Men who wolf-whistle or make sexual remarks to women will face prosecution for street harassment even if they believe it is a compliment or a joke, under legal changes announced by Suella Braverman.
The Home Secretary is to toughen a proposed new street harassment law so that potential offenders cannot escape prosecution by claiming they did not realise their behaviour amounted to harassment.
The new Bill, due for its final report stage in the House of Commons on Friday, will make it an offence to cause “intentional harassment, alarm or distress” to a person in public based on their sex. Offenders will face a maximum of two years in jail.
However, campaigners said there was a loophole in the proposals that would let offenders escape prosecution by claiming they thought their behaviour was welcome, even if any other reasonable person felt it was not.
Mrs Braverman has now accepted their concerns and is backing an amendment that will close the loophole, by requiring a “reasonableness test” where a defendant “ought to know” their behaviour amounted to harassment.
This means anyone who catcalls, wolf-whistles or makes a pass or sexual comment towards a woman that a “reasonable” person would feel amounts to harassment will no longer be able to claim it was meant as a compliment or joke. Police will be issued with guidance so they can enforce the law.
‘Right to walk the streets without fear’
Mrs Braverman told The Telegraph: “Women have the fundamental right to walk the streets without fear and I’m committed to ensuring that criminals who intimidate and harass them face the consequences.
“This is why we are backing the Protection from Sex-Based Harassment in Public Bill, and after carefully considering a range of views, we are supporting an amendment that will require the Government to produce statutory guidance for the police to help them enforce the new offence.
“The new guidance will clarify in particular how the ‘reasonable conduct’ defence should be interpreted, to ensure any new law is as robust as possible.”
The legislation has been piloted through the Commons as a Private Member’s Bill by Greg Clark, the former cabinet minister, and backed by the Government. He put forward the amendment supported by Priti Patel, the former home secretary, and Caroline Nokes, who chairs the Commons women and equalities committee.
‘Give police and prosecutors training’
Stella Creasy, a Labour MP who played a key part in supporting the Bill, said: “Women and girls often get told ‘you can’t take a joke’ or ‘it was just a compliment’ when they object to being harassed, but without change this public order law risks making that an actual defence to a criminal offence.
“In this day and age, most know better than to try to grope or harass a woman as a way of chatting her up – but not all do. No one should be able to evade accountability for such behaviour by arguing they thought it was reasonable to abuse someone because it was their way of trying to attract attention.
“So it’s good that the Government has listened to the need to address this loophole. To make it work, it’s vital the police and prosecutors are given training to understand how serious public harassment is and to use this new law to ensure everyone can walk freely on our streets and public spaces without being abused.”
The Home Office has previously listed the types of behaviour that count as street harassment as following someone; making an obscene, aggressive, or offensive comment or gesture; obstructing a person making a journey or “cornering” them; or driving or riding a vehicle or bike slowly near to a person walking down the street.
Officials said the guidance for police would make clear what is deemed reasonable by a third party rather than by the defendant.