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Volume 570: debated on Thursday 21 November 2013

Before I call the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) to move the motion, I should advise the House that, as will shortly become clear on the Annunciator, there will be a 15-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

I beg to move,

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.

I am pleased that we are having this important debate today. It has been facilitated by the Backbench Business Committee, to which we are collectively very grateful. I also thank the House of Commons Library for preparing the splendid debate pack that we have all received.

On 25 November 2013, it will be the first anniversary of the implementation of the new stalking laws—sections 2A and 4A of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which came into force on 25 November 2012. The new legislation was passed as a result of the work of the independent parliamentary inquiry into stalking law reform, which I had the privilege of chairing. The inquiry drew its membership from both Houses of Parliament and from across the political parties, as well as from Cross Benchers in the other place. I think that this might have been the first example of a cross-party group that is not a Committee of the House having succeeded in bringing about a change in the law. I am certainly very glad to have played a part in that, as other Members in the Chamber today did, too.

The inquiry was assisted by Harry Fletcher, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, and Laura Richards, a criminal behavioural psychologist. Their help in the stalking law reform campaign was truly invaluable. Harry and Laura have since gone on to found Paladin, Britain’s first ever stalking advocacy service for high-risk victims of stalking. The service opened on 11 July 2013 and within 18 weeks had received more than 100 referrals.

We have recently launched an all-party group on stalking and harassment, one of the purposes of which is to scrutinise the implementation of the new stalking legislation. I thank members of the group for sponsoring today’s debate, principally, of course, the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) and the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne). I thank them for being lead sponsors and for their huge commitment to the subject.

Let me give a little background, although I will truncate it given that we are short of time. The terms of reference of the stalking law reform inquiry were to examine the substantive law in England and Wales, the sentencing practice surrounding that law, the availability of treatment programmes for perpetrators, parole arrangements , the need for training for police and the probation service, stalking law in the European Union, and, crucially, the experience of victims and their families. Over the course of six months, the panel took oral and written evidence from criminal justice professionals, academics and legal experts as well as victims of stalking and their families. On 7 February 2012, we published a report and recommendations based on that evidence, which were launched in the Cholmondeley Room in the other place.

Almost exactly a month later, on 8 March 2012, the Prime Minister announced that, as his main pledge on international women’s day, the Government would legislate to make stalking a named offence in law. Legislation was passed by both Houses within 11 days of that announcement, which is testament, I believe, to the force and credibility of the evidence provided to the inquiry panel. The new offences were made as amendments to the Protection from Harassment Act. As well as the new less severe section 2A offence of stalking, which is punishable by up to 51 weeks in prison or a fine, the legislation includes a section 4A offence of

“stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress”.

The latter offence is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment or a fine and is triable by both the Crown court and magistrates court.

To prove a section 2A offence, a court must decide that a perpetrator pursued a course of conduct that amounts to harassment and that the particular harassment can be described as stalking. Although the term “stalking” is not defined, the new clauses include a non-exhaustive list of basic behaviours, including following a person; contacting, or attempting to contact, a person by any means; publishing any statement or other material relating or purporting to relate to a person, or purporting to originate from a person; monitoring the use by a person of the internet, e-mail or any other form of electronic communication; loitering in any place, whether public or private; interfering with any property in the possession of a person; or watching or spying on a person.

To prove a section 4A offence, the more serious offence, a court would need to determine that the perpetrator’s behaviour amounted to stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress. Although the terms “serious alarm” and “distress” are not defined, the perpetrator’s course of conduct can include behaviour that causes another to fear, on at least two occasions, that violence will be used against an individual, or causes an individual alarm or distress that has a substantial adverse effect on that individual’s usual day-to-day activities.

It was important to us as a panel that the new section 4A offence was included to allow for the serious psychological impact that stalking can have on a victim, particularly over a prolonged period. It was also important that the new legislation defined stalking not just in terms of the behaviour of the perpetrators but in terms of the impact the crime had on its victim and provided that if the impact on the victim was greater, the penalties should be more stringent. If a jury finds a person not guilty of a section 4A offence, the option is still open to them to find that person guilty under the lesser section 2A offence.

Previously, the term “stalking” had not been named in legislation, which many believe resulted in some criminal justice professionals not taking the offence seriously. Naming the term “stalking” in law was a highly symbolic move; indeed, few countries worldwide do so. Our research found that legislation covering the crime of stalking was found in several English speaking countries across the world as well as in 13 EU member states. At the time that we launched our report, however, none of those countries used the term “stalking” in the definition of the law, opting for more generic terms such as “harassment”, “belaging” and “persistent pursuit”.

Stalking is a crime that rips relationships apart and shatters lives. The British crime survey for 2011-12 suggested that at least 120,000 individuals are affected by stalking and harassment each year. According to figures collated by the Home Office, one in five women and one in 10 men will experience stalking in their adult life. Figures held by the national stalking helpline from 2011 show that the 80.4% of the victims contacting the service were female, while 70.5% of perpetrators were male.

Stalking is a pervasive crime and I have little doubt that all Members of Parliament will have come across it, either in their constituency surgeries or through personal experience.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the important speech he is making. He mentions the personal experience of Members of Parliament, but would he agree that many of the staff who work with us in our offices might have such experiences, too? It is important that we should have laws to protect them, too.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In fact, the all-party group is currently working on ensuring that we have a code of conduct and a means of disseminating information on identifying when those offences start and nipping them in the bud. The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham has said on several occasions that she wishes to see not only MPs covered, but our staff, and she is right.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his pioneering work in this area, but does he agree that the purpose of having an all-party group on stalking and harassment is to ensure that we get information right across the board to all parliamentarians in both Houses and, through them, to their staff and the people beyond, because it is true that we often experience that, or constituents who have experienced it come to see us in our surgeries? We need to be able to help our own people as well as our constituents who come to us.

The right hon. Lady is absolutely correct and I agree with every word she has said. The group’s strength is the fact that it is all-party, so Politics—with a capital P—plays no part in our deliberations.

The reason that stalking is hard to delineate is that it consists of a catalogue of incidents that, when taken alone, can seem innocuous enough to begin with. It is only when they are taken together that their cumulative and sinister effect can be seen. In many stalking cases the perpetrator will never issue an overt threat, but rather plagues his or her victim with flowers, phone calls, letters and gifts. It is thought that victims tend to wait until the 100th incident of stalking before reporting the matter to the police.

The advent of the internet also provides perpetrators with far greater opportunities to attack their victims—for example, on social media websites such as Twitter and and on online forums. Individuals can shield their true identity by adopting pseudonyms and hiding their IP address. More and more, the phenomenon of internet trolling is becoming an issue of concern. Multiple individuals can target a victim by sending them abusive messages, sometimes hundreds at a time. The recent examples involving Caroline Criado-Perez and the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) are cases in point.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on raising this subject so consistently—the House will miss him greatly when he stands down in a year and a half. He is right to make the point that a huge number of victims do not always realise that they are victims, whether online or offline. There were about 120,000 victims last year, most of whom were not recorded by the police and probably were not recognised. How can we encourage people to realise when stalking behaviour is starting so that they can spot the problem early?

The hon. Gentleman is right, because part of the campaign we are running is about making people aware of the cumulative nature of this insidious offence. It is important that not only the people who might suffer it, but professionals in the field, get into training as soon as possible so that we can plug the gap properly.

Research conducted by Lorraine Sheridan in 2005 found that half of stalking victims had to give up social activities as a result of stalking, while half saw their performance at work affected and 98% reported emotional affects such as distrust, appetite disturbance, insomnia, agoraphobia, self-harm and even suicidal thoughts. Research by Laura Richards in November 2011 revealed the horrendous long-term nature of stalking behaviour, as well as the effect that has on victims. One in every two victims who took part in the survey had been stalked for longer than 18 months, and 42% were stalked for more than 24 months. With protracted stalking campaigns there is a real risk of escalation. Offenders can ultimately go on to attack, rape, cause serious harm or even murder their victims.

Our inquiry panel was in little doubt that victims were not getting enough support and that the prevalence of the crime far outstripped police investigations, arrests and charges brought against perpetrators. Indeed, almost all of those who have evidence to us were persuaded that the 1997 Act was not doing an adequate job of protecting victims of the crime. The Act was passed with the best intentions—I was here at the time and played a small part in it—but the wideness of its provisions was in many respects its weakness.

In his foreword to “An evaluation of the use and effectiveness of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997”, David Moxton stated:

“The Act came into force in June 1997 and was intended to deal with the overt problem of stalking.”

But in her summary of the same report, Jessica Harris noted:

“One of the Act’s aims was to tackle the problem of stalking, but it also covered a range of behaviour which might be classed more broadly as harassment of one kind or other... The Act is being used to deal with a variety of behaviour other than stalking including domestic and inter-neighbour disputes and rarely for stalking itself.”

Those are problems we saw. Answers to parliamentary questions asked by members of the panel gave various pieces of important information. For example, we discovered that in 2009 4,365 persons were found guilty under section 2, the offence of harassment, but that the number receiving a custodial sentence was only 565—13% of those found guilty. Our research also showed that it was highly unusual for persons to be found guilty of the section 4 offence, which is putting a person in fear of violence. In 2009, 786 persons were found guilty, of whom only 170 were given a prison sentence—22% of the total. Our report states:

“The number of persons found guilty of breaching a restraining order under Section 5 of the Act was 1,463 in 2009 and the percentage of those jailed was 32%. However if the figures are taken as a percentage of all the offences recorded during 2009 then only 2% were jailed and 10% were fined or dealt with in other ways.”

What was so concerning about the fact that so few perpetrators were given custodial sentences was not simply that victims were denied justice, but that the individuals involved were not being given treatment to address their obsessive behaviour. Stalking is undoubtedly a characteristic of obsessive behaviour. The evidence we compiled for our report showed that most perpetrators of stalking commit multiple breaches of restraining orders over their criminal “careers”. Some individuals breach four or five times. Examples submitted to the inquiry showed that some individuals breached their order more than five times and still received either a fine or another form of non-custodial sentence.

We also heard evidence of numerous perpetrators being charged with offences that were less serious than stalking and focused on only one incident of abuse, rather than the whole pattern of behaviour. We were persuaded that it was essential that courses of conduct should be taken into account. If offences of this nature are not taken seriously and properly prosecuted and if the perpetrators are not treated, the underlying problems prompting that behaviour will never be properly addressed.

To be fair, the Government acted quickly on many of those recommendations and passed legislation in March 2012. However, despite the new 2A and 4A offences coming into force in November 2012, there are concerns that the new laws are not being used widely enough and that many police forces have not held training on the new offences.

Almost a year ago, at the same time as the law bearing down on stalking was enacted, police and crime commissioners were introduced. Members of Parliament can get in touch with those elected officials to ensure that the offence of stalking is properly pursued in our police force areas.

I am sure that that will assist in bringing pressure to bear in the right quarters.

Figures obtained via a freedom of information request, and confirmed by the Home Office, reveal that only 33 offenders were convicted by the courts in England and Wales in the first six months following enactment of the new stalking laws. In a letter to me dated 27 March 2012, the Home Secretary informed me that the Government would be consulting various stakeholders to ensure that the police and prosecution service have the necessary training and guidance to enable them to make best use of the new legislation. However, although I understand that the police have begun training, to date less than 30% of police officers have seen the e-learning packages. The number of arrests in the first six months was just 320. In Scotland, by contrast, in the 30 months since their law was introduced 1,431 detections had been recorded, and 1,046 of them had commenced prosecution. Of the 1,046, 450 had secured convictions and 315 still awaited prosecution. That suggests that the figures for England and Wales are well below expectation. In September, I found out that the CPS had developed an online e-learning course on cyber-stalking, which was launched in September 2012. Training in the new stalking legislation has barely commenced, and the Solicitor-General told me:

“The CPS is currently developing further training on the stalking offences, with emphasis on building a strong case, working closely with the police and engaging with victims throughout the legal process.”—[Official Report, 12 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 808W.]

Surely we should be seeing more progress by now.

In answer to another written parliamentary question on the same date, in which I asked what plans the MOJ had to revise sentencing guidelines on the new stalking offences, I was informed that:

“The independent Sentencing Council is responsible for producing sentencing guidelines and it will be for the Council to consider the issue of new or revised guidelines covering these offences.”—[Official Report, 12 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 849W.]

So stalking has yet to be included in the sentencing guidelines.

An analysis of cases dealt with by Paladin has shown that the Crown Prosecution Service frequently charges individuals with harassment and not stalking. In some cases, matters are discontinued. Offenders can choose to enter a plea bargain, so denying the victim the right to a court trial in which the full course of conduct of their perpetrator will be revealed to the court. More lenient sentences are handed down to offenders, and victims are still left feeling disappointed and unprotected.

Police information notices, often wrongly referred to as harassment warnings, are being handed out as a matter of course in stalking cases to victims and the alleged perpetrator alike, showing a failure by the police properly to investigate the complaints. There are, however, some positives. In the past year, the national stalking helpline has seen a 56% increase in calls compared to the same period the previous year, with many callers saying that they are aware that the law has changed.

Stalking is no longer a hidden crime, although online abusers can still hide behind avatars and pseudonyms. But there is a “but”. In spite of an increase in awareness among victims, the content of the calls that the helpline is receiving has not changed. Only 6.6% of the victims who contacted the helpline in the last year and who had reported the behaviour to the police were content with the response they received. The helpline has said that it frequently received calls from victims who receive inappropriate or even dangerous advice from law enforcement professionals. Victims report being told by police, “Well, you were in a relationship with him”, and, “I have to deal with murders and serious assaults, it’s not like you are black and blue”. Believe it or not, these things were said.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of occasions such as I have come across, when the police have dismissed what seems to be obvious stalking—for example, a dispute over child maintenance or that kind of issue? It is difficult sometimes to recognise what is going on if one does not know the full back story and the victim is not able to explain the harassment.

The hon. Lady is right. Unfortunately, her experience adds to the general experience that we have.

These failings are leaving victims vulnerable to further assault and to being secondarily victimised by the justice system—the precise complaint that victims brought to us during the inquiry.

In the past few months, the Government have taken proactive steps to improve the treatment that victims of crime receive from the criminal justice system. The government have raised the possibility, for example, of giving victims the opportunity to challenge decisions taken by the CPS not to charge suspects, or to drop prosecutions. This is essential work, and it must be followed through if we are to see any real change. As a result of the stalking law reform campaign and our inquiry here in Parliament, we now have more robust legislation to tackle the problem of stalking. But having a robust law is not enough; we must ensure that it is properly and thoroughly implemented. Thorough and complete training must be rolled out for all criminal justice professionals and monitored by relevant Departments within Whitehall. Victims must be made to feel more confident in the system. Most importantly, however, and since stalking is characteristic of obsessive behaviour, getting conviction rates up on its own will not stop these problems occurring. That is why, in the long term, we must combat the root of the problem by introducing a register of perpetrators and treatment programmes for serial stalkers.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these matters. We owe it to the public to get this right. I am sure that we will, but today is an opportunity to persuade the Government to bring matters forward far quicker than at present.

royal assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

High Speed Rail (Preparation) Act 2013.