Kit Malthouse MP is Minister of State for Crime and Policing.
Just over two years ago, Boris Johnson and I began a mission to reenergise our confrontation with crime and contribute to levelling up the country. This was a cause important to both of us from our time together at City Hall, the Prime Minister as Mayor and me as his Deputy Mayor for Crime and Policing.
We have both come a long way since those days, but once again we find ourselves in the fight to secure our streets.
Public safety is always at the forefront of the minds of people from all backgrounds, up and down the country. They want to know their families are safe, that their children will not be drawn into a life of crime, their homes won’t be burgled and that villains are being sorted.
We have seen progress. The risk of having one’s house broken into or becoming a victim of violent crime has fallen and police numbers are up, so far by more than 11,000, with many more to come. But the fight against crime is never ending, and there are still too many people who don’t feel safe in their homes or streets. We have a lot more work to do.
This feeling of insecurity, particularly in the public realm, must be addressed, not least since it is felt particularly sharply by women and girls, who are too often subjected to abuse and harassment by men.
The outpouring of grief and anger following the horrific murder of Sarah Everard demanded a redoubling of our work to combat violence against women and girls. Through our Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, our Safer Streets Fund, and our hotspot Grip programme, we are delivering on our commitment to make the streets safer.
Today, we take another forward step with our Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill returning to the Commons. This legislation is filled with proposals to better protect victims, including toughening up sentences for the perpetrators of horrific crimes such as rape and creating a new serious violence duty on public bodies, which will specifically include domestic abuse and sexual violence.
One of the amendments the House will consider today is looking at the movement in recent months calling for us to make misogyny a hate crime, which has been given a place in the Bill with an amendment from Baroness Newlove, supported by Labour.
I completely understand the concern and good intention behind these calls. All right thinking people should abhor any kind of harassment or violence, especially based on sex and gender.
But expert opinion tells us that the amendment before the House, and indeed the proposal to make misogyny a hate crime generally, could actually make the cause of women’s safety worse, and make prosecutions more difficult.
The independent Law Commission, who consulted on this issue over three years, has been clear that it could be damaging to the prosecution of sexual offences and hinder efforts to tackle hate crime more broadly. This is because prosecutors would need to prove a ‘hate crime’ occurred as part of another offence, such as rape, making it harder to prosecute sexual offences and domestic abuse, adding a layer of unnecessary complexity.
Rape Crisis England and Wales have echoed this position saying that “rape prosecutions are already at an all-time low, and we believe adding sex/gender as a protected characteristic would further complicate the judicial process and make it even harder to secure convictions” and that they “don’t believe hate crime is the way to address this, at least until more work is done to prevent the potential issues”.
Women’s Aid have also said that “including Violence Against Women and Girls crimes within the hate crime framework could undermine the understanding of Violence Against Women and Girls as inherently misogynistic”.
Given these expert views, I cannot see how anyone could in all conscience proceed with the Newlove amendment. But we must recognise that the horrific killings of Everard, Sabina Nessa and others, started a much-needed national conversation about the dangers women face. That is why the Government has committed to consider creating a specific new offence of public sexual harassment.
We owe it to women and girls to ensure the law protects them and not, inadvertently, their abusers, and I urge my colleagues to support the Government’s approach.
Another issue which has, in my view, been misinterpreted and inflamed by our opponents, causing natural concern in parts of the public, is in relation to the new powers for policing of protests. We’ve seen some wild and truly ridiculous claims about this legislation, even that the Bill bans “people singing in the street”, which is just nonsense.
Our current public order legislation out of date and has been highlighted by police chiefs as one of the most challenging aspects of modern-day policing.
In particular, we have all seen the rise in incidents recently where protesters use excessive noise as a weapon. This can cause significant psychological damage and intrude disproportionately on the rights of others. So, on the admittedly rare occasions where such noise intimidates people, prevents an organisation from functioning, or results in serious distress, these powers would allow the police to impose conditions on the protest.
This is rightly a very high threshold, and the vast majority of protests won’t reach it. But I believe people targeted by protestors would expect protection from the police in those more extreme situations. We are clear that this measure will only be used in the most exceptional of circumstances, where police chiefs consider the volume unjustifiable and damaging. The Police will remain legally bound to assess this balance between competing rights, much as they are now.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that in a domestic situation, local authorities already have noise enforcement powers, recognising the significant harm that noise can cause, so it should not be too great a step to give the police similar powers in exceptional protest situations.
Energetic, democratic self-expression is a wonderful thing, but no one has unlimited rights to cause harm or disruption to others. And we have a duty to balance the rights of protesters with the rights of others to go about their lives.
This is a wide-ranging Bill, but the common thread running throughout is giving the police, courts and prosecutors the necessary tools to protect the public from a broad range of harms and deliver justice for victims. It is crucial this legislation is approved so that we can all do exactly that.