I’ve just got back to my office in parliament having voted against Priti Patel’s sentencing bill.
There really are times when MPs from all parties work together to make great laws. For example on the domestic violence bill MPs and government worked together for almost two years on what’s called ‘pre-legislative scrutiny’. That’s a process where MPs and peers consult experts, discuss details, and go very deeply into issues to make sure that by the time a bill is presented to parliament it’s as comprehensive and effective as possible even before parliament formally gets its teeth into it.
But this bill? It’s 300 pages long, was published last week and introduced to parliament this week. Predictably, it’s a mess and has huge weaknesses.
A bill like this should have at its starting point the fundamental question ‘what trends and patterns are there in crime today that are different to a decade ago?’. In other words it should get our system of justice up to date and focused on the future,
If I think about that question for a moment certain things come to mind. Firstly, in the last ten years the number of sexual assault and rape against women has risen but convictions have fallen. Children are now routinely exploited by adults in order to commit crime on their behalf. And most victims don’t even know they have rights let alone have them asserted.
As a result only 14% of rape victims have faith that justice will be served. The number of victims who’ve walked away from the justice system before reaching court, meaning a defendant walks free without trial, has tripled since 2015. And 20% of people convicted of rape have already been connived of sexual assault before, often multiple times.
And today’s bill? Well, not one of these issues have been addressed in the 300 pages of legislation. The impact of gendered harassment, violence and rape against women isn’t even mentioned once, let alone measures for prevention and cultural change that we so desperately need.
Instead this bill is jammed with cultural provocation that’s designed to thrill some people and appal others. So we have a ten year mandatory sentence for vandalising statues. We have anti-protest rules that would mean that a single person acting peacefully could be declared an illegal protestor and arrested. And we have powers to apprehend the gypsy traveler community that the police have said they don’t want or need.
When we stand back and look at what this actually means some pretty shocking things emerge. For example, should an angry mob throw a lump of iron into the water, then turn round and throw a woman or child into the water, they’d get ten years in prison for the metal – the same as the maximum sentence for the living breathing human being…provided actual harm is proven in court!
I came to parliament yesterday and have spoken in the Commons four or five times to try and make these points. Last night I stayed late in the office and spoke to as many media outlets as would have me on because I want everyone to know what’s going on.
I know some like to understand how the Commons works so let me tell you one more thing. Once a bill has second reading, which happened yesterday and today, it goes into committee where a small group of MPs go through the bill line-by-line and can put amendments and vote to change it. It’s exhausting but I fought to get appointed as was so happy to get onto it and lead from the front bench. We were told over the weekend that committee would start next week, which is very fast, because the Tories wanted to keep their cultural provocations going as much as possible as we approach the elections in May.
But what happened today? They pulled the bill committee! When they saw the revulsion from vast swathes of the country at this unfit bill, suddenly we get a message saying ‘the bill committee won’t start until later in the year’. No doubt when it reappears it will look very different than it does today, and for that we have people up and down the country to thank who contacted their MPs, who made their voices heard, and also a united opposition that pulled apart the shallow and mean spirited arguments put forward by government.
With the terrible death of Sarah Everard we have a national conversation underway about how we make women and girls feel safe and protected in society and in law. We cannot let this pass without action. Labour has been calling for years for better teaching of sex and relationships in schools to tackle the underlying cultural issues. I’ve campaigned for reform of domestic violence support and survivor’s treatment in court, and last month I presented to parliament a whole bill that gives victims a comprehensive set of rights to empower them in the system and make sure a better quality of justice is achieved. Believe me, Labour isn’t just carping and opposing, we’ve been working constructively in this for years.