Sir Christopher Chope is not, perhaps, a household name, but he is a man of quite considerable courage. By raising an objection to the preposterous private member’s bill, brought by Wera Hobhouse, a LibDem MP, to make upskirting – taking pictures up girls’ skirts – a specific criminal offence, he has seen off a bill which was a preposterous waste of time.
The Government and Wera H has been hoping to get through the bill on the nod but it could only happen if no one in the chamber had the bad taste to object to it being passed without debate. Sir Christopher, one of parliament’s tough nuts, took the entirely legitimate view that if the Commons were to bring in a new criminal offence for which someone could be sent to prison for two years, well it ought to be debated. For his pains, he was, it seems, booed by his own side. He should instead have been congratulated for doing his job.
The exciting new offence could, I suppose, affect me, because I always wear skirts or dresses unless I’m actually in pyjamas, though mine are long enough to make it a tricky exercise. So if some chancer underneath the spiral staircase in the atrium at work were very quick off the mark he could get a shot of my underwear from underneath the thing with a mobile phone. Or maybe in the London Library, where they have flooring with slats, someone with a zoom lens and a chair to stand on could get a look up my dress, if he were really keen.
But really, is it necessary to invent an entirely new offence to cover this misdemeanour? The private member’s bill by Wera Hobhouse, MP for Bath, which Sir Christopher has seen off, had the backing of Lucy Frazer, the Justice Minister who declared this was “a hideous invasion of privacy, which leave victims feeling degraded and distressed”. The intention was that offenders could potentially find themselves on the sex offenders register or with a two year jail sentence. That was after a woman called Gina Martin launched an online petition – inevitably – to criminalise the matter after someone took a picture up her skirt at a music festival in Hyde Park. It was rather disgraceful conduct, certainly, but did it actually warrant a potential two year sentence or indeed being put on the register, which is a downer for most people’s careers?
Previously, bad behaviour of this kind was dealt with under the offence of outraging public decency, as voyeurism, which seems just about right. And if, as Gina Martin suggests, the creep who photographed her got away with it because she was wearing knickers, and if it is indeed hard to prosecute, then that’s a signal for the police and CPS to review their guidelines, not cue for the creation of an entirely new offence.
What it is, of course, is the usual attempt by government to signal its feminism, in this case through legislation, because it doesn’t have anything better to do, does it? Taking a very hard line on men who take pictures up women’s skirts is easier than dealing with more pressing issues. But at least we know that the Government is committed to protecting women’s modesty. Only now, thanks to one of its own backbenchers, this preposterous exercise has been seen off. I suppose the usual campaigners will be calling on the Government to give the bill parliamentary time of its own, as opposed to debating, you know, the other things that are around. Meanwhile, well done, Sir Christopher Chope.