Many constituents have contacted me about the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the policing of the Sarah Everard Vigil on Clapham Common.

Let me begin by saying that I share your concerns about the Bill and I voted against it at second reading along with my Labour colleagues. Keir Starmer had tabled the following amendment which explains why we will be opposing the Bill.

“That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, notwithstanding the need for a police covenant and for tougher sentences for serious crimes, including child murder, terrorism and dangerous driving, and for assaults on emergency service workers, because the Bill rushes changes to protest law and fails to introduce a single new measure specifically designed to tackle the epidemic of violence against women and is therefore an abusers’ charter since domestic abuse rates have spiked and victims of rape are facing the lowest prosecution rates on record, and because the Bill fails to criminalise street harassment, fails to make misogyny a hate crime, fails to raise minimum sentences for rape or stalking, and fails to give whole life orders to those found guilty of abduction and sexual assault and murder of a stranger.”

The other reasoned amendments, including that put down by my colleague Bell Ribeiro-Addy, were not selected by the Speaker.

The horrific death of Sarah Everard has not only led to an outpouring of solidarity for her family in their grief, but also to a national demand for action to tackle violence against women. This demand comes from the experience of so many women who know what it is like to walk along a street in fear and what it means to face violence and harassment.

I share the concern that so many people have expressed about the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the Vigil on Clapham Common in memory of Sarah Everard. I cannot understand why, having sensibly allowed the Vigil to take place without any problems at all, the police then decided to move in in such a heavy-handed way and arrest some of the participants.

In these circumstances, the very last thing the Government should be doing is to rush through poorly thought-out measures which would impose disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to protest – a right which is absolutely fundamental to our freedoms – and which fail to reassure women that every effort will be made to ensure that they are safe on our streets.

There are also other parts of the Bill that would have an unfair impact on Black, Asian and ethnic minority people, that fail to provide evidence of effectiveness at stopping reoffending, and which send the wrong message about priorities by, for example, creating harsher penalties for damaging a statue than for attacking a woman.

Now is the time to unite the country and put in place long overdue protections for women against unacceptable violence, including action against domestic homicides, rape and street harassment – as well as tackling the misogynistic attitudes that underpin the abuse women face. We are therefore calling on the Government to drop its poorly thought-out proposals and instead work on a cross-party basis to legislate to tackle violence against women which is forcing so many across the country to live in fear.

There is also nothing in the Bill for victims of crime and nothing on rehabilitation or the prevention of crime. Labour has set out its own Victims’ Bill which we hope ministers will accept. For example, when stalking can get a shorter sentence than fly-tipping, this is a big opportunity for meaningful sentencing reform.

In fairness, I should say that there are some good and important reforms in the Bill, which I support, on things like penalties for dangerous driving, better protection of public service workers, reform of the criminal record check system and tackling sexual abuse by people in positions of trust.

The final point I would make is that regardless of how many crimes are put on the statute book, unless the criminal justice system is working effectively then victims will not get justice. The Crown Court backlog is now at an all-time high of more than 56,000 cases. Victims of crime are being asked to wait up to 4 years to get to court and many victims and witnesses are dropping out of the justice system entirely because of delays. Violent criminals are also being spared prison because of these delays. Why is this happening? Because half of courts in England and Wales were closed between 2010 and 2019 and there are now 27,000 fewer sitting days than there were in 2016. The old saying that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ has never been more true.

Best wishes

Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

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