 269 reports of misogyny, 125 of which were classed as hate crime and 144 were classed as non-crime incidents. Of the 265 misogyny hate crime victims, 243 were female. The same pattern emerges in Avon and Somerset, where just over 90% of the victims were female, but men did also come forward, so we know that men will be able to use this legislation.
My point in raising this is not to say that it somehow does not matter that young men might experience sex-based harassment; it is to recognise that at the moment in our society it is women who are paying the price for our failure to understand how misogyny has driven crime against them and to recognise that in law. What the law will do is correct that imbalance. It will bring us the opportunity not just to record that data, but finally to acknowledge it in the courts. In doing so, we stand up for all those young men who do not want to see this behaviour, who do recognise that it is abuse and harassment, and who do recognise that their sisters, their mothers, their aunts, their cousins and their friends at school deserve the same freedoms to go about their daily business as they do. This Bill, and the concept of recognising, as we do with other protected characteristics, that there are those out there who perpetrate crimes because of their hatred and anger towards somebody because of their sex or their presumed sex, is about equality of emancipation.
I say to the hon. Member for Christchurch, who I will know will be as deeply concerned as I was by the reports of sexual harassment among his own police force in Dorset, that one reason why many of us campaigned for this legislation and this recognition was the evidence from police forces about just how transformative it is. Let us be very clear: we are not talking about new forms of crime. We are talking about changing a culture in which women coming forward to report crime have been told, “Well, that’s just life. We couldn’t really find this person.” Not everybody who follows a woman down a road shouting abuse, suggesting that they might want to touch them in various sorts of ways and thinking that somehow that is an appropriate way to introduce themselves to somebody, becomes a rapist or a sexual abuser. But many of those who are rapists and sexual abusers start with that sort of behaviour. The kind of data the Bill will allow us to gather helps us to detect and prevent crimes. It helps us to change the culture within policing. In this week of all weeks, we know how important that will be for the safety of everybody in our constituencies.
I share with the hon. Member for Christchurch deep concern about the role models our young men have. I look on in horror at the material Andrew Tate promoted. I look on in horror at the things that can be found online that we know our young men are consuming. But I have great faith in the young men of this country. They do not need to be cosseted or nannied. They need us to stand up for their ability to be good allies, good brothers, good fathers, good friends and good work colleagues who are not likely to behave in those ways. Those who do behave in the ways we are discussing need to feel the force of the law. The law needs to be on the side of the victims, by recognising that behaviour in the way that we do other forms of hate crime.
By passing the Bill, we are sending a powerful message to our young men that they deserve better than the caricature of “boys will be boys” and the idea that they somehow cannot help themselves. We know they can. We know it is as much about our young men and the message we send them as it is our young women and their freedoms we are fighting for in this legislation. I welcome the fact that there has been cross-party work on the Bill. I pay tribute to Citizens UK, Our Streets Now and the Fawcett Society for the work they have done to make the argument that we should not minimise harassment in public. We should recognise it, treat it equally and prosecute those who behave in those ways.
I suspect that across the House there is a common agreement about how much this debate is changing. We are all of a certain age. We remember things that were on television when we were younger that we now know are not acceptable. Mr French is shaking his head. I am sure afterwards we can compare notes on just how awful our ’90s fashion was. We remember things that were on television, and cultural ideas about race and ethnicity, that we would now recognise are inappropriate, and indeed that created a culture in which racial hatred and abuse was encouraged. We hope, in time, that working against targeting people on the basis of their sex or presumed sex will have the same effect: that we can challenge myths, challenge expectations and challenge behaviour. But we cannot do that if the law is not on the side of women who have not come forward to date—the 80% of women who experience street-based harassment but do not report it. The Bill will change that. It will also support young men, and it will support our society to be a better version of itself.
I hope Members will support the Bill. This is the start of a process. I hope the Minister will talk about the training that will be given to the police and the CPS to ensure that the legislation is effective. But let us have no more minimisation, no more shaking our heads and saying, “It’s just the way of the world.” Let us have no more teaching young women to be frightened, to go on self-defence courses, to travel with their friends and to carry those keys, any more than we say to young men, “Well, try not to do it again.” Let us change that culture. Let us change the law. Let us make this a society where everybody is just free to live their lives in peace. I will wager, left or right, that is an ambition we can all get behind.
I will be brief, but I could not let this legislation pass without commenting on it, particularly in the week when we saw the Casey review, to which Stella Creasy referred. That review reminds us all just how everyday an experience sexual harassment is for so many women and girls. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend Greg Clark for taking up this cause. In the 13 years that I have been here, we have talked a lot about these issues, and about violence against women and girls, but it has not got much beyond words and into concrete action.
There has been much resistance to the measure because of the additional pressures that it might put on the police. By resisting it, this place was sending the message to women and girls that this was their lot; it was normalising the behaviour that we are talking about. The Casey review shows that if we normalise that behaviour in society, we give a green light to it in our police services, and the police are exactly the people who should be keeping us safe.
The Bill marks a real turning point. At last, we are sending the message, “No, we will not put up with this. This is not acceptable behaviour.” It should not be acceptable that anyone experiences harassment. Nobody should think that they can get away with it. Nobody should abuse their power and make people feel uncomfortable and distressed just because they can. I am hugely grateful to my right hon. Friend for the Bill, and really grateful to the Government for embracing and supporting it. This is a rare moment of unity; we are all on the same side. I hope this marks the beginning of many more measures that give us women the opportunity to participate in society without having to put up with intimidation day in, day out.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate. I once again congratulate my right hon. Friend Greg Clark on bringing forward this important and hugely welcome Bill, which will better protect all our constituents.
As I outlined in my Second Reading speech, we have a long heritage of protective legislation brought forward by Conservative Governments; there is the Children Act 1989, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, and even my private hire and taxi legislation, or Sian’s law. We can add my right hon. Friend’s Bill to those. I also look forward to seeing very soon the draft legislation promised by the Government on banning conversion practices, which will add further to that range of protections. I appreciate that time is short, so I conclude by again congratulating him on the Bill’s Third Reading. I am happy to give it my full support.
I will be brief, too, given the limited time available. I rise to support the Bill, which provides greater protection from sex-based harassment. I thank my right hon. Friend Greg Clark for all his great work, and all the campaigners who have campaigned so hard on the issue.
May I please again urge the Minister to review the Metropolitan police’s tri-borough policing model? It was mentioned in Baroness Casey’s review this week, which highlighted a number of issues. I will raise one that is particularly relevant to this Bill: the review highlighted that 50% more sexual offences occur in the south-east basic command unit area, which includes my home of Bexley, than in the central north BCU, which includes the likes of Camden and Islington. However, as Baroness Casey points out, under the one-size-fits-all policing model introduced by the Mayor of London, the resourcing model is the same for both BCUs. That is not right. Alongside that, the Mayor’s disastrous ultra low emission zone plans will impact many women travelling home at night and their safety. I again urge the Minister to look into the matter of the tri-borough policing model.
I will speak very briefly. I congratulate Greg Clark on introducing the Bill. I wanted to speak in support of it as a man on the Opposition Back-Benches; we in the Opposition have some very able women who have led this campaign. I have a vested interest; I have daughters—Lucy, Madlin and Verity—and I have granddaughters: Megan, Lola, Gwen, Elodie, Rosa and Arwen. They are girls, and I want them to grow up in a world where this abuse no longer exists.
I warmly welcome this Bill from my right hon. Friend Greg Clark. Too many women and, even more concerningly, many girls have experienced a form of sex-based harassment in public places. The Government’s call for evidence ahead of our violence against women and girls strategy received 180,000 responses, showing the depth and breadth of feeling among British women on their safety and exposure to harassment when they are just going about their daily lives. As part of this strategy, Barnstaple in my North Devon constituency has received £348,000 of safer streets funding to tackle violence against women and girls. I know that my police and crime commissioner and local force have been tackling these crimes, which act as barriers to women and girls enjoying their local community. I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend for his work and to place on record my support for this important Bill.
I will also speak briefly and begin by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend Greg Clark for securing the passage of this Bill. It has been great to hear it being warmly supported in the House today.
I rise primarily to pay tribute to a group of girls who really helped me understand this issue. Sandbach High School is not in my constituency—it is in that of my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce— but she kindly agreed for me to visit, because so many of my constituents go to school there. It is a girls school, and I had a session with a group of girls who put across to me how frequently this was an issue for them, even at this point in their lives, and how commonplace it was for them to experience harassment.
I also pay tribute to a charity in Crewe called Motherwell, founded by Kate Blakemore. What we have discussed today is recognising that this issue sits within a bigger picture of how we think about and treat women and girls in society. Motherwell is a women and girls charity dedicated to empowering women in all sorts of different ways, including looking at issues of their own safety. That organisation and that group of girls helped me understand this issue. I am pleased to be here today to pay tribute to them, and to my right hon. Friend, in supporting the Bill.
I gave my thanks previously to those who have done such an excellent job in bringing the Bill to the House, so I will be brief, but I wanted to underline an incredibly important point that has been made by a number of speakers. This Bill will be positive for everyone. The evidence for that has already been set out, including by Greg Clark. When we look at the evidence about the impact of this kind of behaviour, especially on girls, I know that all of us in the House are incredibly concerned. Girlguiding UK found that a third of girls aged 17 and 18 first experienced harassment at the age of 11. It will be good for girls and women, and for boys and men, to be clear that the atrocious behaviour of a minority is truly rejected by the majority. This is therefore important legislation.
While it is good that the Bill has Government support, it is a shame that some of these important issues seem often to be relegated to private Members’ Bills. It is two years since the violence against women and girls strategy was launched, and we have not seen enough progress. We need to see more. Yes, the Bill is positive, but we need to see misogyny being made a hate crime. We need to see specialist rape courts across the country and domestic abuse specialists in every 999 room. Ultimately, we need to see a cross-Government approach. While it is absolutely right that we focus in this Bill on criminal justice and policing matters, the solution will be found more widely in our schools, hospitals and workplaces. Not delivering that solution will fail women and girls.
I will be extremely brief, because I know that many other Members want to bring Bills forward today, and other Members have made excellent contributions. I quickly congratulate again my right hon. Friend Greg Clark on bringing forward this legislation. I congratulate many Members on the work they have done on this issue, particularly Stella Creasy and my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price.
It is important that this Bill is only one part of a wider piece of work to protect women and girls. Of course, this is a Government who brought forward legislation on forced marriages, stalking, upskirting and making sure that serious sexual offenders spend more of their sentence in prison. We have brought forward the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, introduced the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and legislated on female genital mutilation. There of course is a lot more work to do, and I look forward to working with colleagues in government and across the House to make further progress.
With the leave of the House, I will briefly thank all those who have aided the passage of the Bill.
I start by thanking my constituents who, over the years, have shared with me their experiences and encouraged me to bring forward this legislation, supported by campaigning groups from across the country.
To turn those intentions into prospective legislation, one requires advice and support. I am grateful to officials and Ministers in the Home Office, including the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Priti Patel, and the current Home Secretary and her ministerial team.
My hon. Friend Miss Dines, who has seen the Bill through its previous stages, is indisposed today. I want to put on record my thanks to her and to my right hon. Friend the Minister for very ably picking up the brief today and responding during the Report stage. I am grateful to him for that.
I thank the excellent Clerks of the House. In particular, I would like to single out the Clerk responsible for private Members’ Bills, Anne-Marie Griffiths, who does a tremendous job, supported by her very able colleagues. We are grateful for the advice that she has given.
Finally, I thank the no less able Whips on both sides, in particular my hon. Friend Rebecca Harris. She has developed a reputation for sensing the mood of the House. In a House that can sometimes be a forum for contention, my hon. Friend has great skill in being able to bring us together on occasions such as this one.
Having put on record my thanks, I commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. Anne-Marie Griffiths was here earlier and she will be back, but we will ensure that she is aware of those kind words.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.