Decoding The Governments New Public Sexual Harassment Bill

Various words associated with harassment, signifying the focus on understanding and combatting sex-based harassment in public."

Introduction

Living in a world free from harassment is a basic human right. Unfortunately, for many, especially women and girls, this is not always the case. The Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill 2022-23 seeks to change this reality. In this guide, we will explore this important law, aiming to provide an understanding of its provisions and effects.

The Harrowing Reality of Public Sex-Based Harassment

Public sex-based harassment is a term that summarises a wide array of disturbing actions. This includes uninvited and persistent staring, pushy questioning, unwarranted following, sexual or offensive comments, propositions, or gestures, flashing or exposure of intimate body parts, non-consensual physical contact, and sexually harmful actions enabled by technology. All of these actions are unwelcome, unwanted, and lead to discomfort or fear for the person on the receiving end.

A study released in March 2021 by the APPG on UN Women presents a troubling picture. It reports that 71% of women of all ages in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment in public spaces. When we look at the younger age bracket of 18-24 years old, the number jumps to a shocking 86%. Such harassment drastically reduces the freedom of women and girls, and can negatively impact feelings of safety, bodily autonomy, and mental health.

The Government’s Stance and Actions

In response to the growing concerns around public sex-based harassment, the Government laid out its position in its tackling violence against women and girls strategy published in July 2021. The strategy showed that there are several existing criminal offences that public sex-based harassment could potentially fall under, including offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Public Order Act 1986, and the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

However, the strategy also recognised the need for these laws to be effective in practice. It noted that the Government was committed to ensuring “not only that the laws are there, but that they work in practice”. This commitment extended to exploring where there might be gaps in existing law. As well as how a specific offence for public sexual harassment could help to bridge those gaps.

The Government’s commitment to addressing public sex-based harassment wasn’t only legislative. The strategy also set out a range of non-legislative actions to address the issue, including launching a national communications campaign and developing plans for revised police guidance and prosecution guidance on using existing offences.

Despite these assurances, Parliamentarians and women’s rights groups showed concern that the existing law was not adequate to deal with public sexual harassment. The issue was that there was no specific offence relating to public sexual harassment, leading to calls for the Government to take legislative action.

Grassroots Activism and Calls for Change

On the frontlines, demanding changes in legislation were groups such as Plan International UK and Our Streets Now. Plan International UK, known for its focus on children’s rights, particularly girls’, led the ‘Crime Not Compliment’ campaign. This campaign called for the Government to legally recognise public sexual harassment as a crime. Their campaign struck a chord, receiving over 65,000 signatures on their petition.

Our Streets Now echoed this call to action. Founded by two sisters moved by their experiences as young women, their campaign gathered speed quickly. The petition on the Change.org website getting over 463,000 signatures, showing broad support for the cause.

In a joint briefing, both groups argued that the existing criminal law was “fragmented, incomplete, and disjointed”. They asserted that “many acts of abuse and sexually harmful actions fall through the legal cracks”, reinforcing the need for comprehensive legislation to address public sexual harassment.

The Government’s Consultation

Recognising the need for change, the Government launched a consultation on 21 July 2022. The objective was to explore options for creating a new offence of public sexual harassment. Despite public sexual harassment already falling under existing criminal offences, the Government was open to looking into and reinforcing existing laws.

Two possible models were suggested in the consultation. Both were built on section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986, which deals with the intentional use of threatening, abusive, or rude words or actions. As well as disorderly actions, to cause a person harassment or alarm.

Option 1 suggested creating a new offence where a person commits an offence under section 4A of the 1986 Act. This offence will have been done so because of the complainant’s sex or presumed sex. Option 2 was the same as Option 1, but also suggested an illustrative (not exhaustive) list of types of threatening, abusive, rude or disorderly behaviours that could be covered by the offence.

Each model suggested a higher maximum sentence if those offences were committed on the basis of the complainant’s sex. The consultation, a fair exercise, allowed individuals and organisations to voice their opinions, suggestions, and objections to the proposed models.

Following the close of the consultation on 1 September 2022, the Government analysed the responses and published the consultation outcome on 8 December 2022.

Government’s Decision on New Offence

In its response, the Government stated that it would pursue Option 1. This was despite the majority of respondents favouring Option 2. The Government was of the view that including a list of actions might lead to some actions becoming prescriptive, potentially excluding other types of actions from consideration. It was also pointed out that such a list could become outdated quickly. This could be a result of the changing dynamics of public interactions and the change of technology.

The Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill 2022-23

Following the consultation, the Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill 2022-23 was introduced. This Bill represents the example of the Government’s commitment to ensuring that existing laws not only exist but also work effectively in practice.

The Bill introduces a new offence causing intentional harassment, alarm, or distress to a person in public where the action is done because of that person’s sex. The Bill accomplishes this by implementing Option 1 from the Government’s consultation on the issue.

Clause 1 of the Bill adds a new section 4B to the Public Order Act 1986. A person would be guilty of an offence if:

  1. They commit an offence under section 4A of the 1986 Act (intentional harassment, alarm or distress); and
  2. They carried out the conduct referred to in section 4

Understanding Section 4A(1) of the Harassment Bil

Importantly, the offenders motivations are considered irrelevant if they also include factors other than sex or presumed sex. The pursuit of sexual gratification also bears no impact on the offence.

The new offence can be tried in either the magistrates’ court or the Crown court, and the maximum penalty in the Crown court is a twoyear prison sentence and/or a fine. This penalty highlights the seriousness of the offence.

Bill’s Journey and Amendments

The Bill received extensive cross-party support at its second reading. However, this did not mean that it was devoid of debate or challenges. The question of proving intent was one issue that emerged during these discussions.

During the Committee stage, amendments and new clauses were added. Notably, the new section 4B offence was extended to Wales; originally, it would have applied to England only. Further, there were consequential changes to other laws on football banning orders. As well as this, the disclosure of criminal records in Scotland, and disqualification from elected office.

The Requirement for Intent

An important point raised by Stella Creasy was the requirement for intent. She tabled an amendment and new clause relating to this requirement, though she did not press either to a division after the Minister said she would look at the issue further. Despite this, she showed that she expected to return to the issue at the report stage.

Wrapping Up

In summary, the Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill 2022-23 is a significant step towards providing a safer public space for everyone, regardless of their sex. It not only recognises public sexual harassment as a specific offence but also provides robust penalties to deter such behaviours. Through this legislation, the Government aims to fill the gaps in existing law and create a safer, more inclusive society.

However, it’s vital for everyone to understand this legislation and its effects. Awareness and understanding lead to effectivley put this into action. After all, the law can only protect us when we know what it is and how it works.

Remember, if you’re a victim of public sexual harassment, you’re not alone. Various support networks are available, and with this new law, justice is within reach. Don’t hesitate to seek help and report any incident that makes you uncomfortable. Your safety and peace of mind are paramount, and you have the right to enjoy public spaces without fear of harassment

Our Thoughts

The Public Sexual Harassment Bill does seem like a step in the right direction. However, only time will tell if it has any impact on the epidemic which is street harassment. Education and retraining learned behaviours would also be beneficial in combating this rather than just the deterrents that this bill imposes. Overall, this is a positive move by the government, however it seems there is still a long way to go until people, specifically women, feel safe on the streets again.

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