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Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2014

It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Bone, not least because I was asked last week to chair this debate myself. Although I am capable of multi-tasking, I was not sure how I would manage that, so it is a pleasure to serve under you.

I should also say at the outset that I have received text messages from several hon. Members who are travelling down from various parts of the country. If they arrive in Westminster in time, I hope that they may be able to participate late in the debate, so if people start coming in and not going through the normal process, I am aware of that.

I should be clear that I want to discuss the rise in recent years of cyberstalking rather than cyber-bullying or cyber-harassment or, indeed, malicious communications, which are terms that are occasionally misused by the press and other commentators. Cyber-bullying, however, is also a serious, modern-day offence that profoundly affects people, in particular teenagers, and can result in serious outcomes such as suicide. I am also a vice-patron of the Cybersmile Foundation, a cyber-bullying campaign organisation.

I have consulted leaders in the field of cyberstalking, including Professor Carsten Maple from the university of Bedfordshire, who is also a director of the national centre for cyberstalking research. By his definition, cyberstalking occurs when an individual or individuals become obsessively fixated with another person and pursue them utilising electronic means that cause life-altering degrees of distress or fear in the victim. Before mass use of the internet, such people would often operate alone, as one-offs, but through various social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook and other platforms, individuals can now join together and operate almost as a pack and over a sustained period.

Stalking is not a new phenomenon; it has existed for many years, and Members will recall various cases in which stalking ultimately led to serious consequences. It is only relatively recently, however, that the first legislation was introduced in the United Kingdom to tackle stalking and harassment, so this Government—and the previous Government—are fairly new to the issue. We need to get on top of the problem, because cyberstalking and access to the means utilised for cyberstalking are on the rise.

Legislation was first introduced in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which came some seven years after the world’s first stalking legislation was passed in California. As we have moved into an age of electronic information and communication, stalkers have found more effective and efficient means to perpetrate their malicious acts. Physical stalkers have become cyberstalkers, and cyberstalking has become an epidemic that stretches across the globe. In many cases, physical stalkers were previously cyberstalkers.

In the press today is the tragic case of Helen Pearson, who was stabbed eight times with a pair of 12-inch long scissors by Joe Willis. The case is now in court. We know that she was stalked via electronic means before being physically stalked. Such cases occur often, and I will go on to discuss how stalking, attempted manslaughter or grievous bodily harm are often the offences considered in court, but the case began with cyberstalking.

Like all stalkers, cyberstalkers seek to gain power, control or influence over a victim. However, perpetrators usually have a high level of computer proficiency and will often combine cyber and physical stalking. Stalking may be increasing, but it has been documented that victims report stalking to the police only after 100 incidents. Helen Pearson reported her stalker 125 times to Devon and Cornwall police before any action was taken, for example. On 25 November 2012, as a result of the Protection of Freedom Act 2012, amendments were made to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 formally to recognise and define stalking as a crime, which may have given rise to increased awareness, resulting in the increase in charges under the 1997 Act. In 2012-13, the number of charges laid under the 1997 Act increased by more than 1,000, but a problem with the statistics on reports of stalking or prosecutions made under stalking laws such as the 1997 Act is that the report or charge is often made for an offence other than stalking, as I just highlighted using the Helen Pearson case.

Members may remember a recent case in Teesside Crown court. Anthony Graham from Middlesbrough admitted raping a woman and separately attacking her landlord with a claw hammer, leaving him with irreversible brain damage. Graham had become obsessed with the female victim and attacked her after she rejected his advances. On the day of the rape, Teesside Crown court heard, Graham was waiting at her house with a bunch of flowers. She rejected him, so that evening he went to her home and dragged her by her hair to a nearby house. The court heard that Graham tied the victim up using the belt from her dressing gown, and made repeated threats to kill her. The next evening, he went after her landlord, whom Graham thought was her lover, and attacked him with a claw hammer, causing irreparable brain damage. There will be no record of the cyberstalking that preceded the attacks, but it was a crime that moved from cyberstalking to a physical attack.

In the United States, 76% of women murdered by their current or former intimate partners were stalked by their attacker in the previous 12 months. Similarly, 85% of women who were victims of attempted murder by current or former intimate partners were stalked within the 12 months before the attempted murder. In the past two years in Afghanistan, 99 brave soldiers have been killed while protecting our freedom. In the same period in the UK, 266 women were killed by violence perpetrated by men against women—the most recent case being the distressing murder of a schoolteacher in Leeds last week.

Research into the specific nature of cyberstalking is unfortunately in its infancy, but the UK is a leader in the academic world through the work of Lorraine Sheridan, Paul Bocij, Carsten Maple and Emma Short—to name just a few. As a result, the university of Bedfordshire is at the forefront of cyberstalking research. The studies we do have show that cyberstalking is a much under-reported crime. We do not yet know how many victims of murder or attempted murder by former partners were actually subjected to cyberstalking by their attackers, but we can say that cyberstalking occurs frequently in cases of physical stalking. A report last year of victims who had contacted the national stalking helpline found that some form of technology was used by the stalker in more than 70% of cases. Such technology may be a tracker fixed to the underneath of a victim’s car, which is not an offence in law, but more often it is in the form of computers and social media, whose darker elements I will discuss later.

I just outlined a case in which stalking led to a serious physical attack, but I do not want the House to think that victims are harmed only physically. A non-physical attack may have psychological effects that can lead to physical manifestations in the victim. In 1996, Gaetano Constanza appealed against a conviction for assault occasioning actual bodily harm contrary to section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Constanza had followed Louise Wilson, made silent telephone calls, written on her front door and written more than 800 letters to her in the space of four months. There was medical evidence that she was suffering from clinical depression and anxiety. The Court of Appeal rejected the appeal and affirmed that assault could be committed without the victim even seeing the potential perpetrator of the violence. That scenario arises when victims are cyberstalked using social media sites: the attacker may be physically unknown to them; alternatively their identity may be known but, because of sustained and prolonged cyber-attacks, the victim can manifest symptoms as bad as, or worse than, those from an actual physical attack.

Cyberstalking can lead to a number of anxieties for victims. A study published this year found that cyberstalking had no less impact than physical stalking. ECHO, the electronic communications harassment observation project conducted by the national centre for cyberstalking research at the university of Bedfordshire, found that half of all victims who had been subjected to online and offline stalking had exhibited clinically recognised symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. One victim said:

“I am bombarded with…verbal abuse daily, my name and address has been traced and my private life interfered with.”

Cyberstalkers attack victims by a number of means. The proliferation of the use of the internet and its ubiquity has meant that victims can be stalked at any time, day or night, from any location. It is likely that internet communication removes disincentives: a stalker who might be deterred from confronting, or is unable to confront, a victim in person or on the telephone might not experience the same hesitation about sending harassing or threatening electronic communications to or about a victim. Furthermore, physical stature is not relevant in cyberstalking, as it sometimes can be in physical stalking. Indeed, there is a different ratio of male to female victims in cyberstalking compared with offline stalking. In the ECHO study, the ratio of two female victims to one male is much lower than that in a number of other studies of traditional forms of stalking.

One study of cyberstalking found that one in four victims had false information about them posted online. The harm caused by such “cyber-smearing” is often far more serious than that caused by equivalent offline acts such as writing poison-pen letters, because information posted on the internet is available to a huge audience and can remain easily accessible for a long time. Deleting malicious messages from the internet is incredibly difficult, as I am sure hon. Members are aware. When those messages are reposted and harvested—when one site automatically reposts information from another site—or when individuals repost, it is even more difficult. In addition, messages are often specifically sent to the social media sites of family, friends, work colleagues and neighbours, and the impact can be massive.

The anonymity of the internet, which is so important for freedom of speech, is used to make the lives of victims as difficult as possible. There is no checking of the validity of messages posted online. Those who see them do not know whether the messages are accurate and often do not know who sent them. Cyberstalkers will often attempt to be anonymous—or at least pseudonymous, as they try to dissociate an online identity from their true identity. Some cyberstalkers have an online identity and behind the scenes have several anonymous identities, which they use to reinforce their known identity. Such a person will go on to a social media site and use the false accounts to reinforce what they say.

Unfortunately, there are many tools that can assist cyberstalkers in hiding their true identity. Of course, anyone can create a new e-mail address using a pseudonym. However, a number of cyberstalkers use remailer services. A user sends an e-mail to the remailer, which strips off the information that could identify the sender and remails the message to its intended recipient. Some Members of the House may be aware of the growing use of the so-called dark web, an area of the internet that is not visible to regular search engines and often not to regular browsers. Instead, some areas can be accessed only by using special browsers that provide users with high levels of anonymity. Unfortunately, some cyberstalkers are using those or other so-called proxy servers in an attempt to hide their identity and location. Proxy servers are servers to which a user can connect to make it appear that they are at the same location as that server. Anonymity services can present problems for legislators and law enforcement, as well as causing huge additional anxiety for the victim.

Perceived anonymity is one factor that can lead to toxic disinhibition, through the removal of a capable guardian and of accountability and shame. A number of studies confirm that when people are online, social inhibitions that would be present in normal face-to-face interaction can be loosened or abandoned. Threats made under the shroud of anonymity can lead to increased fear in a cyberstalking case. One victim received threats stating that her cyberstalker was going to push her under a tube train as she commuted to work. She had no idea of the identity of the stalker—not even whether they were male or female. I ask hon. Members to imagine the fear and distress that she felt waiting for that train every morning. Any of the many seemingly innocuous commuters and tourists around her could have been the stalker, who had told her which tube she took, from which stop and at which time. It is entirely possible that the cyberstalker was never there and had never seen her get on the tube, but had gained that information in other ways; but would that make the victim’s fear any less? That fear was profound. The case is not an isolated one. One study found that in 42% of cases the cyberstalking victim did not know the identity of their stalker. That contrasts with offline stalking, where research has shown that a much higher proportion of victims know who their stalker is.

The ability to be pseudonymous has enabled cyberstalkers to impersonate their victims or their friends and family. By pretending to be the victim or someone close to them the stalker can gain access to information or spread falsehoods and incite relationship breakdown. A study showed that one in 11 victims had been impersonated in messages to friends, family or colleagues. Cyberstalkers often enlist the aid of other people to pursue a victim. Stalking by proxy is a common behaviour associated with cyberstalking and can be seen on Twitter every day. Tweets will almost be harvested between a group of people, and retweeted. There are examples of people looking for people to join them in cyberstalking. Studies have shown that one in four victims suffered when their cyberstalker encouraged others to harass the victim. That is a common problem.

Cyberstalkers have an arsenal of technology and services to assist them in their malicious campaigns. Some of the more obvious are messaging systems such as SMS and instant messaging, message boards, social networks, discussion forums and chat rooms, but others might use video games, for example. In fact, any system that allows people to send or display messages to an individual, a group or the public can be used. However, beyond messaging systems, cyberstalkers also use systems such as GPS technology, listening devices, hidden cameras and, as I have mentioned, car tracking devices to target their victims or learn more about their activities and personal life. In an age where we put so much information about ourselves online, that is particularly troubling. How hard would it be to locate someone’s whereabouts and the details of their personal life through information posted online not only by them but by the people who know them?

Even more worryingly, one study showed that more than 40% of victims surveyed had been sent malicious software by the perpetrator. Those programs can corrupt files, allow the perpetrator to control the victim’s computer, or be used to harvest information about the victim. They can be attached to a harmless e-mail, perhaps even from a trusted person whose computer has previously been compromised, or sent by someone impersonating a trusted source. There have, for example, been numerous cases where a trojan—software hidden in a seemingly innocuous message, akin to the ancient Trojan horse—allows the perpetrator to control the victim’s machine. That would give access to files, personal information and any peripherals, such as a webcam, so someone’s stalker can watch them while cyberstalking them.

Given the clearly massive impact that cyberstalking can have and the increasing number of ways that cyberstalkers can use technology and gain support for their campaigns, it is vital that an effective support system is in place. I am pleased to say that there is now a national stalking advocacy service, Paladin, and three leading charities—Protection Against Stalking, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and the Network for Surviving Stalking—to raise awareness and offer support to victims. There is also an outstanding national stalking helpline that offers support to victims. It is funded by the Home Office, although I understand that funding may not be guaranteed for the future. I truly hope that issue is resolved—perhaps the Minister can provide confirmation of that. There is also a national lead for stalking, Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan of Greater Manchester Police, who chairs the stalking and harassment working group and is working with various agencies to change attitudes and promote awareness. Those agencies include social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and Amazon, where we are at last beginning to see those organisations recognise the role that their product plays in the perpetration of cyberstalking.

However, I think we need more understanding, research and awareness of the specific nature of cyberstalking. The work of Professor Carsten Maple and Dr Emma Short at the national centre for cyberstalking research has made an outstanding contribution, and further support is needed for them and others to continue their work. Furthermore, we need to ensure that there are sufficient education and training programmes on cyberstalking. We need to ensure that people at all levels and in all areas of the justice system are aware of just how skilful cyberstalkers can be, how significant and far-reaching their impact can be, and how prolific they are. We need people to be aware of the danger posed to victims from psychological and physical attack.

We need employers to understand that this kind of stalking can happen in the workplace. To cite further research that I discovered this morning, a survey undertaken by the national centre for cyberstalking research found that in one in four cases of people being cyberstalked, the stalker made contact with them either via the workplace or using work contact details. However, clearly victims are not happy to discuss with their employers that they are victims of cyberstalking through the workplace: less than half disclosed their stalking experience to their manager or HR representative. That may be explained by the fact that 61% of respondents said that their workplace either did not have a policy for stalking or that they were not aware of one; however, 80.4% of those believed that their workplace should have such a policy. Finally, when asked whether their employer would treat cyberstalking the same or less seriously than traditional stalking, 46% of respondents stated that their employers would take it less seriously. Therein lies the problem: people do not understand the effects of cyberstalking and online stalking, and the effect that it can have on the individual. That is why we need employers to understand the issue.

We also need to educate the public on how they and others use the internet. They need to understand the risk at which they may be putting themselves and how their actions could have very serious consequences for others. That is not a simple undertaking, but it is very important.

I shall finish on the training of police in dealing with complaints about cyberstalking and the way in which they handle complaints. There has been a need for police forces and individual officers to complete the training that has been made available by the National Centre for Applied Learning Technologies. Bedfordshire police are obviously more aware of cyberstalking and its impact than most police forces, and I was told that 370 officers have completed the online training so far, with the number of officers likely to increase significantly if a decision is made to make the training mandatory. Given the impact of cyberstalking, I believe that it is now time for police officers to undergo mandatory training.

As we know, Helen Pearson reported her stalker to the police 125 times and he almost stabbed her to death in a graveyard. It took a member of the public to intervene and pull him off her. If that member of the public had not happened to be in the right place at the right time, I have no doubt that Helen Pearson would not be here today to be in that court case. Her situation is not unusual. As I have said, research has shown that it takes almost 100 complaints to the police before they take a complaint about cyberstalking, stalking or a combination of the two seriously.

Does the Minister agree that it is time to make the training mandatory? If he believes that mandatory training may be too big a measure to put in place, does he think that the Home Office should give an instruction to police forces to encourage them to ensure that all their members have applied to complete that online training, and that police forces should monitor the number of police officers who complete the training and make that information available to the Home Office? That needs to happen and there need to be specific training courses for police officers—I know that the university of Bedfordshire and Professor Carsten Marple are working on training police officers. It is not only about completing the online training, but about one-to-one training for officers on the front line to understand the issue. When officers understand the link between cyberstalking and physical stalking, the impact that it has on individuals today, and how very often we see the step from one to the other, they will begin to take complaints made by individuals more seriously.

I suppose that is where I will wind up, Mr Bone. I hope that the Minister can provide some reassurance. I know that the Government take cyberstalking and all forms of stalking very seriously, as we saw with the measures that were put in place in December 2012. However, there is more work to be done, and it is tragic that we have the case that I mentioned in the newspapers today. It is happening all the time. We have to take action to ensure that cyberstalking stops and that we do not see situations like that again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) for bringing this important topic to the Chamber. The debate is valuable in showing that there is cross-party agreement on the issue, including on the part of the Minister. The debate not only raises awareness of cyberstalking, but ensures that there is a real Government focus on measures taken to help reduce the number of incidents, and to help support organisations that can deal with the issue in a much more co-ordinated way.

[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]

I welcome you to the chair, Mrs Riordan. You have missed an interesting and complex presentation from the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire. She made a compelling case for the impact of cybserstalking, not only on women, but across the board. As she said, cyberstalking occurs when someone becomes obsessively fixated on an individual and pursues them through electronic means, causing the victim distress or fear.

Stalking often happened before the advent of the internet and wide-ranging social media, and previous Governments recognised that by making stalking and harassment an offence. However, we are in an electronic age, and as the hon. Lady said, with the growth of a range of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and of the internet, e-mail and texting, the ability to take stalking from physical to cyber is increasing all the time. We do not know what inventions will come downstream and widen the use of social media. There is clearly a problem that the Government and the authorities need to address.

In research by The Guardian in February 2014, 41% of women reported that a partner or ex-partner had used online activities to track or check up on them, and 37% of women have felt threatened by such behaviour. Facebook and e-mail were named as the most common means of abuse. In January 2014, The Daily Telegraph Magazine reported that prosecutions under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which particularly addresses menacing or offensive behaviour conducted via social media, e-mail, telephone or the internet, had dropped by 30% from 3,108 cases in 2012 to 2,221 cases in 2013. The hon. Lady mentioned that the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 has been passed since the first figure came out, and she mentioned that there have been approximately 1,000 inquiries following the introduction of that legislation. It would be helpful if the Minister could give an overall assessment of the number of potential cases being brought under either the new legislation or previous legislation, so that we get a sense of where we are on the problem.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has reported that 38% of children have been victims of cyber-bullying, which the hon. Lady has made clear is a different issue, but it shows that there is potential for not just women and men but children to be affected. In September 2013, Women’s Aid helpfully surveyed online more than 300 women who have survived domestic violence. The survey found—these are important figures in relation to the points raised by the hon. Lady—that: 45% of women who have survived domestic violence have experienced some form of abuse online during their relationship, including through social network sites or e-mail; 48% reported experiencing harassment or abuse online from their ex-partner once they had left the relationship; 38% reported online stalking once they had left the relationship completely; and 75% reported that the police did not know how best to respond to their concerns and allegations. That includes 12% who had reported abuse to the police and, rightly or wrongly, believed that they were not helped.

There is a real issue, and we need to address the points that the hon. Lady has helpfully raised. What are the agencies doing in response? We have a clear legislative framework that was put in place following pressure from outside the House and with cross-party support in the House, but we need particularly to look at the clear link between domestic violence and online abuse, harassment and stalking. We also need to consider how we can influence and change what are, as she clearly stated, online tools for people who wish to stalk, intimidate, control and coerce women in particular, but also men and children.

The impact on children can be great and long-lasting. A similar Women’s Aid survey showed that witnessing the impact of a parent being cyberstalked was particularly damaging to children’s development and growth, making them anxious or depressed, giving them problems at school and difficulties sleeping, and making them feel isolated and insecure. Cyberstalking is not simply a problem for the person being stalked; the problem extends to the wider family, particularly children.

One of the reasons for that is that cyberstalking often introduces life-changing behaviour in the person being stalked. The children of parents who normally go about their business will observe that their parents, or the person being stalked, dramatically alter what they do in their day-to-day life. They might no longer go outdoors because they are too frightened, or they might change how they travel to work. They might even move house. All that has a very disturbing effect on children. As I stated, causing such behaviour constitutes a crime; a precedent has been set in court. What most victims of cyberstalking do not know is that if their life is being affected in that way, they are able to take legal action against the person who has perpetrated the crime of cyberstalking against them.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting again the impact of cyberstalking, not only on the individual being stalked, by whatever means, but on wider family relationships, particularly with children. As she has made clear, cyberstalking can have an impact across the board, including on a child’s ability to relate at school and with friends. It can also affect a child’s use and development of important social media skills, because e-mail, Twitter and Facebook are important social media that have a positive effect, as well as having the potential to be used in a negative way.

That is important, and it brings me to my first point for the Minister, which backs up what the hon. Lady has said. How are we assessing the scale of the challenge? Is it simply about the number of cases reported to the police? Is it simply about the number of telephone calls made to the national stalking helpline? Is it about referrals to organisations such as Paladin or the Suzy Lamplugh Trust? What is the Government’s estimate of the nature of the problem, and how are they assessing it? What is the Government’s estimate of, and how are they assessing, the response to the legislation that was in place on stalking and harassment generally, and to the legislation passed in 2012 on cyberstalking and the use of social media in particular? It would be helpful if the Minister, as a starting point, gave both his and the Government’s assessment of whether the problem is static or increasing, whether reporting of the problem is increasing or falling, or whether the problem is increasing while reporting is falling. I would like a general indication from the Minister of how he and the Government are assessing the nature of the problem.

I support what the hon. Lady said about the agencies dealing with cyberstalking. The police rightly take cybercrime and e-crime very seriously. They are looking at a range of issues, and we hear continually about how they are addressing cybercrime and e-crime. Given the wide-ranging potential for cybercrime and e-crime generally, internationally and nationally, I would like the Minister’s assessment of where cyberstalking falls within the police’s priorities, because the police central e-crime unit is looking at those issues. What priority does it give to extending good practice to police forces across the United Kingdom? What co-operation is it undertaking with police forces across Europe and the world? How is it relating to good practice and policy? What steps is it taking to ensure that the same recognition is given to online violence and stalking as is given to stalking and potential violence in the community?

This might be a good point at which to drop a piece of information into the debate. The e-crime unit—many forces across the country are not aware of this—now has a direct interface with social media sites. In fact, I think there are two police officers—the number is due to increase—who interface with sites such as Twitter and Facebook. They were not there before, but they are now. The e-crime unit hopes to increase that interface, but the problem is that police forces across the country do not know how to access those officers; they do not have the contacts or know how to get in touch with them. The police officers are there; they have been provided for by the e-crime unit. I hope that the Minister will take that away and consider how to inform police forces. The work is being done; police forces just need to be able to access it.

Not quite always. We were born within a month of each other in the same city, so there is obviously some telepathy, and we agree with each other on this point.

Legislation has been passed, and the police force has an e-crime unit. A range of demands on that unit are of extreme significance in the growing drive against crime. I want to endorse and emphasise points made by the hon. Lady. What steps are the Government taking, through the national e-crime unit and through Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan to ensure that all local forces are aware of the unit? What priority is given to cyberstalking in that unit? What are the elements of good practice in the response to complaints made? How many cases are being brought forward? What is the relationship between the police force and individuals when cases are brought forward, and what is the level of understanding? Those are all important issues.

When I was the Minister responsible for policing, I found that it was good to have a national policy, but sometimes the national policy is reflected by the first person a crime is reported to locally, whether in North Wales, Bedfordshire, or our home city of Liverpool. That is where the impact of the national policy is translated at local level. I would welcome the Minister’s assessment of those issues.

My second point relates to the criminal justice system generally. It is more than a year since the offences of stalking were introduced. Has the Minister assessed how the criminal justice system understands the new offences and how it responds to victims of online abuse, harassment and stalking? I am not being confrontational, but what is his assessment of how the criminal justice system understands the legislation? What changes has it made since the legislation was introduced? What assessment has it made of its mechanism for prosecuting? How many prosecutions have there been and how many have been successful? What training is offered to the staff in our constituencies who work as prosecutors, judges, and defence barristers? Those issues are important.

The third point concerns something that the hon. Lady touched on. We are talking about predominantly social media, which is not just a UK but a worldwide phenomenon. Facebook, Google and Twitter, all of which I use, and other social media that I do not, are all international. What discussions is the Minister having with our colleagues in Europe, the providers of the services and other nations to ensure we get the right balance between freedom of expression and the regulation of abuse? It is possible for an individual to cyberstalk him, me or the hon. Lady from a beach in California. The focus on the provider, on good practice on their part, and on them having a strong, effective co-ordinated complaints procedure is important, as is legislation in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Lady touched on how someone on social media can be anonymous or have several identities. Again, I do not wish to be confrontational, but there is an opportunity for the Minister to look at how we can get standardised good practice on these issues across a range of Administrations. I would welcome his assessment of whether providers such as Google, Twitter, Facebook and others understand the impact that their social media can have when they are used for cyberstalking or harassment.

Finally, I want to focus on an issue that the hon. Lady mentioned: the assessment of victims’ needs. I do so for two reasons. First, there is the initial assessment when somebody feels they are being stalked through social media—e-mail, Twitter, Facebook or whatever. What help and support is available at the start of their concerns about cyberstalking? This boils down to broad understanding. This is a new issue; when I was first elected to this House 23 years ago, we would not have talked about this issue at all. We would not have talked about Twitter or Facebook; I did not have an e-mail address or a mobile phone, and I did not get texts. All that has happened in 20 years, during my time in this House. What help and support is available to aid our understanding of the issues? Often, the first port of call might be the local Victim Support services at Mold Crown court in my constituency, which might or might not have knowledge of the impact of cyberstalking on an individual. What is the Minister doing to ensure wider awareness of the issue, and to ensure that it is seen to be important for the reasons that the hon. Lady outlined?

The debate has been helpful. I do not have any answers, and I am not trying to be confrontational in terms of the Government’s performance on these issues, but I want to see what their forward strategy is, so that we can look at the assessment of the problem, the capability of the police to respond to complaints, the capability of the criminal justice system to respond and understand the issues, the support available to people who have faced the issue, and the action that providers of social media are taking to address and understand the issue. Those are five key areas, and I am willing to engage on them with the Minister, and hopefully with my colleagues in a future Government.

This issue is important. Cyberstalking can impact on and destroy people’s lives, and it can be done from the anonymity of a Twitter feed, a Facebook page, or an e-mail address established for the purpose, in the United Kingdom, Europe or anywhere in the world. We need to address this, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) on securing this important debate and on communicating her thoughts effectively and convincingly. I welcome the constructive approach of the shadow police Minister. We have three parties in this debate, and all three speakers are in the same position: we want to deal with this serious matter carefully, sensibly and effectively. We all share the abhorrence that my hon. Friend expressed for the consequences of cyberstalking. The Government has an open mind as to how we take the matter forward. We are committed to tackling cyberstalking. If there are good ideas, from wherever they come in the House, we want to look at those ideas. We have an open door as well as an open mind on these matters. I hope that the shadow police Minister will take that in the constructive spirit in which it is meant.

Stalking, whether it occurs online or offline, is a serious crime that can have devastating and debilitating effects on those targeted, as my hon. Friend eloquently set out. It is a crime that the coalition Government takes very seriously. According to the independent crime survey for England and Wales for 2012-13, after the age of 16, stalking affects 4% of women and 2% of men a year. It can affect many people in many different circumstances—incidents of stalking can take place within the context of a violent relationship or after a brief relationship, and it can involve a casual acquaintance or a complete stranger.

Victims of stalking may be affected in many different ways. They may lose their home, their family, their friends and their job in a bid to escape a persistent, fixated stalker. The most extreme outcome may be homicide or suicide. Everyone has the right to feel safe and secure and to live their life without feeling threatened or intimidated, and without being spied on. Victims of stalking have those fundamental freedoms taken away from them.

Both my colleagues referred to legislation and to enactment, and it is right to deal with both aspects. I will deal with legislation first. The Government is absolutely clear that what is illegal offline is illegal online. Cyberstalking is simply a term that describes a way to stalk a victim—using the internet—and it is therefore covered by the legislation. If people behave online in ways that would be unacceptable in any other context, there must be consequences. In 2012, we introduced two new stalking offences, which by definition include cyberstalking. We are determined that those who engage in such reprehensible behaviour are brought to justice.

My hon. Friend made a powerful case that stalking online is, in some ways, more debilitating for the victim and more damaging than it might be offline. She drew the helpful and pertinent comparison between poison pen letters, which could be called the offline method of stalking, and online stalking, with its potential impact and the ability of the internet to makes things available to far more people. Online stalking can therefore be more damaging than offline stalking—she made that point powerfully, which law enforcement agencies and the Government need to take on board.

Cyber-smearing, as my hon. Friend called the practice, is indeed more serious than poison pen letters. She was also right to say that anonymity is more possible online than it is offline. That can be more threatening and give perpetrators the appearance of having more power than they have offline, where they may be identified. People may therefore behave more outrageously and unacceptably online than they would do otherwise. The Government treats online and offline crime equally as crime, but I personally accept her point that online stalking can be more serious. We have to reflect that fact in how we approach the matter. I am grateful to her for making the case.

In answer to one of the questions asked by the shadow policing Minister, data from the Crown Prosecution Service’s report on violence against women and girls, published in July 2013, indicate that up to June of that year 91 prosecutions had been commenced under the new stalking offences. The legislation is still of course relatively new, and we will continue to monitor its use closely and carefully to ensure that it is effective and appropriate. He also asked about the number of potential cases yet to be brought forward. Police-recorded crime figures from April 2014 will give a clearer picture of stalking, because it is now separated from harassment.

Does the Minister have any figures for the success rate of the prosecutions? How many have been translated into convictions?

I mentioned that 91 prosecutions had been commenced, but I do not have the figure for whether the outcomes were successful. If I can rustle up that figure during the debate, I will give it to the Chamber. Otherwise, I am happy to write to the shadow Minister and my hon. Friend with that information.

Both the Members who have spoken in the debate rightly raised the issue of training. Legislation is not enough; it is only useful if it is effective and used, and if those who have the duty to act under it understand how it works and are sympathetic to it. The police, the criminal justice system, the front-line practitioners and industry all have a role to play in tackling the appalling crime of stalking, and we are working with them to increase awareness. For example, the Home Office has developed a one-day training course to improve understanding of stalking among those who come into contact with victims. The package was developed in partnership with Women’s Aid and the Paladin National Stalking Advocacy Service.

In addition, the College of Policing has developed a training package on stalking and harassment, which last year won the silver award for “excellence in the production of learning content” at the national 2013 e-learning awards. The training package is available to all police officers and staff. Furthermore, all newly qualified police officers—uniformed officers, investigators and public protection officers—are expected to complete it. It has been completed 48,000 times by the police since October 2012.

Will the Minister confirm whether that is the same as the online package with the rather complicated name? I am afraid my notes have been taken away, but I have found a reference. Is his training package the same as that of the National Centre for Applied Learning Technologies, which 370 Bedfordshire officers have completed? Or is it a different package? If it is a different one, we need to have some harmony between the packages that are out there and what forces can access; otherwise, the picture presented is complicated. Does the Minister know whether those packages are the same?

The terminology used by my hon. Friend was not what I used, but I will also check that point and come back to her with an answer. I was referring to a College of Policing package.

We have also developed a cyber-flag to enable forces to highlight crimes that have taken place online. The flag is running on a voluntary basis during 2014-15, and forces have been encouraged to start returning data to the Home Office. The flag will become mandatory in 2015-16. As time progresses, we will have a much clearer picture of what is happening than we did immediately after the enactment of the new offences.

I am pleased that in June 2013 the CPS made mandatory its e-learning package on prosecuting cyberstalking, non-cyberstalking and harassment. More than 1,300 lawyers have now completed that training, which is another aspect of the necessary involvement of the law enforcement agencies. For prosecutors to have appropriate guidance in place is also critical—a point made by the shadow Minister—and in June last year the CPS published guidelines for prosecutors on the approach that they should take in cases involving communications via social media. The guidance is absolutely clear that such communications are capable of amounting to criminal offences. We will continue to work with the police and other criminal justice agencies to ensure that all stalking cases are handled effectively and with due sensitivity.

I will now respond to one or two of the other points made. Garry Shewan and Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, wrote jointly to all chief constables and chief Crown prosecutors to identify common issues, such as charging correctly, and how they could be more effective. So they have taken action as well. As I mentioned, the CPS published robust guidelines in July last year, and they set out how to tackle cases involving social media. It is also worth mentioning at this point that the Home Office is committed to ensuring that local police and crime commissioners are fully aware of such offences and of the victims. A series of focus groups is planned that will include giving victims of stalking an opportunity to share their experiences with police and crime commissioners. We are trying to cover all bases.

To be helpful to the Minister, I remind him that one of the issues that I raised was the funding for the National Stalking Helpline. Will that be continued?

Funding for the Suzy Lamplugh Trust has been ring-fenced until March 2015; decisions beyond that point, for reasons of the electoral cycle, have yet to be finalised. The helpline is also funded by the Home Office. I am keen to get certainty on funding not only for that but for all useful Home Office strands. Clearly, we have to consider what we can do sensibly, given the election period, so that we do not end up with varied and vital sources of funding drying up and leaving people out there who perform much good work, especially in voluntary organisations, high and dry. I fully understand the point made by my hon. Friend about certainty of funding—it is guaranteed until March 2015 for the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, but I am keen to see what we can do to give more certainty before the summer recess, if at all possible.

There is also a vital role for social media companies to ensure that they respond quickly and appropriately to incidents of abusive behaviour on their networks. We expect such companies to ensure that they have easy-to-use reporting tools and robust processes in place to respond promptly when abuse is reported and, if necessary, that individuals who do not comply with their acceptable use polices have their accounts suspended or terminated.

Online abuse and harassment affect young people, which my hon. Friend referred to. On 13 February, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), chaired a meeting with social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, charities and Members of Parliament to discuss what more might be done to protect young people online.

The purpose of the meeting was to hear from social media companies about the measures they have in place to protect children from abuse, threatening behaviour, or seeing something that may be harmful. MPs had the opportunity to challenge, ask questions and raise any concerns. We affirmed the position that social media companies should respond quickly to incidents of abusive behaviour on their networks and ensure that they have measures in place to protect users.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire said, some of the people who engage in such reprehensible behaviour use anonymity to cover up who they are and to avoid being brought to justice. Of course, sometimes it is complicated to identify who is responsible, but it can be done. She will no doubt be aware of one or two cases in which individuals have been successfully prosecuted. For example, the Caroline Criado-Perez case involving the bank notes issue resulted in two convictions. It is absolutely right that such matters are taken forward.

It is also true—the shadow Minister referred to this—that such crimes are relatively new. They did not exist when he arrived in Parliament, or indeed when I arrived in Parliament in 1997. Therefore, MPs and successive Governments, and those to whom we look to enforce legislation, whether the police, the CPS or others, have been on a learning curve to ensure that the legislation is correct. We are committed, and we are trying to ensure that our practitioners out there are committed, to putting in place procedures and methods to ensure that such crimes can be dealt with effectively and that those who are responsible are brought to justice. It is important to do that.

We are on a learning curve, because the legislation and the crime are relatively new. However, some of the measures I have spoken about indicate that we are taking the issue seriously and that we are making useful contacts and connections with those whom we expect to enforce the legislation out there.

Part of the matter relates to education and ensuring that young people in particular understand the need to be safe online. I am particularly concerned that—this is slightly beyond the point made by my hon. Friend —when people add something innocuous to Facebook or their website, it could come back to haunt them in 20, 30 or 40 years, which simply was not possible when we were their age. Therefore, young people need to be fully educated to understand the consequences and implications of the internet in a way that was not necessary for us when we were growing up.

All schools, including independent and free schools, must have a behaviour policy. E-safety teaching also applies in all schools. Education about online safety is important. The Government-funded Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which is now integrated with the National Crime Agency, has issued advice on sexting and has produced material for teachers.

From September, children in primary schools will be taught how to use technology safely and respectfully, how to keep personal information private and where they can go for help and support. That is a useful development. Secondary school pupils will be taught a range of ways to use technology safely, responsibly and securely.

In addition, the Government has sent a clear message to schools that bullying, including cyber-bullying, is absolutely unacceptable. As I mentioned, every school is by law required to have a behaviour policy that includes measures aimed at preventing all forms of bullying among pupils. We have updated the advice to schools on bullying and cyber-bullying, setting out their legal duties, and the powers and the steps they can take to tackle it effectively. The Department for Education has given almost £3 million to organisations such as Beatbullying, the Diana Award, Kidscape and the National Children’s Bureau to provide state-of-the-art materials on cyber-bullying.

Regarding cybercrime more generally, we need to keep pace with the way in which crime is changing, and we are committed to improving our ability to tackle emerging issues. We are investing £860 million through the national cyber-security programme to improve our ability to detect attacks, develop world-class cyber capabilities and promote economic prosperity. That includes the creation of the national cybercrime unit, which is part of the National Crime Agency and will bring together law enforcement experts into a single unit to take the fight to the most serious offenders. As far as I am concerned, people who harass and destroy lives are serious offenders.

We have made progress, but there is more to do. In March, we updated the cross-Government action plan on violence against women and girls. It contains specific commitments to tackle stalking, including further action to raise awareness of that crime and continued funding for the national stalking helpline, which is a free national helpline that provides information and advice to victims of stalking.

More broadly, we will support effective local approaches to tackling violence against women and girls by providing local areas—through police and crime commissioners, local authorities and health care commissioners—with the information they need to deal effectively with crimes such as stalking.

Critically, we are committed to driving a culture change, both across society and in the response by front-line agencies. That is why, since 1 April, stalking and harassment offences are being reported separately in the police-recorded crime returns to the Home Office, allowing better assessment of how the offences are being investigated.

I will pick up on other points that I have not covered so far. My hon. Friend mentioned one particular incident, but she will of course understand that I cannot refer to ongoing cases.

I hope that I have misunderstood one of my hon. Friend’s points; it is not the case that an individual has to make 100 complaints to the police in every case before the police take action. As I understand it, the situation is that, often, 100 incidents occur before victims report matters to the police; I just want to be quite clear on that point. However, it is absolutely key that the police take matters seriously. To be honest, it has been a bit patchy in the past, and we have a challenge to drive up performance to the level of the best.

My hon. Friend is right to make the point that stalking, as well as being a reprehensible crime in itself, can be the precursor for something even more serious, such as physical attacks. Therefore, it is sensible, not just morally right, for the police to get ahead of cases early to identify those who may want to do something even more serious when they are banned from stalking.

I am confident that the important issue of malicious software being sent to gain control of a computer and access to a webcam will feature in the new information given to school children funded by the DFE. The capacity to use the internet maliciously is not well or widely understood, and it needs to be.

I think I have answered my hon. Friend’s point about funding. If there are any other issues about funding that she needs to follow through with me, I will be happy to do so subsequently.

To re-emphasise my point about online safety, guidance to digital safety is available online, and digital safety is included in the Home Office training package on stalking. Four sessions have been delivered to practitioners since February, and materials are available more widely.

I hope that I have gone some way to reassuring hon. Members that the coalition Government is absolutely clear that stalking, bullying, harassment and threatening behaviour are completely unacceptable. Regardless of whether such behaviour occurs online or offline, we are committed to putting an end to it. Online is a particular challenge, which we have grasped. All of us are on a learning curve, but we are determined to ensure that those responsible for such reprehensible behaviour are brought to justice.

If there are any outstanding points that hon. Members have raised but which I have not been able to deal with, I shall happily write to them with the information requested.

Sitting suspended.