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Stalking Advocates

Volume 708: debated on Monday 31 January 2022

Before I call the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) to open the debate, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that the petition being debated today directly relates to the death of Gracie Spinks in June last year. An investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct is ongoing, and the inquest relating to the death of Gracie Spinks remains active. Mr Speaker has agreed to exercise the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters sub judice to allow limited reference to the death of Gracie Spinks. However, I ask that Members do not refer to the detailed speculation about the circumstances surrounding the death, including the conduct of the police in this case.

I remind Members to observe social distancing, and to wear masks. I invite Tonia Antoniazzi to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 593769, relating to funding for stalking advocates.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Mark. As you say, this case is sub judice, so I will not go into details in my contribution. However, I pay heartfelt tribute to the parents of Gracie Spinks, who are here. I spoke to Richard and Alison last week, and was very moved by their story, but also angered. The trauma that they have gone through is unimaginable, and I hope that I am able to do them and Gracie proud today.

I also put on record my thanks to Jackie Barnett-Wheatcroft for starting this important petition, and for taking the time to speak to me last week. The petition, which has more than 105,000 signatures, states:

“The Government should provide more funding for stalking advocates for victims of stalking. This would help support victims, and should also help the police to investigate cases more thoroughly, potentially helping prevent threats to life.”

That seems a wholly appropriate way to deal with this issue, and there must be best practice that can be shared between police forces to make sure that the tragedy we are talking about cannot happen again. When I spoke to Richard and Alison, and to Jackie last week, one thing that struck me was their determination to find a solution to this issue.

Gracie’s case is a tragic reminder of what seems to be the ever-rising problem of violence against women and girls. Gracie had reported her stalker to the police, which, as we know, takes a huge amount of courage. What I am about to outline is not specifically about Gracie’s case, but there may be some similarities with it. Many women are dismissed by the police when they report violence perpetrated by men. Time and again, we have seen cases of women murdered by men who they have recently or previously complained about. Just this week, Yasmin Chkaifi was killed by her ex-husband. He had an interim stalking protection order against him, and was wanted by the police for breaking it, but despite this, he still found the opportunity to kill Yasmin in the street, just yards from her home—her safe place. In Swansea, we have seen the smirking face of Stephen Hill, who beat his girlfriend so badly that she needed a metal plate put in her head. He was given a sentence of just over two years—two years for life-changing injuries.

This is not the first time that I have spoken about violence against women. Just a few months ago, we were in this Chamber debating the rise in drink spiking, and over the past 12 months, we have been inundated with stories of serious attacks on, and murders of, women across the country. We have rightly been appalled by the murder of Sarah Everard at the hands of a policeman; the police’s taking photographs of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman after they were murdered in a park; and the killing of Sabina Nessa as she walked through her local park. It cannot go on like this. The Government must recognise that we have an epidemic on our hands.

When women approach the police for support, they are often turned away and made to feel as though they are wasting police time. If someone is mugged or burgled, they are not asked to provide evidence, but a victim of stalking is. The onus is put on the victim. Many stalkers are also guilty of other crimes against their victims. Affray, criminal damage, voyeurism and other offences are often recorded in stalking cases. If a stalking advocate were on a police force, a link between those offences could be established, and we could avoid such cases as those that we are talking about today.

Much is made of postcode lotteries, but we have a police force lottery when it comes to imposing stalking protection orders. It appears that some forces are using them to much better effect than others. We need to ensure that their use to good effect is replicated. A BBC investigation in March 2021 found that only two full orders had been granted in the whole of Wales since the introduction of stalking protection orders in January 2020, despite more than 3,000 stalking offences being reported to the four police forces. It is paramount that we find out how some forces are protecting women; that information then needs to be shared across the board. Much of this comes down to the training that officers receive. How are police forces learning from their mistakes and improving outcomes for all victims of stalking?

There are also issues with trivialising the crime of stalking. I know that I have used the verb to describe having a nose at somebody on social media, and that is not acceptable. It makes it a bit of a joke, when we know that it is not, and we must all recognise that. The dangers that social media can pose cannot continue to go unchecked. We have become so much more connected. That is great for staying in touch with family and friends, but it exposes us to the dangers of having our details available to the world. Posting photos, checking into places and keeping location services on are tools that can be used to find people. Where there are no checks on people setting up accounts, stalkers can create numerous accounts and use them to bombard victims with messages.

Just last week, stories were emerging about the new threat of people using Apple AirTags to follow women without their consent. Tracking devices such as AirTags and Tile are designed to be attached to things that we may lose, such as ours keys or bag, so that we can locate them from our phone, but in the wrong hands they are the ideal tools for stalking and locating someone. Stories emerged last week of that happening in America, and of women having to rely on a beep from the offending device. Even more worryingly, only 100,000 Android users out of a potential 3 million have downloaded an app that Android users are being asked to install that identifies such tracking devices.

Safety concerns about devices and technologies used in the home, such as smart speakers giving away someone’s location, or smart devices getting hacked and compromising home security, have not yet been addressed properly by the tech giants. They need to step up and take action. They have a duty of care to everyone using their products and services. I am not sure whether the Minister has had conversations with any of them, but I would welcome their engagement on the issue, and would be interested in hearing more about how she will approach that. I thank her for her engagement on the subject after I sent over questions earlier. We want and need a constructive discussion. I know that she has met the petitioner, Jackie, but I hope that she will agree to meet the family, and other families, to discuss the best way forward.

In the meantime, very simply there are a number of questions that I, and I am sure the family and friends of Gracie and many others, would appreciate the answers to. How many stalking prevention orders have been given out since they were introduced? Are they uniformly spread across all police forces, or are some doing better than others? What assessment has been made of the pilot scheme being run by West Midlands police? Has the Minister discussed with Government colleagues and police representatives the introduction of stalking advocates to police forces in order to deal with the issue? We would also like to know whether there has been an audit of other offences recorded against perpetrators who are later convicted of stalking. It is those red flags that could stop women such as Gracie being murdered.

The themes running through my research on this subject were that police forces need to share best practice in a much more structured and regulated way, and that training across all forces needs to be massively improved—although “massively” does not go far enough. The Minister needs to take a strong lead on these issues, and shadow Front-Bench Members and I are willing to help in any way we can. I echo the calls in the petition for an advocate on each police force to be made available to victims of stalking. Patterns of behaviour can be identified if someone is looking for them, but many police forces simply do not have the time to do that.

Women want to feel safe, but we do not. Just look at this case, and look at the number of women killed in the last 12 months. Every year, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on the Front Bench reads out the number and names of the women killed at the hands of men that year. It is a stark reminder to all of us that we are not getting any better on this, and that we need to address the issue. Look at the conviction rates for rape that have just been released. Look at the Met’s response to the Sarah Everard vigil. As a country, we must do better, and I want to work with the Minister across the House to make sure that happens. Gracie’s parents have made it clear that they will not let this go; I will not let it go, either. Things must change. I will continue to fight for women everywhere who are suffering at the hands of men.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who already knows that she is one of my favourite Members of the House. She gave an exceptional and incredibly powerful speech. I fully endorse her comments on best practice and advocates in police forces, and, indeed, the questions she raised. She opened the debate in a really suitable and fitting way.

This debate comes after a horrible event took place in the constituency of my neighbour, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins), who is present. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) is in the Gallery; I know that this issue is very close to his heart, and that he wishes he could speak in the debate, although his role on the Front Bench prevents him from doing so. Hopefully, I will do him justice as well.

Victim support is important, and fostering an open and honest culture around stalking, domestic abuse and sexual violence, so that victims feel safe to come forward, is a massive challenge, particularly in areas that are a bit more rural and where education levels are perhaps not quite where we would like them to be. We need well-resourced, locally engaged police forces to protect communities such as those in Bolsover.

I offer my sincerest thanks to Jackie Barnett-Wheatcroft for setting up this petition. I know it must have been very difficult to speak so publicly, and it really demonstrates her courage and strength of character that she has brought about this debate with her activism. I should also say that I have met the Minister to discuss these issues, and I know that she takes them incredibly seriously. I know that she will be able to go only so far in her response, and that there is a big cultural issue that we need to address. She is incredibly committed to ensuring that we make progress in this field. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), is perhaps the most vocal and passionate Member of the House on a matter that we all care about very much.

The fact that Gracie Spinks’s death took place in a neighbouring constituency is reflected in the number of signatures—nearly 6,000—from my Bolsover constituency. That shows the strength of local feeling. I have been a Member of this House for two years and one month. The Petitions Committee has been functioning in various iterations during the covid pandemic, and every week I have watched on with envy as all the emails come through for different petitions, because Bolsover has never appeared in the list of most supportive constituencies. That number of signatures really shows how important this issue is to my constituents, so I thank the petitioners.

We are here to talk about the lessons learned and the need for further action. It is an incredibly difficult thing to talk about, and I appreciate that matters being sub judice means that we are unable to go into detail, but Gracie Spinks’s case is not the only high-profile case to have impacted my constituency. In another serious incident, in Tibshelf, the police were able to enforce a restraining order in a robust and effective response. Such incidents are harrowing ordeals for all involved, and effective intervention can and will save lives and protect our families, friends, neighbours and daughters.

I am a Conservative Back Bencher, so I want to make some defence of the Government, who are trying to take action on this matter. It is staggering, however, that 1.5 million people have suffered stalking in the past year; the number is almost unfathomable. I appreciate that it is not just men who engage in stalking—that is a perfectly fine caveat—but there is a challenge around masculinity and malehood, and a culture around being a man that can be deeply corrosive and that needs to be challenged. It is not a bad thing to be a man and sometimes not know the answers. I appreciate that I am a man, albeit a gay one, and some people will not like that, but hey.

There is challenge in being a man in a culture in which we are exposed to things on the internet that we were perhaps not exposed to before; in which we are challenged by culture from different sources; and in which we may not be as educated as we need to be. There is often a lack of role models, and a lack of people who can say, “No, that is not right.” There is a challenge around that. It is not impossible to overcome, but we must undoubtedly focus on and acknowledge it, and we must present pathways to ensure that it does not escalate to a point where women and girls are threatened.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that education in our schools on consent and relationships is key? The best time to get the message across about good, healthy relationships and how to deal with everybody is the time between a person’s being a small child and their becoming an adult.

I agree wholeheartedly. Indeed, until not long ago, my husband worked for an organisation that used to go into schools to help spread tolerance and understanding—albeit in a slightly different field—to ensure that people were comfortable from a young age with those conversations, their rights, and people who may be a bit different. That is incredibly important.

This is an aside that I did not intend to make, but I visited Bolsover School only a couple of weeks ago, and I was absolutely blown away by the tolerance and understanding that I saw there. It was a sign of progress from when I was at school, and a sign that things were being challenged that I did not think would be in my adult life. The subject that we are discussing inevitably leads us to focus on the bad, but it is important that we highlight and praise progress, because that encourages other schools and people to step forward and learn.

I thank the hon. Member for being generous with his time. It is great to see progress in schools, and that progress should be celebrated. But is he concerned about the online harm to which children are being exposed—about what the web is offering them and the problems that that causes? And does he agree that that is why the online harms Bill will have to deal with those issues robustly?

I absolutely do. We seem to be in general agreement, which may be more worrying for my Whips than anybody else. Obviously, the shadow Minister who is responsible for the online harms Bill is very much a mutual friend of ours. The question of what is accessible on the internet is worrying in a variety of lights, but critical thought and being able to understand what is normal and what is right are also important. It is incredibly important for that to be taught in a variety of fields in the 21st century. That ranges from everything that we do and discuss here and everything that we see in the news, through to how we behave in relationships.

I find some of these issues incredibly difficult to discuss, because I grew up in an abusive household. I have spoken about it in the past. I was a victim of domestic abuse—I had an incredibly abusive stepfather—when I was younger. I perhaps come at the subject from the viewpoint that nobody is perfect. I have struggled to define myself as an adult male and, not wishing to make a huge thing of my sexuality, as an openly gay male in Doncaster as well and to find my place. I understand that some of those things are a great challenge for any person, but being a role model, encouraging people to be the best that they can be and, as the hon. Member for Gower rightly says, ensuring that the pathways are there and that the things that people are looking at online are challenged in the correct way is really important.

I got waylaid by the intervention. Fortunately, we have a 90-minute debate and not many speakers, so if I may, I will return to a point that I wanted to make as an aside. Quite recently, we had another event, in Langwith in my constituency, and it resulted in a very high-profile murder. Derbyshire police were incredibly impressive in how they handled that, how they dealt with the community and how they briefed individuals. There are moments when we are very proud of our local police force, and I think it is only right to highlight in this discussion the fact that there is good as well as bad.

It is also worth stating that the Government have, I think, open ears and are very determined to take whatever suggestions will work. That is really important. There is £151 million for victim and witness support, but the most important bit of money that is being spent is the £3 million to understand better the social causes of violence against women and girls, because there are underlying issues of education and culture, some of which have been alluded to both in the opening remarks and in our general discussion, that I think are really important to tackle.

Therefore I thank very much those who brought forward and signed the petition, and I look forward to future contributions—I am sure that that of the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) will be in a similar vein. The issue definitely should not be party political, because our women and girls are far too important for us to toss it around as a political football. It should unite the nation and unite us as politicians, because this problem must end. Those of us who have been victims, in whichever form, know the importance of standing up, and of seeing people stand up collectively, so I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s views as well. We need to work together to tackle a culture that must end.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), a constituency neighbour. It is a great shame that the debate coincides with the Prime Minister’s statement, because a number of other hon. Members would have liked to be in the Chamber and would have been in different circumstances. But these are the vagaries of the political calendar, as we all know.

I start by paying tribute to Richard, Alison and the whole family, because they have faced a grief and an anguish that is every parent’s worst nightmare. There is almost nothing worse for a parent than attending their child’s funeral, but to attend the funeral of their child in such circumstances, while thinking that steps might have been taken to prevent it, is an unspeakable anguish that no parent should have to tolerate. They have responded to that appalling chasm of grief by saying that they want to get something positive out of it. They know that they cannot bring Gracie back, but they want to support other families so that they do not suffer the same kind of grief. That is inspirational and it makes me very proud to have them as constituents and friends.

I would like to pay tribute to Jackie Barnett-Wheatcroft, who started the petition. Jackie leapt into action as soon as the funeral had passed, initially introducing a paper petition that was supported by the entire community and had over 17,000 signatures in a matter of weeks. Jackie counted them all, which was quite a performance. I will be presenting a paper petition later this evening that will also refer to that. Having being told that a debate in Parliament needed an e-petition, Jackie worked with the parliamentary authorities, assisted by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), to get a petition on the parliamentary system. That has led to today’s debate.

The funeral of Gracie Spinks was attended by thousands, and her murder sent shockwaves through the people of Chesterfield and beyond, as the hon. Member for Bolsover said. Many people in Chesterfield would have liked to have been here if covid restrictions had not prevented it. The outpouring of grief and anger that followed Gracie’s murder did not surface just because of the tragedy of a vibrant life cut needlessly short. There was also the sense that more could have been done to save her and that the support a victim of stalking receives is so often inadequate. That is what brings us to the debate today. Gracie’s family and the wider Gracie’s law campaigners are determined that some good must come from that appalling tragedy and that we should all do all we can to prevent other families suffering the same heartbreak that Gracie’s family endure daily. The petition is an important part of that campaign.

When the petition achieved 10,000 signatures, the Government responded and pointed out the contribution they have made to the stalking advocacy charity Paladin. They also referred to other stalking advocacy charities, such as the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. They referred to the tackling violence against women and girls strategy. I suspect that we will hear about those from the Minister today. Just like the hon. Member for Bolsover, I will hope that, in recognising the steps that Government have taken, there will also be a recognition that the experience of Gracie’s family and others tells us that far more needs to be done.

I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Bolsover said about cultural change and the difficulties that some men experience in recognising their role in an everchanging world, but there needs to be a real focus within the debate on policing, justice, access to the courts and enforcement of the law, as well as measures to prevent people from stalking. In advance of the debate, I spoke to Paladin to understand more about the barriers that victims face and to hear more what it sees as the steps that would make a difference. Paladin explained that stalking is often misunderstood, both by the wider public and by police forces. It can be misrepresented as domestic violence, but in Gracie’s case, and indeed in many cases, there has never been a relationship between the stalker and the victim. Some victims have never even met their stalkers. The nature of the offence is often misunderstood and incorrectly recorded.

The nature of the stalking can often progress and change shape and increase in its intensity and obsession. It will also often be a series of acts, some of which are criminal offences and others of which are not. Offences such as vandalising a victim’s car or making malicious communications end up being recorded as a series of individual criminal damage offences, rather than being recognised as a collective campaign of stalking. In common with many other crimes that take place predominantly against women, stalking charities tell me that police often place a huge burden of proof on victims before they start investigating, in a way that is not expected with other crimes. When someone phones the police to complain that they have been a victim of a house burglary or have had their phone nicked, it is accepted as fact that the crime they are reporting has been committed, whereas with this sort of crime, there is an expectation that victims will turn up armed with evidence to get an investigation going. That frustration at the lack of investigation and detection is a common complaint of stalking victims and their families.

Alongside the physical manifestations of stalking, the majority of incidents often have an online aspect. That could be threats made online, posting things that are designed to be embarrassing or intimidatory, posting abusive messages or posting about doing harm to a victim. That leaves a footprint, and often if police followed up and investigated the online presence of accused stalkers, they would identify the evidence they need. However, because such events are often recorded as criminal damage, malicious communications or other lesser offences, the wider investigation simply does not happen. A lot of the evidence I have heard and seen in this case is that if only a number of different events had been pieced together in a single picture, there might have been greater support for Gracie.

The petition asks the Government to increase funding to ensure that there are people advocating for victims of stalking in every police force. That aspect of the petition is incredibly important, and I stress it to the Minister, because the response given when the petition reached 10,000 signatures was predominantly about supporting stalking advocacy charities. Charities such as Paladin do amazing work going into police forces and training up officers and providing a kit that officers can use. However, we need that culture within the police—not a junior person doing that but someone with the authority within the force to ensure that that culture changes and that every single police officer protects people in the ways that we should want for our own daughters if we were reporting the issue. The postcode lottery and inconsistency of service—both from force to force and even within forces, depending on which officer picks up the case—are entirely unacceptable. The need for all forces to have a specific case manager with an appropriately senior ranking to ensure that stalking is properly understood and appropriately policed is urgent. I stress that when we talk about stalking advocacy, we are talking about supporting charities, but we are also talking about having an advocate inside police forces who will make sure that the voices of victims are heard.

There are other aspects of the issue that we can deal with here in this place. My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) referred to the appallingly lenient sentences handed out in the case she mentioned, which we have all seen. I will speak a little more in a moment about the impact of stalking on victims, and it is imperative that the Government recognise the physical and mental torture of stalking on its victims, and that sentences should be appropriately severe. It is also crucial that the backlog in court cases is tackled, because we cannot underestimate the number of people who go to the police and then find 12, 18 or 24 months later that offences that have been reported have still not reached court. Often victims will say, “I simply can’t cope with waiting for this any longer. I want it over.” As a result, they will not go through with the process and the perpetrators will get away with it. Often they will hear about the appalling situation in our courts and decide not to pursue the case with the police.

For Gracie, it was very much a case of her wanting it to stop. She was not necessarily looking to pursue the legal aspects; she wanted appropriate support. A whole range of victims out there are being failed by our police, by our sentencing regime, and by the fact that they are unable to get into court to have their cases heard. Each is central to the question, as are all the important points raised within the strategy about the culture, tackling perpetrators, trying to discourage and other things. We need to make sure that we get the policing, sentencing and court availability right.

As I said a moment ago, there is a key role for stalking awareness charities such as Paladin. They do great work in improving the knowledge base of police forces, but the charitable sector is only part of the solution. I reiterate that the petition demands that the Government recognise the failure that the Spinks family experienced and take action to ensure that a culture of understanding and zero tolerance is endemic in every police force. A specific stalking advocate within the police force would be expected to have regular oversight of stalking cases and ensure that officers developed the understanding and skills that are too often lacking. Gracie Spinks’s case had the most appalling ending imaginable—the nightmare of every parent. Thankfully, most cases do not end in violent murder, but the impact on all victims of stalking is profound.

Stalking victims are not free. They are constantly looking over their shoulder and are forced, more than the rest of us, to be careful. They go out to their car in the morning, wondering whether it will have been attacked. They open their post, wondering whether they will be greeted by an abusive message. They turn on their computer, wondering what will have been posted to them or about them. Every time they answer their phones, they do not wonder whether it will be a payment protection insurance salesman, but whether the anonymous number will be spouting a torrent of hateful or disturbing abuse. They develop a habitat of looking out for a certain car; every red Ford Fiesta gives a victim a chill of fear if that is what they know their perpetrator drives, until they can assure themselves that it is not the same car. Not all victims of stalking end up in a graveyard, but they are all scarred and it is so important that we give them the support that they need. There are male victims and female perpetrators of stalking, but it is predominantly a crime committed by men against women. It is about power and control, and although it can take many forms, its effects are always debilitating.

The petition is of tremendous importance, as is the Minister’s response. I was asked in a TV interview today how important the debate was, and I had to say, “I don’t know. It’s all about the actions that the Government take.” We all know that we are in the process of discussing a huge number of issues in this place, and there is a widespread desire across the political spectrum to take action and prevent stalking. I am absolutely certain that the Minister takes the issue as seriously as I do, but it is a case of whether there are the necessary resources, legal backing, sentencing support and determination to address the court shortage, and whether we have taken all the steps that need to be taken for us to be able to look a family in the eye and say we have genuinely done all that we can. The petitioners demand that the Government recognise that the steps taken so far are not adequate, and that standards of policing must improve for stalking victims.

We are in the later stages of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and we are told that the Government also intend to introduce a victims Bill. Both those Bills seem to be appropriate vehicles to bring forward a Gracie’s law, to ensure that funding is provided for a stalking advocate in every police force, leading to better protection for victims of stalking, and that those obligations on police forces are written into law.

We can never say that Gracie Spinks will be the last victim of a stalker. Tragically, that is almost certainly not the case, but those of us in this place can resolve to do all we can to ensure that police forces understand the crime and have the resources to tackle it, so that more families like Gracie’s are not left asking, “Why wasn’t something done?”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) and all the Members who have spoken.

The hardest, but most rewarding, part of my job since becoming a Member of Parliament is getting to know the families of women and girls taken by male-perpetrated violence against women. It is always a total honour to meet the families. I am always totally bowled over by their resilience and desire to change the future for the better for other women; and Gracie’s family, and the case of Gracie’s law, is absolutely no exception. Gracie’s law is never going to bring people’s families back, but there is a desire to change things so that other families will not end up with their daughters’ names being read out on a list. I have yet to read out Gracie’s name on the list—I will do it in March—but we have to all do whatever we can to make sure that that list gets shorter, not longer.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher)—with whom it is an honour to debate these matters—this is a totally cross-party issue. There was a time, perhaps even when I first got here, when I may have questioned some people’s views on these issues, and there was certainly a time, when I started working in violence against women and girls services, when I absolutely felt it was party political issue, whereby some political parties—not necessarily just the one that he is a member of—did not take it as seriously. I do not think for a second now that that is the case or that there is any political party in this building that does not care about this issue. I do not doubt for a second that the Minister cares very deeply about the issue, but it is my job—and will be my job for the rest of time—to point out where things are going wrong and what needs to be done about that.

Quite rightly, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield pointed out that the case on which this petition hinges was not a domestic homicide; it was a case of an unrelated person, not an ex-partner, and—it is almost never that I think this—those cases can be even harder to prosecute and get action on, because there is now at least a base understanding in most police forces now around the idea that stalking is part of a pattern of domestic abuse. The role of stalking in domestic homicide must also be acknowledged, as well as the seriousness of the crime and what it can lead to.

Half of stalkers who make threats act on them, and some of these end in murder. Jane Monckton Smith has written extensively about what leads up to a fatal situation from stalking. Her study of 358 criminal homicides in the UK, all of which consisted of a female victim and a male perpetrator, revealed that stalking behaviour was an antecedent in 94% of all murders. So this is something very, very serious, and it is an alarm bell that should be being rung loudly, in order for us to end the most serious of crimes.

Between 2015 and 2017, a freedom of information request by news platform Vice and Paladin, the stalking charity that has already been mentioned, revealed that 60 women were murdered after they reported their partner, their ex-partner or a stalker to the police on grounds of domestic abuse and stalking. That is 60 women who had reported in just a two-year period. I stand here as a Birmingham Member, and I often outline that three women are murdered each week, on average, every year. In Birmingham, in the last nine days three women have been murdered—or killed, should I say. It just seems relentless. In those 60 cases in that two-year period, those men all had a history of harming other women, yet there was no proactive risk identification assessment or management of the perpetrators.

A previous history of stalking or abuse and a pattern of coercive control within a perpetrator’s relationship with his victim have both been identified as stages in the eight-stage domestic homicide timeline outlined by Jane Monckton Smith. In short, stalking is an identifiable precursor to killing. We must see it as a pattern of behaviour and it must be appropriately identified. An intervention can save a woman’s life, and we must ensure that reports are acted upon. The advocates that this petition calls for would undoubtedly help that.

Just last week, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) has already cited, there was the case of Yasmin Chkaifi. Without even having to go into the sub judice of Gracie’s case—I really wish this was not the case—there are hundreds of cases we can lean on to identify the same failures. In the case of Yasmin, she was stabbed to death in Maida Vale this month by Leon McCaskre. In the press it is reported that a friend of Yasmin had said that she had received text messages two years ago saying:

“He’s had cameras in my house recording me for months.”

Yasmin added:

“He’s stolen my mail, my phone, has access to all my personal data. I think he will kill me. I’ve tried everything.”

The press reports that McCaskre was wanted by the police when he killed Yasmin. The warrant saying that he should be held without bail was issued on 4 January after he failed to appear in court. McCaskre was accused of breaching an interim stalking protection order.

I will come to those orders, as they have been raised. I have worked in domestic abuse, sexual violence, stalking and human trafficking services for a good many years. We can make up as many good orders as we like, but an order is absolutely worthless unless the police act on breaches of it and unless there is a well-resourced police force that can, in that moment, go out, investigate the breach and make an arrest that leads to somebody being imprisoned—which, in the case of Yasmin, would have saved her life. In my experience, when I say, “Have you ever considered getting an order?”, this is the reaction I get: “Yeah, I’ve got about four.” I have personally got four restraining orders; I have been a victim of stalking and harassment. There are people in prison and sectioned for undertaking that abuse against me; and unsurprisingly their orders did not stop them.

There are other cases. Asher Maslin stalked and murdered Hollie Gazzard. Myself and the Minister met Hollie’s family. Maslin was involved in 24 violent offences, including three against Hollie, 12 against former partners, three against his mother and four against others. There was no proactive join-up of this information nor risk management. Ian Paton strangled Kayleigh Hanks to death in July 2018. He had strangled three other people, including his ex-partner, before he killed Kayleigh. There was no risk assessment or risk management of his behaviour.

Managing repeat offenders is a real concern. Research indicates that up to 56% of those charged with stalking go on to reoffend after prosecution. We already know that it is a tiny fraction who will have been prosecuted in the first place. Perpetrators’ histories are not checked, and links are not made.

Two inspections by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary revealed deeply troubling findings. Its 2014 inspection into police responses to domestic abuse revealed no risk management of perpetrators. In 2017, “Living in Fear”, a report specifically on stalking produced by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services—HMIC’s name changed in the intervening three years, and got a lot longer—revealed a 100% failure in every police service and the Crown Prosecution Service across the six areas it inspected. Out of 112 cases, not one case was properly investigated, and no stalker was proactively risk assessed or risk managed.

The most recent HMICFRS report was similarly damning. It identified that repeat offenders in the areas of stalking, harassment, abuse and violence against women were time and again not being monitored, with no offender management and no monitoring in the community of the most serious risk of harm perpetrators. Imagine if I was talking about terrorism—imagine if there were people like that living on your street and not being monitored by any intelligence agency. The trouble is that when the newspapers report these cases, the police say, “Don’t worry, nobody else is at risk”—as if all women are not at risk from the kind of hatred that killed Gracie.

Operation Soteria has been undertaken already at Avon and Somerset police, and recently at the Met—we await the findings of that when the Home Office decides that we should have them. What was found in Avon and Somerset, and I have absolutely no doubt also in the Met, was that when people were being accused of rape, abuse and stalking on the streets, as well as in relationships, police forces were routinely not even checking the accused on the system to find out if they were a repeat offender. Imagine that: “This man raped me.” “Maybe check it on the system.” That is a fundamental failing, and I cannot look at these failings across the board for every crime that women are victims of and just fall back on the idea that it is complex. It is not that complex. It is like burglary of a house: it is not that complex. Every woman who comes forward and says, “I feel scared by this,” should be listened to.

Victims have no faith in the system, and legal advocates would without question improve that. Out of 75 victim respondents surveyed, fewer than two thirds indicated that they had reported stalking to the police in the UK, citing a lack of trust in the police and the wider criminal justice system. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust’s survey of over 1,000 officers in the UK found that only 35% of police respondents had ever received stalking-specific training and that 10% of respondents received training over five years ago, with only 3% indicating that they were very confident in their knowledge of stalking legislation, while 13% were not confident at all. Imagine that is the one who you get, who is sent out to you—the one who is not confident in stalking legislation at all. We need better training on stalking: 82% of those respondents indicated that they wanted better training and that it was needed for the police to be better equipped.

In September 2020, the University of Central Lanc—Lancashire; sorry, I am from the midlands, not the north. I know everybody thinks it is the same place, but it is not. The University of Central Lancashire published “They speak for you when you can’t speak”, an academic review of the National Stalking Advocacy Service run by the charity Paladin. That report found that the support of an independent stalking advocacy caseworker—the specific kind of advocate that we are talking about—was critical in improving the responses of criminal justice agencies. Many victims explained how grateful they were for that advocacy and support. High-risk victims of stalking confirmed that an ISAC’s support increased their understanding of the nature and impact of stalking and the associated risk. The report also said that victims reported improved emotional wellbeing and enhanced safety as a result of the ISAC support. The advocacy improves victims’ experiences. It is vital.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield mentioned the Government’s response to the petition once it received 10,000 signatures. I pay massive tribute to people such as Jackie, who are the doers of changing the law. Every single change to the law was brought about by somebody sitting in a room saying, “This isn’t good enough.” It is people such as Jackie and Gracie’s family who will change the law—I have no doubt.

The £90,000 for extra stalking advocates is absolutely to be welcomed, but it would cover only what is necessary in Birmingham. It has been said that it is a postcode lottery across the board in terms of support for victims of violence against women and girls, and it is absolutely the case that in one place, people get a great service, while in another, people get a dreadful service.

The hon. Member for Bolsover made the point that nobody is perfect. I wrote down that I must point out that that is absolutely one of the best things I have ever heard a man in this place say about violence against women and girls. As a society, we have come to terms with the idea that we all know a victim. With #MeToo and the Sarah Everard case, women have poured their hearts out, with thousands more coming forward now than ever before. Women have stood up and said, “This happens to us.” As a society, we understand now that we all know a victim of abuse—such as the hon. Member, who spoke about what happened to him in childhood. It is deeply important.

However, the bit that we have not come to as a society—and we will not stop this unless we do—is this: we all know and love a perpetrator of violence and abuse. Statistically speaking, if we all know the victims, then we know the perpetrators—unless there is one very prolific, horrible man. We have to come to terms with the idea that these people, while they do those dreadful, monstrous things, are not necessarily the monsters they are described as. The people who stalk, abuse, rape and beat women and girls walk freely among us all the time. Until we can all come to terms with that as a society, whether through education or otherwise, cases such as Gracie’s will keep happening. We have to accept that those people exist and that they need monitoring and actioning. We need to listen to the voices of victims.

What my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield said about police reform is vital. I was an independent sexual violence adviser; advocates such as ISVAs have existed for 20 years and, for a good long spell, that advocacy massively improved the conviction rate. However, we have seen those rates tumble. Advocacy in and of itself, without proper police prioritisation—which needs to come from political prioritisation—is no longer enough.

As we continue to fail to monitor repeat offenders and to follow up on case after case where people come forward, it is no longer good enough for hon. Members to sit here and say, “We’re going to have a strategy. It’s up to police force areas what they decide to do.” With the greatest respect to Maggie Blyth—the officer put in charge of tackling violence against women and girls—when I had a meeting with her, she told me that, “I have to expect police force areas to take it on.” She has no teeth to say, “You have to do this, otherwise you’ll lose your job.” That has to come from the Home Secretary.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I was reading in detail the Government’s response to the petition when it reached 10,000 signatures. It says that,

“the College of Policing provided a set of new advice products on stalking for police first responders and call handlers, and in November 2019 it released a new product for investigators.”

I have no doubt that they are very useful things. However, it needs to be compulsory and it requires real leadership from the very top of the police force that this is a priority. Instead of it being something that officers can avail themselves of, I want it to be something that every single officer is doing. I want to see the recommendations acted upon.

I 100% agree. I take my hon. Friend back to my terrorism analogy: imagine if we allowed the police to freestyle how they dealt with terrorism—that we did not have specific tasks that police force areas had to follow.

The same priority is never given to male violence against women. It is never, ever considered to be the most pressing issue. More than 20% of all police call-outs are cases of violence against women and girls. Do we think that those cases get 20% of the policing budget in any area? Can we all guess? I do not want to turn this into a pantomime, Sir Mark, but I think we can all guess that they do not get anywhere near that amount. The reality is that this support has to be driven with the political will shown by the 100,000 people who signed the petition. The hon. Member for Bolsover said that he was proud that this was the issue that mattered to his people. The country has spoken again and again in the last two years—more so than ever before—to say, “This issue matters to us.”

In my lifetime of working in this area, which now seems like many lifetimes, I have never known the country to push this as an issue of political will quite as much as it has in the wake of Sarah Everard’s death. These things will only change when every police force area knows that if it does not, the chief constable will be sacked. This proposal will only work if the issue is addressed when allocations of budgets come from the Government. Although I like the £151 million, the Minister and I both know—because it has been announced quite a few times over the years—that £125 million is going to refuge accommodation and has nothing to do with the police. It will go to local councils to offer refuge accommodation—not necessarily to the standard that I would like to see, but still better than nothing.

The reality is that we in this place have to say that, crime-wise, this issue is our priority and we are going to push it through to the bitter end, so that when a Prime Minister stands up and says that the single most important thing a leader can do—the first line of Government—is to ensure the safety and security of their citizens, in their head they are remembering that women and girls exist.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing this debate and doing justice to this vital subject. It really is an honour to be here.

I thank the other Members who are present. I am sure that there would have been more had it not been for events in the main Chamber. Nevertheless, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) and the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) for doing an extraordinary job, as men advocating for the women and girls in their constituencies. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and I may disagree on much, but I think we both agree that it is heartening and inspiring to see men coming together, because it is only when men stand up and demand change on behalf of women that we will see the change that we all want to see.

I also pay tribute to Jackie Barnett-Wheatcroft, who is with us today, for creating this petition. The amount of work that she has done to get this issue to the top of the agenda is not inconsiderable. It was a real pleasure and honour to speak to her and hear about her tireless efforts. She has taken this issue on because she cares about it, and that passion came across so clearly. It was wonderful to speak to her and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), who is also in the Gallery. As a Whip, he is not able to speak, but he was the conduit that allowed us to have that conversation. I pledge again that I will do everything in my power to help Jackie with her work to set up the charity, which I know will change people’s lives and be a massive source of support. To Jackie, I say thank you so much.

Of course, we must honour Gracie Spinks. Her name is not mentioned in the petition itself, but it is a tribute to her. You have enjoined me not to transgress and go beyond what I am allowed to say, Sir Mark, because the IOPC’s investigations mean this is a live case, but that does not prevent me from expressing my total shock and horror in reading about those awful events—I know that everybody shared that feeling. The issues goes wider than the area that Gracie comes from; constituents of mine in Redditch have signed the petition, as have people from across the country.

When we read about that tragic and senseless loss of life, we can all relate to it—whether or not we are parents does not matter. I extend my deepest sympathies and condolences to Richard and Alison, who are in the Public Gallery. I can only begin to imagine how terribly they must have suffered. I thank them for the tremendous amount of work they put into the petition, which has resulted in this hour-and-a-half discussion, and our dedication and effort. This is only the start of the change that they want to see.

I believe, Sir Mark, that I have enough time to set out what we are going to do, what we have already done, and what we will continue to do, as the petitioners have rightly requested.

Thank you for that reminder, Sir Mark; I will ensure that I leave enough time.

Stalking is at the heart of our “Tackling violence against women and girls” strategy, which we published in July. It is worth stepping back and reminding ourselves of why we needed that strategy, the consultation of which received the greatest number of responses to any Government consultation. That highlights that need, and we must all keep fighting and pushing—I include myself and the shadow Minister in that—to keep the issue at the top of the priority list for Government and for Members across the House.

We all have so many important things to focus on every day in our lives as parliamentarians but, as the shadow Minister said, the public care deeply about this topic, and that was reflected in the responses to the consultation. Of course, that was an immediate response following Sarah Everard’s death, but many other women have died—we all know about the work that the shadow Minister does every single year in Parliament to remind us of those deaths—and it is right that we continue to honour the victims in our work to take the strategy forward.

To reduce the risk of perpetrators committing further offences, as the strategy confirmed, we launched a fund for police and crime commissioners to run programmes to address the behaviour of domestic abuse and stalking perpetrators. The funds will provide programmes to cover a range of different methods for tackling stalking. It is right that we recognise that stalking only recently came on to the statute book in its current form. Our understanding is not quite as well developed as it is for many other crimes that involve serious violence against women and girls. That is why it is important that we have those programmes and evaluate the evidence so that we can understand what works. That work includes the development of a multi-agency stalking intervention project in Cambridgeshire, and the development of the compulsive and obsessive behaviour intervention programme in Surrey. The aim of all such programmes is to encourage behavioural changes to reduce the frequency and gravity of the abuse presented by the perpetrator, thereby improving the safety of and protection for the victim.

The strategy also refers to our commitments to improve the use of stalking protection orders. We introduced these orders just two years ago, and they can protect victims of stalking at the earliest possible opportunity and help to address the behaviour of perpetrators before they become entrenched or escalate. They have the flexibility to impose both restrictions and positive requirements on a perpetrator, and I am proud that the Government introduced them.

We know that there is more to do. We know that some forces have been applying for more of these orders than others. The violence against women and girls strategy confirmed that the Home Office would work with the police to ensure that all forces make proper use of the orders. That is why I have recently written to all chief constables whose forces have applied for fewer stalking protection orders than might have been expected to encourage them to always consider applying for one in stalking cases.

I did that in October, and I received responses from several forces setting out the measures they are taking to make sure these orders are being used appropriately. I am pleased that one of the responses I received was from Derbyshire police, which is rightly taking a number of actions, including the delivery of a force-wide training programme specifically for stalking offences.

Specifically on that point, it is my understanding that as of June 2021 stalking protection orders were used in response to around only 2% of stalking arrests. Is the Minister expecting any factor of increase after her letter and after the police forces have said they are going to do this? Will it go from 2% to 4%? Obviously, I would like to see it go higher. Is the Home Office putting a target on police forces?

Absolutely, we want to see the number go up. We will be publishing the figures as soon as we are able to.

This debate has rightly focused on the police response, not just in Gracie’s case—which I am not commenting on—but generally across the country. I want to talk about some of the things that the police have done. The hon. Lady referenced the 2017 inspection, which showed a number of failings, to put it that way, in the police response. Since then, forces have identified a number of improvements that have been taken forward, and they have published a national stalking and harassment improvement plan.

Every force must now have a single point of contact for stalking concerns. There is also a change in the Home Office’s crime counting, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Chesterfield. Each force must ensure that stalking is recorded as the main crime before anything else—for example, criminal damage. I think that it is a very helpful point.

On the question of the single point of contact, is that for the victim or is there a single person managing the cases? If the latter, could she tell us about the seniority of the officer?

I will respond in writing to the hon. Gentleman, because I cannot do justice to that question in the time that I have left. I will come back to him on that.

I want to get on record some of the other vital protections and improvements in the police response across the country. It is vital that the police are provided with the correct materials and training to deal with stalking appropriately to ensure that they are confident in identifying stalking cases. That is why new advice and training products are being made available to police first responders, call handlers and investigators, making clear the key differences between stalking and harassment.

The hon. Member for Gower asked for information on the west midlands pilot. We have confirmed £11.3 million funding for PCCs to run programmes to address stalking and to evaluate the success of this work. The project is in its early stages, but we will provide her with an update from the west midlands police and crime commissioner when we are able to.

The violence against women and girls strategy also confirmed that the Home Office has this financial year tripled the funding that we provide to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which runs the national stalking helpline. That funding is enabling it, among other things, to expand its advocacy work. Since July, the trust has used the funding to provide advocacy support for 29 people who are particularly vulnerable or whose cases are particularly complex. I visited the helpline in November, and it was an incredible experience to see at first hand its vital work and how it is helping so many victims.

Hon. Members will be aware from our response to the petition last August of the additional funding for the national stalking helpline and of the almost £100,000 that we provided to Paladin, which many Members mentioned. I thank Paladin for what it does. We provided funding to it between April 2020 and March 2021 to provide additional independent stalking advocacy caseworkers during the height of the pandemic. The provision of ISACs trained by Paladin is also part of the Home Office’s funding to the Merseyside police and crime commissioner to address the behaviour of stalking perpetrators.

In the current financial year, the Ministry of Justice will have provided just over £150 million for victim and witness support services, including an extra £51 million to increase support for sexual violence and domestic abuse victims. That includes funding for independent domestic violence advisers. Domestic abuse funding can include stalking that takes place in a domestic context, where the stalker might be a former partner or a family member of the victim. It is open to police and crime commissioners to use their core, un-ringfenced funding to fund ISACs. The point has been made that stalking does not always take place in a domestic violence or abuse context. It is also correct to say that we do not ring fence funding for independent stalking advocacy caseworkers in the same way that we do for equivalent roles in domestic abuse and sexual violence, as the petition and many Members have referenced.

I will move on to the work that is being led by the Deputy Prime Minister on the victims Bill. A consultation that includes questions about advocacy services is open, and the consultation paper is clear that it focuses primarily on domestic abuse and sexual violence advocates. That is because we have a more developed understanding of those positions, Government funding for the roles and what is needed, but we appreciate that similar roles, such as ISACs, exist and are helpful. There are questions in the consultation that apply equally to all advocacy services. The consultation remains open until this Thursday, and I encourage anyone who is interested to submit their response.

Is it the Minister’s view that the proposal made in the Gracie’s law petition would be best applied to the victims Bill or to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, or is her argument that we do not need legislation in this area?

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am making no such argument. On the victims Bill, I encourage him to continue his conversations via the consultation process with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Ministry of Justice. I am setting out the work that the Government are doing. If the hon. Member for Chesterfield will forgive me, I will come on to the response to the consultation, and work that is happening across Government.

I understand that the Minister is against the clock, but in relation to the question that the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) just asked, will the Minister undertake to write to the Deputy Prime Minister to make him aware of today’s debate, and the recommendations that have been outlined by various Members? Perhaps whether they are appropriate can then be considered.

That is an excellent suggestion. If we have not already done so, I will ensure that that happens. In any case, the Ministry of Justice will look very closely at all the consultation responses received on this issue and many others.

I will briefly touch on what is happening in terms of the multi-agency public protection arrangements—MAPPA for short—because they are vital. They are specifically about how offenders are managed, which several Members have touched on. It is important that agencies make use of MAPPA to strengthen the effective management of serial and high-harm perpetrators of stalking and domestic abuse, and the national MAPPA team works closely with local strategic management boards to support implementation at a local level. This is about having the most appropriate arrangements in place to ensure that we keep people safe from harm.

We are also shortly due to publish a domestic abuse strategy that will seek to transform our response to domestic abuse in order to prevent offending—of course, stalking is a key part of the domestic abuse pattern of offending—support victims and pursue perpetrators. That will include a specific section on the risks associated with stalking. Some very good points have been raised about the pattern of offences and the escalation process. A couple of Members touched on education and what we are doing in schools, and we are already working with colleagues in the Department for Education.

I also want to let Members know that we will release a national education campaign about violence against women and girls. This will be quite a groundbreaking piece of work. We are talking about changing that misogynistic culture that everyone has spoken about, and making it absolutely clear that we probably all know a perpetrator—not necessarily a murderer, but someone who is not behaving in a respectful way to their female friends, associates, colleagues or partners. This communications campaign is specifically designed to make crystal clear what is and is not acceptable in the public and domestic sphere. I am really looking forward to the campaign and will pay close attention to it, as I am sure will all hon. Members here, and I encourage them to amplify it through their own communication channels, to get out the message out that this Government do not put up with those kinds of behaviours, whether they are on the street or whether they are serious crimes such as stalking, harassment and murder.

I once again thank the hon. Member for Gower for introducing the debate in order to raise this important issue. I will of course follow up on the points Members pressed me on. I could say a lot more, but unfortunately time is short, and I want to allow the hon. Lady the opportunity to respond to the debate.

I thank the hon. Gentleman.

I thank the Minister for her response, and all Members who have spoken. It was disappointing, as we have all said, that other Members were not able to join us in for what has been an important debate. I thank the petition maker, Jackie, Gracie’s family—it has been an absolute pleasure to meet you today—and everybody who signed the petition. The Minister spoke about the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, and my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) spoke about charities such as Paladin that have given a lot of support. The Minister cannot respond now, but I really hope she will hold police forces’ feet to the fire, because we need to know that what she outlined as having been done since 2017 is being done. It cannot be, otherwise we would not be where we are today. It is integral that her role incorporates holding them to account and making them act on what they should act on.

In 1986, Suzy Lamplugh went missing. I was 15 years old at the time, and it really sticks in the memory, as a teenager, knowing that women are going missing. It is great to hear about the conference, and about National Stalking Awareness Week, from 25 to 29 April, but we have to do so much more.

The petition is so important, and speaking today has been an absolute honour. I also hope that Gracie’s sister, Abi, who I met today, will follow her dream, go on to study politics and join myself and other female Members in this place to fight for the memory of her sister, Gracie. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) said, stalking is an identifiable precursor to murder. Minister, we cannot allow this not to be changed; we have to change it. She made the comparison to terrorism. We know where our terrorists are. We tag them. We look for them. We need to do the same as for terrorism.

I will end on this note—it is a nice note. The strength of the feeling of the family and the petitioners must be noted. Having two brothers myself, I was so pleased to hear Abi tell me earlier that her brothers are great, and what a great strength they are, because they look after her. Families are wonderful things, and theirs has been through hell. So many families have been through hell that it is our responsibility in the House to ensure that we do our best so that this is never repeated. I thank the Minister and everyone who has spoken, and I thank you, Chair.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 593769, relating to funding for stalking advocates.

Sitting suspended.