Men who sexually harass women in the street face up to two years in jail

Sarah Everard shrine - Leon Neal
Sarah Everard shrine - Leon Neal

Men who sexually harass women in the street or on public transport will face two years in jail under a new offence being considered by the Government.

The Home Office has quietly launched a consultation on the possibility of amending the 1986 public order act to create a new offence of “public sexual harassment”.

It sets out two options – both carrying a maximum of two years in jail – with one listing the types of behaviour, including following someone, making an obscene or aggressive comment or gesture, “cornering” someone or driving a car slowly by someone walking in the street.

Boris Johnson has previously argued that current public order and harassment laws properly enforced by police can be used to prosecute street sexual harassment such as wolf-whistling, catcalling and other abuse.

However, the consultation document – slipped out just as Parliament rose for the summer recess – accepted “others take a different view and we respect that”.

New offence advocates

Advocates for a new offence include Liz Truss, frontrunner in the Tory leadership contest, Nimco Ali, the feminist campaigner and Home Office adviser on tackling violence against women, and, it is believed, Home Secretary Priti Patel.

It follows “shocking” findings by the Office for National Statistics that half of women aged 16 to 34 had been harassed in the previous 12 months and nearly four in 10 (38 per cent) had experienced catcalls, whistles, unwanted sexual comments and jokes. A quarter felt they had been followed.

The consultation – promised in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met Police officer – steers a middle way between those who want “a wholly new offence” and those who say public sexual harassment is already covered by existing criminal offences.

It proposes adding to an existing offence so that if someone harassed another in public “on the basis of the complainant’s sex”, they would face a longer sentence than if it was committed “without that motivation”. “This would avoid the problems which arise with overlapping offences,” it said.

The offence of “intentional harassment, alarm or distress on account of sex” would be added to section 4A of the Public Order Act of 1986 under both options.

Different to hate crime legislation

It is modelled on – but crucially different to – hate crime legislation, where anyone motivated by hostility based on race or religion faces a longer sentence.

The consultation said that unlike hate crime laws, it would not be necessary for the defendant to be motivated by hostility based on the victim’s sex.

“Public sexual harassment will sometimes be based on such hostility, but not always, and this is one of the reasons why the Law Commission concluded that sex should not be added to hate crime legislation, and why the Government agrees with that conclusion,” said the document.

Prosecutors would have to show the perpetrator intended to cause harassment, alarm or distress, and that this had been felt by the victim.

It would be an offence if it was committed in any open space, on public transport, in a public building or workplace or if someone was shouting from an open window to a person on the street. Such harassment in a private dwelling would be excluded.

The second option is different only in detailing the types of threatening, abusive, insulting or disorderly behaviour.

The list comprises following someone, making an obscene or aggressive comment towards someone, making an obscene or offensive gesture towards someone, obstructing a person who is making a journey “cornering” them); or driving or riding a vehicle slowly near to a person making a journey.

Unlike other section 4 public order offences, public sexual harassment could be tried in the crown court, which means defendants “could receive a maximum sentence of two years in prison”, said the consultation, which closes on September 1, just four days before new Tory leader is declared.