The Law Commission says there is overwhelming evidence, including online abuse targeted at women MPs, to justify adding sex or gender as protected characteristics under hate crime laws.
The commission has today unveiled several proposals to improve hate crime laws, which it says in practice are complex, spread across different statutes and use multiple overlapping mechanisms.
Hate crime refers to existing criminal offences, such as assault and harassment, where the victim is targeted on the basis of hostility towards one or more protected characteristics – currently race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and transgender identity. The crime is considered more serious as a result.
Considering evidence of criminal behaviour against women, today’s report says that in the six weeks before the 2017 general election, 45% of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs were directed at Labour’s Diane Abbot, the UK’s first black female MP.
In an interview with the Guardian in September 2017, Abbott said: ‘It’s highly racialised and it’s also gendered because people talk about rape and they talk about my physical appearance in a way they wouldn’t talk about a man. I’m abused as a female politician and I’m abused as a black politician.’
The commission concludes that ‘there is overwhelming evidence that women and girls are targeted for certain crimes, and arguments which link this targeting to prejudice or hostility towards women’s gender. We therefore consider that the demonstrable need criterion is very convincingly satisfied in relation to women, and by extension, to the characteristic sex or gender.’
However, to explore the risk of unintended consequences, the commission has also asked questions about the implications of the proposal in the context of sexual offences and domestic abuse, where there are already well-established laws and practices designed to protect victims.
The commission is also consulting on whether other characteristics and groups, such as age, sex workers, homelessness, alternative subcultures and philosophical beliefs should be protected.
‘Stirring up’ offences would be extended to cover incitement of hatred towards disabled and transgender people, and hatred on the grounds of sex or gender.
The commission says racist chanting at football matches should remain a distinct criminal offence but proposes extending the offence to cover chanting targeting a person’s sexual orientation. The commission also asks whether the offence should be extended to cover other behaviour such as gestures and throwing missiles, and conduct when entering or leaving a ground or travelling to the game.
Criminal law commissioner Professor Penney Lewis said: ‘Hate crime has no place in our society and we have seen the terrible impact that it can have on victims. Our proposals will ensure all protected characteristics are treated in the same way, and that women enjoy hate crime protection for the first time.’
The consultation closes on 24 December.