UK Home Secretary Priti Patel is said to be keen on introducing a specific law against the public sexual harassment of women and girls, in the wake of a series of recent attacks on the streets of London, according to a UK media report on Sunday.
According to the ‘Observer’, UK Home Office officials are understood to be conducting a legal review into making public sexual harassment — which covers all behaviour that could make women uncomfortable in all public spaces — a crime in its own right.
Patel is reportedly concerned that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is blocked to the idea of introducing such a specific new offence, as he is not convinced of the severity of public harassment and believes there is “abundant” existing legislation to tackle the issue.
The ‘Observer’ newspaper quoted sources as saying that the issue has caused some tension between the UK Prime Minister and his Indian-origin Cabinet minister, who had conducted a public consultation on the issue of tackling violence against women and girls and wants to take firm action against day-to-day harassment they face on the streets.
“Make no mistake, Boris Johnson is the person blocking and holding this back. He seems to be stuck in the past on this issue,” an anonymous source told the newspaper. A senior Home Office source, also requesting anonymity, was quoted as saying:
“Trying to bring it down to wolf-whistling is massively problematic. But we’re going to make this happen. People are prepared to put their political capital behind this, and the Home Secretary [Patel] is among those very much behind it.”
The issue of crimes against women has come under fierce scrutiny since the kidnap, rape and murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard by serving Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens.
Everard was attacked on her way home from a friend’s house in London earlier this year.
Last month, Couzens was sentenced to a whole life sentence, without parole, for the crime and it emerged in court that he had a previous indecent exposure case come up against him.
Indecent exposure was made a sexual crime in Britain almost 20 years ago but such incidents, even when reported to the police, are often not taken seriously.
Priti Patel’s published strategy to tackle violence against women and girls in July, which states that her department is “looking carefully at where there may be gaps in existing law and how a specific offence for public sexual harassment could address those”.
Influential supporters of making public harassment an offence include Victoria Atkins, the former UK safeguarding minister and now justice minister, and Caroline Nokes, Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee.
The UK Home Office said: “Our recently published tackling violence against women and girls strategy sets out that there are a number of offences in place which already capture street harassment.
“We are committed to ensuring that these laws work in practice. That is why, through new funding to tackle violence against women and girls, we will deepen our understanding of who commits these crimes, why they do so, and how this behaviour may escalate.”