Lancashire councillors hear shocking stories of 'everyday' sexual harassment and violence against women

Sexual harassment is a “fact of life” for women and girls in Lancashire.

Monday, 25th October 2021, 3:21 pm
Updated Wednesday, 27th October 2021, 6:36 pm
County Hall heard disturbing of stories of Lancashire women's experiences

That was the sobering message delivered during a Lancashire County Council debate calling for misogyny to be classed as a hate crime.

It came from Skerton county councillor Jean Parr as she presented a motion to a full council meeting at County Hall in which the Labour politician requested that the authority lobby the government to introduce the necessary legislation and said that misogyny should be prosecuted “with as much vigour as other hate crimes”.

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County Cllr Parr also wanted to see all incidents of domestic violence treated as violent assault or grievous bodily harm, prosecuted automatically without the victim having to make a formal complaint.

“Sex is a human need, but not a human right. This important distinction is sadly lost on some men who feel that women should oblige them,” she said.

“Some who fail in a relationship – or have never had one – can get lost down a rabbit hole of increasingly misogynistic groups on social media, ending in the deep web where incel [involuntary celibate] culture can be found.

“What should also concern us is the chance that some of our sons could go down this route. Immature boys, [who are] unsure of girls, can end up taking refuge in online porn,” County Cllr Parr warned, as she also called for a government task group to be set up to assess the extent and impact of ‘incel’ groups, populated by men who blame women and wider society for the fact that they do not have a sexual partner.

The debate also heard disturbing details of the personal experiences of some female county councillors and women they know.

Lancaster East member Lizzi Collinge said that she was aware of young women in the city who wear shorts beneath skirts when they go out for the night so that “when – not if, when – they are sexually assaulted, it won’t be as bad”.

County Cllr Collinge condemned what she said was a societal expectation for women to change their own behaviour in order to avoid being targeted.

She added: “The vast majority of violence and sexual violence against women occurs by somebody who knows them.

“They’re not monsters hiding in the bushes – they are husbands and sons, teachers and binmen and police officers. They are everywhere – and our whole lives seem to revolve around keeping ourselves safe.

“It’s not upon [women] to not be raped and not be beaten – it’s for men to stop raping us and stop beating us.”

Seconding the motion, Rossendale West county councillor Samara Barnes told fellow members that she was herself “a survivor of domestic abuse…street harassment and even sexual assault”.

“I receive unsolicited online abuse from men on a regular basis,” she told her colleagues.

“I can’t turn back the clock and change what happened to me, but I can try my damndest to effect change that will reduce these harms for my daughters.”

County Cllr Barnes said it was “ a myth” to suggest that classifying misogyny as a hate crime would lead to the creation of a new offence, but would rather ensure that the police and courts recognise and tackle the cause of such incidents.

Preston Rural member Sue Whittam told the meeting that a “cultural change” was necessary to eradicate the “appalling, outdated attitudes that should have no place in society today”.

Conservative cabinet member for community and cultural services Peter Buckley said that while misogynistic killings in Lancashire were rare, “misogynistic opinions, attitudes and behaviours are not” – but he stressed that work was under way to combat them.

“Last year, Lancashire Police recorded over 22,500 crimes with a domestic abuse indicator flagged – that’s over 430 per week and these are [just] the recorded ones.

“This council is already commissioning services that address the wider violence against women and girls agenda, such as the healthy relationship programme being rolled out to all secondary schools from the start of next month.

“This is being delivered by local specialist domestic abuse providers and will cover topics such as consent, misogyny, sexual harassment, stalking and digital online abuse – and includes workshops to help staff…working with young people who are demonstrating harmful and aggressive behaviours,” explained County Cllr Buckley, who added that the county’s “safer streets” initiative was also designed to deter violence towards women and stereotyping.

Presenting what is known as a “friendly amendment” to the motion, children and families cabinet member Cosima Towneley said she was attempting to “expand Cllr Parr’s original work”.

“This is a matter which affects us all – men, women, cross party,” she said, adding that it was “a fact that the majority of murders are perpetrated by someone known to the victim”.

The amended motion called for legislation on domestic violence and coercive control to be “strictly and robustly applied…and be prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service whenever there is sufficient evidence to make a conviction likely, even if the prosecution is not supported by the victim”.

It also asked the government to “consider” defining misogyny and misandry – contempt for men – a hate crime.

However, Labour county councillor for Lancaster South East, Erica Lewis, said that the changes were “an abomination”, which undermined the aims of the original proposal.

Referring to inclusion of the need for “sufficient evidence” to mount a prosecution in cases of attacks on women, County Cllr Lewis added: “This is a known fault in the system around the prosecution of sexual assault and sexual offences – what the police decide is sufficient evidence.

“[The original motion] asks for automatic prosecution – [the amendment] says only where somebody else has decided [to take it] forward.”

However, adult services cabinet member – and former senior Lancashire Police detective Graham Gooch – said that County Cllr Lewis seemed “totally unschooled in the process of the English legal system”.

“You cannot…prosecute unless you have evidence. Clearly, in the motion, it says ‘even if it is not supported by the victim’ – and that’s right. But there must be some evidence,” he said.

County Cllr Parr said she was accepting the amendment on the assumption that her original would not have been supported by the ruling group had she not agreed to the alterations.

“I want something on record that this council believes that violence against women and girls – in every situation – must be dealt with,” she said.

The amended motion was carried and the authority’s chief executive Angie Ridgwell will now write to Lancashire police and crime commissioner Andrew Snowden asking him to make “personal representation” in relation to the county council’s calls on the subject.