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Volume 570: debated on Thursday 21 November 2013

Debate resumed.

I could have done without the announcement of Royal Assent to a Bill that I think colleagues know causes a great deal of difficulty for my constituents.

I begin by apologising to the Minister and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) that I will not be here for the wind-ups. I am afraid that logistics have defeated me this Thursday.

This is my first experience of a Backbench Business Committee debate, and I add my thanks to the Committee for granting this debate to the group of Members who asked for this topic to be covered, of which I was privileged to be part. The debate is particularly apposite because Monday is the first anniversary of the introduction of two new specific offences on stalking. Those two new laws are in no small way due to the tireless efforts of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. I am second to none in acknowledging the work that he has put in. I had the privilege of serving with him when my party was in opposition on the justice unions group. It was directly out of his work on that group that the investigation was set up, which has led to the Government’s strengthening the legislation, building on the legislation that was passed in 1997.

I also join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Harry Fletcher and Laura Richards. I have known Harry Fletcher for rather a long time. At one stage, I was seeing so much of him that I felt that he had become part of my office staff. That was in the days when I shadowed Home Office affairs. He has a formidable reputation for his work in this area, on probation and other matters, and he and Laura Richards now provide a tremendous service through Paladin, the organisation set up to provide a national stalking advocacy service. We are very fortunate that they help us in the all-party parliamentary group on stalking and harassment, and long may that continue. A lot of the work that has been done on this debate has come directly through Paladin and the work of the all-party group.

In my intervention I acknowledged that most Members of Parliament will come across cases of stalking and harassment in their constituency caseload. Indeed, colleagues have been stalked and harassed themselves. Most of us will remember the speech made in the emergency debate in October by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) about the harassment, bullying, stalking and trolling of him and his immediate family and staff.

I do not know about colleagues here in the Chamber, but when I am approached by constituents and asked to take up cases I sometimes almost feel as though I am being used to continue the stalking and harassment. That is why I am pleased that the all-party group is considering issuing some guidelines and thoughts on how we can keep an eye on this as Members of Parliament to make sure that we are not being used and exacerbating the situation that suddenly arises in our constituency surgeries, where we are trying our very best to help. We do not want to become part of constituents’ problems; we always want to be part of a solution. I hope that the work we are planning to do on this will be welcomed right across the board.

For people watching this who may have a personal problem, I am going to give a small advert for the national stalking and harassment helpline: its number is 0808 802 0300. There is also the advocacy organisation, Paladin, which has on its website advice for victims and for professionals. There is assistance and help out there for people; they are not on their own. It is important for them to remember that those sources of help are available.

I want to start by looking at arrests and investigations. The new stalking laws were of course very welcome, but the figures for the number of persons arrested, charged and convicted in England and Wales under those laws have been made available only for the first six months. Those figures are disappointing and I do not think they reflect the seriousness of the crimes. We will be the first to appreciate that the figures are incomplete, and we know that it takes a tremendous amount of time to gather such information from the 42 police services. Nevertheless, I hope that in his winding-up speech, which I look forward to reading, the Minister will be able to respond to those initial figures and perhaps produce some updated figures with which to help us. I welcome him to his place on the Front Bench. He is not the Minister directly responsible for this and is standing in for another Home Office Minister, but I know that with his reputation for assiduous attention to detail he will produce a very good response to the debate.

By the end of June 2013, data from 30 of the 42 police services had been sent to the Home Office. From those data, we were able to see that there have been 320 arrests, with 189 alleged offenders having been charged. However, so far only 33 of them have been convicted of stalking. I recognise that the majority of these cases are still being processed, but the numbers of arrests do seem to be low. If the figures are representative, as they probably are, there will have been about 450 arrests under the new laws in that six-month period. However, in Scotland, where the new laws became effective at the beginning of 2011, there have been more than 1,450 detections of stalking in the first 30-month period, and I understand that so far about a third of those individuals have been convicted. During the first six months, Scotland saw about 250 arrests. A comparison of the figures suggests that those for England and Wales are quite low.

The right hon. Lady makes a point that very much troubles me. In the first six months of the offence being in place in Scotland there were 140 prosecutions in Strathclyde alone. Does she agree that it is very troubling that just one area in Scotland can achieve almost half the prosecutions we have achieved in England and Wales, and that that needs to be addressed?

That is right, and I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. That is the message that we need to send to the Home Office. We need to dig deeper into these figures and look at the efficacy of the laws and the ways in which they are being applied.

There seems to be widespread inconsistency between the police service areas in England and Wales. I have had a look at some of the figures. There were 133 arrests in the Metropolitan police service area, but in Gloucestershire there were none. In between those extremes, there were 36 arrests in Lancashire, 20 in my own Thames Valley police area, 14 in Suffolk, 12 in Bedfordshire, and just two in Merseyside. I think all Members would agree that there is something very challenging about those statistics. The number of people charged also varies. The Metropolitan police service is again on top with 71. My own Thames Valley police area had 12. In north Wales there were six, in Sussex eight, and in Leicestershire 10—I could go on. The number of those so far convicted is too small to be of any statistical significance whatsoever. I hope the Minister will be able to share some up-to-date figures that we have not yet been able to obtain.

I would also welcome an observation from the Minister on how we can improve the situation and on what the Government intend to do about their strategy and working with the police. Case material received by my office from Paladin seems to indicate that there are some major outstanding training needs, particularly in the understanding of the new laws. I think we need to consider all stalking behaviour when victims complain and the serious nature of such behaviour.

I hope that action will be taken with the police and crime commissioners, who are a new tool in our defence against crime. They should be specifically instructed to address the issue, produce up-to-date statistics and review the operation of the local police force within their purview, so as to enable them to improve what is happening in it. A large number of victims who expected more of the new law are still frustrated, angry and demoralised. The patchy provision across the country reflects my anxiety about the early stages of the law’s implementation and how it should be improved.

I want to talk briefly about some of the sentencing trends. Current sentencing decisions are inconsistent. Several of the jail sentences, which are rare in themselves, have been for only a few months, while suspended and community sentences appear to be commonplace. We need to revise those sentencing guidelines and reissue them pretty quickly to ensure some consistency across the board. I do not believe that the guidelines have been revised since the new laws came into place a year ago. Therefore, we have confusion at best; we certainly do not have the clarity envisaged when the legislation was introduced. There is no evidence that magistrates and judges have received adequate training on how to interpret the new laws. That is absolutely essential: our magistracy and judiciary need that training in order to understand what is, after all, a complex area of crime.

I echo the comments of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd that, commonly, defendants are charged for just one incident when there has in fact been a course of unlawful behaviour over months and even years. It is all very well charging the perpetrator for the one crime that the Crown Prosecution Service can pursue, but the background of repeated behaviour—the pattern of behaviour—must be taken into consideration.

Court reports, which are commissioned by the court, tend to deal with only the most recent incident, rather than the stalker’s behaviour over a long period. I firmly believe that the court should always ask for the offender’s full social history. It is clear from the advice I have been given that that is not happening. Bail conditions and restraining orders are often not stringent enough. Exclusion zones are often too narrowly defined and bail often fails to provide for no contact. Both are frequently breached, without consequence to the perpetrator.

Paladin has provided me with a number of comments made by judges, Ministry of Justice officials and lawyers after trials have been completed. Because of the time constraint, I shall not repeat them but these quotes show real concerns which do not appear to be reflected in the sentencing outcomes. That underlines the urgent need for those revised guidelines, which should emphasise the extreme seriousness of the criminal behaviour.

I welcome the opportunity to raise these matters. They are of great concern to us and to a wider audience. The experience of victims of stalking and harassment over the past year strongly suggests that more training and guidance needs to be issued by the Sentencing Council without delay. We must ensure that sentencing is consistent and reflects the intention of the new laws and therefore of Parliament.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am at a disadvantage as I do not have the Welsh experience of the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) and I have great difficulty pronouncing the constituency of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), but I want to add my thanks to him for the leadership he has provided on this issue in the House, and to express my sadness that he does not intend to stand at the next election. He will be greatly missed in this place.

I wish to record my thanks to Harry Fletcher and Laura Richards, who have achieved such rapid results both in legislation and in the difficult task of attracting funding for Paladin—the national stalking advocacy service which, as we know, was launched in July this year. They have, as the right hon. Lady said, also been a great support to the all-party group.

It will not surprise Members that in my contribution I shall briefly compare the situation in Scotland and in England and Wales, and look at the behaviour and treatment of perpetrators and the work and experience of the national stalking helpline, if time permits. I pay tribute to my constituent Ann Moulds, who endured years of torment from a stalker. She has been at the heart of campaigns to raise awareness of stalking at both national and local level and founded Action Scotland Against Stalking. This is a voluntary organisation which was set up to campaign for victims of stalking to be protected through the introduction of specific anti-stalking legislation and to help progress the rights of victims within the criminal justice process. It is obviously a sign of progress that we now have legislation across the UK to deal with stalking, and Ann Moulds has played an important part in helping to bring these laws about.

As we heard, in Scotland in the first 30 months of the legislation more than 1,400 charges were reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, of which 1,046 resulted in the commencement of a prosecution, with around 460 convictions. I am informed by the Crown Office that 315 cases are still in process. Given that the legislation is relatively new, I give it two cheers. The numbers are positive, as we have heard, compared with the situation in England and Wales, where the population is much bigger. It is useful to look at how the legislation is being implemented in both places to see what lessons can be learned.

As hon. Members have said, the reported detection rates for England and Wales suggest a clear lack of effective implementation of the stalking legislation. One of the biggest issues is the lack of statistical data to establish a base-line reference for a true measurement of the problem. Training completion rates for police services suggest that a higher level of detection rates could be anticipated, but police recording of the crime lacks transparency and practices are not being systematically monitored. Whatever the precise stalking rate, it is clear that it is dramatically higher than the number of persons identified by the police would suggest. In other words, the low detection rates supported by anecdotal evidence provide enough information to suggest that there is a severe lack of expertise in stalking cases throughout the police, prosecution agencies and the courts, not a lack of stalking cases.

The legislation is either not being enforced or is being deliberately ignored by the very people charged with the responsibility to enforce it. Legislation in itself is worthless if it does not lead to a change in attitude to one that does not tolerate violence against women in all its forms. The reason why stalking was introduced as a stand-alone offence is that neither the existing law nor its application was working, as hon. Members have said.

Stalking as a concept is completely different from harassment: it has a different mode, motive and perspective. An inability to recognise those intrinsic differences is one reason why stalking is not taken seriously enough. Recognising stalking as a distinct and serious crime is in the interest not only of victims but of the public, because it plainly shows that such an offence has been committed.

There is a vast difference between someone identified as a stalker and someone who has got into trouble for harassment, as harassment says very little about the persistent, obsessional nature of the crime. Should an offender come before the criminal justice system again, it will be clear that he has a conviction for stalking. That is important in detecting stalkers who are serial ones, as many are. Stalking can lead to other forms of serious acts of violence, so it is important to establish such links. Prosecution for stalking signifies that the stalking has been acknowledged and taken seriously. It sends a clear message to the victim and to the public, and it encourages other victims to seek help and to report cases to the police.

The criminal justice system is a tool that we, as a society, use to signal what is and what is not acceptable. Based on many years’ experience, I firmly believe that where legislation is brought in, hearts and minds will follow. Victims should no longer be expected to live with the constant fear and powerlessness of being stalked. A miscarriage of justice occurs not just when an innocent person is wrongly convicted, but when innocent victims are failed by the state, sometimes at the cost of their lives, including from a failure to realise that psychological harm can be every bit as serious as physical violence.

There was welcome news in Scotland yesterday. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland will no longer enter into plea bargains with stalkers, following a case highlighted by the Daily Record, which has campaigned on the issue. The Crown Office chief executive wrote a letter of apology to the victim, Frances Carroll, after accepting that a plea of not guilty as part of a plea bargain should never have happened.

That plea bargain meant that the case against an obsessed bully who stalked and terrorised Frances was dropped, and that John Cabrelli faced only one charge of stalking, which was against a second woman, Ashley McCann. After the plea bargain, the charge involving Frances was dropped, while that involving Ashley was lowered from a section 39 charge of stalking under the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 to a section 38 charge of abusive and threatening behaviour. Both women were therefore short-changed, to say the least, by the criminal justice system.

Procurators fiscal and their deputies are now being told that all evidence in stalking trials must be heard and tested in court. That huge step forward would never have happened without the Daily Record campaign, on which it is to be congratulated.

Before this debate, I contacted Ann Moulds for her views on training issues from the Scottish context. Ann reported that although there is still much to do, substantial progress is being made. She advised me that she was told at a recent meeting with the Crown Office in Scotland that all front-line police officers in Scotland are to be trained to a basic level of understanding for the purposes of identification, which is welcome news.

Ann informed me about the work she is doing on a schools stalking project in South Ayrshire in my constituency. It involves eight secondary schools across South Ayrshire, in which year 5 and 6 pupils will develop short films about stalking. I am sure that everybody in the House will agree that it is important to educate young people about this serious issue.

The main difference between Scotland and England and Wales is that the legislation has had longer to bed in in Scotland. The overall picture in Scotland is positive. The legislation there is now up for review, which is good news. I am sure that we will see more progress in England and Wales in the near future, particularly in the important area of staff training.

Whenever we discuss stalking, we must remember that it is not just something that happens to high-profile celebrities. It happens to ordinary people, whose lives can be ruined. The survey by Leicester university and the Network for Surviving Stalking, which is the largest such project undertaken in the UK, shows that one in five women will fall victim to stalking in their lifetime. That is a horrifying statistic that underlines why legislation was needed and why we need to build on that legislation by prioritising the training of criminal justice professionals and spreading awareness across local communities.

The question of how perpetrators should be treated is controversial, as it presupposes that treatment can be effective and can afford sufficient safety to the victim. I say unequivocally that stalking is a crime first and foremost, and should be treated as such. Perpetrators should feel the full force of the law, with no suggestion of pre-court diversion, which takes away the criminal element and puts the victim at risk.

I have campaigned against violence against women for more than 30 years. I chair my local Women’s Aid group, where I started work 30 years ago. I pay tribute to that organisation, especially Karen Gardner who has devoted her life to Women’s Aid and who leads the team in East Ayrshire. I make no apology for the continual tributes, because the people who do this kind of work do not get anything like the recognition that they richly deserve.

To return to the subject of perpetrators, I was astounded to hear last month that Sir Stephen House, the chief constable of Police Scotland, suggested that some domestic violence offenders could be directed to counselling or relationship guidance, rather than be taken to court. That would take us back to the early ’90s—it failed then and it would fail now. To categorise domestic violence or stalking as some kind of relationship dysfunction, rather than a crime, sends out all the wrong messages. It is particularly worrying that that has come from a person who is running the whole police force of Scotland. I honestly thought that we had made much more progress than that. To make matters worse, he takes issue with the fact that his officers have to act in every case. It took us years to achieve that in domestic violence cases and we are still a long way from it in stalking cases. It looks to me as though victims are once again being sacrificed to save time and money.

I recognise that many women want the behaviour to change or the stalking to stop, but the bottom line is that if a crime has been committed, court is what we have. Why should domestic violence or stalking be dealt with differently from any other crime, unless we do not really accept that it is a crime? I accept that a criminal sanction is not the whole answer, but it is an important part of it.

In the summer of 2011, NAPO, the probation union, asked its members to provide case histories of individuals who had been convicted of significant stalking behaviour in the previous 12 months. By autumn 2011, it had received 80 studies. The majority of those came from probation victim liaison units.

I regret having to interrupt the hon. Lady. Having put a time limit of 15 minutes on Back-Bench speeches, I note that it appears that fewer Members are in the Chamber than was the case at the beginning of the debate. If the hon. Lady would like to take a little more than 15 minutes, she is welcome to do so. The same goes for other Back Benchers.

Thank you very much for informing me of that welcome news, Madam Deputy Speaker.

During NAPO’s study it became apparent that court report writers, following training, often concentrated on the immediate matter before the court and did not take into account previous histories or behaviours. In NAPO’s view that meant that significant stalking and harassment evidence was being missed by the courts on a finding of guilt—a view also shared by the leadership of the Magistrates’ Association.

Probation staff are concerned that evidence shows that sentences handed down by the courts are often too short for rehabilitation or treatment to occur, and that cumulative behaviour is not taken into account by the courts when determining outcome. For example, it is not routine for psychological or psychiatric assessments of the perpetrator to be requested by the courts; indeed, often they are turned down. In the view of NAPO and Paladin, as a consequence of that, women who are being stalked are placed at grave risk. The cases submitted by NAPO members are strikingly similar. They are disturbing and frightening for victims, and all the experiences were harrowing. The overwhelming majority of victims were in constant fear; many were physically injured and most experienced varying levels of assault. Many were the victims of criminal damage, and in extreme cases victims were either murdered or subjected to attempted murder. There is evidence that perpetrators threaten the family and friends of victims to get information, either in real life or through texts and the internet.

A number of common characteristics appear in all cases. Most victims claim that a significant number of incidents occur before they go to the police, and often their complaints are not investigated thoroughly. Stalking usually occurs over a long period—often years—and tends to be a mix of real life and cyber-stalking. There is overwhelming evidence that a perpetrator’s behaviour escalates if there is no criminal justice intervention or treatment. It appears that stalking behaviour is not properly recognised by professionals. In most cases—although not all—there is a history of domestic violence, with numerous incidents before matters are reported to the police. In a number of cases men were placed on domestic violence courses that were not appropriate, especially for those with links to mental ill health.

One case supplied by Paladin illustrates the problems that victims face. Rachel, aged 40, has been the subject of a long-term campaign of stalking. The stalker breached a court order banning him from contacting Rachel just hours after it was made. The magistrates court heard how he turned up at her address and workplace demanding she hand over cash, and he admitted stalking involving serious alarm and distress. He was given an 18-week suspended prison sentence and ordered to stay away from Rachel, but the next day he showed up at her place of work and was re-arrested. He told police, “She better not live in that house when I get out. I mean it.” His defence team stated that he was desperate and pleading for help. They said he did not threaten her when she said no to giving him money. The judge ordered the man to serve 18 weeks for each breach of the restraining order.

I strongly believe that whether a perpetrator is given a community or custodial sentence, a treatment programme from skilled practitioners is essential if victims are to be protected. I would welcome any statement from the Home Office on progress that has been made since last November when the laws came in, and on what plans there are for the future. I do not want to try your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will finish by saying that I am pleased, and actually proud, to take part in this debate.

I, too, commend the opportunity to speak in this debate, and congratulate those who secured it. This is an immensely important issue, and those of us in the House this afternoon will agree that more often than not, we do not spend enough time focusing on many of the challenges associated with the horrific issue of stalking, the impact it has on victims, and the processes that victims endure on their journey through the criminal justice system. I pay tribute, as all speakers have, to the work of Harry Fletcher and Laura Richards of Paladin national stalking advocacy service, and that of many others.

I would like to consider the experience of the victim. As co-chair of the all-party group on victims and victims of crime, I have been exposed to all sorts of horrible stories relating to stalking and other crimes, which have shone a spotlight on the process that individuals must go through, in addition to the personal suffering, trauma and emotional distress. It will not surprise the Minister to hear me say that I have long believed that victims’ voices should be at the centre of the criminal justice system, and I pay tribute to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for supporting the work of the all-party group.

It is clear from everything we have heard today that the voices of stalking victims are not represented effectively in the criminal justice system. The issue is not just about going to court, but the entire process: engagement with the police, how cases are treated, the thoroughness of investigations and whether complaints are taken seriously. It is fair to say that the process is ad hoc. There is not enough consistency and victims are being let down. It is excellent that new stalking laws are in place, but it is clear to all of us that much more needs to be done to assist victims properly.

To focus on the level of victims’ dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system process and with the professionals in it, I shall refer to the briefing from Paladin. Laura Richards produced a study that revealed the deep dissatisfaction felt by victims of stalking and the secondary victimisation that occurs—a very important point—when reliving the trauma of horrific experiences. We hear time and again about victims’ lack of confidence in the long judicial process, which does not acknowledge their emotional distress. Stalking is life-changing for victims, and the injustice has numerous psychological and physical aspects that affect their ability to engage and function socially. Irrespective of whether there has been a physical assault, there is psychological and emotional trauma.

Offenders are treated in a totally different way from victims. We need balance and fairness, and we must focus on fairness for the victims. I think the point has already been made this afternoon that victims tend not to report to the police after one or two incidents, but after the hundredth incident. There are many experts on this subject. We know that perpetrators are serial offenders, that they are persistent and malicious, and that they inflict as much psychological damage as possible and, in the worst cases, physical damage and the ultimate harm. The offending is relentless, but the system—the police interventions, the criminal justice system, the whole process—does not know how to address these issues. Much of it is down to how an officer responds on the scene or interacts with victims in the first instance. The situation is dreadful and something has to change.

Paladin is very good at providing victims’ anecdotes and comments. As ever, it is the victims’ stories that will make us sit up and listen and understand the extent of the trauma.

The hon. Lady is a real fighter for victims and has done a lot of work in this area, and I respect her for that.

We would not have got this far without the evidence of witnesses who had suffered at the hands of perpetrators. I am talking not only about the victims, but sadly about families who have suffered bereavement because victims have been offended against several times and ultimately murdered. Without their bravery and emotional guts in giving evidence, we could not have got this far, so I am very interested in the hon. Lady’s remarks.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He is absolutely right. Undoubtedly, everyone interested in this subject will have heard the stories. It is important that those voices be heard, but we need to empower them.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point about empowering victims to speak out. Does she welcome the fact that the university of Worcester arranged a forum to bring together different organisations in the criminal justice system to hear from victims, along with the Worcestershire forum against domestic abuse, and to raise awareness of this issue and the trauma that victims face?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. We must empower victims and victims’ families to speak out. It is important that they do, because by doing so, including through forums such as the one in his constituency, they can challenge the culture in those institutions that normally close their eyes and ears and that do not always stand up for the victims. Such forums can be powerful tools.

In my constituency and the county of Essex, we have gone a long way to change the whole process—the policing, the dialogue, the engagement, the interaction—through our police and crime commissioner, Nick Alston, who has been a breath of fresh air. Our change of approach stems from the fact that in the past Essex has not had a great track record; we have had some horrific cases of stalking, domestic abuse and violence. Again, it is about hearing victims’ voices and challenging the organisations involved. That can be a powerful tipping point and a forceful interaction for change.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the media have an important role to play in presenting victims’ stories, which, if done in the wrong way, can be very injurious to the victims?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to mention the role of the media. From start to finish, the media must be balanced, sensitive and thoughtful in reflecting victims’ experiences, particularly when it comes to court reporting by journalists sitting in on cases, which brings me back to my comment about re-victimisation. If those journalists get it wrong, it is traumatic and dreadful for the victims. We must all work in a joined-up way with all the organisations and institutions to ensure the right parameters, so that the media know how to report cases in the right way.

I would like to reflect on some of the statements by victims about their interaction with the police after suffering the trauma of stalking and harassment, along with psychological and physical abuse. Some of their comments are quite telling about their experiences and the challenges they face, which we have to overcome to ensure that the system works for the victims. I was quite taken aback by some of their comments, which show a degree of trivialisation of the issue—I do not like using that word in this context—and, dare I say it, indifference from the police towards victims. One victim said:

“‘The police didn’t take me seriously on any occasion that I went to them to report numerous events”

of stalking and harassment. Another victim said:

“They told me to switch my phone off and ignore it. They said there that nothing can be done. I showed them dozens of texts, they were not…interested. They said nothing can be done unless he actually tries to hurt me!”

That is simply unacceptable and puts this issue into context. The system is letting victims down. It is appalling to think that, as we have heard in this debate, there are cases in which the result has been death or murder, and there are hundreds of cases up and down the country—all Members present this afternoon can testify to that.

It is pretty clear that the victims of stalking are consistently let down by the criminal justice system. Victimisation is an issue, as I have said, but although new laws have been introduced, it is pretty obvious that victims are still not at the heart of the criminal justice system. There is no doubt that many agencies display a lack of awareness of the new law, as the comments I have quoted show. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) spoke about training. There is no doubt that we need much more training, education and awareness. Again, incidents are treated in isolation, not linked with the totality of an offender’s behaviour and thus not seen as stalking when the victim finally reports. It is relentless. We have heard examples already, but although a perpetrator might be arrested, that is not linked with their stalking behaviour and they are not charged appropriately for that or for harassment. Then there are the wider issues about such behaviour leading to domestic abuse.

I also want to touch on the courts. It is quite clear that the courts are not always aware that victims might have been stalked consistently over a long period, as they will be dealing with only the latest and most recent element of crime in a case, with the result that the offender might not receive the right sentencing, as the judge or magistrate will not be fully aware of the context or history. There is so much more that the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service could do in this area, as well as by working with the police. I feel that the CPS sometimes enters into plea bargaining with offenders and drops charges in exchange for a guilty plea for a smaller number of lesser offences. We must look at this whole area if we are to ensure that victims receive the justice they deserve.

As we have all seen, victims are simply not taken as seriously as they must be—this is not about “should”; it is about “must”. They need to be treated with respect throughout their journey and their experience. All the research shows that too often the accounts of perpetrators are given precedence over those of victims, without thorough checking for corroborative evidence. Victims are not signposted to the appropriate support or given the right kind of safety advice or risk assessment. Again, it is a matter of securing the right balance. All of us who work with organisations and institutions must do what we can to put victims first.

It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the first time, and I hope it will not be the last.

I rise to speak about a particular issue that follows on from what the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) said about the need to hear victims’ voices in this debate as we evolve the way in which we address stalking within our society. I shall speak about my personal experience of these issues. I thought long and hard about whether it was appropriate to do so and came to the conclusion that it was—even though some might accuse me of abusing my position as an MP in putting these issues to Ministers—because of the concerns I have as someone currently experiencing some of these behaviours.

Before I do that, I want to add my personal tribute to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd)—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman says “10 out of 10” from a sedentary position, so I thank him for that. I am in awe of the work he has done through the independent inquiry into stalking. I add my heartfelt thanks, too, to people such as Harry Fletcher and Laura Richards for their work. In three short parliamentary years, we have seen a powerful advocacy process, with the independent inquiry and changes made to the law. That has, for me, been phenomenal. It is a test for all of us to see whether we can match that.

A year ago, when I was part of the shadow Home Affairs team, I was honoured to work on the changes to the legislation. Never in a million years did I think I would have to know the details of this legislation so thoroughly to deal with something that was happening to me. I was particularly struck at the time by the importance of bringing the victim’s voice into these issues and the need to create an offence in legislation that looked not at the particular behaviours of the offender, but at the experience of victims and the impact the offence had on them.

I was struck by what my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne)—only nine out of ten for my pronunciation this time—said about obsession, how society should regard the impact of one person fixating on another and what that might mean for the people involved. Impact matters because much of our criminal justice system nowadays is about watching and waiting. The hon. Member for Witham spoke about that, too—that we can see that someone might be at risk, yet we look for escalation. The impact on an individual changes that conversation. The individual voice needs to be heard not just in sentencing, but in the prosecution, in trying to address these issues and trying to understand the risk that someone might face. Having spoken to victims of a whole range of different types of stalking, I know just how important it is for their voice to be heard. A lot of stalking is about control; it is about silencing someone. It is crucial that we now have legislation that makes victims’ voices part of the prosecution process.

Like many other Members today, however, I am concerned that, a year on, we may not be making as much progress either in prosecuting or in changing the culture, which is what the legislation was designed to achieve, so I want to add my voice to those encouraging the Minister to look at not just what he can do with the police, but at what can be achieved by colleagues across government in dealing with some of these challenges.

Before the legislation was drafted, figures suggested we were looking at about 120,000 cases a year, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock that that understates the amount of pressure and the number of cases that need to be dealt with. I agree, too, with the comments of the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan)—I am sorry she is no longer in her place—about learning the lessons from Scotland and using this legislation, now that we have it, to prosecute people effectively.

The work of Paladin is truly transformative. I encourage the Minister to go and sit with Paladin, to listen to the cases, go through them and hear about the experiences people are having, now that the legislation is enacted. It is not just the volume of cases that is important because we need to be able to address the different kinds of issues and different kinds of behaviour that come up and their impact on victims.

I would particularly encourage the Minister to sit with the independent advocates. I have worked with one of those advocates not just in supporting victims of stalking generally, but in respect of my own case after my experiences. I cannot over-emphasise how important it is to have such a person with you. However strong someone is, this kind of behaviour is distressing; it is designed to take out of people the fight and the fortitude that might help them to deal with the problem themselves. The independent advocates are vital. We have been talking about the work done by Harry and Laura and others with the legislation, but we also owe them a debt of gratitude for putting in place a support process for victims. We must ensure our police are able to work with that, and Members have highlighted the low take-up of police training on these issues. It is crucial that the police understand the new legislation and how to enforce it.

I must tell the Minister that my personal experience of this and my experience over the summer of trying to support people who were being victimised online has been very mixed. That is reflected in the conversations I have had with the police and those in the criminal justice system; there was a lack of awareness about the powers they now have and the nature of this crime, such as the concepts of escalation and control and how to respond to them. I am talking here about practices such as treating incidents in isolation, issuing lesser cautions, and minimising behaviour rather than addressing it and thereby keep victims safe. That lack of training leads to a lack of understanding of just how serious this issue can be.

I must also put on record my concern about the increasing evidence that police forces are moving away from the DASH—domestic abuse, stalking and honour based violence—risk assessment in respect of domestic violence. I am exceedingly troubled by that as a constituency MP who has used that assessment method myself in working in particular with women who are victims of domestic violence. As somebody who has been a victim of stalking in a non-domestic violence case, I am also concerned about the lack of training and understanding of what such behaviour could mean.

I have spoken previously about Caroline Criado-Perez receiving 50 rape threats an hour. We did not know whether they were coming from one person, 50 different people or several different people. Each incident would require a different level of risk being applied based on the person involved. I have to be honest with the Minister: an understanding and comprehension of that range of scenarios was not there within the police force. I believe this kind of training will help police forces understand the different levels of risk people might be facing, and help to prevent, rather than just monitor, these offences.

I also recognise that the training of the police is only 50% of the story. I am deeply distressed by the delay in the CPS picking up this issue and understanding its role in making sure this legislation is effective.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, and it is very interesting to hear her personal perspective.

This morning I was interviewed on a radio programme. The interviewer said, “Well, let’s be fair: it’s only been 12 months since the law’s come in, so you can’t really expect the police to be au fait with it just now.” I replied, “When I was a law student we were expected to know new laws within a month of their coming in, so that’s no possible excuse.”

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman and he will have heard the voices of other victims. People have said to me, “The only reason there is police interest in your case is that you are a high-profile person.” I think that is an honest assessment, and I have said that that should not be why there is interest in any case.

We heard from the family of Clare Bernal and the Clough family during the inquiry, and Sam Taylor, who was a victim of stalking, is an amazingly inspiring woman for her fortitude in dealing with this. The police need to understand the range of behaviours and identify the different types of risk people face.

I will talk about online activity shortly, but first I want to point out that victims must also be asked about what they think should happen. When people are under this sort of pressure, we should not flinch from saying that the impact on the victim is paramount. Therefore, if someone is distressed, that is reason enough for the police to act and the CPS to be involved.

We also recognise that insufficient resources are put into this. There is a fear that we might open the floodgates, but if there are floodgates to be opened, we need to address that. That is one of the challenges we face.

I feel I can add a little insight in terms of online forms of behaviour, and I am very mindful of the fact that 50% of stalking cases involve both online and offline behaviour. That is part and parcel of modern life because we now spend our lives both online and offline. Our freedoms are involved in that, too, and, as I have said, stalking and harassment is about curtailing people’s freedoms and inciting distress in them, and therefore making it impossible for them to lead their lives as before. I direct the Minister to the work of Claire Hardaker, at Lancaster university, who is trying to understand online harassment and stalking. She was recently commissioned to do such research, and it would send an incredibly powerful message if the Home Office looked at it.

In my own case, the difficulties the current legislation has in dealing with the world online became powerfully obvious. The legislation refers to a “course of conduct” or a consistent type of behaviour, and the question is whether the same metrics for that course of conduct can be applied to the online and offline environments. When the Opposition were scrutinising the legislation, we tried to get the Government to think about a list of types of behaviour that we, the CPS and the police might be looking out for, because we recognised that as life evolves and people have a life online and a life offline it is important to ensure that we are not missing particular types of behaviour.

Although the legislation refers to sending e-mails, it does not even begin to deal with the very different types of behaviour that occur in the social media that are now so much part of the modern world, such as the ways in which and ease with which people can be contacted, and the ways a victim can express concern and displeasure about the messages they are receiving and behaviour they are experiencing. My concern is that the attempt is being made to apply the “course of conduct” test to the online and offline worlds in a similar way. There is the sense that if someone is experiencing serious alarm or distress online, it is somehow less serious. Instead, we need to understand that, if that person is experiencing such pressure, and if it is coming from someone whom they have told—whether online or offline—they do not want to have contact with, we should not see it as being any different.

The course of conduct deadlines need to be updated for both the CPS and the police, so that the different ways in which the online world works are recognised. One example is the different time periods relating to a course of conduct. Offline, we might be talking about a contact period of days or even weeks; online, an hour is a long time. Both Caroline and I experienced people setting up accounts in order to send us rape and death threats, causing us harassment and severe distress. We publicly said that this was causing us severe distress, and they had their accounts suspended, although they started new ones. However, the question whether each incident is seen as a separate course of conduct, or something that took place over the course of an hour, cannot be dealt with under the current legislation. That example makes a powerful case, which my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary has also made, for cyber-awareness within the police force—for understanding that these are the ways in which online behaviour works.

May I amplify the point? It is not just about the individuals concerned and the continuous nature of such behaviour over a limited period, but the prompting of others to participate in what almost becomes a conspiracy of attack.

My hon. Friend has literally taken the words out of my mouth; he is absolutely right. As I was about to say, we think of a course of conduct in terms of person-to-person contact. It is vital to understand that with social media, the ability to have an audience, to have spectators, is crucial to the level of stress that can be caused. Even if a perpetrator is not directly contacting somebody, by using that public forum they are using the way in which the internet and social media work to get a message to somebody. We need the police and the CPS to understand that, to understand just how dangerous these new forms of behaviour can be, so that they can act to protect people.

I encourage the Minister to revisit the debates we had a year ago on the importance of having a more extensive list, in order to give a flavour of the range of behaviours. Nobody is suggesting that there can be an exhaustive list of behaviours for stalking, but we need to recognise that there are sections of our society, and of our lives, that the training has not begun to touch, and that people are being abused as a result.

I am hopeful that the police and the CPS will take note of what has happened not just to me and Caroline Criado-Perez, but to a number of women in the public eye, and use it to develop guidelines. Many people have been affected by these issues. I have been contacted by people from across the country since the summer, and each of those stories shares some of the characteristics concerning how we deal with online behaviour. The fear is very real.

I am sad to see that there is no one here from the Ministry of Justice today, but I urge the Minister for Immigration, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), to work with the CPS not only to get the training in place but to get a commitment about test cases. It must be made clear that, as the world evolves, we will not falter in our determination to change the way in which the legislation is being used. We must ensure that the police, the CPS and the judiciary as a whole are what I would call cyber-sensitive. Just as we would not say to a woman, “Don’t walk down those streets at night”, we must ensure that we do not say, “Just come off Twitter and Facebook. Don’t put yourself in a position of risk. You must curtail your freedoms and rights so that we don’t need to deal with the risk that you are facing.” We need to send a strong message that these behaviours must be addressed and changed offline and online, throughout all the areas that I have described.

I am sure that we have all heard Laura Richards say that we need to change the culture so that we recognise stalkers as predators. These cases are not about a spurned loved one. I imagine that all of us who are in the public eye are fairly robust. We have all dealt with words, messages and debates that have been close to the bone, but this legislation was designed to deal with something very different—predatory behaviour. It was designed to deal with the person who will send 50 rape threats in an hour, not just on one night but over the course of two weeks. I have received another threat this week, which is terribly bad timing for this debate, as it is now months since it all happened.

Those people will not stop unless we change the culture and recognise that we are talking about predators in our society who will use a range of means to control and distress people. This is a matter for the law, and it is about how the law is applied. It is also about how we make good on the promise we made in this House a year ago that we would change this offence, that we would finally deal with this and that we would bring justice to the victims and find a form of prevention.

I hope that the Minister will listen to the genuine pleas from a range of sources about the difference that that would make. I would be happy to talk to him further about my personal experience, and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and I would also be happy to introduce him to other people who are dealing with these worries. We have to get this right. We cannot have another year of not getting the levels of prosecutions that we should be getting, given the number of cases that are coming forward. Our frustration is growing, not diminishing. This is not justice; it is not fair and this is not the kind of Britain that we want it to be.

In my experience—mercifully not my personal experience, but my experience as a Member of Parliament—the new laws whose anniversary we are celebrating today were spot on. They absolutely address the experience of many of my constituents, but it is also clear from my experience as a Member of Parliament and from what we have heard today that they have not yet had time to bed down and work their way through the police and criminal justice system.

If the legislation is to work, it is crucial for all those involved in the police and criminal justice system to understand exactly what this crime is. They need to know what to look for and listen for when victims have the courage to come forward and complain, not least because the perpetrators of this obsessive and controlling behaviour can often be very manipulative and very convincing individuals. It has also been pointed out that these stalkers can sometimes involve other individuals and agencies in their crimes. Those agencies can include social services, and I know of a case in which a benefits office was used, involving numerous false calls. MPs themselves can sometimes be drawn into this. Even the police can find themselves being used as unwitting proxies in a harassment campaign.

We need a much wider understanding of these crimes throughout all agencies, not just the police, and among the wider public. It is important that the public understand more about this, because we need to reach the victims and their families and supporters. They also need to recognise this behaviour for what it is—criminal behaviour. If they do not do so, they will not have the confidence to come forward. Confidence is often completely lacking as a direct consequence of the sustained, emotionally draining abuse that a victim is suffering.

Victims need greater knowledge. They also need the confidence that their complaint will be taken seriously and not dismissed, as they often fear it will be. I have often heard of such complaints being dismissed as what appear to be a succession of relatively trivial incidents. As we have heard, however, those apparently trivial incidents can have the cumulative effect of making people feel positively imprisoned in their own home and completely emotionally downtrodden.

Part of the answer is to incorporate this subject into relationship education in our schools. We need people to understand both the potential victim and the potential perpetrator and to recognise that we are not talking about a normal relationship, an argument or someone getting their own back. It is controlling, dominating and threatening behaviour. If we get that message across to young people and the rest of society, we might be able to ensure that such patterns of behaviour are not set in course in the first instance.

This new law—one year on—is fully capable of addressing the appalling and soul-destroying crime of stalking. For that to work in practice, we need a much wider understanding of the methods that stalkers use and the effects that the crime has. Many people do not realise quite how prevalent and damaging the crime is to the people who suffer from it, and from the sustained abuse, and how bad it is in society. By having this debate, I hope that we have contributed towards that understanding.

In all the justice debates over the past 10 years, I have felt the hidden hand of Harry Fletcher on us all, especially as we are probably reciting from the briefing papers that he has provided. I again thank him and Laura for the work that they have done. I keep saying to him that he should stand for election to this place, but if he cannot do that, perhaps some political party could nominate him to the other place, because he would be a valuable asset. Instead of writing the briefing papers, he might be able to make speeches about them.

Mention has been made of the justice unions group of which I am the secretary and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) is the chair. I am also secretary of the fan club for the right hon. Gentleman, who has announced his retirement—it is not retirement but desertion—and I am trying to encourage him to stay on and stick with us.

As the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) said, the debate on the stalking law started at the justice unions group a number of years ago. We received papers from Harry Fletcher, Laura and others explaining the problem, and the right hon. Gentleman came up with the idea of setting up a separate all-party group to carry out the investigation. I apologise for attending only a couple of those sessions, but they were enlightening to say the least.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) took the decision to speak and to explain some element of her experience. We hear from other people who have had equally horrendous experiences. To have got the legislation in place within such a time scale from a Back-Bench initiative was a near miracle, and certainly set a precedent, but, as has been said, we are now a year on. What we have done so far is all well and good, but we must also ensure that the law is implemented properly. What we have heard across the House is that there are real issues with implementation.

A number of hon. Members quoted the arrest statistics, the comparison with Scotland, and training. May I make a number of suggestions? On training, it would be helpful if the Government brought in the police and crime commissioners, the Magistrates Association and the Crown Prosecution Service to have a joint discussion about where we go from here. There is an inconsistent approach across the country in the e-training of the police. Some police authorities and police and crime commissioners have taken the matter to heart and engaged in the process, but others have not. The job of Government is not to interfere in the local aspects of what is happening on the ground but to encourage a consistent approach. As has been said, that applies to the police in terms of training, the CPS in terms of training and possibly how it prioritises such matters, and the Magistrates Association in terms of what is happening in the courts. Producing that defined line is the role of Government. It is not about interfering, but about bringing people together to discuss how we go forward more effectively. In doing that, it would be useful if the Minister involved the justice unions group and Paladin in the discussions, so that we can develop a national strategy.

Let me turn to a couple of contentious issues. The proposed new legislation on probation will mean that there is the potential for a large number of people who have been convicted of stalking to be categorised in due course as low or medium-risk offenders and to be managed not by the probation service, as they are now, but by the private company that will take over some of that work. Apart from my opposition to the privatisation overall, that makes me anxious because we have still to learn the details of the professional qualifications and level of training and experience in the supervision of offenders that the private company’s staff will have. We await the details from the Government and a number of us will seek to insert something into the legislation to ensure that there is the required standard of service. I would welcome an assurance that part of that will involve training people on stalking and the legislation. I am worried that in the rush to get the legislation to privatise the probation service through—that is, the provisions in the Offender Rehabilitation Bill on the supervision of nought to 12-month sentences—we will lose expertise and no longer concentrate on training people on the legislation on stalking.

As well as the justice unions group, we have established a family courts unions group, which met this week. The legal aid cuts mean that there are more litigants in person, so a large number of cases now involve two individuals turning up without any legal representation whatsoever to pursue their cases in the courts themselves. We are also concerned that ex-partners who have become stalkers then use the family courts as part of the stalking process to intimidate their former partners though a dispute that is often unrelated to the future of their children. The existence of litigants in person will mean that behaviour in courts will become increasingly difficult to control. In the past such people will have received legal aid and legal representation and there would have been some control over the presentation of their cases. When they become litigants in person, it is extremely difficult to ensure that they behave in a manner that is not threatening or abusive. As part of the monitoring of the stalking legislation, we must monitor whether our family courts, in particular, are being used for abusive behaviour by past stalkers.

Court reports have also been mentioned. The cuts to the probation service and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service have increased the workload of the officers and mean that although people are meeting their targets as best they can, it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide court reports or even to enable time to be spent on ensuring that sufficient information is provided to the court. It has now been reported that cuts in the court service have led to some of those staff being involved in the drafting of court directions as there are insufficient clerks within the courts. The situation in some of our family courts is almost chaotic.

The other issue brought up by the family courts unions group this week concerns contact centres. Again, many of the cases of stalking we have heard of have involved past partners who, for a variety of reasons, have continued abusive behaviour after separation. Often, they will be granted access to their children but it will be supervised access, often through contact centres. There is a report in the Law Society Gazette this week, I think, and we received a report from the National Association of Probation Officers and the Public and Commercial Services Union that states that there will be cuts to the contact centres and some are now closing. They are usually run by voluntary organisations, charities and others but because of cuts, often to local funding, contact centres are closing or curtailing their facilities. There is a concern that cuts overall might mean that contact centres cannot be properly supervised. If a contact centre is not available, we return to unsupervised contact, leaving victims of stalking and abuse vulnerable. I would like the Minister to look at that. The family courts unions group would welcome a meeting with him to discuss it and the courts issues. As I have said, the important thing now is to ensure that the system is geared up for implementation of the legislation, and central Government have a role to play in that by overseeing different aspects of the processes involved.

The briefing papers that Paladin provided show that there is an unusual inconsistency across the country. In some instances that might be down to the personal priorities of the police and crime commissioner, or the background and experience of the individual chef police officers. I think that it is the role of Government, when introducing legislation, to ensure its consistent implementation across the country, because otherwise it will become a postcode lottery whether stalkers are prosecuted, whether the police are adequately trained and whether other services are adequately resourced to tackle what at least is now accepted as a significant issue in our society.

I congratulate all Members on both sides of the House who have spoken in this thoughtful and well-informed debate. I pay particular tribute to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), who not only has the privilege of representing one of the most beautiful parts of north Wales, but has done sterling work with the all-party group on stalking and harassment to bring the offences into law. He gave a powerful introduction to the debate.

The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), who is no longer in her place, made some important points about the role of the courts, the sentences handed out and the need for better training. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) made some useful comparisons with the situation in Scotland, which I think we can all learn from. She also made a powerful plea to recognise stalking for what it often is: a version of violence against women, in particular, which we must not tolerate.

The hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) talked about the personal suffering of victims. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) outlined clearly what she suffered as a result of what is—let us give it its proper name—online stalking. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), in a short but useful speech, pointed out the manipulative behaviour of many perpetrators and how convincing they can be. She also referred to the need for relationships education in schools to tackle the problem, a point I will return to in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made an important point about the role of the justice unions group in highlighting the issue. We often hear Government Members telling us what they think is wrong with trade unions, but we should also hear about their important work in such areas. I also congratulate those who worked hard to get the offences on the statute book: not only the all-party group, but my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary and my noble Friend Baroness Royall, who campaigned for that relentlessly.

However, it is not enough just to put an offence on the statute book; it must also be enforced. We have heard clearly this afternoon that the law is not being enforced properly. The freedom of information request passed to Paladin, which was referred to earlier, showed that from 25 November 2012, when the law came into force, to the end of June this year 320 people were arrested for stalking offences. That was all. Of those, only 189 were charged. That is very worrying because unless there are lots of spurious complaints—no one is arguing that there are, least of all me— there must be a real problem with the training of the police and Crown Prosecution Service, which needs to be addressed. It is even more worrying when we look at the completed cases—I accept that there are few at the moment. In those cases completed by the end of June, six people received custodial sentences, and 27 were dealt with by means of a community disposal. I want to make it clear that, except in very exceptional cases, community sentences are not appropriate to deal with stalking. Stalking wrecks lives, it damages people psychologically, it affects their physical health, and it affects their social well-being. Stalking is not something that takes place at a distance. Stalkers enter people’s homes, they get into their workplaces, and they go to the places where they socialise, so a victim of stalking cannot feel safe in any aspect of their life.

Stalkers often issue threats. What is more, half of those threats are carried out. In that sense, stalking behaviour is a strong predictor of future violence. It is even stronger in cases of very serious violence, with 40% of domestic homicides following stalking behaviour that has gone unchecked. In dealing with stalking, therefore, we are not just helping today’s victims; we may be preventing serious violence and often homicides in the future.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful and a fresh point. I should like to inform the House through her that there are many criminal psychologists in the UK who are able to treat these people. They say that roughly 95% are treatable and can be turned away from this obsessive behaviour. That adds to the point that the hon. Lady makes.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, which I will come to in a moment when I talk about prevention.

The appalling feature is the huge variation between the arrest and prosecution rates in police forces. Some examples have been given, but let me touch on a few more. Northumbria force arrested eight people and prosecuted seven. Powys arrested three and they were all prosecuted. The Met arrested 132 people, but only 71 were prosecuted. That is profoundly unsatisfactory. Whether victims receive justice should not depend on where they live. We cannot have a postcode lottery in law enforcement, and that, I am afraid, is what we are seeing at the moment. Part of the reason for that seems to lie in the failure to train police and Crown prosecutors adequately.

The National Policing Improvement Agency has produced a 20-minute online package of training—very little in itself—but up to the end of June only 27% of eligible officers had seen that package. The rates of training vary hugely among police forces, even neighbouring forces. In Greater Manchester, for example, 5,000 officers had seen it; on Merseyside, only 76. In my own area of Cheshire, it was 57. One can see a similar process with the CPS. Training has begun only this autumn, nearly a year after the law was put on the statute book.

I do not blame the front-line officers or the prosecutors for that. The blame actually lies squarely with the Home Office, which has to admit that if it cuts police numbers, as it has, there is less time to take officers off the front line for training or to update their skills, and that if it cuts 25% of the CPS’s budget, the CPS has to manage its caseloads differently and there is less time to develop training packages or to let people take time out for training. That is what we are seeing, and it is time that the Government started to take it seriously.

Another factor that needs to be clearly stated is that stalking is largely a crime against women. Yes, there are male victims and they suffer just as much as anyone else, but 80% of stalkers are men and 80% of victims are women. As such, it has to be seen as part of the continuum of violence against women—because stalking is violence. It is psychological violence that can spill over into physical violence, and it is part of the same perspective of harassing women and preventing them from speaking out, as we have seen online recently, and treating them as though they have no right to an opinion but are there merely to be controlled.

That is why I say to the Minister that although it is nice to see him here—he is a very good Minister—it would have been even better to see the Minister responsible for this area, who is the Minister for Crime Prevention, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The Minister we have here is responsible for immigration; his colleague, who is not here, is responsible for antisocial behaviour and violence against women and girls. He is fast becoming the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Home Office. We see him in Committee and he disappears halfway through the debate; today, for a debate on his own area of responsibility, he is not present. The Government have to take this issue far more seriously than that.

The root cause of this sort of behaviour is an attitude prevalent in some sections of our society that, sadly, sees women as objects to be controlled and manipulated—as people who should not have an opinion of their own and do not control their own destiny. That is why the Government must not only deal with this crime but look at how to prevent it. They must consider having a proper, and compulsory, package of sex and relationships education in schools. I am sorry that they rejected our amendment to the Children and Families Bill to make it compulsory, because without teaching young people from the start that this sort of behaviour is not the norm and is not acceptable, we will never solve the problem.

The second plank of prevention, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd suggested, is in mental health services. There is no doubt that a small minority of stalkers are psychotic, and there is evidence that some might have a personality disorder, so their first contact with the criminal justice system ought to trigger a mental health referral. Mental health treatment will not be suitable for everybody, but there ought to be an assessment to see whether it is the appropriate way forward before someone’s behaviour spirals out of control and perhaps into violence.

The third thing we would like the Government to do is to make sure that sentencing guidelines are updated, because they have not been updated since 2008, and that police officers and Crown prosecutors are trained to ensure that the law is enforced. We cannot say to the victims of this crime, “You must simply put up with it”, or, “It’s not very serious.” We can no longer keep saying that there is no action we can take. This is the 21st century, not the 19th, and nobody should be subjected to this behaviour without the right of redress.

The Government have done the right thing by putting this law on the statute book in response to the campaign but, given that most victims face 100 incidents of stalking before they even report it, it is not lack of evidence that is preventing this crime from being prosecuted; it is lack of training and lack of will, and that is what we have to address. I hope that the Minister will be able to encourage us that the Government are moving towards doing so, because, to be frank, women in this country—and it is largely women who are affected—deserve better than to be told that this is behaviour that they just have to put up with. It is not, we will not and it needs to be addressed.

First, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this well-subscribed and informative debate for Members who have had an interest in this subject for a great deal of time. This is not meant as an insult to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I would have liked to have seen Madam Deputy Speaker in the Chair, because this would then have been the first debate in which I had spoken under her chairmanship. If you will forgive me, I will place on record that it was a great pleasure to be sat here quietly while she chaired the first part of the debate. I was enormously pleased by that and I am equally pleased to have been joined by you for the latter part of the debate.

I will not refer to what the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) will do after the next election, because when other Members did so it sounded terribly like an obituary. I am sure he has plenty of life left in him and plenty of exciting challenges waiting for him when he eventually departs this place, so I will simply pay tribute to him for his work not only as chairman of the all-party group on stalking and harassment, but as chair of the parliamentary inquiry into stalking law reform. I also pay tribute to the other members of the all-party group, including its vice-chairs my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) and the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne).

Unfortunately, my right hon. Friend is unable to be present for the end of the debate. I listened carefully to her excellent speech and she has done a great deal of work in this area. There was a strange irony when Madam Deputy Speaker read out the Royal Assent for the HS2 Bill, which my right hon. Friend has campaigned against in varying levels of publicness, including when she was a member of the Government and even more forcefully since. That was an interesting and spooky part of the debate, but I think she saw the ironic and funny side of it, as did the rest of the House.

Every Member who has participated in the debate has made the point that stalking is a serious crime and the various examples given—the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) spoke from her personal experience—have illustrated that it can seriously affect people’s lives. People can be physically attacked and they can lose their homes, families, friends and jobs in a bid to escape a persistent, fixated stalker. Stalking can also take place in a relationship or after a brief relationship, or people can be stalked by a complete stranger. It varies and the response needs to take that into consideration.

The crime survey for England and Wales shows that 4% of women and 3% of men are affected by stalking in some way, so it is clearly a very important issue that affects a large number of people. The work of the parliamentary inquiry, chaired by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, demonstrated clearly that there was a gap in the law, and the Government were able—partly, I am sure, because of the excellent case that was made, but also, I suspect, because of the fortuitous timing of an appropriate piece of legislation—to introduce the new offences very shortly after the case had been so powerfully made. Legislation is, of course, not the only response and I will address some of the other issues that have been raised.

We want to work through the reforms we have already made to the policing landscape. That brings me on to police and crime commissioners, which several Members mentioned, including my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), and my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who particularly mentioned the Essex police and crime commissioner. Those who are elected, such as police and crime commissioners, will listen to the concerns of the public, so they provide a good opportunity to drive the issues home. Angus Macpherson, the police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire and Swindon, is someone I know personally as I used to live in Swindon, my home town. He attended a stalking awareness event and made it clear that he wanted to understand the issue so that he could see whether there were any provisions that he could put in place to further support victims and stop offenders.

The Hull Daily Mail reported last December that the new police and crime commissioner there, Matthew Grove, was backing calls for tougher measures to protect stalking victims. I know more about the Hull Daily Mail now, having seen yesterday its excellent supplement celebrating the award of city of culture status to Hull. Stalking is an issue that that newspaper has taken very seriously. To be cross-party on the issue, I note that the PCC for Greater Manchester, Tony Lloyd, a former Member of this House, has welcomed the fact that the police are taking stalking seriously, and has been working closely with his police force to raise awareness of the importance of dealing with that crime. There is a great opportunity for Members of Parliament to work with police and crime commissioners and to have a democratic voice in challenging police forces that may not take the issue as seriously as they should. The vast majority of police and crime commissioners have made violence against women and girls a priority in their policing plans, which is an important first step.

I do not always agree with the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and he does not always agree with me, but on this subject I can agree with him. He said that one role of the Government was to try to bring organisations together. We have issued information to police and crime commissioners so that they are better equipped. We have also hosted an event for them, which I suspect will not be the last, bringing together police and crime commissioners and enabling them to hear from the voluntary sector, for example Paladin, an organisation that was mentioned by almost every Member who spoke in the debate. I echo the appreciation expressed for the work of Harry Fletcher and Laura Richards, who are paying close attention to this debate. They were able to be present and take part in the day. That is the start of the engagement with police and crime commissioners, and it will continue.

The College of Policing is the other new feature in the policing arena that will help, by driving consistent training across police forces in England and Wales. This month the college’s training package on stalking and harassment won the silver award for “excellence in the production of learning content” at the E-learning awards. It is based on powerful scenarios developed with the help of victims and their families, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd said. The training package is available to all police officers and staff. Since last October it has been used about 44,000 times, which represents about a third of police officers, so that is some progress but clearly, picking up the right hon. Gentleman’s point, we want all police officers to be trained. The national policing lead on stalking and harassment, Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan of Greater Manchester police, has written once to all chief constables and will continue to do so jointly with the Director of Public Prosecutions to ensure a consistent message to the law enforcement community for both the police and the CPS, so that the issues are taken seriously.

Much of the debate about police and crime commissioners focuses on the “police” part of their role, but the most significant benefit that they can bring is the “and crime” part. It is their role in their police areas to bring together all parts of the criminal justice system—the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the voluntary sector—and to bang heads together so that there is a properly joined-up approach in local areas. That is one of the most significant things that police and crime commissioners can do, and it is one of the reasons we set them up. The Crown Prosecution Service has made its training mandatory this year. More than 1,000—or about 45%, I think—of its lawyers have completed the training, which is a good start, and we obviously want the rest of them to do so.

Will the Minister tell the House whether he has any explanation for the discrepancy between the number of people arrested and the number of people actually charged?

I will come on to the guidelines issued by the CPS, but that matter to some extent depends on the details of individual cases. Normally, decisions are based on how realistic a prosecution is and what evidence there is, as well as the public interest test. I do not know whether different prosecution rates relate to the ability of the police to put cases together, or whether some forces are more likely to make arrests than others. Without looking at the information, I simply do not know the answer to the question.

An advantage in the devolved criminal justice landscape —the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock referred to the experience in Scotland—is that police forces in England and Wales could look at the Scottish example to see what lessons can be learned. The systems are of course different and not directly comparable: the criminal justice legislation is different and, for example, harassment legislation has not been put in place in Scotland. We should, however, look at whether different parts of the UK are doing things better, and if they are, we should happily learn from them. That is a benefit of devolution of which we should take advantage.

As I would expect, the Minister is trying to engage constructively in the debate, which is how he always deals with these matters. I suggest that another contributor to the variation in prosecution levels is, sadly—I am a great supporter of the police, and I come from a police family—that some police officers are under-charging under the old 1997 Act, because it is far easier to do the paperwork and get rid of it.

I defer to the right hon. Gentleman’s detailed knowledge of this area. One purpose of the College of Policing is to have consistency in training and to share best practice. To be fair, this is about ensuring that police officers, as well as the CPS, have the necessary knowledge and understand what works and is successful. The College of Policing can help share best practice, which is one advantage of having set it up. The Government will keep that under close scrutiny—the Home Secretary takes this area very seriously—and we will take steps if it does not succeed.

It is important to talk about victims and their experience of the criminal justice system. We have consulted on a revised victims code to give victims clearer entitlements. It was published at the end of October, and will be implemented next month. It includes information on the victim personal statement, which lets victims explain the impact of the crime on them. That will be of particular benefit in stalking cases, where much of the issue relates to the emotional and psychological impact of the offence on the victim.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow made that point strongly. She spoke about seeing the powerful effect on victims of advocates’ listening to them explain their cases. Enabling the voices of victims to be heard is clearly very beneficial. My hon. Friend the Member for Witham, who is in her place, made exactly that point. I know that she has worked on and published this year a report called, “Rebalancing the Scales”. She edited it, and the foreword was by the Lord Chancellor. The chapter on stalking, which was prepared by the ubiquitous Harry Fletcher and Laura Richards, highlighted the voices of victims and their experience in the criminal justice system, an area on which I know my hon. Friend has campaigned.

My concern, and that of other people who have experienced this problem, is that the victim’s voice has traditionally been heard when there is a prosecution, but that should happen during the investigation of the offence. The police, like the criminal justice system, need to develop a different culture in which the offence is not seen as an issue of harassment, but in relation to the impact of particular forms of behaviour on the victim, because that opens up a different investigative process. The training is so important because too often the presumption is still that a victim comes in after the offence has been determined, rather than as part of the process of determining the offence.

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. When the impact on the victim is part of the importance of the offence, the matter is more complex. She is right that that should form part of the investigative process in terms of the work that needs to be done to provide the evidence and to ensure that the right charge is brought. I will draw her point to the attention of the College of Policing for its consideration when rolling out the training.

The hon. Lady also made an important point, sadly illustrated by her own experiences this year, about the dark side that the internet brings out, alongside all its benefits. On the internet, it is easier for people to abuse their victims. Sometimes that happens wholly online and that has a tremendous impact. Sometimes, it happens offline as well. The Government are clear that if something is illegal offline, it is illegal online. There is no difference. She said that in her experience and in the experience of other people, police forces have not always recognised that.

When online abuse constitutes stalking, it must be dealt with. The Director of Public Prosecutions has published new guidelines on social media. They make it very clear that cases of stalking online should be prosecuted robustly. Those guidelines are relatively recent and we will have to see what impact they have on the Crown Prosecution Service. I looked at them carefully in preparing for this debate and I think that they are very robust. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the hon. Lady wants to intervene again, but she is pulling a face that suggests that she is not entirely enamoured of the said guidelines.

I press the Minister, as I did in my remarks, to consider the course of conduct and the disparities in relation to that. The police are doing some fantastic work. I pay tribute to the police who are dealing with my case at the moment. However, they are hampered by the disconnect between what we are told at a national level about guidance and how that guidance is interpreted, especially with regard to behaviour online. There is an issue with the understanding in our criminal justice system of behaviours online and of what constitutes a course of conduct. I am sorry to tell the Minister that I do not feel, as a victim myself, that that issue has been addressed. That will have an impact on our ability to move forward unless it is addressed.

I listened carefully to the hon. Lady’s point on that issue. The inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, which is chaired by the Home Secretary, draws together the Government’s efforts on this matter and on the support for victims. I will draw the hon. Lady’s point to the attention of the Home Secretary.

There are some offences for online communications that do not require a course of conduct, some of which can result in custodial sentences. I think that the DPP’s guidelines are clear and robust. The hon. Lady is right that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Like us, she will want to see that the guidelines are taken seriously by Crown prosecutors.

As I said, police and crime commissioners should remember the “and crime” part of their job title. This matter is absolutely within their remit in their local areas. As well as looking at the police’s response to these offences, they should look at the response of the Crown Prosecution Service and the way in which it works with the police. One advantage of police and crime commissioners over the police authorities that we had previously is that they can pull those organisations together locally and get them to work more effectively together. Commissioners can draw to the attention of those organisations the guidelines that the DPP has issued and ensure that they are followed locally.

I will draw the specific concerns of the hon. Lady to the attention of the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary. I am sure that she will monitor the matter closely and come back to us if she does not see action on the ground.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) cited some good work that has been done by the university of Worcester and the Worcestershire forum against domestic violence. They have done some very practical work to raise awareness of the new law and to hear from victims. From his description, it was clear that that was part of a preventive strategy, which is something that has been raised by the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and others.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham asked specifically about data, which we have spoken a little about. Convictions and sentencing data are collected by the Ministry of Justice and published on an annual basis. The data for 2012 were therefore published just a short period after the offences under sections 2A and 4A were inserted into the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Headline data on court proceedings have been published, but those are at a high level. Detailed data will be published for this calendar year in May next year—that is when properly robust and assured data will be published.

On policing information, we are working on a new method of data collection specifically to call out the offences from this legislation, but again that will not be available at national level until next year. More detailed information is available at police force level, and I know that Labour Members and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd have attempted to get those data from police forces under freedom of information legislation. The Home Office is working to publish those data on a consistent basis at national level, and will be able to do so next year.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham and others, including the hon. Member for Warrington North, mentioned sentencing guidelines. The Sentencing Council plans to start work on a new public order guideline in 2014, and it will consider guidance on stalking offences as part of that. Several Members, including the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, mentioned out-of-court disposals by police forces. The Justice Secretary has announced a review of those, and we will ensure that for both stalking and domestic violence, we look specifically at whether out-of-court disposals—cautioning, for example—are being used properly and appropriately for these serious issues.

I am conscious that I want to leave time for the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd to wind up this debate, which I have found very constructive. Members have raised a lot of serious issues, and I hope I have been able to demonstrate that the Government take the issue seriously and want to drive responses across a number of organisations.

Will the Minister take back to his Department the request from the family courts unions parliamentary group for a meeting about the closure of family contact centres?

I will take that request back to my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice and ensure they hear it and respond to the hon. Gentleman. On that note, Mr Deputy Speaker, we want to hear from the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd.

The generous words to me with which the Minister began his speech actually made me shiver. I will be around for a while yet to create a nuisance, so do not think I am going to ride off into the sunset just now. To be fair, the Minister has engaged thoroughly with this debate. I am pleased with his response and I am sure we can pore over the detail in the coming days.

The debate has been characterised by its being of the highest standard, and we have had six Back-Bench speeches of the highest calibre—well researched, well thought out, thought provoking, and each with a different slant. The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), despite being a little thrown by the sudden appearance of the High Speed 2 Bill, referred to Harry Fletcher, Laura Richards and Paladin, and we all thank them for the work they have done. She also referred helpfully to the national helpline, and I pay tribute to her for her work to get us this far.

The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) also referred to Harry Fletcher and Laura Richards, and, interestingly—and very importantly —she was able to draw comparisons between the current law in England and Wales and the law in Scotland. That showed that numerous things need to be put right, and highlighted some of the issues about which we in this Chamber—and beyond, I am sure—are concerned. She stood her ground. She was nearly blown away by Madam Deputy Speaker asking her to speak for longer than she intended—one of those unusual quirks of this place. I have to say that it has never happened to me, for obvious reasons.

The hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) made a wide-ranging, thought-provoking and well-researched speech. I know of the work that she has done with victims. It was important for her to take that angle, because the victims are why we are here and why the law was introduced. She referred to the empowerment of victims, the need for police and crime commissioners to get involved and the need to redress the balance. I am sure that all those issues are appreciated fully by Members on both sides of the House. I thank her for her contribution.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) made an impassioned and well-grounded speech, some of which was based on personal experience. We are all concerned on her behalf. She also referred to the need for victims’ voices to come to the fore. Crucially, she referred to Clare Bernal and Sam Taylor, two of the cases considered in the evidence-based report produced by the Committee. Without their help, and the help of others, we would not have got this far. She raised the challenge of online behaviour, which the Joint Committee will be looking at next, and the need to deliver on a promise we made a year ago. She is absolutely right and I can put it no better than that.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) made a short but well-thought-out speech that introduced matters not considered previously. For example, relationship education in schools is crucial.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), in a typically well-researched speech, referred to the need for a national strategy. He is absolutely right. We will need two: one for Wales and one for England. He made an important point about the speed with which the Offender Rehabilitation Bill is jetting through the House. We are reminded of the saying about legislating in haste and repenting at leisure. He also raised legal cuts and other points—all of which are different aspects to this problem.

This has been a useful debate. We have had a positive response from the Minister. He is not in his comfort zone, but no one would have thought so from the way he dealt with his brief. Twelve months ago, we brought in the law based on evidence that was presented to us by experts and people who have suffered themselves, not least those who have lost loved ones in horrible incidents. This is the time to pay them back for the bravery they have shown. We need to get our act in order. I am sure that with Members on both sides of the House working together we will succeed.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House notes that 25 November 2013 will mark the first anniversary of the new laws on stalking coming into force; is concerned at the lack of progress made on training of criminal justice professionals in the new laws, particularly in the police and the Crown Prosecution Service; and recognises the impact this is having on the confidence and wellbeing of victims of stalking.