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Public sexual harassment could become criminal offence in England and Wales

Law Commission expected to make proposal as part of its review into hate crime laws


A review of hate crime legislation is expected to ask the government to consider criminalising public sexual harassment after a years-long campaign by women’s rights organisations and lawyers.

The Law Commission, the body that recommends legal changes, will make the proposal as part of its review into the law in relation to hate crime, which was ordered three years ago by the then-home secretary, Sajid Javid, and is expected to be released next week.

A new offence of public sexual harassment could be introduced,but misogyny was not likely to be made a hate crime because of concerns it would be ineffective, a Whitehall source told the Daily Telegraph.

Making lewd comments, pressing against someone in a sexual way on public transport, cornering someone, catcalling and persistent sexual propositioning could all be covered by the changes to the law if they are brought in.

Those campaigning for a change in the law welcomed the news. “The principle behind what I drafted is about the fundamental right that women and girls have equal access to public spaces,” said Dexter Dias, a human rights lawyer who has been working for the last three years to draft a bill to criminalise street sexual harassment with the youth-led campaign group Our Streets Now and the barrister Dr Charlotte Proudman.

“This is about sexual offences and intrusion and is about the rights of women and girls to have full access to civil society and public spaces,” he said.

It appeared the Law Commission would define public sexual harassment as harassment that was sexual, had the intent to degrade or humiliate, and that took place in public.

While working on the draft bill, Dias said his teenage daughters had told him people would not care about girls being harassed in the street because it happens all the time. They told him they experienced unwanted sexual conduct virtually every week on the way to and from school and the shops.

“I didn’t know that it had become so normalised and that it’s become regarded as a normal part of the experience of being a young woman in Britain today,” he said. “That is morally wrong. We’re going to make it a criminal offence and change this now.”

The co-founder of Our Streets Now, Maya Tutton, told LBC radio that the girls the organisation worked with also thought sexual harassment was normal.

“We in society have told them that is normal because we have not drawn a line in the sand, and we have not introduced legislation and I think that’s what this law is really about,” she said.

“We need to, as a country and as a society, stand up and say, no more and that this behaviour is illegal, it will be prosecuted and we will not continue to allow it and this horrendous behaviour to be the way in which girls grow up in this country.”

Proudman said on Twitter it was the “best news” and signalled a big step forward for the campaign. “Years of work worth every second. This will protect so many girls & women.”

She said it would have to be in the public interest to prosecute. “It could be someone shouting degrading, humiliating comments with lewd language to a woman walking down the street that makes them feel unsafe,” she said.

The issue of crimes against women has come under fierce scrutiny since Sarah Everard’s kidnap, rape and murder by the serving Metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, vowed to tackle violence against women and girls earlier in the year.

In a strategy document published by the Home Office in July, she said: “We are looking carefully at where there may be gaps in existing law and how a specific offence for public sexual harassment could address those.”

Indecent exposure was made a sexual crime almost 20 years ago, although as the case of Couzens underlined, such incidents, even when reported to the police, are often not taken seriously.

It was reported in October that Boris Johnson was against plans to bring in new laws claiming there was abundant existing legislation. This caused disquiet throughout the Home Office.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government asked the Law Commission to conduct a wide-ranging review into hate crime to explore how to make current legislation more effective, and if additional protected characteristics should be added to the hate crime legislation.”

They said they would respond to the Law Commission recommendations once they have been published.

The Law Commission has also been approached for a comment.

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