UK Government Backs Bill to Criminalize Street Harassment

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LONDON — The British government on Friday said it was backing a bill that would make street harassment — like catcalling, following someone, and intrusive or persistent staring — a crime punishable by up to two years in prison.

Such behavior is illegal under sexual harassment laws, but the government said that introducing separate legislation that creates a new offense of street harassment will encourage more people to report occurrences to the police.

The measure, called the Protection From Sex-Based Harassment in Public Bill, was introduced by lawmakers earlier this year. It would criminalize “causing intentional harassment, alarm or distress to a person in public where the behavior is done because of that person’s sex,” and would effectively raise the maximum sentence for these types of crimes to two years from six months.

The government support means that the bill is all but certain to be adopted.

Greg Clark, the Conservative lawmaker who introduced the bill, said in Parliament on Friday that women’s confidence in their ability to engage in public life should not be hampered by the threat of harassment or violence.

“Why should a woman feel less confident on our streets than a man?” Mr. Clark said. “The streets are theirs equally, but that is not how it’s experienced.”

The bill is one of a number of potential measures introduced by lawmakers in the wake of the 2021 murder of Sarah Everard, who was abducted and killed by a police officer while walking home. The brutal killing spurred nationwide protests and sparked a reckoning about violence against women in Britain.

But some advocates say little has actually been done to change the system after the death of Ms. Everard as well as countless other women whose abuse or killings have generated less publicity.

The police force in particular has been under heightened scrutiny since her killing, with allegations of rampant misconduct often driven by misogyny. An interim report as part of a wide-reaching independent review of the London Metropolitan Police found that misconduct cases were taking too long to resolve and that allegations were more likely to be dismissed than acted upon.

On Friday, a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police was charged with two counts of rape and has been suspended, the latest in a series of charges against acting police officers.

Last year, another bill sought to include misogynistic violence under the category of a hate crime, but the government did not support the measure and it was eventually struck down in February 2022. At the time, advocates for women’s rights said that the decision failed to recognize crimes targeting women and driven by misogyny.

And while opposition lawmakers applauded the government’s support for the new bill, they also pointed to the need for broader recognition of women’s lived experiences. Stella Creasy, a Labour lawmaker and vocal supporter of the push to recognize misogyny as a hate crime, said she was glad to see a law targeting crimes that disproportionately affect women, even if it does not explicitly point to misogyny as the driving force.

“It reflects not a recent concern but years and indeed generations of campaigners and women speaking to you about that most basic and fundamental thing, freedom, because this bill at its heart is about our freedom as women to lead the same lives as men in where we go and what we do,” she said.

Still, advocates for women’s rights said the government’s support for the bill on Friday was a moment to celebrate.

Plan International U.K., a charity that focuses on children’s rights and equality for girls, said the bill was a “huge step towards a society where no girl feels unsafe walking home,” and that the organization would be watching closely and backing the bill as it continues to move through Parliament.

“This Bill sends a clear signal to perpetrators that this behavior is not ok, and to women and girls that they will be protected and listened to,” the organization said in a statement posted to Twitter.

“Every woman should feel safe to walk our streets without fear of harassment or violence,” said the British home secretary, Suella Braverman, in a statement announcing the government’s support for the bill.

Ms. Braverman said that the issue was “complex” and that the government had taken into account a “range of views” before choosing to support the measure.

“We are putting the needs of victims at the heart of our decision, which will mean the criminals who commit these acts face the consequences they deserve,” she added.

Charlie Doyle, the assistant chief constable of the British Transport Police, said that the police “have always taken reports of sexual harassment extremely seriously; however, I hope the proposed legislation will reinforce our clear message to perpetrators that it simply won’t be tolerated.”


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