So-called "upskirting" is when someone literally takes a photo up another person's skirt, without their consent. It's intrusive, invasive, and damaging — and England and Wales just came *this close* to making it a crime.
A private members' bill read in the House of Commons on Friday would have meant those convicted could have been sent to jail for up to two years.
But, at its second reading, the bill that would have "protected women and girls across England and Wales" has been blocked — and it's been blocked by a man.
The government had earlier on Friday announced that it would give its support to introducing the new law, and everyone expected it to pass. But Conservative MP Christopher Chope shouted "object" to the bill, reported the BBC, meaning it has now been blocked.
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Parliament rules mean that it only takes one MP to shout "object" to block a bill's progress, reported the BBC.
"Upskirting is a depraved violation of privacy," said Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse, who introduced the bill. "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 is too important to allow people like Christopher Chope to obstruct progress on this vital issue," she added.
But the bill being blocked doesn't mean it's completely finished, according to reports. It will reportedly get a chance at a formal second reading debate — but it will only succeed at that point if no one objects again.
The government has said that it will continue to support the bill, calling upskirting "a hideous invasion of privacy which leaves victims feeling degraded and distressed."
"Whilst we are disappointed this bill did not pass second reading today, we look forward to supporting these measures htrough the House at the earliest possible opportunity," said a government spokesperson.
Hobhouse has asked for her bill to return to the House on July 6.
Campaigner Gina Martin has been a driving force behind getting the bill this far, after she was the victim of upskirting at a London music festival last summer.
She caught two men taking photos up her skirt and sharing them with each other. When she noticed a photo on one of the men’s phone, she grabbed his phone and ran to security who called the police.
But five days later, she said she got a call from the police saying the case was closed, and that they wouldn’t be prosecuting the man because she had been wearing underwear — meaning the images weren’t deemed to be illegal.
Shocked, Martin started an online petition to #StopSkirtingTheIssue and get justice for women and girls who have been the victims of the intrusive practice known as “upskirting”. The petition brought in over 100,000 signatures, and received cross-party support from Conservative, Labour, and Lib Dem MPs.
But, despite Friday’s result, Martin said she was still “positive and hopeful.” She has reportedly already spoken to Chope and arranged a meeting to discuss the bill with him.
“We knew this was a risk but I now stand with powerful, passionate women and men behind me,” she said.
Justice minister Lucy Frazer had earlier on Friday confirmed ahead of the reading that the government would support the bill.
“This behaviour is a hideous invasion of privacy which leaves victims feeling degraded and distressed,” said Frazer. “By making upskirting a specific offence, we are sending a clear message that this behaviour will not be tolerated, and that perpetrators will be properly punished.”
In the UK, police aren’t yet required to record incidents of upskirting, so the true scale of the issue isn’t known.
But according to Safeline, which supports survivors of sexual abuse, upskirting is “alarmingly common.” It’s usually performed in a public place, it added, which is often crowded and makes it hard to spot people taking such images.
“Being a witness to or the victim of such an indecent act may make you feel incredibly uncomfortable and vulnerable,Te particularly if you are alone,” Safeline says on its website. “The knowledge that someone has taken potentially graphic images without consent can cause emotional distress for a long time after the event itself.”
Currently, some instances of upskirting can be prosecuted under the Sexual Offences Act, either for the offences of outraging public decency, or voyeurism. But, as with Gina Martin’s experience, existing criminal law doesn’t cover every instance of upskirting.
Outraging public decency relies on other people being able to see the photo, not the act itself, according to Hobhouse. Meanwhile, voyeurism laws fall down if the victim isn’t in a private place, meaning there’s nothing to protect victims in crowds.
But Hobhouse’s bill would have meant that up skirting is made a specific offence under the Sexual Offences Act.
Sexual offences law expert Clare McGlynn, a professor at Durham University, said the bill would be a “first step towards a more comprehensive law protecting victims of all forms of image-based sexual abuse, which also includes so-called ‘revenge porn’.”
In Scotland, upskirting was already made an illegal offence in 2009.
This post has been updated to reflect that the bill has been blocked.