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Labour MP Wants More "Wins" On Changing The Law To Tackle Sexual Violence

Sarah Champion has been vocal about tackling sexual violence for years (Alamy)

6 min read

Labour MP Sarah Champion wants to work with the Conservative government to push through more law changes to tackle sexual violence against women and girls, after another recent “win” on getting legislation through.

Champion, who has been the MP for Rotheram since 2012 and has just celebrated her 11th anniversary in Parliament, was visibly delighted in the House of Commons on Tuesday when Home Secretary James Cleverly announced the government would table an amendment to prevent registered sex offenders changing their name to avoid detection – an amendment that had originally been hers. 

Champion – rather fittingly – has become known for getting legislative “wins” in Parliament throughout the years, particularly around tackling sexual abuse after the horrific sexual exploitation of around 2,000 children was revealed in 2014 in her constituency.

Now that the government has committed to bringing her amendment on sex offenders changing their name into law, Champion has set her mind to the next tasks of ensuring it is properly implemented and getting through other changes that she believes are imperative to protecting women and girls in the future. 

The Victims and Prisoners Bill is returning to the Commons on Monday for its third reading, and Champion has tabled a number of amendments which she hopes will either be picked up by the government or by the House of Lords. Champion’s name appears 43 times on the latest amendments paper. 

One such amendment is to introduce a requirement that all criminal justice agencies inform victims of their right to pre-trial therapy, and that the Crown Prosecution Service annually review their pre-trial therapy guidance and its implementation.

“They've all come from constituency casework,” Champion told PoliticsHome.

“A constituent came to me and she'd been through a particularly horrific sexual abuse case and as an adult, she reported it to the police and was very actively told by the police not to have pre-trial therapy, because it could be used against her when she got to court.

“For 18 months while she was waiting for court, and probably the darkest months of her life, she followed that advice and didn't have therapy, and it broke her to the point that she's now emigrated just to try and start again.”

Champion said that it was an issue that she had been campaigning on for years, and that she was determined to break the “myth” around pre-trial therapy that has made it such a deterrent for victims to seek support.

“We're trying to get the ministers made crystal clear that only in very specific instances are counselling notes used in a court and what I'd actually like is for that to be at a judge’s discretion rather than at a prosecutor or police-person’s discretion,” she continued. 

Champion also wants the bill to introduce an assessment of numbers of independent domestic violence and sexual violence advisers, stalking advocates and specialist support services within six months of the act passing. 

“There's a very clear pattern of behaviour around violence against women and girls and it tends to start with small actions that don't get picked up and addressed,” she said.

“So that could be name calling, that could be low level harassment, but the one that really frustrates me, which should be a much more severe crime and recognised much earlier on is stalking.

“The thing that deeply frustrates me is that were the police to act at the first signs of stalking, that will probably be enough of a deterrent to save that woman's life, and in almost every case where a woman has had an advocate they've been able to get better protections around them, better support when they're going to court and get a better outcome for it.”

Her amendment therefore would seek to make stalking advocates recognised within the court process. 

Many MPs themselves have recently been victims of stalking and harassment, and Champion said that given it is “disproportionately” women that are affected, the increasing number of women in Parliament was helping to raise the issue up the political agenda – women currently make up around 35 per cent of MPs.

“It’s a very live issue for too many people in this place,” she said.

“A lot of the increase [in interest] is because of the number of women MPs we've now got; we've gone from a minority to a solid bloc.

“Psychologists say that in a group situation when you get to a third, that's enough to start making real change, and I definitely noticed that when we hit about 32 per cent the content suddenly shifted, and it was very notable to me.”

She said that many male colleagues were also having to go through court processes as a result of stalking and harassment.

“I've got a male colleague who has had to go through the court process with someone who's very, very obsessive around them,” she said.

“Whilst women tend to be ignored in the court system with something like stalking, men are encouraged just to brush him off and see it as a compliment.”

Champion hopes to continue her track record of legislative “wins” as a backbench MP by carefully selecting issues which she believes the government would pick up on, and working with government, despite sitting on the opposition benches. She expects to meet with Cleverly in due course to discuss ways to implement closing the loophole that allows sex offenders to change their name. 

“I've had a lot of wins because I recognised Labour aren’t in government and so working with people that are in government is the only way that you're going to get changes,” she said.

“I try to focus on something very specific, make an argument, and then the key of it is keep making the argument. For three years with the name change one, I've been going to different ministers, I've been raising it in any debate that I can find.”

She said that she recognised that within the Labour Party, there were “different techniques” carried out by colleagues to attempt to bring about change, but that she preferred to go down the legislative route rather than through “big showy campaigns” or “relying on the government doing the right thing”.

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