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On 15 June 2022, Greg Clark presented the Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Bill 2022-23 to Parliament. It would make it an offence to cause intentional harassment, alarm or distress to a person in public where the behaviour is done because of that person’s sex.

The Bill’s second reading debate is scheduled to take place on 9 December 2022. At the time of writing the Bill had not been published.

This briefing relates to the law and policy in England and Wales.

The nature and prevalence of public sex-based harassment

Public sex-based harassment is generally understood to involve unwelcome and unwanted behaviour directed at a person in a public space, such as on the street, on public transport, in a gym, or at a hospitality venue, because of that person’s sex.

Examples of such behaviour include intrusive or persistent staring or questioning, following someone, sexual or obscene comments, propositions or gestures, flashing or exposing intimate body parts, non-consensual physical contact, and technology-enabled sexual behaviour.

In March 2021 research published by the APPG on UN Women found that 71% of women of all ages in the UK had experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public space. That number rose to 86% among 18-24-year-olds.

In a 2018 report on sexual harassment of women and girls, the Women and Equalities Committee noted that public sex-based harassment “reduces women and girls’ freedom to enjoy public life, and can negatively affect feelings of safety, bodily autonomy and mental health”.

The Government’s position

In July 2021, the Government published its Tackling violence against women and girls strategy. The strategy said there were several existing criminal offences that public sex-based harassment could fall under, including offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Public Order Act 1986 and the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

However, the strategy said the Government was committed to ensuring “not only that the laws are there, but that they work in practice”. The Government would therefore be “looking carefully at where there may be gaps in existing law and how a specific offence for public sexual harassment could address those”.

The strategy also set out several non-legislative actions to deal with public sex-based harassment, including a national communications campaign and plans for revised police guidance and prosecution guidance on using existing offences.

Calls for change

Parliamentarians and women’s rights groups have remained concerned that the existing law is insufficient to deal with public sexual harassment. There have been (unsuccessful) attempts to introduce a specific offence by seeking to amend Government bills, and there have been calls for the Government to legislate.

Plan International UK, a children’s charity with a particular focus on girls’ rights is running the Crime Not Compliment campaign, which calls for the Government to make public sexual harassment a crime. A petition supporting the campaign has received over 65,000 signatures to date.

The campaign group Our Streets Now, started by two sisters after a conversation about experiencing the world as young women, is running a similar campaign. Their petition on the website has received over 463,000 signatures to date.

In a joint briefing  Plan International UK and Our Streets Now argue the existing criminal law is “fragmented, incomplete and disjointed” (PDF) and that “many acts of abuse and sexually harmful behaviour fall through the legal cracks”.

The Government’s consultation

On 21 July 2022, the Government launched a consultation on the options for creating a new offence of public sexual harassment.

The Government’s view is that “behaviour amounting to public sexual harassment is already covered by existing criminal offences (subject to the individual circumstances of the case)”. It was not therefore proposing to create a wholly new offence.

The consultation instead set out two possible models that would build on the existing offence in section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986. This section covers the intentional use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress. Each model would provide for a higher maximum sentence if those offences were committed on the basis of the complainant’s sex.

The consultation closed on 1 September 2022. A Government response has not yet been published.

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