Misogyny as a Hate Crime — [Sir David Crausby in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 7th March 2018.

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Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 9:30 am, 7th March 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered misogyny as a hate crime.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, in a debate on an issue that has been hotly discussed over the past couple of days. This debate is particularly timely, given that tomorrow is International Women’s Day. I pay tribute to the excellent work undertaken by the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence and the Women and Equalities Committee, which have taken on important and often contentious issues to enhance the lives of all women up and down the country. Often, they have been supported by charities and think tanks such as the Fawcett Society, Women’s Aid and End Violence Against Women, which have contributed broader thoughts on policy relating to women. I thank them all for their work in this field.

All forms of abuse are committed disproportionately against women and girls, and the perpetrators are usually men. Violence against women and girls is part of what is stopping women achieving equality. Some 22% of girls aged seven to 12 have experienced jokes of a sexual nature from boys, and nearly three quarters of all 16 to 18-year-old boys and girls say they hear sexual name-calling, including terms such as “slut” and “slag” used towards girls at school, daily or a few times a week. In 2016, there were 2 million female victims of domestic violence. About 85,000 women a year are raped, but only half those cases are reported. The Government recognise that more needs to be done to tackle violence towards women and girls, and it is welcome that they are consulting in advance of the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill. I hope this debate will be considered carefully as part of that consultation.

The debate is about securing an extension to the existing hate crime definitions and sentencing better to prevent violence against women, support early intervention against lower-level incidents and give women greater confidence in reporting the actions that, too often, have become the wallpaper of their lives. That is most certainly the case: 85% of women aged between 18 and 24 report that they have been on the receiving end of unwanted attention.

The APPG on domestic violence found that there is a clear link between low-level incidents of harassment towards women and more serious forms of violence and sexual crime. That is why I want the Government formally to extend the five strands of centrally monitored hate crime to include misogyny and provide for appropriate reflective sentencing. That would mean that incidents of street harassment, online abuse or other negative acts or behaviour directed towards a woman simply because she was a woman could be formally logged and monitored.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I apologise to the hon. Lady and to you, Sir David, for not being able to stay to the end of the debate. I have to meet some constituents who are visiting, but I would have liked to contribute. The hon. Lady is talking about misogyny. Can we take it as read that she thinks that misandry ought to be a hate crime, too? If she does not, will she explain why she thinks there should be one rule for one and another rule for the other?

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I am terribly sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not going to stay for the entirety of the debate. He regularly contributes to debates on this topic, but rarely stays around for the responses. If he wants to raise the issue of misandry, he is perfectly able to do so. To date, he has not. He has every opportunity, as everybody in the House does, to pursue that. It does not form part of my suggestions today, which are focused on misogyny. There is a power imbalance in society that disproportionately affects women negatively, so I think misogyny should be an exclusive strand of hate crime.

By setting the definition in statute, the Government would put down a marker to say that culturally endemic negative attitudes towards women are not acceptable. The recording of the crime would give a clearer picture of the scale of the issue, assist the police in taking action and intervening, and give women greater confidence that their concerns would be taken seriously. In evidence to the APPG on domestic violence, Women’s Aid said:

“Hate crime law was designed to combat crimes that deny equal respect and dignity to people who are seen as other…That violence is a consequence of sex inequality…That inequality undermines the ability of targeted people to feel safe and secure in society.”

The increasing rates of violence, sexual violence, harassment and disproportionate online abuse towards women show that women are routinely seen as “other”. If we are genuinely to tackle the violence, we must address the root cause—inequality. That certainly seems to be what Baroness Williams of Trafford was hinting at when she said:

“The Government recognise that it is critical to look beyond criminal justice measures and also to focus on what we can do to prevent abuse and violence in the first place.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 November 2017;
Vol. 787, c. 481.]

That is the challenge that five police forces around the country—most notably Nottinghamshire police—have set out to address. Their experience of piloting misogyny as a recordable hate crime has led to an increase in reporting.

Photo of Gloria De Piero Gloria De Piero Shadow Minister (Justice)

I have been reading the press reports about this debate with some interest. In Nottinghamshire in 2014, Paddy Tipping presided over the first force to introduce such a crime. As a Nottinghamshire MP, I want to reassure hon. Members that in Nottinghamshire the world has not caved in—far from it. When misogyny and hate crime were included in the force victim satisfaction survey, 94% of victims said they felt reassured and confident in the police. In short, this has been a success.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

It is welcome to hear that it has been a success. The police more widely do not seem to object to the extension of the definition of hate crime. The police are looking to the Government to support them in that action and to ensure that appropriate sentencing facilities are available to support any action they might take.

Contrary to media hype, there was not a surge of reports complaining of wolf-whistling, but arrests have been made for public order offences and actual bodily harm incidents that were classed as misogynist. That certainly reflects the experience of my hon. Friend Gloria De Piero, who claims that the initiative has been a success. There are specially trained officers in place in a city that has two universities, and the change has made positive difference to women, who feel better able to report unwanted attention and receive appropriate support where necessary.

Ultimately, I hope that if we set our laws appropriately, there will be a reduced need for police intervention, because behaviour and culture will evolve to fit the new standard. Dame Lara Cox, who chaired the Fawcett Society sex discrimination law review, said:

“Laws are instruments in changing attitudes, setting the bar for expectations of treatment and behaviour”.

She made the point that our laws are not stagnant and that they must reflect the reality of today’s society.

The reality, as borne out by campaigns such as #EverydaySexism, #goodnightout, #girlsagainst and, more recently, #MeToo, as well as, internationally, #StopStreetHarassment, is that today’s society is awash with misogynistic acts such as groping, sexual comments, upskirting, revenge porn, sexual remarks, leering and stalking. As the nature of harassment changes, so must the laws that govern it, and too many incidents do not meet the criteria for assault, discrimination or public order offences.

The fact that I have had the temerity to call for this debate—this exploration of ideas—has provoked a backlash of vile fury. I have been told that I am in some way a man-hater, that I have no sense of humour and that I should most certainly learn to take a compliment. Because I am not a snowflake, as has been suggested, that has not dissuaded me from continuing to discuss these ideas, but it highlights why women and girls are so often put off from directly challenging behaviour at the time the incidents occur. They are put off from even reporting them, given that the potential response is so aggressive.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has introduced the debate, not least because I am a strong defender of the reputation of men. Sexual harassment is not a given—people can choose not to do it—so it is really important in debates that we do not disrespect men by somehow suggesting that they are incapable of controlling their behaviour. I am pleased that she is setting out a way in which we can differentiate between the men who understand the 21st century and those who do not.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point that is hard to disagree with. Some responses that I have received over the last few days have not shown men in their best light, which is incredibly unfortunate, because all the men in my life accept that any actions or behaviours that put women in an uncomfortable position or make them feel unsafe or not secure in their environment are not acceptable. The defence of some of that behaviour has been quite surprising.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Will the hon. Lady give way again, just briefly?

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I feel compelled to hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady’s flow, but she just said something that made me think of something I had not expected to come to. Does she therefore think what her colleague, John McDonnell, said about my right hon. Friend Ms McVey should be a crime?

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

Unless the hon. Gentleman is more specific, I cannot respond to that.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

At a political rally, the right hon. Gentleman repeated someone’s remark that my right hon. Friend should be lynched. Clearly, that made my right hon. Friend and other people feel very uncomfortable. Given what the hon. Lady is saying, does she think that should be a crime?

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

If the individual to whom the comments were directed felt that they wished to report that, it would fall within the scope of today’s discussion. Those sorts of comment are unnecessarily aggressive and there is no place for them, certainly not in the nature of political debate and discourse, but that has been explored extensively and more directly with the individuals concerned, who explained themselves as they wished to.

In the last few days, I have been told stories that have made me so sad, because after decades of talking about equality, we seem so far away from it when it comes to girls and women being targeted because of their gender. Twelve and 13 year-old girls in their school uniform can still be leered at and suggestive comments and actions made towards them. These are children, yet some people still consider that an appropriate course of action. Women in their 20s walking past pubs are routinely heckled and their appearance is audibly commented on. None of those so obviously charming men take the step of directly addressing the women. Why would they not want to talk to them? Because that would humanise the objects passing by who they seek to objectify in such an unfriendly and intimidating way?

If the statistics are anything to go by, nearly every woman will have a story of deliberately being made to feel uncomfortable or intimidated, or of being touched or the object of someone’s unwanted attentions, at the very least, and 90% of women in the UK experience street harassment before they are 17. Because of that, 71% of women have done something to guard themselves against the threat of harassment, such as changing their route to work or avoiding parks. It is dreadful that women have to mould their lives around avoiding threatening situations. If street harassment, abuse and continued sex discrimination have no place in our society, let us have laws that fully and properly reflect that. Let us set a bar for expected behaviour and proactively take steps to reduce violence and sexual crime against women.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow 9:44 am, 7th March 2018

It is a pleasure to be able to contribute to the debate, Sir David, and I apologise for having been a little late, due to the vagaries of the Victoria line. My hon. Friend Melanie Onn made a powerful speech and has campaigned powerfully on this issue.

Women in Walthamstow feel very strongly about the gauntlet that they too often have to run when they walk down some of our main streets where there are busy cafés and pubs, especially when the weather gets a little warmer. For many, it is a nightmare. As the first female MP for Walthamstow, I have received a deluge of emails from residents who say that they cannot walk down their streets and feel safe during the day time, let alone at night. We have campaigned about this problem for many years—I pay tribute to the Take Back the Streets group in Walthamstow. Literally, women cannot go about their business. This debate is fundamentally about freedom—the freedom for women to be able to use the spaces and places in our society just as equally as men do.

It is a sad fact that Hoe Street in Walthamstow is a gauntlet for women to walk down, especially on a warm and sunny day, and that in workplaces women do not always feel safe. As a society, that holds us all back. Half of women say that they have been sexually harassed at work; one in five regularly experiences sexual harassment on our streets. There is a day-to-day phobia of passing a group of men, although sometimes it is unfounded— I am sure that Philip Davies wants me to point that out. But all too often, women know that as they walk past, they may be subject to touching; somebody may follow them; and somebody may try to engage them in a conversation, even when they have said no.

The other night, when I left Parliament I was followed down the street by a young man who would not take no for an answer—he kept trying to put his arms around me and touch me. Sadly, that is a day-to-day experience for too many women in our society. The trouble is that women are taught to minimise that behaviour—to brush it off, to somehow find a way of avoiding it, to feel that perhaps they should not be out on the streets late at night or that perhaps they should scream.

Sadly, it is part of our culture that someone feels they have the right to touch and to feel a woman at will. We need to change that. We know that 400,000 women were sexually assaulted in our country last year. That comes from being in a culture not of sex but of power. It is about entitlement. It is about the concept that a woman’s body is the primary thing of interest about her and therefore what matters is how men respond to it.

We should be very clear that this is #NotAllMen. What is so powerful about recognising misogyny as a hate crime is identifying that that is not normal human behaviour. It is not about men and women flirting with each other; it is not about men and women being able to banter with each other; it is not about men and women being able to ask each other out. Perhaps they exist in our society, but I have yet to meet a women who went out with a man who followed her down the street and tried to put his hands on her bottom. It is about being able to say that this sort of behaviour is holding too many back in our society.

Let us look at the figures for sexual harassment of young women in our society: the figure of 50% of women experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace rises to 63% among 18 to 24-year-olds. It is a damning indictment of Britain in 2018 that a young woman cannot start her career without the fear that she might face groping in her workplace, unwanted sexual advances and being told that she cannot seek a promotion if she dares to say no. The #MeToo campaign in particular shows that that is widespread behaviour.

The good news for all of us is that the public are with us. In surveys about sexual harassment, 80% of the public recognise that harassment. No woman should have to fear when she gets on a tube train that the man opposite has a mobile phone with him and what he might try to do with it. Upskirting is a completely unacceptable form of harassment. It is an abuse of the power of a man to define what is important about a woman. No woman should be subject to groping of her breasts in the workplace, but we have seen those reports. Through treating misogyny as a hate crime, we can change the conversation about what is acceptable. That is why I am such a fan of what has been done in Nottinghamshire and why I hope that the Mayor of London follows suit.

We women in Walthamstow know at first hand how difficult that is. The honest truth is that when we started recording the spaces and places in our local community where women felt unsafe—where they could not walk past a particular pub or café without feeling attacked or being harassed—the police told us it was a cultural matter. They said we simply could not stop men hanging out together and that that was just what happened. As a big champion and a big respecter of men, I believe that is simply not the case. There is nothing that says that, when men get together, they have to harass women.

Importantly—I really hope the hon. Member for Shipley defends us and supports us in making this argument—making misogyny a hate crime is a way of clearly stating that. It is a way of standing up for men’s reputation and men’s right to be seen as equal citizens rather than as predators in waiting, by separating out unacceptable behaviour and recognising those men who abuse their power and strength. That is the difficult thing. People might think this debate is about jokes, but a rape joke is never funny, because it is always about the power imbalance. It is always about the possibility that someone might follow through and use their physical strength to pin you down—the possibility, when they follow you down the road, that they might follow you all the way home and force their way into your house. That is a threat that women often live with daily.

By categorising sexual harassment as a hate crime, we would change the conversation so that it was not about what women need to do to avoid it. I am sure many of us have been frustrated when police officers have suggested that women need to change their routes. I was furious when my local police suggested to girls at a local school, because we had had reports of someone flashing, that they needed not to travel home alone—that they needed to moderate their behaviour, rather than us needing to catch the man who was doing that. We must change the conversation and say, “Here are people committing a crime.”

We do not let the victim drive what we do about other crimes. We do not say when there is a burglary, “What really matters is that you have better locks on your house rather than that we find the persistent burglar in this community,” but all too often we do when it comes to sexual harassment. We warn women to be careful rather than finding the peepers and flashers. We warn women about being alone at night rather than saying we will put more police on the streets. We say that we cannot tackle men’s behaviour rather than asking them to change.

We have had a great experience in Walthamstow: when we have gone in to talk to café and pub owners, we have found that they want change, too. They recognise that it is bad for their business to have a reputation for being a hotspot for sexual harassment. They recognise that their patrons’ behaviour might be inappropriate and that that is bad for them. We have tried to use anti- social behaviour legislation to challenge that behaviour and to make those businesses take it seriously, but many of them have risen to the challenge without being asked.

That is one of the important things about this conversation and why, for too long, we have let hate crime against women somehow be seen as hate crime against any other protected characteristic. In having the conversation, we have not spoken up for the best of people or for the best of characteristics: treating one other with respect. Respect is not just about being in a workplace with a colleague without feeling the need to touch their bosom; it is also about a man being able to walk along the street with a woman and feel that she is not frightened of him. Yet the honest truth for many women is that if a man is walking behind us late at night, many of us might stop, look at our phones or cross the street. What a damning indictment it is of men in our country that we are in a position where we feel like that!

Making misogyny a hate crime would help us change the conversation about men as much as it would help us ensure that women are safe. I really hope that the Government listen and work with police forces to get this right. My biggest fear is that the police will say, as they have said to me, “What would we do with all the reports?” as though the problem is the amount of data rather than the fact that these things are happening. Data drives conversations. When I talked to people from Nottinghamshire, they made such a powerful case about how data had driven conversations, not just about street harassment but about the connection between sexual assault and violence against women more generally. That has been a powerful way of changing the conversation.

Sir David, 2018 is the year of #MeToo. Everyone asks whether this will be a watershed in the way women are treated in our society. The honest truth is that we will not be able to answer that question until 2019, but I really hope that the Minister listens to the powerful case my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby made and to the pleas from women in places such as Walthamstow and that he helps to ensure that that happens. Perhaps then, in 2019, we will be able to look both our sons and our daughters in the face and say, “Finally, we are moving towards a better society.”

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Youth affairs) 9:54 am, 7th March 2018

It is an absolute pleasure to follow Stella Creasy, who made a cracking speech. I agree with most of what she said, so I will not go over the same points.

I want to talk a wee bit about my own perspective and experience, so forgive me if my speech appears a little self-indulgent. To me, there are two main strands to this issue: the structural side and the cultural side. Let me deal first with the structural side, which brings me back to my first tutorial at university, when we were asked why women were still unequal. I said that the problem begins with how and when our society created the structures that we still use today. There was a time when we kidded ourselves that everything was as simple as a man marrying a woman, him going to work and her staying at home to look after anything domestic. It was on that foundation that we built and viewed everything as we know it today: the economy, our legal systems, our work environments and our Governments. Everything was owned and created by men, with the false assumption that the nuclear heterosexual family was normal.

Rightly, we slowly began to realise that there is no such thing as normal—that women can be different and yet just as capable as men, and that what they do with their lives should not be assumed for them. We have begun to address some of those barriers, but, fundamentally, we are trying to find ways almost to stuff women into that structure without fully reflecting on the fact that it was created at a very misogynistic time and from a very patriarchal perspective. There has been no recognition that our economy and our work life completely fail to address or even acknowledge the existence of things such as period poverty and cripplingly painful menstrual cycles, which are more common than most people think. Until we accept and change the fact that everything comes from a patriarchal perspective, we will always struggle.

That brings me to the cultural side of this issue. It feels like we are at a turning point with things such as the “Time’s Up” movement. Frankly, the bravery of the women who have come forward to talk about their experience of abuse, sexism and misogyny, no matter how small it may seem, is incredible. I cannot say it has been positive in terms of moving us forward, but if we have learned anything from all that, it is that these are not small occurrences. The downside to all this progress is being faced with the reality that the women in my life, whom I know and love, have been raped, beaten, assaulted, called sluts and whores, and groped throughout their lives, and they have been led to believe that that is normal and is just a given—that it is just something that happens and, like the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, something that women should somehow deal with or solve themselves.

Misogyny is absolutely everywhere in our society, to the point that we often miss it because it has been so normalised by being continually unchallenged. Some folk will be uncomfortable with the graphic language that I am about to use, but I am not going to dilute the reality of such an important issue. I am used to online abuse in particular. I am regularly called a wee boy, and told that I wear my dad’s suits and stuff. Me and my pals actually laugh about it. That is how I cope with it. We find the best insults, and that is how we have a laugh, but I struggle to see any joke in systematically being called a dyke, a rug muncher, a slut, a whore and a scruffy bint. I have been told, “You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” and:

“Let the dirty bitch eat shit and die”.

I could soften some of this by talking about “the C-word”, but the reality is that there is no softening when I am targeted by these words: I am left reading them on my screen day in, day out. Someone said:

“She needs a kick in the cunt”.

I have been called “guttural cunt”, “ugly cunt” and “wee animal cunt”. There is no softening just how sexualised and misogynistic the abuse is. Some guy called William Hannah—I have never heard of him in my life—commented:

“I’ve pumped some ugly burds in my time but I jist wouldn’t”.

I have been assured multiple times that I do not have to worry because I am so ugly that no one would want to rape me.

All those insults were tailored to me because I am a woman. We can kid ourselves that those are comments by a few bad, anonymous people on Twitter, but they are not: this is everyday language. I am aware that everyone here was uncomfortable hearing those insults—I felt uncomfortable reading them out—yet there are people who feel comfortable flinging those words around every day. When that language goes unchallenged, it becomes normalised, and that creates an environment that allows women to be subjected to a whole spectrum of abuse. I regularly see guys on Facebook talking about “getting pussy” and using other horrible words for women, but should we really expect any better given that the man sitting in the Oval Office thinks that it is okay to grab a woman by the pussy and faces no consequences?

Even in this place we need a bit of self-reflection. We are only starting to appreciate the full extent of the abuse and danger that women face on a daily basis, yet only a few weeks ago in the voting Lobby I was physically pressed up against a Member who has been accused of sexual misconduct, because there is so little room. That is not normal, and it is fair to say we should be looking at and talking about that. I am blessed in that I have the same right and influence as any elected man in this place, but what about all the female staff here who do not? Is that really the best example we can set for society? Surely it is something that we should at least be talking about.

As another personal example, I have been open in saying that I have been very unwell recently and was unable to travel and, therefore, vote. Like most people, I have no desire to disclose to the world the private, intimate and often embarrassing details that regularly come with illness. That is the business of my doctor, my Chief Whip and me—no one else—just as it would be in any other workplace with a line manager.

A fortnight ago, Ian Murray, alongside Mr Sweeney, suggested that I turn up for work more often, as I had a poor voting record. I responded to let them know I had been ill. I also pointed out the level of abuse and misinformation they were causing for me, but they stood by their comments. My Chief Whip wrote a letter to theirs, asking for an apology, retraction and correction, but there has been nothing, and still the abuse still comes my way daily. For two men to feel it is appropriate to chastise a female colleague publicly for a medical absence is bad enough, but knowingly to continue to misrepresent and cause abuse is frankly out of order. Judging by the House of Commons code of conduct, it qualifies as bullying, as it would in any other workplace.

Believe it or not, I have never lost sleep over the opinions of either of those hon. Gentleman, and I have no intention of starting now. However, I am in a position to say something about it. What about the woman out there who has had a hysterectomy and is getting the same rubbish at her work? Or what about the woman with post-natal depression who has extra stress added on by having to put up with this kind of nonsense in her work?

Last year, the Fawcett Society launched a sex discrimination law review. It said:

“The long-term aim is to nudge people towards a culture shift and to reframe misogynist behaviour as socially undesirable.”

Perhaps it is time we assessed the example that we set, because if we cannot get our own House in order, how can we expect anyone out there to?

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities) 10:02 am, 7th March 2018

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David? I congratulate my hon. Friend Melanie Onn on securing this important debate, and all Members on the powerful words they have used. Unfortunately, I am not uncomfortable with the language used by Mhairi Black, because I, too, am normalised to hearing such words, as most people are in society.

Like many others who have spoken, I share the view that crimes motivated by prejudice and hostility should always be considered to be hate crimes. In England and Wales, we see hate crime figures increasing year on year, but that is partly due to better recording and an upsurge in victims coming forward. In 2016-17, more than 80,000 incidents were recorded when victims were considered to have been targeted because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity.

What about the crimes committed as a result of hatred or prejudice against someone because of their gender? Surely sexual discrimination, violence against women and sexual objectification are all hate crimes. All too often, society and the legal system continue to trivialise such acts of abuse. There is a need for a long overdue change in the law so that misogynistic acts are treated as the serious hate crimes they actually are.

Photo of Kirstene Hair Kirstene Hair Conservative, Angus

Will the hon. Lady join me in looking forward to the publication of Lord Bracadale’s review on hate crime legislation in Scotland, which is considering whether gender should be made a new category in hate crime?

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities)

I welcome any information coming forward that helps us to hammer the point home.

The recent rise in cases of upskirting is a prime example of how these crimes are being played down. It is vital that such behaviour is seen for what it is. It is not a bit of fun or a harmless prank; it is humiliating for victims and a huge invasion of their privacy. It should be made illegal. [Interruption.] I apologise if I am echoing—that was me in stereo.

A recent sex discrimination law review by the Fawcett Society found that violence against women and girls is endemic in the UK, and it concluded that the legal system is failing these women and is in need of fundamental reform. The evidence it gathered is deeply disturbing, highlighting that incidents of violence, abuse and harassment of women are increasing while access to justice for victims remains poor.

The review’s recommendations outlined a need to change the law so that women can be confident in reporting crimes against them. Women who have been raped should not be forced to divulge their own sexual history. Laws on sexual harassment in the workplace need to be strengthened to protect women from third parties, customers and service users, as well as from colleagues. Breaches of domestic abuse orders should be classed as criminal offences, and the definition of “revenge porn” needs reviewing and strengthening.

Any incident motivated by—or perceived to be motivated by—prejudice should be considered a hate crime. I welcome the progress we have seen in our legal system in recent years on the detection, reporting and prosecution of hate crimes based on the five current centrally monitored strands of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and transgender identity. However, that progress also highlights the glaring omission of criminal offences motivated by other characteristics such as age and appearance, and specifically gender-based crime.

On appearance, I personally have become the subject of abuse purely because I am of a larger size and some people probably think I wear garish clothes. I feel comfortable in myself and my appearance, but others seem to take pleasure in homing in on the fact that I am not a size 8. That is their problem, not mine.

Some forces have already started to take action. As we heard from my hon. Friend Gloria De Piero, in 2016 Nottinghamshire police extended its definition of hate crime to include misogynistic incidents for a two-month trial period. The success of that trial has not only seen it keep the trial in place but drawn interest from other forces around the country, including North Yorkshire police, who publicised in July 2017 its intention to record misogyny as a hate crime.

Despite that positive step forward, those local initiatives are just that—local, and not centrally monitored. We need amendments to existing legislation, or, at the very least, non-legislative changes to the list of centrally monitored hate crime characteristics to include sexual discrimination as the sixth strand. Misogyny is a hate crime. It is motivated by hostility, and it needs to be treated in exactly the same way as other hate crimes. It is now time for action, and time for victims to be given fair treatment.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 10:08 am, 7th March 2018

I thank Melanie Onn for calling the debate, particularly as tomorrow we celebrate International Women’s Day, when I hope the House will have a long, thorough debate on the issues facing women—not just in this country, but across the world. One thing that, sadly, too few women across the world have is the right to participate in democratic processes. Today, we have seen how valuable the democratic processes of our country are. I hope very much that Back Benchers and those of us on the Front Benches do everything we can to safeguard the principles of democracy in this great country. [Interruption.] It appears that I am in stereo as well.

I am also feeling a little bit rebellious. Pretty much for the first time on Sunday, I went on a march—I am not a frequent participant: the March4Women. We were joined by up to 10,000 supporters, and we took over the streets, perhaps in a way that Stella Creasy would have liked. It was an incredible experience to feel that energy and positivity, but sadly some of the women and men on the march also felt anger about some of the issues we have been discussing today. Against that backdrop, I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby on securing this debate, and other hon. Members on participating. I hope that this will lead to a continuation of such debates over the year—this year of all years.

The hon. Lady used one phrase that very much stuck in my mind: she described the abuse faced by girls and women in the street or workplace as “the wallpaper of their lives”. I hope that we will get to a stage—sooner, rather than later—when that is no longer the case. The Government are clear that any crimes that target women, whether sexual offences, domestic abuse, or any other forms of abuse, are completely unacceptable and out of step with where we are as a society in 2018.

Since 2010 the Government have done more than ever to tackle these crimes, pledging £100 million over four years to support our ending violence against women and girls strategy, and committing to publish a landmark draft domestic abuse Bill. I hope that Members will use their networks to ensure a good response to the consultation when it is launched, and I am sure some of these issues will be raised during it. We play a leading role in the world in our response to violence against women and girls. We have introduced new offences for coercive and controlling behaviour, stalking, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. We have banned revenge porn, and only last month the Sentencing Council announced increased sentences for domestic abuse, in recognition of the seriousness of such crimes.

Sadly, we know that women and girls face harassment and abuse all too often, and understandably people are calling for action. This involves not just women and girls, but men as well: I feel obliged to remind Members, in the heat of this issue and debate, that most men behave with decency, propriety and respect towards women. However, they are not the men we are worrying about in this debate, and today we want to focus on those who fall outside the majority and treat women in a disrespectful or abusive way.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I entirely support what the Minister is saying, and I feel strongly that men have a critical role in setting a positive example for young men who are growing up. I went running with my son, and someone in a van decided to beep as they drove past and shout something out of the window. My son was confused by that, and wanted to know what it was all about. I did not know where to start—I do not want to introduce the idea that such things are a common form of behaviour. The Minister is right in what she says, and I applaud her for setting it out so clearly.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Indeed, and sometimes men can be the best feminists of all. My little boy is growing up thinking that of course women are Members of Parliament, and of course they are Prime Ministers, because that is what he understands at the moment. The value of men in this debate is important and we all have supportive male colleagues. If we are honest, none of us—or very few of us—could do the amazing job of representing our constituencies in the House of Commons without support networks. Those networks could be male, female or whatever, but we need people behind us—our family and friends—to support us in this role. Men have a vital role in this debate.

Let me turn to current hate crime provisions; if I may, I will be quite detailed in my response on the law because we must take this issue step by step. Currently, specific hate crime provisions, including aggravated and incitement offences, and aggravated sentence uplift, are for offences that target race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and transgender identity. Hate crimes are motivated by hostility or prejudice against a person on the basis of one or more of those five strands. It is a fundamental aspect of the legislation that those motivations can be proven to demonstrate the hate element, including where that leads to sentences being increased.

At the moment we have no clear evidence to show the extent to which the range of crimes committed against women and girls are specifically motivated by misogyny, which is defined as

“the dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.”

The police pilots that have been mentioned in this debate are of great interest to the Government. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, there are pilot areas across the country, including in Nottinghamshire, where it has been led by Sue Fish, the former chief constable of Nottinghamshire police. That approach has been used to help give women confidence to come forward to the police to report incidents, and to raise the priority of investigations and enhance support offered to women and girls. There has been positive early feedback from women and girls, and those who support them, which is why the National Police Chiefs’ Council is gathering more data on those local initiatives. We will ask the police to feed back on the results of any pilots such as that in Nottinghamshire in recording misogyny as a hate crime.

However, we must be careful about creating laws that would inadvertently conflict with principles of equality. My hon. Friend Philip Davies is no longer in his place, but he raised a point about misandry. Under the Equalities Act 2010, certainly in the workplace we must balance the issue of equality. For example, our laws on religious hate crime provide equal protection for people of all faiths and of none. Equality of protection is a crucial element of ensuring public support for hate crime legislation. In other words, if we were to have hate crime in relation to gender, we would have to think carefully about whether that would apply to the entire population or just to half of it.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

Rather than considering the barriers, I strongly request that the route to overcoming potential obstacles requires the intent of securing misogyny as an extension to the categorisations as its ultimate aim. Although issues may present themselves, I am sure the Minister has flexed her intellectual muscles on more complex issues than this, and I hope she will apply similar rigour to achieving something that fundamentally could be really positive for our society.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Very much so. I am setting out these points because one’s instinctive reaction might be, “Yeah, let’s go for it”. But we must be mindful of unintended and inadvertent consequences. I wonder whether hate crime legislation is definitively the best way to treat these crimes. Women are not a minority, and I would be hesitant to put us forward as one.

Perhaps I am a little more robust in the way that I would like this abuse and harassment to be treated. Within equalities legislation, it is being a minority covered by the five strands that causes something to fall under hate crime legislation. [Interruption.] I see that the hon. Member for Walthamstow is perched on her seat.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

We must be very careful when we talk about being “robust”, because we are putting this back on to women and how they manage these experiences, rather than challenging the behaviour. The Minister says that this is about being a minority, but the disproportionate balance of power in our society means that one “minority”—men—have disproportionate power over women.

These incidents are about the abuse of that power, just as we see the abuse of people on the basis of their religious characteristics or ethnic identity. I do not think the Minister’s minority/majority point is robust enough to defend not looking at whether, if we were to categorise misogyny as a hate crime, that would recognise fully the protected characteristic that we are seeking to include.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I am so glad that the hon. Lady clarified that. I was not for a moment suggesting that women themselves must be more robust in the way they deal with such things. That is not my intention. I am saying that we as a society should be more robust.

It comes down to attitudes—something that has been raised a great deal in the debate. I am treading carefully at the moment with respect to equalities legislation because, as far as inserting anything into the current hate crime provisions is concerned, there are legal wrangles that we have to consider. We want to ensure that any changes that we make in the law to reflect the abuse in question would not have any impact on the five protected strands—of religion, and so on.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I thank the Minister for being generous in taking interventions. Does her concern about including misogyny in the legislative framework call into question the existing extensions, and what police forces are doing?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

No. At the moment we do not have any clear evidence and, as I have said, we welcome the evidence from the pilot projects. However, the practical legislative steps are what we must put our mind to—as we are doing. I am flagging them up as issues that we shall have to settle one way or another.

For example, there are high rates of under-reporting of the existing five strands of hate crime. We would not want to remove the focus from them, because we want to encourage more people to report that they have been abused racially or because of their religion. Perhaps the best way I can sum up our position is to say that the Government are listening.

There have been calls from both sides of the Chamber for a change in attitudes. When I practised at the criminal Bar, I used to say that by the time things have got to court the harm has been done, and it would be much better if they did not happen in the first place. We all need to challenge the attitudes that normalise or excuse the abuse and harassment of women. We have had examples today of the abuse that colleagues have, sadly, faced in their professional lives. I commend their calling out those instances of abuse. Perhaps I may say that I constantly admire Carolyn Harris for the beautiful necklaces that she always wears, and I do not understand why anyone would feel they had reason to make any criticism about that.

The Government Equalities Office is taking forward a programme of work to identify and challenge harmful social norms, ensuring that men and boys are included in the conversation as well as women. We need to ensure that all children grow up understanding that we should all be treated with respect, and not abused on the basis of gender, race or religion, and so on. Working with the Advertising Association, we have provided teachers and parents with resources to improve primary school children’s resilience with respect to harmful gender stereotypes. In addition, following on from the successful “This is abuse” campaign—and it was successful in teaching people about what constitutes an abusive relationship and what should be normal and acceptable in a loving relationship—the Home Office and the Government Equalities Office have provided £3 million in the past year to develop and run a new “Disrespect NoBody” campaign, to tackle abuse within teenage relationships and encourage teens to rethink their views on violence, controlling behaviour and the meaning of consent in relationships.

Modern life can impinge on those matters as well, in the form of sexting and so on. We are also engaging with young people on questions of respect and equality to prevent such behaviour in the first place. That is why we have committed to making relationships education mandatory in all primary schools, and relationships and sex education mandatory in all primary schools from September next year.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

I completely agree about the importance of getting sex and relationships education into every school. It is age-appropriate and sensitively done, so does the Minister share my concern that parental withdrawal might undermine the principle of giving every young person the best start in life and the best values about how we should treat each other?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I must admit I am naturally cautious about the state interfering—or rather, because “interfering” is too pejorative a term, about the reach of the state into family life. Of course it is justified on occasion, but at the moment I do not have enough evidence to suggest that the rate of withdrawal would be very high; we simply do not know at the moment. Also, we should try to take parents with us. There is a lack of understanding about the education intended for primary school children about relationships and respect. We need to explain that more, so that when children start to receive that education people understand the boundaries of what their seven, eight or nine-year-old will hear in school. I would naturally just pause before setting out such legislation to make it mandatory, before we have evidence about how many families are going to withdraw.

To move on to the legal framework, there are of course criminal laws that prohibit sexual harassment, assault and rape. They include the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which could cover sexual harassment, as well as the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the Public Order Act 1986. We want women to know that those protections are there for them in law. It is also vital that when women and girls report their experiences they feel that they are treated with dignity and respect. We have recognised in our violence against women and girls strategy the gendered nature of crimes such as domestic abuse, sexual violence, so-called honour-based violence and stalking. As I have said, we have committed more than £100 million over this spending review period for critical services for victims of those crimes. We are committed to ensuring that victims of sexual assault have access to the specialist support that they need. We are also ensuring that the police and Crown Prosecution Service use the powers that they have to charge and prosecute for the abhorrent practice of upskirting. We are reviewing those powers to ensure that they are still fit for purpose.

Laws need to keep pace with modern life—and upskirting is, indeed, an example of that. We are determined that the internet should not be a safe place for those who carry out threatening or abusive behaviour online, whoever is being targeted. The Government are clear that what is illegal offline is illegal online.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs)

The Minister is being generous in giving way. I apologise for not being here earlier, as I was in Committee. She will be aware of Amnesty International’s research into abuse of female MPs, which was published last year when I, along with the Home Secretary and the shadow Home Secretary, were listed among the most abused UK female MPs. A lot of that abuse is misogynistic. What are the Government doing to address the abuse that is directed towards female MPs? We all know that the shadow Home Secretary gets by far the worst of it, but as the second most abused female MP in the UK I find the degree of homophobia, misogyny and anti-Catholic abuse that I must tolerate online quite shocking.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

That is disgraceful to hear. It comes to something, does it not, when colleagues have a league table of the people who receive the most abuse? It is a sorry sign, and the Prime Minister is absolutely committed to tackling the problem. The hon. and learned Lady may recall that on the day of the centenary of women’s suffrage, the Prime Minister announced that we have commissioned the Law Commission to launch a review of the current legislation on offensive online communications to ensure that laws are up to date with technology. We have tackled the question of the treatment of women in public life—it is not just women Members in this place; we know that women who have any sort of high profile, whether through business, television or whatever, sadly get their share of abuse.

I was rather surprised when I gave an interview on that day and the person interviewing me asked me why I was not on Twitter. I said, very matter-of-factly, “I came off it because I got fed up with the abuse.” I thought no more of it; I did it quite some time ago. That seemed to attract attention. The reason I raise it is that I would like to emphasise to anyone who may be thinking of standing for public life that they do not have to be on Twitter if they do not want to be. If they want to be, fine, but equally it is not mandatory to be on Twitter if they do not want that side of things. There are other social media platforms, all of which I am sure everyone is very aware of.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs)

I take the Minister’s point that nobody has to be on Twitter, but does she agree with me that women in all walks of life should not feel forced off Twitter because they are abused simply for having the effrontery to hold a view and to articulate it?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I would not describe myself as feeling forced to leave Twitter; I just took the decision. That is the point I am trying to get across. We are all trying, on a cross-party basis, to attract more women into politics. There is a great campaign called 50:50 Parliament, which is encouraging more women to stand, not just in national Parliament but in local councils and so on. I am just saying that there are many ways of doing this job, and it is one’s own choice.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Youth affairs)

I completely appreciate the point the Minister is making, and I have done the same thing; I have been on Twitter and said, “Oh, I can’t be bothered with that,” and I have put my phone away and not looked at it for a couple of weeks. That is fine, but the reality is that all the views are still there, whether or not I am online and looking at them. Whether or not we use Twitter, the vast majority of the public do. As long as they are in a sphere where that kind of stuff is acceptable and completely without consequences, our coming off Twitter does not solve anything.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Of course. Social media and the tech companies are coming under a lot of attention at the moment for the way in which they are reacting not just to abuse online, but to the fact that criminals are using social media networks for horrific crimes such as child sexual exploitation and terrorist offences. As I see it, if we are not on the cusp of revolution, it feels as though we are perhaps beginning the beginning of the cusp of a revolution, in that we have got to a stage where we expect more from the people who run those great big companies and have such a sway over our day-to-day lives.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Youth affairs)

Is that not where Government step in and we lead by example? If we are able to say to the tech companies that we think they should be doing more to clamp down on such views, and if we, as the leaders of society, are looking at this cultural and structural problem and seeing that our society is poisoned with this stuff just now, it is on us to do something about it. It is not just for the Twitter and Facebook giants; it is on us.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

The hon. Lady will know that the Government are taking the issue seriously, particularly in the areas of counter-terrorism and the sexual exploitation not just of children, but of women. We are taking it very seriously. Indeed, I was at a conference of the global partnership to end violence against children last month in Sweden. I was there to explain what the United Kingdom is doing to support the WePROTECT global alliance. That is an extraordinary, groundbreaking global alliance of Governments to tackle online child sexual exploitation; as we know, there are no geographical boundaries to it. I think I am right in saying that we are the highest contributor to the scheme, with £50 million, and we are doing some groundbreaking stuff on programmes that are creeping through the net and getting to the sites that are sharing the most appalling images.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Will the hon. Lady forgive me? I am conscious that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby will want to respond, and I have two more pages, which may take me a couple of minutes.

On the issue of the internet, we have also published the internet safety strategy Green Paper to look at ways of tackling online abuse and harassment where they fall short of a criminal offence, such as, in some cases, trolling. That includes a commitment to introduce a voluntary social media code of practice. In addition, since 2015 we have introduced strong legislation to address revenge pornography—another way in which women can be humiliated online and have their lives affected by relationships that have since ended—and the helpline we funded has received more than 6,000 calls since 2015.

I thank the hon. Member for Great Grimsby for calling this debate. I will end on a positive note: this is the centenary of women’s suffrage, and I have promised friends and family that by the end of the year they will be thoroughly fed up with me using the phrase “Ask her to stand”. We have seen today in the Chamber the impact that women standing up and speaking on issues that matter to them and to their constituents can have. I am sure I am not alone in hoping that through this debate and our cross-party activities this year, we will encourage more women to stand not just for the House of Commons but for local government, local councils and devolved Assemblies and Parliaments. If more women stand for elected office to talk about and campaign on issues that they care about, they will make a difference. I will end with my hashtag, #askhertostand.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 10:37 am, 7th March 2018

I thank the Minister for her very detailed and considered response. I genuinely urge her to take the points I have made seriously; they were made in good faith. I was determined to ensure that this debate would not be trivialised or minimised, and I tried as much as possible not to make it about us, because the issues that affect so many women in all our constituencies on a regular basis—from a very young age, which gives me such cause for concern—are important and should be at the forefront of our thoughts at all times.

This is a really important issue. It might start at the level of street harassment, but too often it ends up in much more serious offences. I have just been looking at my Twitter feed—perhaps I should come off it—and it is now filled with comments asking if I have nothing better to do and whether there are not more pressing issues facing my constituents that I should be tackling. In my constituency we have an excessively high rate of domestic violence, and there are children in primary and secondary school who accept that violence in a relationship is somehow normal and to be expected. If, by challenging the acceptability of those attitudes, I can do anything to nip in the bud the extension of low-level abuse leading to more serious harassment, I will consider my time and Parliament’s time very well spent. If that makes women come forward to report more incidents, it is certainly the right thing to do.

I want to come back on the Minister’s point about the numerical minority of women. I suggest that the power imbalance in society leaves women in a minority position, whether that be in terms of equal pay, membership of company boards or our experience of harassment and abuse, which the statistics bear out. We are always put in a minority position, even if our numbers do not indicate that we should be.

On the points about existing legislation, so often the thresholds are not met and the police do not feel confident about taking forward cases. That leaves women feeling that they should not report, because the crimes are not deemed to be serious enough and insufficient action is taken as a result. It is clear to me from the testimony in the contributions that we have heard today that we must do all that we can to try to tackle the culture and attitude that seem so pervasive in society today. Until we do that, we will not start to see the positive impact that the Minister is working so valiantly towards achieving when it comes to much more serious crimes, such as domestic violence and rape. I thank her very much for her consideration and thank everyone for their contributions, which are very much appreciated.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered misogyny as a hate crime.

Sitting suspended.