MPs have blocked an attempt to introduce a minimum sentence for rape, while voting through highly controversial new laws restricting protests.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill later cleared the House of Commons by 365 votes to 265 on Monday evening.
But attempts to scrap controversial curbs on demonstrations were rejected by Government MPs.
As part of efforts to overhaul the justice system, the Government has proposed a raft of changes in the Bill which have sparked months of ‘kill the bill’ protests and widespread condemnation.
These include plans to give police in England and Wales more powers to impose conditions on non-violent protests judged to be too noisy and thereby causing ‘intimidation or harassment’ or ‘serious unease, alarm or distress’ to the public.
Time and noise limits could be imposed as a result of the measures in the Bill and those convicted could face a fine or jail.
In an amendment to the bill, Labour proposed a statutory minimum sentence for rape of seven years – but the move was blocked by Conservatives.
Shadow justice secretary David Lammy had told the Commons: ‘I think most people would be appalled to learn that rapists can be sentenced to as little as four years in prison for one of the most heinous crimes imaginable.’
Labour’s new clause 87 would also have given courts the power to jail people for up to two years if they publish the identity of a sexual offences complainant, amid concerns over the level of fines issued under existing law.
But after the proposals were rejected Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: ‘The Conservatives are soft on crime, soft on criminals and more interested in protecting statues than protecting women.’
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland justified the move by saying: ‘The concerns that we have with regard to the proposal put forward by Labour is it does not reflect the reality of what has been happening with regard to rape sentencing.
‘There has over the last 10 years been a welcome increase in the average length of sentences for rape of 15% – with two-thirds of offenders now receiving a custodial sentence of over seven years. In fact, the average is nine years and nine-and-a-half months – which I think reflects the evolution of sentencing guidelines and the welcome changes that have been made.’
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The Liberal Democrats tabled amendments in a bid to remove part three of the Bill, which imposes conditions on processions and protests.
But the party’s amendment one – part of a series of seven to scrap this section of the legislation – was rejected by a majority of 81.
During the debate, shadow Home Office minister Sarah Jones said the Bill ‘went too far’ in reforming public order legislation.
Ms Jones added: ‘The point of protest is to capture attention, protests are noisy, sometimes they are annoying, but they are as fundamental to our democracy as our Parliament.’
Conservative former Cabinet minister David Davis agreed, highlighting a letter in The Times from a number of police chiefs airing their concerns.
He added: ‘And so it hasn’t just been the sort of lefty liberal legal fraternity that have been worried about this.’
But Home Office minister Victoria Atkins said: ‘The Bill does not stop the freedom to demonstrate. It balances that freedom against the rights and liberties of others.’
Meanwhile, Labour MP Stella Creasy called for ministers to make it an offence to photograph a woman while she is breastfeeding.
Ms Creasy told the Commons that ‘every time proposals have been put forward to keep women safe in this country, they get kicked into the long grass’ and compared the response to the way Conservative ministers have protected statues during black lives matter protests.
Ms Creasy said the Justice Secretary was ‘sending a very clear message to women… that their concerns are complicated and difficult, but somehow statues and protests are not’.
Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse added MPs that misogyny should be made a hate crime.
She said the Bill ‘does not go far enough’ to prevent violence against women and girls, and added: ‘In the same way that we recognise homophobic, racial, or religious discrimination, making misogyny a hate crime would help us understand how the hatred of women causes harm.’
The bill will now pass to the House of Lords, where it could face several amendments.
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