Commons bill to make 'upskirting' criminal offence halted by Peter Chope objection

Bill to make upskirting criminal offence blocked by Tory MP Sir Christopher Chope

Government voices ‘disappointment’ over backbencher’s intervention after backing proposed law

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
@lizziedearden
Friday 15 June 2018 16:16
comments

A bid to make upskirting a criminal offence has been blocked by a Tory MP to cries of “shame” in the House of Commons.

The government had given its backing to the Voyeurism (Offences) Bill but Conservative Sir Christopher Chope shouted “object” during its second reading on Friday.

Several MPs heckled the 71-year-old Christchurch MP during his intervention on Friday afternoon, including the minister for women Victoria Atkins and fellow Tory Will Quince.

The move also drew the ire of Theresa May, who tweeted – alongside several cabinet ministers including the home secretary – to say she was “disappointed” by Sir Christopher’s actions.

A spokesperson for the House of Commons indicated that time for the reading, when MPs are invited to debate a bill, had been limited because of other parliamentary business.

Rules mean that after 2.30pm on a Friday a single objection can stop a bill progressing.

Gina Martin, who launched the campaign to make upskirting a specific criminal offence, said she was “extremely upset and disappointed”.

“We knew this was a risk, but I now stand with powerful, passionate women and men behind me and am confident that [justice minister] Lucy Frazer is committed to – and will – close this gap in law,” she said.

Ms Martin, 26, said Sir Christopher had agreed to a meeting with her and her lawyer.

Campaigners welcome government pledge on upskirting

Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrat MP who introduced the private member’s bill, asked for it to return to parliament on 6 July.

“Upskirting is a depraved violation of privacy,” she said. “It is outrageous that a single member of parliament has today been able to derail a much needed and universally supported change in the law.

“This change would have protected women and girls across England and Wales and given the police the tools to bring the perpetrators to justice. This is too important to allow people like Sir Christopher to obstruct progress on this vital issue.”

Margot James, minister for digital and creative industries, tweeted: “The Goverment is determined that it becomes illegal to photograph people under their clothes without consent, Chope can delay, but not prevent, Wera Hobhouse’s bill from becoming law.”

During an interview on Channel 4 News Ms James was asked if Sir Christopher had brought the Tory party into disrepute, and said: “Well, he certainly has today. He is a maverick. He doesn’t speak for our party.”

Ms May insisted the bill would eventually become law.

The prime minister said on Twitter: “Upskirting is an invasion of privacy which leaves victims feeling degraded and distressed.

“I am disappointed the Bill didn’t make progress in the Commons today, and I want to see these measures pass through Parliament – with government support – soon.”

A government spokesperson reiterated its support for the bill to criminalise a “hideous invasion of privacy which leaves victims feeling degraded and distressed”.

“It cannot be tolerated, so it is absolutely right that the government supports this bill to make upskirting a specific offence,” he added.

“Whilst we are disappointed this bill did not pass its second reading today, we look forward to supporting these measures through the house at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Labour’s shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, called Sir Christopher’s intervention “outrageous”.

“We can’t allow a situation where backbench Tory MPs are able to veto this necessary legislation,” he added.

“Labour will continue to support this legislation through parliament to ensure that there is a strong majority against any reactionary attempts to derail this important step towards justice.”

Some critics accused fellow Tory backbencher Philip Davies of “filibustering” or delaying the bill by speaking on other matters earlier in the session, but he refuted the allegations.

Upskirting campaigner Gina Martin and lawyer Ryan Whelan had celebrated securing government support to criminalise the practice

The Shipley MP said he had left the chamber by the time Sir Christopher made his objection.

“I had no involvement, I support the bill and I wouldn’t do anything to block it,” he told The Independent.

“But it was the eighth bill on a Friday – it was never going to reach a debate, that was never going to happen whatever anyone did.”

Representatives for Sir Christopher, who was awarded a knighthood “for political and public service” in the New Year Honours, could not immediately be reached for comment.

In the same session, he also blocked another government-backed bill to increase punishments for attacking police dogs and horses.

Sir Christopher was greeted with groans as he objected to the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill, named after a police dog that was stabbed while protecting his handler.

The law, which will return to parliament next month, would amend the 2006 Animal Welfare Act to prevent offenders using self-defence as a justification for harming service animals.

The Thatcherite MP was first elected in 1983 and has previously voted against equal marriage, an amnesty of men convicted for homosexual acts, filibustered a bill to make revenge evictions an offence and called for the minimum wage to be abolished.

During the expenses scandal, it was revealed that Sir Christopher used £881 of public money to repair a sofa and spent almost £13,000 on roof repairs and a bathroom.

Campaigners had hoped Friday to be a major milestone in the drive to make upskirting a criminal offence punishable by up to two years.

Supporters from across the political spectrum argue that current laws do not adequately cover the “humiliating” practice, which can be prosecuted using voyeurism, indecency and public order offences.

Ms Martin started the campaign last year after two men took a picture up her skirt at a festival in London, seeing police close her case even after she snatched the man’s phone and presented it to officers.

The government initially resisted calls for a new offence and insisted that current powers were sufficient, but later started a review and leant its backing to Ms Hobhouse’s bill.

Figures revealed in February showed that girls as young as 10 have been targeted by perpetrators taking illicit photographs under their clothing, commonly using phones or hiding cameras in public places.

Police are not required to record incidents under current rules, leaving the true scale of the practice unknown, and just 15 of 44 forces in England and Wales had allegations of upskirting on file in the past two years.

Legal experts said the lack of a dedicated upskirting offence was driving inconsistent approaches by police and prosecutors, while leaving victims unaware of their rights.

Clare McGlynn, a professor of law at Durham University, said upskirting had been made easier than ever by technology and being carried out for sexual gratification, to harass victims or to make money online.

The new law would bring the punishment for upskirting in line with existing voyeurism offences, with a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment and the most serious perpetrators put on the sex offenders register.

It would cover attempts by perpetrators of any gender to take photos up clothing including skirts, dresses and kilts.

Supporters point to hundreds of prosecutions sparked by a 2015 law that criminalised revenge pornography as a potential indicator of the effect the change could have.

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