Following the General Election in May 2015, the Naturist Action Group wrote to Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, asking for clarification on her party’s policy on naturism and the discrimination felt by many naturists.
Although the dust from the election had not quite settled, at the same time we also wrote to David Cameron, the Prime Minister, Harriet Harman, then interim leader of the Labour Party and leader of the official opposition, Tim Farron, the newly elected leader of the Liberal Democrats, and Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party and First Minister of Scotland, and Angus Robertson MP, deputy leader of the SNP and party leader in the House of Commons. None of the letters were identical, but were all broadly similar to the one sent to Natalie Bennett.
I would just like to take a moment to give a brief explanation of how HM Government functions, if you already know this perhaps you would prefer to skip the remainder of this paragraph and the next. Located in central London, Government for the UK is headed by the Prime Minister on one side, with the Loyal Opposition on the other. MPs from other parties usually sit on the Opposition benches in the House of Commons. Since 1999 however, some matters specific to that nation have been devolved to parliaments in Scotland (Edinburgh) and Wales (Cardiff) with a Government led by a First Minister, who can be from a different party to the Prime Minister in London. Northern Ireland is different again. A more detailed explanation can be found from Wikipedia.
We wrote to the Prime Minister (Conservative), the leader of the Loyal Opposition (Labour) and to the leader of the third largest party in the House of Commons, the Scottish Nationalist Party. We wrote to the Liberal Democrats because they are still considered a major party in UK politics, even though they only have eight MPs and the Greens because one of our supporters wanted to attempt to change their policies in favour of naturism. All are based in London. As the leader of the SNP – Nicola Sturgeon – is a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) and not an MP in London, we wrote to her in Edinburgh.
Of all the letters sent, only those to the Prime Minister and the First Minister were acknowledged and full replies subsequently received.
The reply from Downing Street came via the office of the Rt. Hon Mike Penning MP, the Minister for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice and Victims. It is a brief letter and said:
“Nudity in public is not an offence where there is no [intention] to cause harassment, alarm and distress. There are powers for the police to deal with any such acts and how they enforce the law in any particular case is an operational matter for the police.”
This is making reference to section 66, Sexual Offences Act 2003, which states:
(1) A person commits an offence if—
(a) he intentionally exposes his genitals, and
(b) he intends that someone will see them and be caused alarm or distress.
(2) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable—
(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or both;
(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years.
Penning would not comment on any individual case, namely Steve Gough, and we would not expect him too. It is a pity, however, that he would not comment on the wider point we raised about the unequal treatment naturists get from the justice system when the Conservative Party had a manifesto commitment for: “Promoting equal treatment and equal opportunity for all in society proud of its tolerance and diversity.”
In our letter to the First Minister of Scotland, we said that while the SNP had a comprehensive policy for gender equality and discrimination, nowhere among their policies could we find a specific mention of a right to a private life and a right to choose how they might express themselves, which could include public nudity.
The reply came from Ronnie Fraser of the Criminal Justice Division of the Justice Directorate in Edinburgh, and is somewhat more substantial than the reply received from Penning and refers to Scots Law. In it, he states:
“[T]here is no specific statutory offence concerning public nudity in Scotland, but under Scots Law, exposure of the naked body in certain circumstances may be considered by the courts to be a breach of the peace. This is because the conduct, although not indecent or aggressive … may yet be likely to cause fear and alarm or distress to a reasonable person.”
The text for the Sexual Offences Act in Scotland is identical to England and Wales. It is therefore interesting that Fraser uses the word ‘likely’ a lower test than in the Act itself, which states that alarm or distress should: “be caused….”
Naturally, it is up to the court to determine if the provisions of the Act had been broken and will need to consider the individual circumstances of the case but Fraser referred to the Appeal Court case of Webster v Dominick 2003. He summed it up by stating that public nudity “is criminal only where it affects public sensibility”.
A discussion about Webster v Dominick is outside the scope of this article, but I believe it does point the way for future campaigning and not only for Scotland.
We know that the Crown Prosecution Service have published guidelines for police services and front line officers in England and Wales to consult when dealing with incidents involving public nudity. What NAG has learned so far is that it is not compulsory for them to use the guidelines but if training based upon it and developed by the College of Policing is given to station custody officers then maybe fewer files involving naturists will be passed to the CPS for prosecution. That, after all, is the general aim of the guidelines.
With its separate judicial system, the CPS Guidelines do not apply to Scotland, so getting something similar there is one avenue we could explore. In the meantime, I can reveal that BN have produced an information sheet explaining public nudity in relation to Scottish law, similar to the one they produced for England and Wales, and it will be launched at their AGM, this October. It will fold down to credit card size and would be useful for anyone who’s right to be nude in a public place is challenged.
NAG is beginning to work on getting training on the CPS Guidelines included for custody officers’ but it is clear that the Conservative-led Government is continuing with the austerity started by the previous coalition Government, so Chief Constables around the country will have some difficult decisions to make. We can make the economic case, without a doubt but on it’s own, it will not be enough. As Webster v Dominick suggests public nudity is only criminal if it affected public sensibility, where does the public draw the line when it comes to nudity?
Public reaction to protests like the World Naked Bike Ride seem to be, on the whole, positive but mixed when it comes to the naked hiker or beach user. We need to know what the public thinks is acceptable and what isn’t, when it comes to public nudity. Although we are already compiling the public’s reaction through our Casual Naturism survey, we need to consider what other types of action we could be taking to get an understanding about the public’s reaction to simple nudity. Once we understand that then we can formulate a campaign strategy to enable the politicians and the justice system to see and hear that public sensibility is our side.
Writing that was simple, doing it… we need your help with funding and in taking the next step.