Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We will follow the usual house-keeping arrangements. The shirt-sleeve order is in order. Will Members and anybody in the Public Gallery—who I cannot see because I am not allowed to—please make sure to switch their mobile phones off? We will now hear oral evidence from the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Mrs Miller. We have until 2.30 pm to ask questions. I thank you for joining us, Mrs Miller.
Hello. You have tabled several amendments to the Bill. Can I start by asking you to explain their purpose, what they are about and why, in your view, they will make the Bill betterQ 49?
Thank you very much for allowing me to give evidence as we consider the Bill, Sir Roger. The amendments I propose, which have support from Members of every single political party, including some Members here, seek to do two things: first, to change the purposes mentioned in the Bill, and secondly, to introduce a new item to the Bill covering distribution.
Several people feel that the listed purposes are too tightly drawn. I have worked on the amendment with Professor Clare McGlynn, who is a professor of law at Durham University. It is her clear concern that recognising offences only if they are for the purposes of either sexual gratification or the humiliation of the victim would mean that a number of cases could never be tried. That is important, because the Government have made it clear from the start that the Bill is intended to close a loophole in the law. It does not do that as presently drafted. It will need to be more broadly drafted and not simply focus on those two different purposes.
The amendments have been drafted after my having looked at comments from people such as David Ormerod, a law commissioner who has clearly set out that “motive is irrelevant to liability” in criminal law. “Smith and Hogan’s Criminal Law”, which I understand is the bible on criminal law issues, sets out that motives form an element of an offence only in exceptional circumstances when it comes to criminal law. The example given in that book is of racially aggravated offences in which racism is an element.
In many ways the Bill is anomalous, inasmuch as it sets out purposes, whereas three quarters of offences in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which, after all, the Bill amends, do not require one. The Minister asserted during the Second Reading Committee that the amendments would
“reverse the burden of proof”.—[Official Report, Second Reading Committee,
David Ormerod, a law commissioner, does not agree, hence my belief that the amendment should stand.
The second amendment relates to the distribution of material. Shortly after Scotland passed a similar law to outlaw upskirting, they realised that they had no way of stopping the distribution of those images. They had to pass a subsequent piece of legislation—the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016—so I found it quite surprising that the Government would bring forward the Bill based on the Scottish Act but not include the subsequent legislation on distribution.
To finish this final point—sorry my answer has been so long—at the moment the revenge pornography law, section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, would apply to stop the distribution of upskirting images only in cases where they would cause distress. It would not stop the distribution of those images in any other circumstances. There is clearly a loophole in the law around distribution. I believe that this amendment would close that loophole.
May I take up the issue about motive? The offence in the Bill requires one or other of two purposes:Q
“obtaining sexual gratification (whether for A or C)”— in other words, for the taker or for a third party—or
“humiliating, alarming or distressing B.”
What are credible additional or alternative motives for someone taking a photograph up someone’s skirt?
Professor Clare McGlynn has set this out in evidence to the Committee, having looked at this issue since 2015 when she first thought there was an upskirting loophole that needed to be filled. I commend that evidence to the Committee as giving a full answer. She feels strongly that there are clear cases where it would not be easy to prove sexual gratification or humiliation as a motivation of the perpetrator. She gave two particular examples for posting images: for financial gain or simply having a bit of fun. The individual may not be recognisable, so humiliation would not be caused. If those images were then posted to a WhatsApp group, that would not be caught by this law.
Q Okay. Let me deal with financial gain. The value in this photo comes either from a third party getting sexual gratification from it or from it being humiliating, alarming or distressing for the individual. Even if that were part of the intention of the taker, surely it would be possible for the prosecution to say, “Whatever their primary motive, the value in these images came from one of the two purposes set out in the Act.” Can you point to any cases where the Crown has not been able to get the defendant down—to use the vernacular in Scotland—because of these alleged loopholes?
I think, Mr Chalk, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the driver for these types of sexual harassment. Indeed, if I may refer to evidence given to my Select Committee by another Government Minister only last week, the Minister for Women said that the driver of sexual harassment is power, not sexual gratification. The overwhelming likelihood is that these pictures will not be taken for sexual gratification.
I am advised—unlike you, Mr Chalk, I am not a qualified lawyer—that proving sexual gratification is extremely difficult, and indeed the Government do not believe that sexual gratification is the main driver of the taking of these sorts of photographs. In answer to your second question on evidence, unfortunately I do not have the resources to look through Scottish law—
Q But is it not quite important to be able to point to examples where someone we would expect to have been convicted of upskirting has not been because of deficiencies—or perceived deficiencies—in the law? Can you point to a single example of that?
What I would point to is the evidence I have just given around the law commissioner, David Ormerod, who has said that “motive is irrelevant to liability” in the criminal law, and the fact that three quarters of the laws in the Sexual Offences Act that we are amending have no such provision.
Q With respect, that is a separate issue about how it sits in the canon of sexual offences law. My question is whether this proposal is fit for purpose. I am asking whether you can provide any evidence of culpable conduct that was not capable of being prosecuted to conviction because of a perceived deficiency in the law. Can you provide any example?
I cannot provide that example. What I can do is give you professional, expert opinion, including most recently that of Lord Pannick in the House of Lords, which says quite clearly that setting out the provisions, as currently drafted in the Bill, only to cover situations that are to do with sexual gratification and alarming and distressing victims, draws the piece of legislation too tightly. I have to say that I do not want to question the opinion of Lord Pannick.
Can I come back to the first amendment and hear a little bit more of the response to the argument that we would reverse a core principle in British law that somebody is innocent until proven guilty? I understand that is one of the main arguments why the amendment should not be put forward because, basically, it would make it very difficult for an alleged perpetrator to prove his or her innocence.Q
I think that is, if I might say, Sir Roger, something that seems to be a point of disagreement with the Government and a number of people who have provided evidence to me—not only Professor Clare McGlynn, but Lord Pannick and the words of David Ormerod. They all suggest that removing the two provisions that narrow the purposes of the Bill would not at all reverse the burden of proof. In fact, in doing so, it would be brought more in line with three quarters of the sexual offences in the 2003 Act.
Rather than in some way perverting the law, which was my layman’s take on what the Minister said in the Second Reading Committee, the amendment would more likely bring this piece of law into line with other offences under the Sexual Offences Act. There is no requirement in criminal law to specify particular motives for criminal offences—only in exceptional circumstances. The Government have not said why this would be an exceptional circumstance.
Thank you very much for being with us this afternoon. The reasons for the current speed and scope of the Bill are that, first, it addresses that gap in the law that has long been recognised; secondly, closing that gap is very uncontroversial; and, thirdly, the proposed reform follows provisions that are already there in Scotland.Q
In relation to the amendments and broadening the scope of the Bill, such as to look at distribution, as you said earlier, would it not be better for the Government to engage maybe with the Law Commission to produce a report and to make considered recommendations on the existing law and the need for reform in those areas, so that they can take proper time to consider how we tackle those issues? In the meantime, we can plug that gap that we know exists.
Thank you for your questions. I will pick up your words to take “proper time” over this. I think the Government should take proper time over the whole of the Bill. In potentially rushing it through, we could end up with a piece of legislation that is not doing what the Government set out for it to do, which is to close a loophole in the law.
Far from it, it could be putting in place a piece of legislation that exacerbates loopholes and gives perpetrators the opportunity to say, “Well, do you know what? I was only doing it for financial gain. I wasn’t doing it to harass the victim or for sexual gratification. I was simply doing it so that I could get 100 quid from an online site. I didn’t even know the name of the victim, so I couldn’t have been harassing them or humiliating them, and I certainly wasn’t getting sexual gratification from the images.” In rushing this through, for the best possible motives, we may end up with a piece of legislation that does not close that gap.
On amending the Bill to cover distribution, I say to Mr Thomson that following the introduction of the Scottish Act, a piece of catch-up work had to be done. As I mentioned, a piece of legislation had to be passed in 2016 to close the gap created by the fact that the original Act did not cover distribution. Perhaps I will point the Committee towards some further evidence here. The Bill is very much founded on what was put in place in Scotland in 2012. A lot has happened since then to the way the online world works and the way other countries deal with exactly the same problems with regard to images.
I am somewhat surprised that the Government do not want to look at precedents other than Scotland to get a better solution. For instance, why would the Government not want to look at what is happening in New South Wales, where a law was introduced that covers all intimate images that are taken and potentially distributed? Why would they not look at the Irish commission’s proposal, which again establishes a core offence and, rather than focusing only on upskirting, includes all intimate images that are distributed non-consensually? My question is: why Scotland? Why not try to do a proper job and look at what other countries have done far more recently?
Will you comment on the risk, in introducing a very small and discrete piece of legislation in anticipation of getting convictions in a handful of high-profile cases, of creating viable defences along the lines that the images were taken for financial gain, by mistake—I think we probably have to have room for that—or to be shared among friends? There is a real risk that if we prioritise the speed at which we introduce legislation over conducting a risk assessment of the loopholes that we may introduce by trying to close a loophole, we may do damage to victims in an area of offences—sexual offences—where victims are notoriously reluctant to come forwardQ .
I would say that one very good aspect of the Bill is that it will make upskirting a sex offence, so, as the Minister set out clearly in the Second Reading Committee, there will be anonymity for victims. I am very clear that that—acknowledging that many image-based offences should be categorised as sex offences and therefore that victims should be afforded anonymity—is a move in the right direction.
At the risk of going into other areas—I know you would not want me to, Sir Roger—there are parallels to be drawn with revenge pornography, which was not deemed a sex offence despite the fact that it has a similar impact on victims, and for which there is no anonymity as a result. We know from work by organisations such as the BBC that one in three victims in cases where police want to press charges backs out. Many perhaps do so because of the lack of anonymity if cases are taken to court.
The Bill is a is a positive step, but Ms Saville Roberts alludes to the concern that, by rushing it through, we may reinforce the fact that not all intimate images are illegal and reinforce bad behaviour. She is absolutely right. What really concerns me is that perpetrators could easily plead that they were taking images not for sexual gratification, but anonymously for sale to a third party. That could actually give perpetrators a very big loophole to climb through. At the moment it is not so clear but, if the loophole is set out in law, some very clever barristers could make extremely good use of it.
I would like to get some clarity and then ask a question, if I may. You appear to be interested in extending the scope of the legislation—you talked about New South Wales and other areas where such legislation has more scope—and, at the same time, in increasing the number of defences that could be relied upon, if I am reading this properly. In doing so, would you be concerned that more of the onus is on the police and the prosecution to look at ways of not only prosecuting but dealing with defences that would be much wider than at presentQ ?
This morning, listening to Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt, he was really saying, “If this is expanded any more, it leads to more to deal with in the legislation.” If anything, however, the amendments would make the life of the police a lot easier, because they would not have to prove sexual gratification, which I am told is extremely difficult to prove, nor would they have to prove that a victim was subject to humiliation or alarm and distress, which again are not always the easiest things to prove. What they have to prove is that a photograph was taken. I would have thought that that was much more straightforward in scope.
One issue that Members raised in the Second Reading Committee, and that the Minister has raised, is that the legislation might lead to more offences being caught because, potentially, it would capture more young people who are simply taking photographs in a way that might be seen more as jovial or as a bit of a laugh. I have to say that I have yet to meet any victim of this crime, of whatever age, who thinks it is a bit of a laugh. The impact on the victim is as great if it is done for that reason as if it is done for sexual gratification.
I also point out to the Committee that the Government already have dealing with young offenders well under control: Crown Prosecution Service guidance on the charging of young people with any offence is already in place. In particular, that was gone into in great detail when the Sexual Offences Act 2003 was discussed. The noble Lord Falconer discussed it then and it was clearly set out in CPS guidance that it was not Parliament’s intent to punish children unnecessarily or inappropriately. I therefore do not think that that will be quite the issue that has been drawn out in conversations about the Bill.
Thank you for coming, Mrs Miller. I want to put it on record that your Committee is doing great work, which you as Chair are leading. I have two questions, one of which is on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, who is unwell and is being attended to by a doctor. She asked earlier witnesses about misogyny, and you will have seen her amendment about that, which in essence says that if the motivation for committing an offence is hatred of women, the sentence should be stronger. What do you think about introducing that as a concept into the Bill?Q
First, I am very grateful for your comments about our Committee’s work. The Women and Equalities Committee is actively looking at this issue in our current inquiry into sexual harassment in the public realm. If Members are looking for evidence of the need for a law, please look at the evidence we had from the British Transport police, who told us very clearly that the lack of a specific sexual offence for upskirting causes them real issues. As I have said before, we have had evidence from Professor Clare McGlynn, who has been calling for a new law of this sort since 2015. Dr Matthew Hall and Professor Jeff Hearn have given us evidence about how technology has facilitated an explosion in crimes in public places and have gone into quite a lot of detail about the earnings that people have made from upskirting websites. Rape Crisis has commented on the lack of mention of sexual harassment in the Government strategy. So we have had quite a lot of evidence to suggest that this is important to do.
I have not looked in detail at Stella Creasy’s amendment, but I know that some concerns have been expressed about introducing a hierarchy within the Bill. I would just refer you again to Professor Clare McGlynn’s evidence on that. I would not really want to comment any further on it at this stage, if you will forgive me.
Q That is very helpful. My second question relates to anonymity for revenge porn victims. The victims of this offence, because it will be added into the Sexual Offences Act, will automatically get anonymity, as opposed to revenge porn victims, who one could say have experienced very similar embarrassment, harassment and distress.
I think an inconsistency in the law is emerging here that the Government need to look at much more closely. Mention has rightly been made of revenge pornography. When that offence was introduced back in 2014, the need for it was questioned somewhat by the CPS. We now have 500 cases a year successfully prosecuted and hundreds more that are not successfully prosecuted, for the very reason that has just been set out—it is probably mostly because anonymity is not afforded there. But I think some broader inconsistencies are coming out as a result of this Bill. We have said we are delighted that the Government have seen this as a sex offence and so there will be, in the case of upskirting offences, anonymity, but as has been pointed out, why is there not anonymity for people who are victims of revenge pornography? It is not entirely clear on what basis that has been decided, other than the fact that revenge pornography was not made a sex offence—again, for reasons that are entirely unclear. I am sure the Committee is very aware that flashing in a mac is not only a sex offence but, if it was causing harm or distress—not sexual gratification—a notifiable offence, yet deep fake porn, where your head can be very easily put on to a pornographic image, moving or otherwise, is not a sex offence at all; it is simply harassment.
I think this is at best complex and at worst confusing, and the Government need to take a very long, hard look at it, because online offences and image abuses are as real and as dreadful for the victims as some of those abuses that are perpetrated in person.
Thank you, Sir Roger. Maria, you described a scenario in which somebody would be seeking financial gratification and therefore, you believe, would not be picked up by the current drafting of the Bill. You described somebody selling the image on to an online site to receive £100 for doing so. Could you say what you believe the customers of that online site would be seeking if they were not seeking sexual gratificationQ ?
Q But you talked specifically about somebody being paid for the image, so one imagines that someone is then paying to use the site, and what would the customer of the site be paying for if it was not sexual gratification?
In that case, it could well be sexual gratification, but why are we making the police’s life so hard because we want to capture only those people where we can prove beyond reasonable doubt—because it is a criminal charge—that this is for sexual gratification, when, frankly, taking a picture up your skirt, Ms Whately, would be as offensive to you, whether that person was seeking sexual gratification or whether they were simply doing it as a lark, so that they could put it on their WhatsApp group and share it with their mates. It is the same impact on you as a victim as it would be if they were getting sexual gratification or seeking to humiliate you.
We know from the police that, with many of these images, people do not know the victims and it would be impossible to prove humiliation. We know, again from the police, that trying to prove sexual gratification is far more difficult. Should we not try to look at this from the victim’s point of view, as three quarters of sexual offences already are, and simply set it out as a crime in its own right and stop being obsessed about why people do it?