Upskirting – the taking of surreptitious, sexually intrusive photographs – is to become a specific criminal offence punishable by up to two years in prison.
The justice minister Lucy Frazer confirmed on Friday that the government would back a private member’s bill introduced by the Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse outlawing the practice.
In the most serious cases, those convicted of secretly photographing underneath someone’s clothing without their consent in England and Wales will be placed on the sex offender register.
Such invasive behaviour is currently prosecuted under either the offence of outraging public decency or as a crime of voyeurism under the Sexual Offences Act.
Not all instances of upskirting, however, are covered by existing criminal law. One woman, Gina Martin, started an online campaign for the practice to be criminalised after police declined to prosecute a man whom she accused of snapping pictures of her on his phone at a music festival in Hyde Park in London last summer. She had been wearing underwear and the photograph was therefore not deemed to be illegal.
Frazer said: “This behaviour is a hideous invasion of privacy which leaves victims feeling degraded and distressed.
“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.
“I’d like to thank Wera Hobhouse, Gina Martin, and all other campaigners for their tireless work, and look forward to seeing the bill progress through parliament.”
Hobhouse’s bill will receive its second reading in the Commons on Friday. The MP said: “I got involved in politics to change things that my constituents and I care about. I am incredibly grateful to Gina Martin for starting this campaign, and for giving me the opportunity – in my first year in parliament – to do exactly that.
“The fact that the government have listened to our calls is testament to the widespread consensus that there was a gap in the law that needed to be addressed.”
Martin said: “Almost a year ago, I started my campaign to make upskirting a sexual offence after I was targeted … And now, the result of all that hard work is that women and girls who needed this law changed are now being heard by those in power.”
There have been a number of convictions recently, including that of Andrew Macrae, who was vice-president of ticketing company Live Nation. He was found to have amassed 50,000 images of strangers for his sexual gratification.
He was caught by an off-duty police officer who noticed a pen-shaped camera in a laptop bag that Macrae had placed between a woman’s legs at Clapham Junction station.
Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “We welcome the government taking decisive action to make upskirting a criminal offence. This form of abuse is painful and humiliating for victims and often has a devastating impact on all aspects of their lives.
“By condemning this form of abuse, we can send out the powerful message that upskirting is unacceptable and perpetrators of this crime will be held to account.”
Professor Clare McGlynn of Durham University, an expert on the law on sexual offences, said: “The criminalisation of upskirting … is a welcome first step towards a more comprehensive law protecting victims of all forms of image-based sexual abuse, which also includes so-called ‘revenge porn’. We hope to work with the government to strengthen what is proposed in order to provide a truly effective deterrent, looking at intent, anonymity for all victims, and at threats.”