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Labour promises to make indecent exposure ‘red flag’ offence after Sarah Everard murder

<span>People gather to pay their respects at a vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common.</span><span>Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images</span>
People gather to pay their respects at a vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common.Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Labour has pledged to overhaul the “woefully inadequate” way indecent exposure is treated in the criminal justice system after an inquiry concluded that victims were being failed.

The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said the party would oversee a “fundamental review” of the handling of the crime, which would aim to tackle its image as a low-level offence, improve police processes and bring more perpetrators to justice.

A package of measures, including specialist training for officers, commissioning research into the link between indecent exposure and “contact offending”, and a public information campaign to encourage victims to come forward, would also be implemented, the Observer understands.

The plans are being drawn up in response to a landmark report by Lady Elish Angiolini into policing issues emerging from the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens while serving in the Metropolitan police.

Published last week, the first part of the three-part inquiry says inadequate vetting checks by the Met and a failure by Kent police to properly investigate a 2015 indecent exposure offence were a “red flag and a missed opportunity to disrupt or even prevent further offending by Couzens”.

Both forces apologised last week, but Angiolini said the failings were not isolated and instead demonstrated the need for a “step change” in the way indecent exposure was handled and perceived nationally.

Writing in the Observer today, Angiolini said the crime was currently often “trivialised” and treated as “low level”, and that victims were being let down by police.

She said: “We belittle and thereby create a perception that the crime is almost something laughable, while the reality for so many of its victims is profoundly terrifying, and the act itself could be indicative of a very sinister trajectory.”

She added that police investigations were often “woefully inadequate, with opportunities to catch perpetrators missed”.

“It means victims lack confidence in the system to investigate or are too mortified to come forward. Others assume that nothing will happen to the individual if they do,” she said.

The report makes sweeping recommendations, which she says are needed to improve the response to indecent exposure, all of which Labour said it would implement. The Home Office said it was considering the recommendations carefully and would publish a full response in due course.

As well as a review of the approach to tackling the crime, the recommendations include: ensuring a national review of indecent exposure allegations against serving police officers, led by police chiefs and vetting units; and the introduction of a specialist policy for police which specifically includes guidance for indecent exposure.

Cooper said: “Indecent exposure should act as a serious red flag that police forces record and act upon. That’s why the first Angiolini recommendations on establishing specialist police policies and training, and a fundamental review of how masturbatory indecent exposure is treated by the criminal justice system, are so important. Labour would implement them as swiftly as possible and we urge the government to do the same.”

Cooper accused the Conservatives of an “unfathomable” failure to “move immediately on the most urgent Angiolini recommendations”.

“There have been warnings for many years, including after the appalling murders of Sarah Everard and Libby Squire, that these crimes can escalate,” she said.

In response to accusations it has been slow to act, a Conservative source accused Labour of “playing politics” and said “considered professional responses to important and significant reports” were “entirely normal practice”.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to tackling violence against women. This government has gone further than ever to protect women and girls and improve the police response to these vile crimes. We have classified it as a national threat alongside other threats, such as terrorism, and introduced the first ever dedicated national policing lead. “But there is much more to do. The government will continue to work with police partners to ensure that proper standards are upheld at all times, and the home secretary has pledged to respond to the Angiolini report’s recommendations promptly.”

The independent Angiolini inquiry was commissioned by the Home Office to examine how Couzens, an off-duty Met Police officer, was able to abduct, rape and murder 33-year-old Everard. Everard was stopped by Couzens while walking home on the night of 3 March 2021, and got into his car after he showed his warrant card. Couzens had a history of sexual offending, including nine indecent exposure allegations, but evaded consequences to keep working as a police officer.

As well as improvements to the handling of indecent exposure, including a move away from the “trivialising” term “flashing”, Angiolini’s report recommends wide-ranging improvements to police vetting procedures and calls for a zero-tolerance approach to sexist, racist and misogynistic “banter” in police forces.

The inquiry is set to continue in two parts. It will look at the crimes of another disgraced Met police officer, David Carrick, who was jailed last year for dozens of rapes and sexual offences against 12 women, and consider wider concerns about the culture within policing.