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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 April, 2003, 13:38 GMT 14:38 UK
Naked ambition 'still lawful'
By Jackie Storer
BBC News Online political staff

The 500 volunteers who stripped to pose naked on escalators at London's Selfridges department store in the name of art can breathe a sigh of relief.

They will not face prosecution if they choose to strip off again in future when the new Sexual Offences Bill becomes law.

Nudes at Selfridges
About 500 people stripped off at Selfridges
The bill, which will make sexual "grooming" of children a new offence and generally strengthens protection for the public against sex offenders, tightens the law on exposure.

Home Office Minister Hilary Benn says the government is also considering changing the law to grant anonymity to people accused of sex offences, if MPs recommend the change.

But Mr Benn has insisted the exposure proposals are not out to target naturists, or streakers who enjoy tearing across football pitches to the bemusement of cheering crowds.

Instead it is aimed at flashers, or indecent exposure that can cause real "alarm and distress" to people, he said.

'Nude happening'

In fact, Mr Benn, giving evidence to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, says it is this aspect of the bill that has bothered MPs the most.

The minister was giving assurances to would-be streakers and naturists just days after 500 volunteers undressed at Selfridges to pose for an installation by New York-born artist Spencer Turnick.

Earlier this month, 160 volunteers also took part in a "nude happening" run by the same artist to launch London's Saatchi Gallery.

There is a world of difference between a streaker at a football match ... and somebody who exposes themselves to a woman when they are alone in a railway carriage
Hilary Benn
Labour's Gwyn Prosser pressed the minister to tell the committee whether the exposure offence, which carries a maximum penalty of two years jail, would "criminalise the activities of naturists and streakers and other so-called non-sexual activities".

Mr Benn retorted: "It is not in any way intended to criminalise naturists.

"I think I have sent more letters to my parliamentary colleagues making that point than on any other part of this bill."

Mass nudity

This prompted one committee wag to call out: "So there's no cover up?"

Mr Benn continued: "Clearly the naturist community has been very active in writing to members of Parliament to express concern ...

Can you give the same assurances to those who portray mass nudity as an art form?
Gwyn Prosser
"Nobody could argue that a naturist sets out knowing or intending to cause alarm or distress so I don't see in any circumstances how naturists could be caught by that offence."

Mr Prosser asked again for the minister to "give the same assurances to streakers and to those who portray mass nudity as an art form".

This prompted Mr Benn to stress: "I think everyone would accept that there is a world of difference between a streaker at a football match where it is quite hard to say that alarm or distress would be caused and somebody exposes themselves to a woman when they are alone in a railway carriage.

"How can you feel alarmed or distressed when you are with 70,000 people or when you are walking past the Tate Modern, I think it was?" said Mr Benn, mixing up his art galleries.

Flashing salesman?

Mr Prosser said the Police Federation claimed it would be difficult to police exposure in a person's home or dwelling.

Mr Benn disagreed, stressing that the impact on a person would be the same.

Nudes at the Saatchi gallery
Dozens lay naked to mark the Saatchi opening
It could be "equally intimidating if you have got a woman an home alone and somebody comes in to fix their washing machine or do some building work or sell insurance and then exposes themselves".

"It seems right and proper that the law should catch those circumstances should they arise."

Ex Tory home office minister Ann Widdecombe asked what would happen if she was out with a young child and "somebody rushes past for a bet or a dare or whatever it may be without his clothes on".

"I won't be alarmed and I won't be distressed, I will be highly offended," she said, adding: "Do I have a recourse in law?"


Mr Benn said the MP would have to be caused alarm or distress or would have to make a complaint under the common law offence of outraging public decency.

Mr Benn also told the committee that ministers will consider making changes to the law granting anonymity to people accused of sex offences if MPs recommended it.

The minister said he appreciated that people's reputations could be ruined by allegations of rape or child sex abuse which later proved unfounded.

Miss Widdecombe asked if a solution would be to offer strict anonymity between the accusation being made and the suspect being charged by police.

"If you make that recommendation we will look at it," said Mr Benn.

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