This week newspapers reported that there has been a “tension” between Priti Patel and Boris Johnson around whether the Government should make public sexual harassment a crime, with the latter blocking this plan.
The question of whether harassment should be criminalised has come into sharp focus after the shocking murders of Sarah Everard, who was abducted on her way home, and Sabina Nessa, who was killed while going to meet a friend in South East London. These terrible crimes have sparked a nationwide conversation on women’s safety, and what can be done to better ensure it.
Back in July the Home Office ran a consultation to understand the extent of the problem, as part of a new strategy. A total of 180,000 responses were submitted; troublingly, more than half of respondents said that they’d experienced sexual harassment on public transport in London. The most common offence was being deliberately pressed up against by a stranger.
The consultation clearly shows that there’s a long way to go in improving safety for women, and the Home Office has been fully engaged in the matter. It wants to understand whether there are gaps in existing law, and if a specific offence could address these.
Campaigners in favour of a public sexual harassment legislation point out that there are punishments for more trivial offences, such as spitting out gum on the street and not wearing a seat belt – so it shouldn’t be so difficult to enhance women’s protections.
Furthermore, public sexual harassment can be an indication that someone will go onto commit much worse offences; surely it needs to be flagged more, goes the logic. Some want misogyny to be made into a hate crime.
Johnson, however, has rejected these ideas on the basis that there’s “abundant” existing legislation and “widening the scope” of what the police are asked to do will make matters worse.
It could prove one of the most divisive issues of recent, in terms of the Prime Minister being at loggerheads with influential MPs. Home Office sources have been scathing in the press, warning that Johnson has “completely misjudged the public mood”.
But has he? My own view is that while clearly much more must be done to promote women’s safety, legislation is not the silver bullet it is being portrayed at.
For one, the idea of extending hate crime so as to include misogyny seems premature when there are so many issues with this legislation. There have been numerous instances of police investigating members of the public for tenuous reasons, and this has almost certainly diverted resources that could have been devoted to more serious crimes.
In some cases people have not even known that they had a “hate crime incident” recorded against their name, which raises questions about how it has changed behaviour in the first place.
Likewise, public sexual harassment laws would have similar issues to those we’ve seen with hate crime legislation. The challenge is defining these crimes. Stop Street Harassment, a campaign group, suggests harassment can include “unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on the stranger in a public place”, which sounds reasonable enough. But getting a consensus on what gestures and unwanted comments involve can be very tricky, and is largely contingent on individual perception. Johnson is not wrong to warn that the police could end up dealing with a huge number of inquiries.
“Rather than introducing new laws, what you need to do is enforce the existing laws”, has been his line. And there have been signs that legislation and sentencing measures have become weak indeed.
One of the most shocking examples of this is the falling number of rape prosecutions, in large part due to prosecutors feeling they do not have enough evidence to get cases through; a matter that would be helped with more police resources focused here.
Furthermore, there are signs that authorities, and systems, have not been good enough at highlighting dangerous individuals; take the recent news that there are at least 750 sexual misconduct claims against UK police officers (in five years). All of these areas need addressing before increasing the remit of what police officers are called out for.
Clearly there’s a huge amount to be done in this area – much of which involves societal change and efforts. But Johnson is right to warn about “widening the scope” of police tasks. Better enforcement of the law – and then expansion – is key.