Proposals for a new law to protect women against public sexual harassment could be shelved as the Government unveils its long-awaited strategy to combat violence against women and girls.
The plans for new legislation were backed by leading women MPs including former Tory ministers Caroline Nokes and Maria Miller as well as femininst author Nimco Ali, who was appointed by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, as an independent adviser to help draw up the strategy.
Earlier this year, Ms Ali told The Telegraph new laws were needed because they set the “template for society” through which people understood what types of behaviour were unacceptable.
“Street sexual harassment should be a criminal offence,” she said. “It is illegal to spit your chewing gum out on to the floor in public. You get fined. We have laws for drink driving and wearing seat belts. But to say to a 14-year-old girl: ‘Come over here and do explicit things,’ is not a crime.
“You can’t be safe if people can be saying these kinds of things to a woman let alone children. Why can’t we take steps to make women feel as safe as men on the street?”
Ministers are coming under pressure to leave open the possibility of a new offence outlawing explicit sexual and abusive comments against women when they unveil the strategy on Wednesday.
Abuse of women in public spaces was one of the biggest issues among the 180,000 responses to the consultation, fuelled partly by the public anger following the murder of Sarah Everard as she walked home from Clapham in south London.
Officials, however, argue that current law could be better deployed to tackle the problem.
Ms Patel is expected to unveil plans for a national police chief to combat violence against women and girls.
This would include ensuring police take offences, such as indecent exposure and street harassment, more seriously, with the precedent to such a move the appointment of a police chief to take charge of counterterrorism, currently Neil Basu.
The strategy is also expected to propose changes to personal, social, and health and economic education at school so that boys are taught how to respect women.
It will confirm plans to increase the age of marriage from 16 to 18 to end forced marriages. Virginity testing – the examination or repair of the hymen – will be outlawed.
However, campaigners for a new offence say current legislation has developed piecemeal and is incapable of dealing with contemporary issues.
The Public Order Act 1986 does not refer to crimes with any sexual element and has rarely been used to prosecute verbal sexual harassment.
The Protection from Harassment Act of 1997 requires a “course of conduct” that does not cover the vast majority of street comments or abuse which are one-off and opportunistic, while the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 largely requires physical contact.