Voyeurism (Offences) Act (2019) – An example of a legislative process

Background

In 2017 a girl called Gina Martin was at a gig with her friends and family. It was a hot day and she was wearing a skirt. During the gig, two men put a mobile phone between her legs and took a picture of her crotch. This act, which is known as ‘upskirting’, was done entirely without her consent. Martin reported it the the Police, but, to her shock, was told that no law had been broken and the man involved could not be arrested. There is a law of ‘outraging public decency’ but the alleged offence did not meet the criteria. Had the man made any physical contact with her an arrest would be possible under other established sexual offenses. This was clearly an area of law that needed clarity as existing law was not fit for purpose.

Gina Martin (right) with a friend at the festival.

Martin shared her story on social media and many women responded with similar stories. It seemed that upskirting was far more prominent than Martin had been aware. An online petition was launched which reached over 50,000 signatures.

Passage

Wera Hobhouse, a Liberal Democrat MP, took on he issue and put forward a Private Members Bill.

The issue was taken up by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse who in March 2018 introduced a Private Members Bill that sought to criminalise upskirting. Normally, Private Members Bills have a very difficult legislative path and are unlikely to pass. However, after reviewing the issue, the Government decided that they would actively support the bill. This made it much more likely that it would pass.

First Reading – The First Reading took place on the 21.06.2018. No debate takes place during the First Reading but the Second Reading was scheduled for June 2018.

Second Reading – During the Second Reading of the bill a controversial moment occurred. Private Members Bills can be stopped in their passage by the objection of just a single MP. To the disgust of many, a Conservative Backbencher called Christopher Chope objected:

Sir Christopher Chope was widely derided for objecting to the Voyeurism (Offences) Bill at Second Reading.


Chope later explained that he was not objecting in regards to the issue of the bill itself. He said that he was objecting to the fact that the bill was being pushed through second reading without a debate. Chope said:

” The government has been hijacking time that is rightfully that of backbenchers. This is about who controls the House of Commons on Fridays and that’s where I am coming from. I actually support the Bills that were before the house. Four of the 26 Bills that fell at the same time were my own. But this is something I have fought for in most of my time as an MP and it goes to the very heart of the power balance between the government and Parliament. The government is abusing parliamentary time for its own ends and in a democracy this is not acceptable. The government cannot just bring in what it wants on the nod. We don’t quite live in the Putin era yet.”

The Second Reading eventually took place on 03.07.2018 and the motion passed without a division.

Committee Stage – The Public Bill Committee Stage took place between 10.07.2018 and the 12.07.2018. The Committee was made up of 18 members, including Christopher Chope. The Committee heard from a number of experts and stakeholders including:

  • Representatives from the Crown Prosecution Service
  • The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan
  • Professor Clare McGlynn from the Law School of Durham University

During the Committee Stage some amendments were made to the bill. For example, the proposed offence was limited only to when a person over 18 did it for the purposes of sexual gratification. An amendment that required the Director of Public Prosecutions to issue guidance to police forces was also passed.

Report Stage – The Report Stage in the House of Commons took place on 05.09.2018. Debate took place over a number of issues, including whether perpetrators of the offence should be placed on the Sex Offenders Register.

Grand Committee Stage – As the bill was an ‘English and Welsh’ only issue a Grand Committee Stage took place directly after the Report Stage. This meant that only English and Welsh MPs could vote on further amendments. The Committee consented to the Bill with no amendments.

Third Reading – At 19.44 on the 05.08.2018 (the same day as the Report Stage and Grand Committee Stage) the bill had its Third Reading. The Bill was passed on a voice vote as no members objected.

Lords First Reading – The bill had its first reading in the Lords the very next day. Second Reading was set for late October.

Lords Second Reading – The Second Reading took place on the 23.10.2018. Some key points were made. For example, members of the Lords said that the requirement of a motive of ‘sexual gratification’ could leave a loophole if a picture was taken simply for another purpose, such as for financial gain. The bill passed its Second Reading and went to Committee Stage.

Lords Committee Stage – The Lords Committee Stage took place on the 26.11.2018. As usual in the Lords, it was a committee of the whole house who sat. No amendments were placed on the bill.

In the Lords the whole house can sit on Committee Stages.

Lords Report Stage – The Lords Report Stage took place on the 18.12.2018. This was a straightforward affair because there were no amendments to consider from the Committee Stage. In fact, the Report Stage amounted to one speech with no interventions.

Lords Third Reading – The Third Reading of the Bill took place on 15.01.2019. The bill was passed on a voice vote.

Royal Assent – The bill received Royal Assent on 12.02.2019. The bill is very short, as it is limited to the specific offence of ‘upskirting’.

The bill went through all of its parliamentary stages without a division in either house. This is a clear indication that it was accepted that the issue was a gap in the law that needed fixing.

The full bill can be read here:

Results of the Bill

Gina Martin was rightly praised for bringing the issue to public prominence. She could have been like many other young women who have grown up accepting sexual harassment as ‘just the way it is’. However, she was determined to make a difference and with the help of Wera Hobhouse, she was able to do so. In doing so, she may well have prevented other young women going through the hurt and anguish that she was forced to go through.

Upskirting is now a criminal offence that is punishable by up to two years in prison. The most serious offences could also result in the offender being place on the Sex Offenders Register.

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