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Stalking (Protection of Victims)

Volume 599: debated on Thursday 17 September 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(George Hollingbery.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this debate on stalking and I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

May I begin by placing on record my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who has played an active role in taking up the case? I also thank Gloucestershire CID and the officer in the case of Knight for their assistance to me, but most of all, I would like to thank my constituent, Dr Eleanor Aston. It is her dreadful ordeal as the victim of stalking that was the principal trigger for the debate. She was targeted by a stalker in a way which, as the court heard, caused her “exceptional anxiety and suffering”. She has shown great courage in supporting the debate, and she deserves the gratitude of the whole House.

I will say a little more about the circumstances of her case in a moment, but thought it might be helpful to set out my main point at the beginning. Stalking is a horrible, violating crime that rips relationships apart and shatters lives. My principal point is that the powers to punish offenders and protect the victims of this horrible offence are wholly inadequate, and that inadequacy is particularly blatant when the stalking concerned forms part of a pattern of repeat offending.

So that you know where I am heading, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am calling for two principal things. First, I want an increase in sentencing powers for offences of stalking contrary to section 4(4)(a) of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and, secondly, a review of the restrictive rule in section 265 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which means that in any case in which a court sentences a defendant for an offence that he commits on licence—not just stalking—the court must order the new sentence to run concurrently with the old one. It sounds arcane, but it is not. The situation leads to injustice and I shall explain why in a moment. The point is that currently the law does not get that difficult balance right. It creates a sentencing straitjacket that restricts the court’s ability to do justice. The judge in the case affecting my constituent thought that that was wrong. I think it is wrong, too.

I am not seeking something that would have dramatic knock-on effects. Civil servants rightly reach for their calculators to work out what the impact of any legislative change would be. But the cases in which there would be a particularly lengthy sentence for stalking, or indeed an extended sentence, are likely to be rare. Equally, the circumstances in which it would be appropriate to impose back-to-back sentences are likely to be infrequent. The simple point is that when the circumstances demand it, courts should have the tools they need to do justice and protect the victim.

I need to set out a little more detail about the case involving my constituent. Dr Aston is a general practitioner, described at Gloucester Crown Court as “successful and popular”, and she practises at a local surgery in Gloucestershire. Raymond Knight, the defendant, became a patient at her surgery in 2007. As is sometimes the case with this type of offending, the harassment began annoyingly but relatively innocuously, with the defendant sending cards and inappropriate messages to the surgery, but it soon became far more serious.

Raymond Knight began attending Dr Aston’s surgery and vandalising her car, and in 2009 he was convicted of harassment, contrary to section 2 of the 1997 Act, and a restraining order was imposed with conditions. It did not work. He continued to stalk her. He attended her surgery over 100 times and vandalised it, posting foul items through the letter box, and he attended her home frequently. He was arrested and multiple photos were found on his camera and computer. In July 2010 he was sentenced to a two-year community order.

Once again, the community order completely failed to work and the stalking continued. I will set out some of the details so that the House understands why I am making these points. The defendant showed up at a party for Dr Aston’s young daughter and slashed her car tyre. He was arrested again following reports of hacking a water pipe and interfering with the gas supply. In May 2013 he was convicted and sentenced to 44 months’ imprisonment for eight breaches of a restraining order and causing criminal damage.

What about the effect on the victim? Dr Aston was advised by the police to change her name and job and move address. It was suggested that she should come off the General Medical Council register. The stalking led to her being off work for many months, and she was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

What happened next? This is where the law goes wrong. The defendant was released on licence in July 2014, the half-way point of his sentence, with a condition to reside at a bail hostel in Weymouth. However, as is not uncommon in offences of this nature, within six months he was offending again. In December 2014 Dr Aston received two packages, one to her home address in Cheltenham and the other to her medical practice in Gloucester. One was threatening and abusive in content. It suggested that the defendant had been watching her and knew her car registration, where her husband worked and where her children went to school. Chillingly, the second package simply read, “Guess who’s back?”

The defendant was arrested the following day and his licence was revoked. In other words, he was required to serve the balance of the original 44-month sentence. On 15 May 2015 he was sentenced for several offences, including stalking and breach of a restraining order. In his sentencing remarks, the judge stated that the defendant had conducted a campaign for six years in which he had sought to “terrorise” the victim. But the law went wrong, because the maximum sentence the judge could impose for the stalking was five years’ imprisonment. Where there is an early guilty plea, the judge is obliged, as in all cases, to deduct a third from the sentence. That means in reality a maximum sentence of around three years and four months. Of course, prisoners serve half their sentence, so the total time to be served in prison is little more than 18 months. We should bear in mind the fact that that is for the most serious examples of stalking.

The judge in this case clearly felt that the sentence was inadequate. He stated:

“I am frustrated that the maximum sentence for harassment is five years. I would, if I could, give you longer.”

In fact, His Honour Judge Tabor QC appears to have done his best to do justice by imposing consecutive sentences for some breaches of the restraining order, but that is somewhat beside the point.

The second problem facing the sentencing judge was that because of the restrictive wording of section 265 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, he was obliged to order that the new sentence of five years should run concurrently with the period of licence that he was serving on recall. In other words, he was not allowed to order the defendant to serve out the balance of his original sentence before starting his new one. What did the judge make of that? He added:

“I also make it clear that I feel it is wrong that I am not entitled to pass a consecutive sentence on you.”

The effect of all this is clear. In this case, the judge’s hands were tied. He was able neither to punish the offender nor to protect the victim in the way that justice demanded.

So what needs to change? First, the maximum sentence for stalking contrary to section 4A of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 needs to be increased. If we think about where stalking fits into the hierarchy, that point is well made. The maximum sentence for criminal damage—an offence against property—is 10 years, and the maximum sentence for a single one-off dwelling house burglary is 14 years. It is bordering on the absurd that the maximum penalty for a campaign of stalking over many years that left the victim feeling, in the words of the judge, “terrorised”, is so much less.

Secondly, to protect the victim, stalking should be a specified offence. That would allow the court, in the most serious cases, after a proper, evidence-based assessment of the defendant, and having found him to be “dangerous” within the meaning of the 2003 Act, to impose an extended period of licence. That would require the defendant, on release, to know that he had to obey the law for an extended period, failing which he could be returned to prison. It may be noted that in this case the judge said:

“I have no doubt at all that you are dangerous in the sense that you pose a significant risk to her in future in terms of causing her serious harm.”

My hon. Friend is making some powerful arguments. Does he agree that because the history of the law dates from a time before social media and the internet had exploded as it has now, when there are much greater opportunities to stalk someone and find out the details of their family, the deterrent needs to be stronger than perhaps it was in previous years?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. He is absolutely right. I suspect that stalking is as old as the sea, but the opportunities to stalk are much greater now than they have ever been. Indeed, stalking was discussed in this House during the previous Parliament, but then, as now, there was a growing sense that the courts do not have the tools they need to be able to address it.

Let me make it crystal clear that I am not from the brigade that says we should be locking people up and throwing away the key. I am merely suggesting that there needs to be proportionality so that judges can, in appropriate circumstances, ensure that the punishment fits the crime and, just as importantly if not more so, that victims can be protected. Just imagine what it is like when you, as the victim, know that the person who has made your life a misery is due to be released from prison for the most serious type of stalking offence about 18 months after he was sent there.

Let me return to my point about back-to-back sentencing, which might sound arcane, but is critical. At the moment, a defendant may commit an offence of stalking, go to prison, be released at the halfway point, and then, as is not uncommon, do exactly the same again. The judge should be able to say, “Right, you go and complete the balance of your sentence. You were told that you would be released at the halfway point but your sentence has not come to an end. If you commit further offences, you are liable to be recalled on licence to complete your sentence, and then you will have to start a sentence for the new crime that you have committed.” That discretion is not open to the court. The judge is obliged by section 265 of the 2003 Act to make the sentences run concurrently. That is wrong. The courts should not be prevented from imposing a consecutive sentence of imprisonment in those cases, no doubt rare, where it is called for. I repeat that I am not saying that that should happen in every case, or even in most cases. I am simply saying that it should be on the list of options available to the sentencing judge, who views the circumstances in the round.

In the overwhelming majority of cases I believe our courts—by which I mean judges, barristers, solicitors, police officers and court staff—deliver a standard of justice of which we can all be proud. In this case, however, our criminal justice system fell short. My constituent, Dr Aston, was not given the protection she required and it is time to put that right.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on securing the debate and thank him for raising this important issue. He has made some excellent points on behalf of his constituent and I am genuinely and terribly sorry to hear about this case. It emphasises why we must get the first response right, identify stalking behaviour at the earliest opportunity and ensure that the criminal justice system does deliver justice.

First and foremost, stalking is a dangerous and devastating crime. The impact on the victim—physically, psychologically and emotionally—cannot be overstated, as we have seen in Dr Aston’s case. We owe it to the victims of this terrible crime to do everything we can to afford them the protection and support they need. It is, as my hon. Friend has said, a horrible, violating crime. This Government continue to work closely with victims, stalking support services, the police and criminal justice agencies to ensure that we are doing just that.

It may help if I set out the laws that apply to stalking. As Members will be aware, in November 2012 two new offences of stalking were introduced into the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. That was in recognition of the fact that, while stalking could be prosecuted under that Act, there was a gap in the law. Those specific offences bridge that gap in order better to protect victims and to bring perpetrators to justice more effectively. They have made a difference.

The most recent data from the Crown Prosecution Service show that in 2014-15, more than 1,100 prosecutions commenced under the new stalking offences—almost a 50% increase on the previous year. A significant number of those prosecutions were brought under the more serious of the two offences, involving fear of violence and serious alarm or distress. Those figures are encouraging and show that the new legislation is beginning to take effect. However we know, and we have heard today, that too many victims of stalking are not getting justice and that more can be done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) pointed out, the ability to offend online increases the opportunities available to offenders, although I must make it clear that that which is illegal offline is also illegal online.

Of course, legislation alone is not enough to tackle the problem. If the new laws are to be used to best effect, it is vital that front-line police officers and prosecutors are equipped to recognise the patterns of behaviour that lie behind the fixated obsessions of a stalker. Since October 2012, the College of Policing training package on investigating stalking has been completed more than 68,000 times by police staff. More than 1,600 CPS staff have completed training on stalking and the Director of Public Prosecutions has commissioned more work to identify actions to increase stalking prosecutions even further.

The difference between stalking and harassment has always been a challenge, particularly when trying to bring a successful prosecution. The CPS is working with Government and other partners such as Paladin, which runs the national stalking advocacy service, and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which runs the national stalking helpline, to identify additional training to enable CPS prosecutors to address the issue.

We also continue to work closely with the College of Policing and the police to ensure that appropriate tools are available to put in place protective measures for victims. In July, I met the national policing lead for stalking and harassment, Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan, to discuss options for further work. ACC Shewan is currently undertaking a review of police information notices in the light of recent concerns over their use. He will consider whether PINs should be rebranded to make their purpose in addressing low-level harassment more explicit. A PIN may not be an appropriate measure in stalking cases, and guidance to officers will be refreshed to reflect that point.

The Home Secretary and I are considering further evidence on the measures available to tackle stalking and looking at whether there is more that the Government can or should do. For example, the Government have introduced civil orders to help the police deal with domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and sexual offending. We are actively looking at whether a new stalking and harassment protection order could provide an additional route to early intervention to stop this crime.

Prolonged campaigns of the kind involved in the case raised by my hon. Friend highlight the fact that both the new offences are needed. Stalking must be acknowledged as the fixated, obsessive offending that it is. We now need to focus on the early identification of stalking behaviour so that perpetrators can be stopped before someone has to suffer for so many years. The legislation has provided a springboard to drive such a shift in approach, but consideration of a new protection order is another step in ensuring that we do all we can to stop stalking at the earliest opportunity. A new order may include the option to place restrictions on an offender.

The court already has the power to impose restraining orders—in other words, it can order someone not to go to a certain place—but it is in the nature of such offending that offenders ignore court orders however they are badged. Does the Minister recognise that that is an issue for the criminal justice system?

My hon. Friend is right. In the case that he has raised, the offender was given a restraining order banning him from 11 counties. However, we need to look at whether we can bring in more civil orders in addition to the criminal justice legislation. Anything we can do to stop offending at the earliest opportunity and prevent it from becoming a prolonged campaign would be positive. The example he has cited really brings home the fact that we need to intervene sooner, including by identifying the signs of such behaviour as soon as possible and deciding whether any measures can be used. I do, however, understand that once an offender has started such a prolonged campaign, there is a difficulty in using civil orders, and that action must then be taken through the criminal justice system. If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will return to his point about the criminal justice system.

I must also say that we cannot look at stalking in isolation from the broader work being done across Government to tackle violence against women and girls and to protect vulnerable people and tackle exploitation in all its forms. Wider work on tackling violence and abuse may help to support an improved response to stalking. For example, the College of Policing has developed an immersive training programme for officers on domestic violence and abuse. That programme is relevant, because nearly half of stalking cases involve a former intimate partner. That was not the case in the example my hon. Friend has cited, but that has been shown by the statistics. Such training will be crucial in helping officers to tackle domestic abuse and implement the new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour, both of which will benefit domestic abuse victims who may experience stalking. By supporting officers to identify patterns of abuse and promoting a culture of victim belief and empathy, the new training packages will improve the police response to a range of safeguarding and public protection issues, including those of victims who are stalked by a casual acquaintance or a complete stranger, as well as those who know their stalker.

My hon. Friend and I have discussed outside the Chamber the specific points that he has made in relation to Dr Aston’s case, including his wish for stalking to be a specified offence in order to increase the level of sentencing, and for section 265 of the 2003 Act to be looked at in relation to consecutive versus concurrent sentencing. I have met my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor to discuss those points. He was disturbed by them, and very much wants to meet my hon. Friend to discuss them and to consider what the Government can do to make a practical difference. This goes back to the point that the criminal justice system has to deliver and be seen to deliver justice. Victims such as Dr Aston deserve no less.

I am proud of the progress that we are making in getting to grips with this complex offence, the effects of which can be deep and long-lasting for victims. Today’s debate has been timely in informing us of the impact and what more can be done. Once again I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is a true champion of his constituents. Dr Aston is very lucky to have him as her constituency MP. I know that he will continue to campaign for her and other victims of stalking. As the Minister with responsibility for preventing abuse and exploitation, I am determined to do everything I can, with him, to protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.