My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows:
“I am very pleased to have this opportunity to respond to the Urgent Question asked by the honourable Member for Bath because she and Gina Martin have campaigned tirelessly for upskirting to become a criminal offence. I am delighted to have met both of them on a number of occasions to discuss how we can progress this important legislation, and to have worked with them to support the honourable Lady’s Private Member’s Bill—the Voyeurism (Offences) Bill. I welcome Gina Martin to the House today. We will continue to build on their efforts to ensure that this activity becomes a criminal offence because upskirting is an invasion of privacy, and a humiliating and distressing experience. The Lord Chancellor and I were disappointed when the Private Member’s Bill did not make progress on Friday.
Although there are existing offences that can be used to punish upskirting in some circumstances, there is a gap in the law. The offences of outraging public decency or voyeurism may be used to capture upskirting. However, the public order offence is limited, as the offence needs to take place in a public place and two people need to be present. Conversely, the voyeurism offence needs to be a private act and must take place in a place where one would expect privacy. There may be activities, such as photographs taken in schools, that are not caught by either provision. This law will close that loophole, and ensure there is no doubt that this activity is criminal and will not be tolerated. For the most serious sexual offences, we will ensure that the offender is also placed on the sex offenders register.
Upskirting is an invasion of privacy that leaves victims feeling humiliated, so we will bring legislation before the House, in government time, to ensure that this practice becomes an offence. We will introduce the Bill in the House of Commons on Thursday, with a Second Reading before the recess. The leadership of the honourable Member for Bath and the outstanding campaign of Gina Martin have shown how it is possible for individuals to make a difference. I am looking forward to working with colleagues from across the House to progress this matter and make upskirting an offence”.
My Lords, I am incredibly grateful to the Minister for that Statement and for her prompt and unequivocal assurance that the embarrassment inflicted on this Palace in recent days will be corrected without delay. Does she agree that, far from being a constitutional outrage, Private Members’ Bills can perform a vital function, especially in areas of broad cross-party agreement, particularly in relation to positive human rights? The Executive need not have the complete monopoly in instigating progressive legislation. Does she also agree that our feminism is to be judged by deeds, not words—not only statues but statutes protecting all women’s bodily integrity and dignity?
My Lords, this statute actually protects all men and women and their bodily dignity, as it includes kilt upskirting, which I only recently became aware of. The two Houses have different PMB systems. It is not for me to comment on the processes of the other place, but from my point of view the system can work very well. I am working on the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill and the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill. These are extremely important measures and it will be good to get them on the statute book.
My Lords, Private Member’s Bills are, by their nature, about narrow issues of intense concern to a small number of people and to minorities. It is therefore particularly galling to watch the behaviour of a few privileged—largely white—men who seem to treat the shooting down of Private Members’ Bills as some kind of sport. I hope that, like me, and like the majority of members of the Conservative Party in another place, the Minister will ask her colleagues to reflect on that behaviour. What procedure will the Government now use to reintroduce this Bill, which we all agree is important? How will they protect what is proposed from further intervention by those who would seek to frustrate this business?
Will the Minister also undertake to discuss the draft legislation with the Opposition Front Bench? If this measure is to reach the statute book quickly—and we are all agreed that it should—it is important that it does not become a vehicle to which there might be attached a whole load of related matters. It should be a small, defined measure on which we can command broad, if not total, agreement.
I think the vast majority of people in my party condemned the actions of that individual last Friday, and it is certainly not reflective of the way that our party wants to be seen in terms of these important issues.
We will publish the Bill on Thursday, in the House of Commons, and it will be substantially similar—the noble Baroness will notice—to Wera Hobhouse’s Bill. It will go through as a government Bill and, as such, will have full engagement with all the Opposition Front Benches. Indeed, there will also be Back-Bench meetings so that noble Lords can learn as much as possible about the Bill, so that we can get it through our House as quickly as possible and in as appropriate a state as possible.
My Lords, there is no collective view on the Cross Benches on any matters at all, by definition, but I am sure that in speaking from the Cross Benches I will be speaking for other individual Members in saying a warm word of thanks to the Government for their powerful initiative in responding to the most unfortunate set-back to the Private Member’s Bill on Friday last and for the Government’s apparent determination to bring in proper legislation. We thank the Minister very much for that and for repeating the Statement from the Commons.
I just want to mention one thing, and that is the total depravity of this practice. I do not think that that is too strong a phrase, because although it may be regarded as a bit of a joke among some late teenagers or whatever—though I am not sure about the evidence on that—this awful insult to women and humiliation of women really does need drastic action. I am very glad that it appears that the Bill the Government will introduce will be couched or constructed in very strong terms to avoid what is often the sad result of legislation, which is the creation of new doubts, objections and exceptions.
Also, can the Minister enlighten the House whether there are any indications that, unfortunately, because of the perverted publicity about this awful behaviour, there may have been an increase in the number of such incidents? That often happens when bad things happen and they are relayed through the press.
Finally, having listened to the wise words of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, and speaking with some psychological authority, having been in the House of Commons for 27 years, may I ask the Minister whether the Government could not, at long last, look at this absurd practice on Fridays whereby just one person can shout out “Object”—as Sir Christopher Chope did, who is not known for his wisdom and good practice, I am afraid, as an MP of many years’ standing? Is it not time that that was got rid of? That could be done easily, because there would be huge support, I am sure, in the House of Commons if that was destroyed. Will the Minister try to look at that longer-term problem as well?
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for his kind words. I think it showed extraordinary leadership by the Prime Minister over the weekend to take this issue by the scruff of the neck and to lead on it.
On Private Members’ Bills procedure in general, that is for the House of Commons to structure and is not really for the Government, but of course we will do what we can, working with the Commons, on improving the procedures.
On the other questions that the noble Lord raised, I completely agree with him that it is absolutely not a joke. Upskirting is and can be a serious sexual offence. For that reason, the Government have taken the Wera Hobhouse Bill and have added to it notification so that, for the most serious sexual offences, offenders will need to go on to the sexual offenders register. It will mirror the existing voyeurism offences.
My Lords, I join others in congratulating the Government on their rapid response to the fiasco of last Friday. Is the intention to include in the Bill provision to make it an offence to disseminate pictures of that kind through social and other media? If it is not—it may very well be—perhaps she will undertake to look at that issue.
The Answer refers to activities such as photographs taken in schools. Will the Government look to develop with the Department for Education an approach for ensuring that students at schools are firmly informed that such behaviour is unacceptable but also that those who may be the victims of such activity in schools are given support?
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. Dissemination of images would fall outside the scope of the Bill, but we are looking into the role of technology in distributing images—upskirting or, indeed, any images. That is a much broader issue that must be considered.
I am sure that the noble Lord is aware that most—probably all—schools teach children about the rights and wrongs of using modern technology and what to do with it. We have to be extraordinarily careful that we do not unnecessarily criminalise children in the Bill, which I hope will be enacted. The police will take a similar approach to cases of sexting, where Outcome 21 is used: the crime is recorded but no action is taken, so that the children are not criminalised but can learn from their poor behaviour.