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Violence Against Women and Girls: Stalking

Volume 827: debated on Thursday 23 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Statement by Lord Sharpe of Epsom on 20 February (HLWS554), whether their package of measures to tackle violence against women and girls includes provisions to address perpetrators of serious and repeated stalking.

My Lords, the announcements made on Monday do cover stalking. We have added violence against women and girls to the strategic policing requirement, meaning that it is set out as a national threat for forces to respond to. Tackling stalking is included in this. Stalking is already one of the offences specified in multi-agency public protection arrangements. This week we announced that the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour will be added alongside it.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Despite the drastic increase in stalking cases in recent years, only 1% result in a court conviction, and this does not deter the most serious stalkers. Claire Waxman, the victims’ commissioner for London, has been stalked for 19 years by an obsessive and terrifying stalker who has been in court six times for breaching a lifetime ban on contacting her. He was given a 16-month sentence in November.

The problems are with non-domestic stalking in particular. I appreciate the point the Minister made about stalking being included, but the tenor of the Statement referred to domestic abuse only. Can he clearly confirm that non-domestic stalking is also included in all the provisions of Monday’s Statement?

My Lords, first, I commend the noble Baroness for her extensive work on this over many years. As I said in my original Answer, we do not need to add stalking because it is already there. Section 4A of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, on stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress, is already in category 2 of the multi-agency public protection arrangements. This means that those sentenced to at least a year for that crime are already subject to active management.

My Lords, I think it appropriate to bring to the attention of the House another form of violence that was perpetrated in Northern Ireland yesterday evening when an attempt was made to murder an off-duty serving officer in the county town of Tyrone, Omagh. I am sure the House will join me in wishing that police officer a full and speedy recovery; we all trust that he makes just that. I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for raising this issue today. Are the Government doing enough to ensure the safety and protection of women, who are very often in isolation in the evenings, going about their daily duties? Surely it is time for a campaign to be stepped up to stop this awful behaviour, which I want to see the Government take a greater drive against. Hopefully, we will live to see the day when it is totally eliminated.

I join the noble Lord in wishing the officer in Northern Ireland a speedy and full recovery; it is an awful situation. It is clear that the Government’s activity regarding violence against women and girls—VAWG—is extensive. A number of other initiatives have been taken on stalking: for example, the Ask for ANI scheme, which is being piloted in jobcentres and so on. This is a codeword scheme developed by the Home Office during Covid-19 to provide a discreet way for victims of domestic abuse to signal that they need emergency help. Significant funding has been committed to this issue, as noble Lords will be aware, and the Online Safety Bill will also include various measures. Work is both ongoing and dynamic.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister referred to putting controlling and coercive behaviour on a par with physical violence, meaning that offenders will be closely monitored. This is a welcome proposal but it will need legislation, and this is a busy time. Can my noble friend give any indication of a timeline for this legislation? Women’s groups and campaigners against violence against women and girls are very keen to know the answer.

My noble friend asks a good question. We will be changing the law to ensure that dangerous offenders with a conviction for controlling or coercive behaviour who are sentenced to 12 months or more are automatically eligible to be managed under MAPPA. It will require primary legislation, but I am afraid that I cannot give an exact timeframe for that—I suppose the usual phrase is, when parliamentary time allows.

My Lords, what are the Government doing about the continuing downward spiral in charging, prosecutions and convictions for domestic abuse in England and Wales? Police referrals to the CPS are down again this year and are lower than they were before Covid shut down the justice system.

My Lords, I accept that there is some regional variation in, for example, applications for stalking protection orders. Where those variations exist, the Safeguarding Minister is planning to write to the various chief constables whose forces applied for fewer than might have been expected, in order to encourage them always to consider these. Forces such as the Met and Kent have been making excellent use of the new orders, applications for which have risen by 31% in a year. So, as regards stalking, it is a very good story; it needs still to improve, of course, but it is getting better.

My Lords, according to the Office for National Statistics, only 18% of domestic abuse victims report to the police. Can the Minister say whether the Government are taking a whole-system approach to tackling and preventing abuse—through the health system, education and better housing and welfare provision? A whole-system approach is needed.

Yes, I can. For example, a couple of new initiatives were announced on Monday, one of which concerns the digital aspects of this. As I am sure many noble Lords are aware, we are strengthening the domestic violence disclosure scheme—sometimes known as Clare’s law—which enables the police to disclose information to an individual about their partner’s or ex-partner’s previous abusive or violent offending. So my answer is yes: work on this is being strengthened and, as I said in answer to an earlier question, is very much ongoing.

My Lords, when seven of the eight measures in the Home Secretary’s Statement on tackling violence against women and girls are about domestic violence, what message does that send about the Government’s prioritisation of non-domestic stalking?

My Lords, as I have said already, non-domestic stalking is already covered under MAPPA. I would not say that it is not necessary, but it is already there. To a large extent, and to be more specific, it would not have been needed.

My Lords, the problem with this sort of issue has always been that the police are not very good at accepting the word of women who come forward after repeated incidents of harassment or violence. It is very good that a couple of police forces are doing well, but what about the rest of them? What are the Minister and his department going to do to make sure that all police forces take this seriously?

As I alluded to earlier, the Safeguarding Minister is planning to write to all chief constables whose forces applied for fewer orders than might have been expected. The previous Safeguarding Minister also sent similar letters to chief constables, as has been referenced publicly. Clearly, there is no denying that more needs to be done in certain areas. However, as I have said, the Government are also piloting a number of avenues for people to report such offences, including the Ask for ANI scheme I mentioned earlier. Over 5,000 UK pharmacies—both independents and chains—are now enrolled in that scheme. There are a number of avenues through which victims can report this sort of abuse.

My Lords, given the low rates of referral mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, is there not a need for additional independent resource—perhaps from the CPS or other independent barristers—for forces in special measures to make sure they are processing the claims and passing them on to the CPS?

My noble friend makes a good point and I will of course reflect her concerns back to the department. However, forces under special measures are obviously subject to significant scrutiny. I cannot say for certain because I have not looked into this, but I would imagine that it forms a key part of the scrutiny under which they operate.

My Lords, will the Minister invite the Safeguarding Minister to send the letter she is sending to chief constables to police and crime commissioners as well?

My Lords, would it be wise to have some publicity about non-domestic stalking? The Minister says that it comes under harassment, but are the police altogether aware of it—and, indeed, the public who suffer?

I would hope that the police are already aware of it. As regards the public, the noble and learned Baroness makes a sensible point; it probably ought to be better known.

My Lords, as we approach International Women’s Day in a couple of weeks’ time, can the Minister outline what work is being done with the devolved Administrations and regions to counter the stalking of women and young girls, which is prevalent throughout the UK?

The noble Baroness makes a good point. Of course, this does not respect particular geographical boundaries. It is a devolved matter and, as noble Lords know, operational matters are left to the various police forces, but I will certainly make sure that my colleagues in the devolved departments are aware of the noble Baroness’s concerns.