The UK”s strategy in combatting violence against women is under the spotlight as a controversial new crime bill is debated in parliament, amid public anger over the murder of a young woman and the heavy-handed breakup by police of a vigil in support of the victim.
Images showing young women being overpowered and handcuffed at the unauthorised gathering on Saturday night have brought widespread condemnation of police tactics. London’s Metropolitan Police had refused permission for the vigil under COVID-19 restrictions.
The proposed legislation — due to be debated in the House of Commons on Monday — has been criticised because it gives the authorities more powers to prevent noisy and disruptive protests.
At the same time, it is taken to task by its critics for failing to deal adequately with the problem of violence against women. It comes against a background of a recent decline in successful prosecutions for rape and sexual assault.
Women’s safety is on the agenda of a meeting of the government’s Crime and Justice Taskforce, called by the prime minister on Monday.
“The fundamental issue that we have to address as a country, and as a society and as government, is that women must feel — and people must feel, but women in particular must feel — that when they make serious complaints about violence, about assault, that they are properly heard and properly addressed, and we’re gonna make sure that that happens,” Boris Johnson said.
But the opposition Labour Party has directed its MPs to vote against the crime bill, noting that women are not mentioned once in its 296 pages.
It has called on the government to stop talking, toughen penalties for rapists and take action against street harassment and stalking.
“This is a missed opportunity to tackle violence against women and girls that has become endemic in the UK,” said David Lammy, Labour’s spokesman on justice.
Veteran Labour MP Harriet Harman, chair of the parliamentary human rights committee, plans to table provisions “to criminalise the sort of street harassment which happens routinely and which makes women’s lives a misery”, as she outlined in a letter to government ministers.
Among them is a proposal to widen the scope of powers to combat kerb-crawling, currently only illegal when it’s to pay for sex.
“A schoolgirl walking home on her own in the dark: it’s not a criminal offence if you kerb-crawl her. If a young woman is on her way home, then it’s not an offence to kerb-crawl her. We can at least change the law on that, and I would suggest the penalty ought to be losing their licence and that would stop vans and cars kerb-crawling girls straightaway,” Harman said.
Boris Johnson also said in a statement he was “deeply concerned” by images of police breaking up Saturday’s vigil.
But former UK Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption said Saturday’s events were the direct result of the government’s planned regulations.
“Last year’s lockdown regulations contained an exception for demonstrations and political protests, provided that they had agreed on a protocol in advance with the public authorities including the police. That exception was deliberately removed at the end of last year because the government did not want to allow political protests,” he told BBC Radio.
Police broke up Saturday’s demonstration after hundreds of women gathered in a park in south London on Saturday to hold a vigil for Sarah Everard. The 33-year-old marketing executive’s body was found a week after she disappeared.
The event took place near where she was last seen as she walked home. A police officer has been charged with her kidnap and murder.