Government must take action on street harassment

Green peer Natalie Bennett reflects on the Lords’ discussion of Policing Bill amendments, questioning the Government’s decision to attack peaceful protestors rather than protecting women and girls.

Natalie Bennett

While the Government is focused on using the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to repress the right to peaceful protest, it has been left to the Lords to seek to amend the Bill to address issues around violence against women and girls.   

Peers spent little more than an hour on a large and important group of amendments. Almost every speaker agreed that this was scant treatment for amendments focused on tackling the threats of violence and harassment mainly, but not only, against women and girls.

Labour's Lord Falconer of Thoroton, a former Lord Chancellor, proposed new offences of street harassment, 'sex for rent' and sexually motivated homicide, and reviews of the offence of exposure and the prevalence and responses to the 'spiking' of drinks.

These are real and pressing issues - ones on which there are major civil society campaigns.

The group called Our Streets Now was set up by sisters Gemma and Maya Tutton, aged 16 and 22. The campaign has its first anniversary today. They are working with the charity Plan International UK in calling for street harassment to be criminalised. Their hashtag is #CrimeNotCompliment.

During the debate, I drew on the words of the women’s rights campaigner Nimco Ali, who said it is 'bizarre' that street sexual harassment is still legal. Littering and smoking are banned in public spaces, but this kind of behaviour is not. It’s worth noting too that there’s strong crossparty backing in the Commons for the creation of such an offence.

On 'sex for rent', Generation Rent, another grass-roots campaign group, has been pushing for action. A report by Shelter in January found that, between March and September 2020, around 30,000 women had been offered housing in exchange for sex. Lord Falconer highlighted how the current law effectively forces anyone victimised to be identified as a 'prostitute' – a wholly wrong state of affairs.

There’s also growing public concern about failure by police and the judicial system to treat the offence of indecent exposure seriously – fuelled in part by knowledge that the murderer of Sarah Everard was accused of it years before her killing. It was only formally classified as a sexual offence in 2003, before that coming under provisions against 'rogues and vagabonds' – one more sign of how often the law is behind the views and understanding of society.

No doubt to the displeasure of the whips, I took a little time to address the issue of exposure. I felt I owed it to my 11-year-old self who was subjected to this offence on the streets of Sydney.

I was taught, as lots of girls were then and probably still are now, to laugh, turn around and walk away. But that I can still vividly remember that street scene shows that it had an impact on me. When I look back now, I felt as an 11-year-old that this was a threat to my right to be on the streets. I did not tell my mother, because I was worried that she would think I should not be allowed out on my own to exercise the freedom that I wanted and continued to exercise. I would say it didn't affect me, but I can still picture that street scene more vividly than anything else that happened to me at that age. 

It was clear to me then that the freedom of the streets was only mine to exercise if I stood up to that right, and faced down challenges to it.

It was that freedom that I was thinking about as Baroness Fox of Buckley expressed concern about a potential offence of street harassment reducing 'free speech'. If that 'free speech' creates a hostile environment on the streets for some, then we’re weighing those two rights in the balance. And I think everyone should be able to walk the streets without fear of harassment.

To her credit, Baroness Williams of Trafford, speaking for the government, acknowledged there were issues that should be addressed. She said the government is looking carefully at where there might be gaps in existing law and how a specific offence of public sexual harassment could address those. But then went on to say time was needed – offences needed to be considered carefully.

How long must we wait? And why is the government not focusing on these real and pressing issues, but rather attacking peaceful protesters and disadvantaged groups?