Voyeurism (Offences) (No. 2) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:49 pm on 23rd October 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Shadow Attorney General 4:49 pm, 23rd October 2018

My Lords, as someone who has spent most of her adult life resisting unnecessary criminal offences, I know a genuine and serious gap in the criminal statute book when I see it. I therefore join the chorus of congratulations for those who campaigned for the Bill, in particular Gina Martin and the Member of Parliament for Bath, Wera Hobhouse, who supported campaigners and worked so diligently on the introduction of the Private Member’s Bill that was so notoriously hijacked and wrecked in the other place. I welcome the Government’s decision finally to own and introduce this legislation.

At first blush at least, I rather agree with the Minister and, in particular, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in their analysis of the offence. The Minister will, no doubt, say more in response to recent contributions about purposes. On my recent reading of the Bill, my first thought is that person C, as they appear in the construction of the offence, may help to take care of the distribution issue.

Secondly, the Bill creates a serious criminal offence and it is in the best traditions of the criminal statute book for such offences—particularly those that attract custody—to have some kind of mental element. On first analysis, I find the offence tight and the penalties proportionate. As other noble Lords have said, it is difficult to imagine those two purposes not being met by those who deliberately upskirt someone, who will usually be a woman. I was grateful to noble Lords around the Chamber for pointing out that, while people may have kilts and so on, it would be surprising if this did not operate for the most part as a very misogynistic criminal offence.

I welcome the Government’s recent approach to this. The delay in getting to where we are is unfortunate and, to some extent, inexplicable. Upskirting may be a crime of the modern era—notwithstanding comments made about more archaic technology—and technology has made a difference. None the less, as your Lordships have heard, upskirting has been an offence in Scotland since 2009, and that nine-year delay is inexplicable. It is almost a year since the shadow Justice Secretary asked his counterpart to act. It was the embarrassment of the actions of the Member of Parliament for Christchurch that led the Government, and the Prime Minister herself, rightly to intervene. We are all grateful for that.

All noble Lords should be clear that upskirting is a very serious violation of the privacy and dignity of the victim. It is an urgent problem that there is no specific criminal offence in England and Wales to cover all the scenarios, and this should be borne in mind in hoping for a swift passage for this legislation. As it stands, the law maintains a focus on protecting the public from potential exposure to lewd acts et cetera, rather than protecting the individual from this indignity which is very disturbing, particularly when exacerbated by publication online.

A number of cases have highlighted the failings of the current law. In 2007, for example, Simon Hamilton—a barrister, no less—was convicted after secretly filming up the skirts of women in supermarkets. However, he was able successfully to appeal on the basis that, as none of the victims had been aware of the filming and no one else had seen it, public decency could not have been outraged. Guy Knight, another professional man—a former chartered accountant—took photographs up women’s skirts on trains over a period of five months while commuting to work. He was caught after suspicious passengers reported him to the police. More than 200 illicit images were found on his phone and laptop, and 10 of the women in the pictures were traced by the police. None of them was aware in that moment that they had been photographed. Last year, he was convicted but fined only £500 and asked to pay a further £500 in costs. That is not a proportionate reflection of the gravity of this offence.

It is therefore important that women, and in particular Gina Martin, have been speaking up; the facts of her case have already been set out. Colleagues in different parties have worked closely with her and her lawyer, Ryan Whelan, since last year. It is a wonderful campaigning achievement to have garnered 100,000 signatures for their petition. It is an important recognition that women across the United Kingdom have been affected by this practice, the ease with which technology facilitates it and the exacerbation of publication. It is almost impossible to know how many victims have been affected.

It is therefore important that, notwithstanding wider concerns about other matters, we give the speediest passage to this tightly crafted criminal offence. No doubt, the Minister will respond to any concerns about the offence itself and will consider them if they are real. However, I urge noble Lords around this House to resist using the Bill for our numerous other concerns around misogyny and misogynistic crimes. During the Bill’s passage through the other place, several Back-Benchers, understandably, tabled amendments to the Bill, looking at issues such as street harassment, anonymity for victims of revenge porn, the cross-examination of victims of abuse in civil courts, and the distribution and sharing of images, and so on—which are all important matters that need to be looked at, but not so as to slow the passage of the Bill and this particular offence, which must be got right. Other matters ought to be dealt with in another vehicle.

I am therefore incredibly heartened to hear the commitment from the Government with regard to the Law Commission review of this area of law. The Law Commission is a wonderful body, designed to do just that work. There are too many crimes of misogyny and too much misogyny in the culture. In this country and all around the world, from Riyadh to Rotherham, certainly in numerical terms, gender injustice may be the greatest abuse on the planet.

I was conscious both in this important debate and in the earlier Question and exchange between the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and the noble Lord, Lord Ashton of Hyde, that the cowardice of anonymity, when degrading or, to use the language of the Bill, “humiliating, alarming or distressing” women does not just happen online but via other vehicles as well. I take this opportunity to say in your Lordships’ House that I was reminded of this over the weekend by some of the language directed at the Prime Minister by a man—I believe—who is allegedly her colleague. That violent language was humiliating, distressing and alarming, if not to the Prime Minister herself, to every decent Member of either House of Parliament. Yes, we must legislate in many respects, but legislation is not the only way that leadership should be shown by people in political life. Forgive me for going off at that tangent, but I think that it is important.

In the meantime, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply and I hope we have speedy and unanimous support for the passage of this Bill.