The tragic death of Sarah Everard has instigated a national demand for action to tackle violence against women. She was abducted just a couple of streets away from where I stay when I’m at parliament in London and I can tell you that the fear, anxiety and anger at what happened has been palpable in the local community and wider.
The way those who joined together to mourn Sarah were treated was completely unacceptable. People should have been able to mark this moment peacefully and safely. The organisers of the vigil had proposed a Covid safe vigil with social distancing, masks and abiding by the lockdown rules. The police and authorities should have worked with them to find a way to make the vigil happen as the inevitable consequence was that people would gather and wish to express their views and sympathies. If you don’t have a formal plan you therefore have no way of controlling any crowd or setting rules on which any vigil can take place. It becomes a free for all.
Now is the time to unite the country and put in place long overdue protections for women against unacceptable violence, including action against domestic homicides, rape and street harassment – as well as tackling the misogynistic attitudes that underpin the abuse women face.
As you know, on 15-16 March 2021, the House of Commons debated the Government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill for the first time. My colleague David Lammy MP led on the debate for Labour and gave a fantastic speech which I would encourage you to watch here.
Justice and policing are devolved matters, and the Bill does not apply in Scotland.
I support many important measures in the Police Bill, including those relating to the Police Covenant, assaults on emergency workers, reform of the DBS scheme, sexual abuse by people in positions of trust and dangerous driving. Unfortunately, I think the Government has undermined these good measures by including draconian measures relating to free expression and the right to protest, measures that will have an unfair impact on Black, Asian and ethnic minority people, and failing to address the crisis in our police and justice system.
The Bill’s proposals on protests give senior police officers in England and Wales new powers to impose restrictions on the timing, location and size of protests. The range of circumstances in which these conditions can be imposed is broadened to include “noise” that could cause “serious disruption”. The Bill also reduces the level of knowledge required to establish a criminal offence to “ought to have known” that the conditions existed, potentially criminalising those unaware of the conditions in the first place. Protests tend to be noisy and the law should not seek to shield those in power from public criticism and public protest. I believe these ill-judged and ill-thought-out measures would be a profound mistake that could have long-lasting consequences and do great damage to our democracy.
The Bill also seeks to create a new criminal offence to tackle “unauthorised encampments”. Under the proposals, families living on unauthorised encampments could be imprisoned for up to three months, face a fine of up to £2,500, or both. This is clearly targeted at Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and I believe this discrimination would potentially breach the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010.
The police have also said that there is no need for this new criminal offence; the National Chief Police Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners have said, “Trespass is a civil offence and our view is that it should remain so.”
This Bill was a long-overdue opportunity to introduce vital new measures on violence against women and girls, such as action on harassment, domestic homicide sentencing and more support for victims of rape. Instead, the Government has prioritised the protection of statues over women. Under the Bill’s proposals, someone could receive a longer prison sentence for defacing a statue of a slaver than for rape.
Meanwhile, the Crown Court backlog is now at a record high of more than 56,000 cases. Victims of crime are being asked to wait up to four years to get to court and many victims and witnesses are dropping out of the justice system entirely because of delays. Violent criminals are being spared prison because of delays. Half of courts in England and Wales closed between 2010-19 and there are now 27,000 fewer sitting days than in 2016. Justice is harder to achieve when the courts are frozen. There is also nothing in the Bill for victims of crime and nothing on rehabilitation or the prevention of crime.
For all these reasons, I voted against the Bill on Tuesday. However, with the support of Government MPs, the Bill passed its Second Reading by 359 votes to 263. The positive thing is that it looks as if the entire Bill, that was due to come back for committee stage this week, has been put off until October. That signals to me that we will not see these abhorrent issues about protests back in the Bill. I also hope it means it is strengthened in order to not miss the opportunity to make a step change in the law with regards to the protection of women and girls.
I will be pressing the Government to drop its poorly thought-out proposals and instead work across the political divide to legislate to tackle violence against women. We have said to the Government that if they take the good bits of this Bill into a separate Bill we will allow it clear passage to the statute book.
Further, Labour has outlined a package of measures that we believe should be included in the “once in a generation” chance for sweeping reforms to sentencing and protections for women and girls in England and Wales. The 10-point plan is as follows:
1. Action to bring rapists to justice – rape convictions are at an all-time low with just 1.5% of people charged with rape are getting convicted, yet rape reports are up by 35%. We should fast track rape and serious sexual assault cases through the courts and CPS who have been left to wait years for their case to get to trial.
2. New laws to stop harassment – as it stands creeps harassing women on the street are not breaking the law. That makes no sense and we need a new law now.
3. Men who abduct, assault and murder women belong behind bars for life – let’s extend ‘Whole Life’ sentences for anyone found guilty of ‘abduction and sexual assault and murder of a stranger’.
4. Proper support for victims of attacks – create a survivor support package, including a legal help for victims and better training for professionals to give people the help they need.
5. Educate our young people – start a proper education campaign to make sure young boys and girls know it is never acceptable to abuse or disrespect women- as well as the rules around sexual consent.
6. Longer jail time for rapists and stalkers – some of the sentences handed out for these appalling crimes are a disgrace. Let’s make sure the time fits the crime.
7. Treat domestic murders seriously – end the injustice that means someone can get a sentence of 10 years less for murdering their partner at home, than for murdering someone on the street.
8. Make abuse of women count – the abuse of women that drives these crimes is not even counted by the police, that needs to change and misogyny should be recognised as the hateful crime it is.
9. Fair access to Domestic Abuse services – no victim should be turned away from services for domestic abuse because of their background. Helping get support to all those who need it and making sure we can do more to catch perpetrators.
10. It’s not women’s fault – stop the message that women are to blame because of what they wear, when they are out or for not ‘keeping themselves safe’. Time for a proper strategy to catch and punish offenders, challenge behaviour and improve the freedom of all women.
As mentioned, the issues in the 10 point plan are devolved and it is the responsibility of the the Scottish Government to legislate on these matters.
Finally, the government should work with Labour to tackle the crisis of violence against women. We mustn’t lose this opportunity to make proper and long-lasting change. We have that chance if the government wishes to take it. We will work with them to make sure it happens if they wish to do so.