My Lords, I thank the Minister for his opening remarks and for bringing this Bill before us today. As he has said, it is a narrow Bill, but it does have the support of the Government. I am sure that we will support everything that is in it, but while it has been welcomed in many quarters, it is not entirely without criticism. Nevertheless, it is a step forward in protecting women and girls from this unwanted behaviour which can be humiliating and degrading to the victim.
Women’s Aid has given the Bill a warm welcome. Its chief executive has said:
“By condemning this form of abuse, we can send out the powerful message that upskirting is unacceptable and perpetrators of this crime will be held to account”.
Upskirting may not be something new, but today with practically everyone owning and carrying a camera in their pocket, and with the rapid spread of mobile technology, the reach of the internet and the use of social media, it is easy to take images and distribute them. That is no doubt why there has been such a rise in this appalling behaviour, and it is time that the taking of such images without the knowledge or consent of the person concerned is made an offence. Victims say that image-based sexual abuse causes shame, humiliation and significant distress. It can have a severe impact on mental health which can be long lasting. I believe that the Bill will be a big step forward in tackling a loophole in the law.
Concerns have been expressed that the Bill will criminalise upskirting only if the perpetrator does so to obtain either sexual gratification for himself or others, causes humiliation and distress, or alarms the victim. This does cover some but not all motivations as the perpetrator may commit the crime for financial gain or, as the Minister said, for “having a laugh”. One can imagine how that can happen when such images are shown around a group of male friends.
Cross-party amendments were tabled in another place to criminalise the distribution of upskirting images. This Bill would criminalise only the taking of such images but not their further distribution, which often happens. Perpetrators share these images with friends or on social networks, causing further humiliation and distress to victims. By not criminalising the distribution of such images, I believe that we fail to recognise victims’ experiences, which adds to their distress and embarrassment. I know that the Minister has talked about this, but I would ask him to look at this again when we move on to the Committee stage.
The excellent briefing from Women’s Aid points that out. It feels that the focus on the perpetrator’s motivation should be removed to ensure that all victims of this crime are treated consistently and believes that the legislation needs to recognise that non-consensual images are created, distributed and shared in many ways. I understand that the Government have concerns that this could risk unintentionally criminalising people. Again, Women’s Aid said that defences would remain for those accused who may have taken the image by accident or for law enforcement reasons.
I welcome the fact that the victims will be granted anonymity. This is essential to ensure reporting of the crime and should encourage women and girls to come forward. It is well known that victims of sexual offences can be reluctant to come forward. Hopefully this will go some way to helping them to do so, and hopefully the police and other bodies will have the necessary training and resources to deal with this new offence.
In its briefing on the Bill, the Equality and Human Rights Commission mentions the Istanbul convention, urging the Government to ratify it. In fact, it states:
I wholeheartedly agree. Article 40 of the Istanbul convention requires,
“the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, is subject to criminal or other legal sanction”.
When ratified, Article 40 would certainly cover the measures in the Bill before us.
The preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence Act 2017, which I took through your Lordships’ House, requires the Government to publish an annual report, which is due by
“The Government will set out a timetable for ratification in line with the requirement of section 1 of the Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Act 2017 in due course”.
Can the Minister say when that will be? When does he expect the second annual report to be published? It is due by
I mention the Istanbul convention because it is so relevant to our debate. I am pleased to hear the Minister say that the Government will keep the law under review and are committed to undertaking post-legislative scrutiny in the next two years to assess how the offences are working in practice. Everyone would welcome that as it would give us an opportunity to see how well the Bill is working and whether it needs any amendment. I look forward to the Minister’s response and to taking part as the Bill progresses towards becoming law.