There should be no limits of the types of women protected from hate crime says Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, as she begins her consideration of whether Scotland requires a standalone offence to tackle misogynist abuse.
“It’s the perception of the perpetrator that matters here,” says the human rights QC, who is well aware that her appointment to lead an independent working group on the question coincides with a toxic row about the Scottish government’s hate crime bill more broadly, and its protections for both women and transgender individuals.
There is an attempt to bridge this deepening schism on Monday, when the Scottish government’s new draft free-speech amendment will be discussed at a public roundtable.
But Kennedy is immediately clear on how she would define the scope of specific protection she is charged with: “This is about hatred. Trans women, gay women, journalists, parliamentarians, all women get a whole lot of horrible stuff slung at them – disproportionately – and I’m not narrowing down those who receive it.”
In her first interview since the appointment earlier this month, Kennedy also sets out plans to call social media chiefs to explain why they are failing to tackle “vile abuse” of women online, and reveals that she was recently advised to carry an attack alarm after receiving a threat at the House of Lords.
Describing it as an ambitious project to protect women, Kennedy and her six-person panel – “hand-picked by me” – have a year to resolve whether the creation of a standalone offence or adding sex to the list of other protected characteristics, such as race and religion, would better tackle misogynist abuse.
While a working definition of misogyny is for the panel to deliberate, Kennedy suggests it should target conduct like street harassment, sexual bullying in the workplace and online abuse of women in public life. She particularly mentions a survey published last week by Holyrood magazine, which found almost a third of female MSPs who responded had received a threat of sexual violence.
She is clear about the significant and long-lasting impact of such hatred: “It ends up eating away at your self-confidence, your sense of safety, it creates fear and anxiety … We’re talking about the whole backdrop of inequality and how women are treated in society.”
Calls to treat misogynist abuse – and in particular street harassment – separately in law have been spearheaded by community organiser Citizens UK and the Labour MP Stella Creasy, with growing public support, and last autumn the Law Commission recommended that misogyny should be made a hate crime in England and Wales.
The Scottish government’s own hate crime bill has attracted a huge amount of controversy and, while it was always the intention to examine this standalone option, the timing is far from ideal. As it stands, the bill that is passing through Holyrood criminalises, among other things, the stirring up of hatred against cross-dressing people, thereby protecting men who dress as women, but not the stirring up of hatred against women, while the decision on protections for women won’t be made until Kennedy’s working group reports back in 12 months’ time.
Kennedy refuses to be drawn on the timing – “I’m not even going there” – but, asked what her reassurance would be for women concerned that the new bill does not protect them, she says: “I’m sure that’s precisely why I was asked to look at whether women should just be added on [to the list of protected characteristics] or there should be a much more ambitious project to protect women. Going into the difficult areas is not something that I mind doing.”
Although the concept was initially trivialised by the media as “arrests for wolf-whistling”, many police forces in England now record street harassment of women, for example, as a hate crime, following a groundbreaking pilot in Nottingham in 2016.
“There is also no doubt that law can be hugely symbolic and it can concentrate the mind,” adding she is certain that the Law Commission will be “looking over our shoulder”. She will be seeking evidence from the Nottingham force, as well as other common law jurisdictions such as Australia and Canada that have introduced similar legislation.
“What you don’t want is for it to be used in a way that brings it into disrepute, where someone makes a kissy noise and finds the heavy hand of the law on their shoulder. What we’re really talking about here is the sort of abuse that ends up putting people in fear, that denigrates and reduces women.”
Kennedy herself recently received a threatening letter from a man who had served a long sentence for attempted murder of a woman, which she brought to the attention of the parliamentary authorities. She was given a personal alarm by the police. “Women in the public domain carry those risks,” she says. “It affects your life.”
• This article was amended on 22 February 2021 to clarify that the reference to the criminalisation of the stirring up of hatred against men who dress as women is specifically in relation to the protection the bill offers to people who cross-dress.