LONDON — The British government is under pressure to do more to protect women and ensure the right to protest as Parliament prepares to debate a sweeping crime bill amid anger over the way police broke up a vigil for a young murder victim abducted on the streets of London.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday called a meeting of his Crime and Justice Taskforce, including government ministers, senior police officers and prosecutors, to discuss the issue of women’s safety. Among the items on the agenda is a recent decline in successful prosecutions for rape and sexual assault.
But the opposition Labour Party called on the government to stop talking, toughen penalties for rapists and take action against street harassment and stalking. The party has directed its lawmakers to vote against the crime bill, noting that women aren’t mentioned once in its 296 pages.
“This is a missed opportunity to tackle violence against women and girls that has become endemic in the U.K.,” David Lammy, Labour’s spokesman on justice, said in a statement.
The legislation has also been criticized because it expands the power of authorities to prevent noisy and disruptive protests.
The murder of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, has galvanized women to speak out about the barrage of verbal harassment and physical threats they face every day on the streets of Britain, saying they shouldn’t have to live in fear.
Everard disappeared March 3 in south London as she walked home from a friend’s house. Her body was found a week later about 85 miles (140 kilometres) to the east near the English Channel. A serving police officer has been charged with her kidnap and murder.
Hundreds of women gathered Saturday night on Clapham Common, a park near the place Everard was last seen alive, for a vigil in her honour.
Police broke up the event and arrested four women, saying the gathering was endangering public health. London’s Metropolitan Police Service had refused to give permission for the vigil in advance because authorities said it violated restrictions on large gatherings imposed to control the spread of COVID-19.
The front pages of Britain’s Sunday newspapers were filled with pictures of women clashing with police on the common. Many featured photos of Patsy Stevenson, 28, being wrestled to the ground and handcuffed by officers.
“The fact that the police turned up was just disgraceful, because before then it was a peaceful protest,” Stevenson told the Times of London.
Danica Kirka, The Associated Press