Public sexual harassment sentences set to rise to maximum of two years

Sexually harassing women in public is set to be punishable by up to two years in prison under proposed laws backed by the Government.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman has declared her support for the new legislation, brought forward by former Tory minister Greg Clark, to make the behaviour a specific offence, as she insisted every woman should “feel safe to walk our streets”.

Public sexual harassment is already illegal, but does not exist as an offence of its own.

Suella Braverman
Home Secretary Suella Braverman (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

The Government wants to make the law “clearer” to the public and the police, encourage women to report their experiences, and emphasise the severity of the crime.

It is backing a Private Member’s Bill brought forward by Mr Clark which would take this step through amending the 1986 Public Order Act.

It would also introduce harsher punishments for perpetrators, ramping up the maximum time behind bars from six months to two years.

The move follows a consultation on whether to make public sexual harassment a specific offence, which found most view the issue as a “widespread problem”.

Mr Clark’s Bill would specify a new offence, applying to anyone who committed a crime under the existing definition of “intentional harassment, alarm or distress” on the basis of the victim’s sex.

This covers “threatening, abusive or insulting” words or behaviour, as well as writing on display.

The Government considered adding to this definition with a list of “example behaviours”, such as following someone, making an “obscene” gesture or comment towards them or driving slowly alongside them.

But it concluded this would not be the “right course”, arguing such lists could become “prescriptive” and rapidly go “out of date”.

They could also effectively rule out other types of behaviour from consideration, it said.

Mr Clark told the Commons the real purpose of the Bill is to “help change the culture of society” to make sexual harassment unacceptable.

“I actually hope there will be few prosecutions under the law ever required but it is important that the law is there,” he said.

Labour said it was “pleased” to support the Bill, welcoming it as a “first step in the right direction”.

Ms Braverman said: “Every woman should feel safe to walk our streets without fear of harassment or violence. And that is why we are supporting this Bill to introduce a specific offence on public sexual harassment.

Greg Clark
Greg Clark (James Manning/PA)

“It’s a complex issue and we’ve carefully considered the arguments, taking into account a range of views.

“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.”

Confirming the Government’s “strong” support for the “excellent” Bill in the Commons, Home Office minister Sarah Dines stressed that the legislation was not “anti-men” but “pro-safety”.

“It is the most basic responsibility of Government to keep our public places safe. Everyone should be able to walk our streets without fear of violence or harassment,” she said.

The Bill received an unopposed second reading on Friday and will undergo further scrutiny by MPs at a later date.

British Transport Police Assistant Chief Constable Charlie Doyle said: “No woman should be subjected to harassment or intimidation as they travel and we will always welcome any extra help in bringing more offenders to justice.

“We 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.

“We know that all forms of sexual harassment are underreported to police and I hope this increased awareness will encourage more victims to come forward and tell us about what’s happened to them.”