Putting police in clubs and bars 'a knee-jerk reaction' and 'superficial' move, say campaigners

Watch: Undercover officers at nightclubs among plans to better protect women

Plans for plain clothes police in nightclubs and improved street lighting have been branded a “knee-jerk reaction” and “superficial” by women’s groups.

The government announced it is taking “immediate steps” to introduce the measures to ensure women’s safety following the death this month of 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everard.

The move involves the nationwide rollout of Project Vigilant, a pilot scheme where undercover police are sent to clubs and bars to relay intelligence about predatory or suspicious offenders to uniformed officers.

Read more: Hundreds of women leave tributes to Sarah Everard at Clapham Common

Downing Street also announced the doubling of the Safe Streets fund – which provides improved lighting and CCTV – to £45m.

It comes after the death of Everard, who went missing on 3 March while walking home from a friend’s house in Clapham, south London.

Her remains were later found in woodland in Kent.

Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens, 48, has been charged with her kidnap and murder.

He appeared via video link at the Old Bailey from Belmarsh Prison on Tuesday and is due to go on trial in October.

Hundreds of people took to the streets of central London on Monday to protest in the wake of Ms Everard's death.

Prime minister Boris Johnson, who chaired a meeting of the government’s Crime and Justice Taskforce to discuss the measures, said “landmark legislation” was imminent.

“Ultimately, we must drive out violence against women and girls and make every part of the criminal justice system work to better protect and defend them,” he said.

A person stands near flowers at a memorial site in Clapham Common Bandstand, following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, in London, Britain March 13, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah McKay     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A sign reads, 'When will women be safe?' beside flowers left at the bandstand in Clapham Common in tribute to Sarah Everard. (Reuters)

But the proposals were criticised by women’s groups, who said the measures will have little impact.

Farah Benis, founder of the Catcalls of London Instagram page, which shares women’s experiences of harassment, told Yahoo News UK: “Having plain clothes police officers in nightclubs and pubs is an ill-informed knee-jerk reaction that misses the point.

“At a time when there is an ongoing public enquiry into abusive practices in undercover policing this policy shows that the government is clueless of public perception.”

Instead, Benis suggested the government should work with the security sector within venues to provide better training in identifying suspicious offenders.

Maya Tutton, who founded Our Streets Now with her sister Gemma two years ago to campaign for public sexual harassment to be made a criminal offence, said: “This is not an issue which can be solved through better street lighting.”

She told Yahoo News UK: “All women and girls should feel safe in public spaces, yet they still continue to face harassment every day. They’re being followed, shouted at, touched and groped – and it needs to stop.”

Our Streets Now is also campaigning for the subject of public sexual harassment to be added to the school curriculum.

“In doing so, we hope a new generation of girls will grow up to never blame themselves for the harassment they will likely face, and a generation of boys who never become perpetrators of this everyday violence,” said Tutton.

Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which collects women stories of sexism, said more action is needed.

"I'm glad to see the government focus on this issue, but the changes we need to see are systemic, not superficial,” she told Yahoo News UK.

Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner (centre) looks at flowers after laying a floral tribute at the bandstand in Clapham Common, London, for murdered Sarah Everard. Picture date: Tuesday March 16, 2021.
Floral tributes left to Sarah Everard at the bandstand in Clapham Common, south London, on Tuesday. (PA)

“We urgently need sustainable funding for frontline sexual violence services, especially those by and for Black and minoritised women.

“We need to see a complete overhaul of a broken criminal justice system in which just 1.5% of rapes reported to police report in a charge or summons. We need to tackle endemic misogyny and racism in the police.

“Women's organisations have been calling for these systemic changes for decades and it is time we listened to them."

Project Vigilant was originally launched in 2019 by Thames Valley Police, and last year won a crime prevention award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Read more: Sarah Everard vigil protester says she has 'never been so scared'

Johnson said: “The horrific case of Sarah Everard has unleashed a wave of feeling about women not feeling safe at night. We must do everything we can to ensure our streets are safe.”

A spokeswoman for Citizens UK, which campaigns to make misogyny a hate crime, told Yahoo News UK: “We'd caution against knee-jerk reactions or piecemeal solutions and instead encourage the government to enable communities to tackle this issue from the ground up, focusing on transforming the harmful attitudes that exist in society.

“There is a strong need for better state structures to track and record misogynistic crimes so that patterns can be identified and perpetrators can be held accountable whilst being prevented from committing further offences.”

Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) told Yahoo News UK: “The announcement of additional funding is welcomed and the police initiative which would see plain clothes officers in venues is well intentioned.

“We feel, however, that as our businesses are already heavily regulated, coupled with good working relationships with key stakeholders, authorities, and the police, this additional resource would be better utilised dealing with the broader societal issues rather than focusing on licensed environments that are already highly regulated.”

Watch: Government says it's committed to tackling violence against women