A law that could punish street harassment such as wolf whistling with up to two years in prison was passed in the House of Commons today.
Parliamentarians gave the legislation its third reading with government support, and it is being toughened up to prevent people from claiming they were only joking.
Under the Public Order Act 1986, it is already an offense to deliberately harass or cause alarm or distress.
However, the Safeguarding Against Harassment based on Sex on Public Highway Bill introduced by former Cabinet Minister Greg Clark would create a new specific offence.
There would also be harsher punishments for perpetrators, raising the maximum time behind bars from six months to two years.
Mr Clark today won support for a new clause in the bill that requires the Government to issue advice to the police on how to interpret the measures.
Activists worried that there might be a loophole for criminals who argued that they thought the advances were welcome, even though a “reasonable” person would have known they were causing distress.
The Protection Against Harassment Based on Sex in Public Bill introduced by former Cabinet Minister Greg Clark (left) would create a new specific offence. He has been endorsed by Interior Minister Suella Braverman (right)
During the debate, Clark said it was “a historic day.”
‘For the first time in our history, deliberately harassing, following, shouting demeaning words, making obscene gestures at women and girls in public places – and yes, on occasion men and boys in public places – because of their sex, with the deliberate intent to intention to cause them alarm or anguish, will be a specific and serious crime,’ he said.
‘The amazing thing is that it hasn’t been like that until now.’
Labor MP Stella Creasy said: “Misogyny is driving crimes against women and girls. A very simple statement, but a very clear recognition in this legislation for the first time in history that women are being targeted simply because they are women.
“Right now, in our society, it is women who are paying the price for our inability to understand how misogyny has driven crimes against them and to recognize it within the law.
“By passing this legislation we are sending a powerful message to our young people that they deserve better than that caricature of kids-to-be-kids.”
While the bill passed the House of Commons unopposed, former Conservative minister Sir Christopher Chope suggested amending it to “ensure that the fact that this bill applies to men and women equally is emphasized.”
The amendment was not formally tabled, but Sir Christopher warned: ‘There seems to be an inability to hold two notions in our heads; that sexual assault is wrong and that treating men as inherent sexual pests is also wrong.
“A reasonable concern about the assault seems to have morphed into institutional misandry.”
Shadow employment equality secretary Anneliese Dodds said “we haven’t seen enough progress” in tackling women’s safety issues, but added: “This bill will be positive for everyone.”
Home Office Minister Chris Philp confirmed the government’s backing for the bill and said he wanted guidance to be issued to police on the new offense “as soon as possible”.
That could be by the summer, though the House of Lords must first complete scrutiny before the law hits the statute book.
Last year, the Office for National Statistics said that almost a third of women had experienced some form of harassment in the last 12 months.
Ahead of the Commons scenarios today, Home Secretary Suella Braverman told the Telegraph: “Women have a fundamental right to walk the streets without fear and I am committed to ensuring that the criminals who intimidate and harass them face the consequences”.
“That is why we support the Protection Against Harassment Based on Sex in Public Bill, and after carefully considering a variety of viewpoints, we support an amendment that will require the Government to produce legal guidance for police. to help them enforce the new offence.’
It will cover behavior or ‘gestures’ that deliberately harass, alarm or distress someone in a public space based on their gender.
That could range from wolf hissing and cat calls to persistent sexist verbal harassment and abuse.
Home office sources have stressed that the wolf’s whistle might not count as an “obscene or offensive” gesture or comment, but it would be up to police and courts to interpret it.
Last year, the Office for National Statistics revealed that almost a third of women had experienced some form of harassment in the previous 12 months.
The high-profile cases have also triggered a groundswell of support for greater protection, including the murder of Sarah Everard as she walked home in London last year.