The most problematic rebellion Theresa May has suffered this week is not on Brexit and the troublesome EU Withdrawal Bill – but on upskirting. In case you’ve missed it, upskirting is when someone takes a picture up a woman’s skirt without their knowledge. At present, police struggle to pursue such offences as if the woman is wearing underwear then the incident can be deemed not ‘graphic’ enough to be classed as either outraging public decency or as a crime of voyeurism.
So, a private members’ bill on the issue – brought to the House of Commons by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse – was today set to change all that and bring it in line with other voyeurism offences. The government had announced its full support for making ‘upskirting‘ a sexual offence and the woman who started the campaign – Gina Martin – had already began to celebrate its success. However, it wasn’t to be. At the bill’s second reading, Christopher Chope – the Conservative MP – shouted ‘object!’. This means that the bill’s progress is halted. In Chope’s sort-of defence, this wasn’t the only bill he objected to – as a so-called Commons scrutineer he he also opposed Finn’s Law, Government-backed plans to give police dogs and horses extra legal protections from attack.
Hobhouse has asked for it to return in early July. Now it may well be the case that it does pass when the bill next visits the House but today’s intervention from Chope is unhelpful and damaging to the Conservative party. On the surface, it’s really hard to see why discouraging people from taking illicit photos up women’s skirts could be seen as a bad thing. The reason this bill had cross-party support from across the house is that no party found reason to object to action being taken to put a deterrent in place to end this practise.
Some critics of the bill, such as Melanie McDonagh on Coffee House, have questioned whether the potential for a two year prison sentence in the most serious cases or placement on the sex offenders’ list was too severe a punishment. But the manner of Chope’s stunt is hardly likely to win such arguments much support. At the end of the day, the optics are simply that a Conservative male politician spent his Friday afternoon preventing a ban on taking upskirt photographs of women’s crotches. Yes, Theresa May has suffered a damaging Commons rebellion this week – it just wasn’t the one she was expecting.