I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Stalking is an insidious form of harassment, characterised by fixation and obsession. The relentless nature of the unwanted contact from perpetrators, which sometimes continues for many years, can make it feel completely inescapable. It is often directed not only at the intended victim, but at all those around them—their family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. It can seriously affect both the physical and the mental health of victims, leaving them feeling isolated and fearful. It can also escalate, as we know, to murder and rape. It is much more common than many people realise. About one in five women and one in 10 men will experience some kind of stalking behaviour in their adult lifetime, according to the crime survey for England and Wales. However, it typically takes about 100 episodes of stalking for victims to come forward.
It is an honour to promote this private Member’s Bill for better and earlier protection for victims of these terrible crimes. I want to start by paying tribute to the very many individuals and organisations that have come forward to support this Bill and to advise. Many of them have spoken with great courage about the devastating personal consequences for themselves, including, I am sorry to say, personal, tragic loss. It is with all of those individuals in mind that I promote this Bill. I am also very grateful to the Minister for her personal support; to her team for the support and advice they have given me; and to Members across the House for their support and advice on the needs of victims.
In order to make progress with this Bill, we should acknowledge the progress that has already been made. Two new stalking offences were brought forward in 2012, and it is encouraging that 959 prosecutions were commenced in 2016-17. Progress was also made in increasing the maximum sentence to 10 years in the Policing and Crime Act 2017. I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for his work in bringing that about.
There remains in the law, however, a serious gap when it comes to victims of what is known as stranger stalking, by which I mean those who are stalked by someone who is not a former or current intimate partner. Those victims of stalking do not have recourse to the protections available under the existing protection order regime. That is well recognised, which is why I think there is widespread support for the Bill. If we can step in at an earlier stage, perhaps we will have a better opportunity to prevent stalking before the behaviour can become so deeply engrained.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her Bill. I was on the anti-stalking commission, which made progress when we were trying to catch up with the Scottish law. Some very brave people gave evidence. Increasingly, the issue is switching from personal to online, and the law finds it very difficult when someone is being stalked from elsewhere in the world.
The Bill specifically notes that acts carried out from outside this country will also be taken into account, particularly with regard to online stalking. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I thank him for making that point.
Although the proposed stalking protection orders would be civil orders, there would be a criminal penalty for breach. They are not intended to replace a prosecution for stalking where the criminal threshold has been met, but we all recognise that it can take time to fully gather the evidence and present a case for court, and during that time victims can be especially vulnerable. They are intended to act not only in those types of cases, but perhaps where the criminal threshold has not been met but it is recognised that the acts are at risk of escalating. Importantly, the Bill allows for the onus to be taken off the victim, because the police will be able to apply for the protection orders on their behalf.
It is also important that the penalties for criminal breach have real teeth, with a maximum sentence of up to five years. The civil protection orders will allow us to put in place a bespoke regime of not only prohibitions but requirements on the perpetrators, setting out very clearly what they must not do—in other words, stop contacting not only the victim but those around them—and setting out the ways in which that might take place. In some cases, perpetrators are not well, so the Bill will also allow the court to set a requirement that they attend a mental health assessment. There is also a notification requirement: perpetrators would have to give notification of all the names and aliases that they used in order to stalk their victims, and their address. None of those important protections will be of any benefit, however, if the police do not know about them and do not have the required training, expertise and willingness to exercise them.
Another purpose of a private Member’s Bill such as this is to explore the issues throughout the criminal justice system to ensure that everyone takes them seriously. Stalking should not be trivialised by references to someone’s having an “admirer”; there is nothing romantic about it. It is also important to recognise patterns of behaviour. Each individual action may in itself appear trivial, but the pattern should be viewed in its entirety. I know that the Minister is personally committed to acting on the findings in “Living in fear”, a joint report from Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary on the police response to harassment and stalking, and I hope that she will comment further on it. We need to improve the entire system of that response, and I am grateful to her for her personal commitment.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. She may have heard Emily Maitlis talking on the radio this morning about how she was stalked for 20 years. She said that she felt that the current legislation was not fit for purpose, and did not provide her with any protection. Does the Bill not seek to address that?
Absolutely, and I pay tribute to Emily Maitlis for her courage. Anyone who reads her personal victim impact statement will see that not only the person being stalked but that person’s entire family is affected. She has been exceptionally courageous in coming forward to talk about her experience and in raising awareness. It is also true that stalking does not just affect people who are in the public eye; it can affect anyone, and sometimes after a relatively trivial contact. Victims are often made to feel responsible, or guilty. We have to break that cycle, and take the issue seriously.
I will cut short my remarks now, because I know that many other Members wish to speak. I thank all colleagues for their support for the Bill.
I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for presenting this important and timely Bill.
Let me begin by quoting a victim of stalking whose words were highlighted in last year’s “Living in fear” report, which was mentioned by the hon. Lady:
“You carry it all the time…it’s with you day in day out. Day in day out…it’s in the back of your mind all the time, ‘What is he going to do? What are we going to find…Who’s going to come knocking at our door?’”
Imagine how that feels. Imagine feeling too scared to go out to get a pint of milk or walk your dog. Imagine feeling so scared that you have to move house.
When a celebrity is being stalked, we take notice, but this offence is happening every day to so many people. The 2016 Crime Survey for England and Wales showed that one in five women and one in 10 men had experienced stalking since the age of 16. That means that millions of people have to deal with the terrifying consequences of stalking. Statistics show that 80% of victims are female and 70% of perpetrators are male. Apart from the horrendous psychological trauma of stalking itself, it often leads to horrific crimes, including domestic violence, sexual assault and murder. According to a study of more than 350 femicides, cited by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust:
“Stalking behaviours were present in 94% of the cases”.
In too many cases, there is not enough evidence for police to make an arrest before it is too late. The stalking protection orders proposed in the Bill would be an important early intervention tool for police officers while a criminal investigation was ongoing. That early intervention that could literally mean the difference between life and death. The orders are designed for use particularly in cases in which stalking occurs outside the context of domestic abuse, but it is important to reiterate that the links between stalking and domestic abuse are clear. The Metropolitan Police Service found that 40% of victims of domestic homicide had been stalked. Stalking occurs in isolation or as a component of a much wider profile of abuse. High-severity stalking and harassment can include threats to kill. Research has showed that one in two—50%—of domestic stalkers will act on that threat. It is therefore crucial that the police, the criminal justice system and other agencies involved receive comprehensive training on domestic abuse and coercive control and that the focus of the new protection order is not on stalking alone.
Stalking does not have to lead to physical violence to be incredibly harmful. In a case study from the “Living in fear” report, Elaine became aware of seven websites that were created about her containing malicious content, including pictures of her and details of her personal life which were then shared with her children and employers. When Elaine initially contacted the police, she felt that they were not interested. They advised Elaine that there was not enough evidence to arrest the person as there was no direct threat. It took 12 months of monitoring the posts before the person was arrested. Understandably, Elaine was scared to go out of the house. She had to change to a lower-paid job where she would have some anonymity. Her children had to move schools and she has suffered with anxiety.
A stalking protection order would have given the police an option for an early intervention that would have protected Elaine while the investigation was ongoing. Like Elaine, many victims report being unsatisfied with the police response to stalking.
The hon. Lady is making an important point, particularly about internet stalking. In terms of the SPOs, does she agree that some kind of internet tracking capability must be included, as so much of this activity now takes place online?
I agree, and that is the case for many crimes now, but unfortunately the police do not have the resources to train up their staff, and that is something we all need to address.
New guidance to the police is required under this Bill. I have no doubt that the police want to improve their response, but to do that they need the appropriate resources, powers and training. This Bill will begin that process by providing police with an important protection and prevention tool, but the recent debacle surrounding the John Worboys case shows that, as a country, we need to do much more to support victims.
We have heard today that stalking can be one of the most psychologically destructive crimes. Victims of stalking often feel so threatened that they change the way they live, and, like Elaine, 50% of victims have curtailed or stopped work due to stalking. Last year Chloe Hopkins bravely spoke out about the depression, bulimia, post-traumatic stress disorder and even suicide attempt that followed the seven years of stalking that she endured. The forthcoming domestic violence Bill will be an opportunity for the Government to carry out a review of victim support services, and I hope that victims of stalking will be included in that.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who made some powerful points.
I am delighted to support this Bill, which represents a key piece of the jigsaw in terms of how we ought to approach the scourge of stalking. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for her efforts, determination and leadership on this important issue.
The issue is very close to my heart, and I was grateful for the opportunity, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and Members across this House and in the other place, to play a part in addressing the problem of inadequate sentencing. But if sentencing is principally about protecting victims after stalking has spiralled out of control, the SPOs are about arming the courts with tools to address this behaviour beforehand; they are about prevention as well as protection.
Before examining the SPOs in detail, I want to say a little about the context. Attitudes have changed. Gone—or almost gone—are the days when this was thought of as a bit of a joke or just a case of overly enthusiastic romantic advances. Lest we forget, the crime of stalking did not exist until 2012, and it is only thanks to the bravery of so many people—usually, but not exclusively, women—that we have been educated on this shocking phenomenon. We now increasingly appreciate that stalking is a horrible, violating crime that rips relationships apart and shatters lives. Inevitably, it is the cases involving celebrities that hit the headlines, but it is important to emphasise that this phenomenon is no respecter of fame or fortune. It is far more indiscriminate than that, and anyone can be a victim. I want to mention two examples, if I may.
Dr Eleanor Aston was a constituent of mine. I say “was” because she has now left the United Kingdom. She was a successful and popular GP, as Gloucester Crown Court was later to hear, and she was stalked over a nine-year period. This bears out the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) that these incidents often last for many years. Dr Aston was stalked by a patient who first attended her surgery in 2007. As is often the case in this type of offending, it began innocuously enough. A few cards progressed on to inappropriate messages, then messages started to be left on her car windscreen. It then became more serious, with the stalker attending the surgery more than 100 times. He vandalised it and posted foul items through the letterbox, and then began to attend her home. He attended a children’s party that her daughter was at, and her water supply was even interfered with. The situation escalated to the point that the police advised her to change her name and address, and even come off the General Medical Council register. She was off work for many months and was later diagnosed, perhaps unsurprisingly, with post-traumatic stress disorder. The stalker spent some time in prison, but when he was released she received two packages: one contained standard abusive material; the other simply said, “Guess who’s back.”
The second case relates to the 20-year-old hairdresser, Hollie Gazzard, who was murdered in 2014 by an ex-partner. The point was ably made by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) that stalking is all too often a gateway offence—if I can use that expression—leading to something even more serious. Indeed, some particularly powerful individuals have referred to it as murder in slow motion. Out of the tragedy of Hollie Gazzard’s death, her inspirational family—her parents Nick and Mandy and her sister Chloe—have set up the Hollie Gazzard Trust in Gloucestershire to improve protection for the victims of stalking in Gloucestershire and beyond. I am grateful to the mayor of Cheltenham for including the trust as one of her charities.
Those are just two examples of ordinary people from just one county, Gloucestershire, so it is no surprise that research carried out by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust in 2017 showed that a staggeringly high proportion of homicides against women were preceded by behaviour that could properly be characterised as stalking. In that context, the stalking protection orders set out in the Bill will provide a powerful tool to be used while a stalking investigation is ongoing. They will give the magistrates courts a larger and better equipped toolbox with which to tackle such behaviour at an early stage and to protect victims. An order will be able to prohibit acts associated with stalking or require an individual to
“do anything described in the order.”
That can be used to impose positive obligations, which is an important difference. Ordinary bail conditions can say, “You must not go within a hundred yards of that address” or “You must attend court on such and such an occasion”, but this order could impose positive obligations, including an obligation to attend drugs or alcohol programmes. As we have already heard, the orders will have criminal sanctions. In plain English, if you do not comply, you will get locked up.
That is all welcome, but if I may, I will add a couple of notes of caution. First, it would really help if, as part of the positive obligations, the court could require an individual to undergo psychiatric evaluation. One of the things that makes victims’ testimony even more disarmingly powerful is that they often show a measure of compassion towards the people who have tormented them to their wits’ end, and even sometimes close to the point of suicide. They recognise that they are often struggling with their own mental health problems. It would be helpful if the courts could have, in the toolbox that I mentioned, the power to compel individuals to undergo psychiatric evaluation.
The second issue is that, if the SPOs are going to work, they will have to be deployed quickly. If there is too much delay, there is a risk of the behaviour becoming entrenched and therefore far more difficult to address. Why do I say that? Because my experience as a prosecutor in court, prosecuting offences of this nature and speaking to witnesses and victims, tells me that committed, entrenched stalkers show themselves unwilling to comply with orders of the court, or even incapable of so doing, even though that might lead to imprisonment. Very often, by the time someone gets to the long process of prosecution, the stalker will have ignored the police officer who told them to stop, and they will have ignored the harassment warning and the bail conditions that ordered them to stop. If a solution is to work, the problem needs to get nipped in the bud early, which will require police officers to take matters seriously. I am grateful for the fact that a huge amount of work has been done in Gloucestershire to ensure that police officers have the tools they need to recognise stalking and to act on it expeditiously, which is vital.
Orders must be imposed early, and before the inevitable delays that come from investigation, charge and trial. Conscientious and attentive police officers will be vital to the process, and changes could be made to allow individuals to play a greater role in gathering evidence and reporting it to the police in a way that serves the needs of victims, instead of the process being labour intensive and sometimes difficult. However, that is something to be discussed in detail on another day. For present purposes, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes on taking up the baton in such a spectacular and effective way. I am grateful to hon. Members across the House, and I am delighted to support the Bill.
It is a great pleasure and an honour to join my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) in sponsoring this Bill and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who was inspired to do so much to improve the law in this important area following the particularly horrific case that he has just told us about. As we have heard, stalking is a terrifying, intrusive and profoundly unsettling crime, and I defy anyone in the Chamber not to have been moved by the words that my hon. Friend has just read out, which truly sent shivers down my spine. It is important to recognise that the victims bear the scars for the rest of their lives.
I want to focus on the impact that stalking can have throughout a family. We heard about the Emily Maitlis case and how brave it was of her to have spoken so publicly about the effect on her marriage and children of what happened to her, and I have a constituency case that brought things home for me. My constituent, whom I will call Julie—not her real name—came to see me with her mother about 18 months ago having suffered a sustained campaign of harassment. With your leave, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will read her words to the House, rather than try to use my own, because the way that she puts things is very powerful. She wrote:
“Despite the stalker having been verbally warned by the police to leave me alone, he continued to contact me, receiving over 60 text messages/missed calls a day to either my mobile or home phone. I reported it to the police again as advised to. Different officers attended to take my statement, and I again had to repeat the situation. In the end I had to change my numbers for both mobile and landline. This did not stop the contact. He tried to contact me through various other means, Facebook, WhatsApp, email, Google Hangouts, and Instagram. Some of the messages received on WhatsApp were from numbers unknown to me, and some of the messages contained intimate images of me, or threats of exposing them. All of the accounts I deactivated and eventually, after laying low for a while, I set up new accounts. However, this did not deter him.
After a very short while, the stalker managed to obtain my new mobile and home number, and again he started with the calls. I know it was him as my partner and I both spoke to him on at least one occasion where he threatened to cause harm to my partner. He used to call my home number and would call in the middle of the night several times and hang up, which woke my children on many occasions and in the end I left the phone unplugged. I left BT and EE and set up a new contracts… and did not give my details to hardly anybody to reduce the risk of him”
finding them out. She continued:
“This obviously isolated me from my circle of friends... However, he was unwittingly involving them by adding all my circle of friends on Facebook, some of which are very close and dear to me, and he started to make a nuisance of himself with them, constantly bombarding them with messages asking questions about me”.
That email goes on much longer, and it is all profoundly disturbing. It provides a picture of how young women now live their lives. So much of a person’s life is now on social media, which is an important way to keep in touch with family and friends, but even though my constituent did all the right things, took all the right advice and went to the police repeatedly, she was unable to live her life in the way that she should have been able to.
Julie’s other family members were contacted, and the part of her story that affected me most deeply is that her daughter, a young teenager, was contacted by the stalker at school. Despite numerous statements to the police, my constituent had to organise her own non-molestation order, although she was pleased that the police served it on her behalf. When she approached me, she was anxious and very afraid of what would happen in the future:
“This man will continue with this behaviour…and from what I have experienced, he won’t stop—he will do it again but to what level next time. I would love nothing more than to try and change the way cases like this are approached.”
She was pleased to hear about the Bill, and she was pleased that I was able to come and speak about her case on her behalf, although she is not at a point where she would like her details to become public.
There is obviously little I can do to assist Julie as her MP, but I got involved in her case when the prosecution against her stalker sadly came to nothing. She had pursued the matter with the police, having to tell her story again and again, as she told us in her email. When she went to court, a vital piece of evidence, a screenshot of a WhatsApp message, had been lost by the Crown Prosecution Service so could not be presented. The prosecution therefore failed, and her stalker contacted her again the next day with a crowing message about what had happened.
I have been able to assist Julie in pursuing her complaint against the CPS, and we will see what happens as a result. The damage to her life, to her mum’s life and, very sadly, to her daughter’s life has already happened. It is now too late to take away their fear when going to work or school that something nasty will happen. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham, those fears are not unfounded. We have to take this very seriously.
I have no doubt that an early stalking protection order would have made a real difference in Julie’s case, and I hope it would have limited some of the trauma she continues to deal with today. That is exactly why this Bill is so important. The police must be given the power to take swift action on stalking offences at an early stage, and as my hon. Friend said, it is important that such action is accompanied by rigorous and relevant training not only for the police but for the CPS and the judiciary. This is a very serious crime. Generations of Julie’s family have suffered, and I want to make certain it does not continue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on introducing this important Bill and on her passionate championing of this important cause.
One reason I support the Bill is that a family in my constituency were cruelly robbed of their daughter by a stalker. Alice Ruggles was murdered in 2016 by Trimaan Dhillon, who was sentenced to life imprisonment last year. Alice had been in a relationship with him, and the relationship became controlling over time. He tried to distance her from her friends and family. After they broke up, his behaviour towards her became increasingly sinister.
Alice twice told the police that Trimaan was harassing her. He was given a police information notice, but it did not stop his obsessive and escalating behaviour. It later emerged that the police had previously given him a restraining order for harassing another girlfriend—it is not clear the police knew that at the time of Alice’s murder.
Alice’s family established the Alice Ruggles Trust to try to make the case for changes to support victims of stalking, including a register of stalkers, so I am pleased to support the Bill today. The Bill will fill a clear gap in the protective order regime to protect people like Alice in the future. It will enable effective action against stalkers whose actions have not yet provably gone over the criminal threshold.
My concern is that at the moment too many people who pose a real threat are being repeatedly cautioned or given a police information notice, or action is simply not being taken against them. Only 1% of stalking cases are recorded by the police, and victims reported being unsatisfied with the police response. For example, research by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust found that 43% of people who have reported stalking to the police found the police response to be either not very helpful or not helpful at all, and only 12.7% of recorded cases reach a conviction in court.
I hope that by creating this new tool for the police, the new stalking protection order, the Bill will help to solve that problem. The sanctions it will create will help to stop stalkers whose behaviour is escalating, and the prohibitions it creates will help victims to live without fear, particularly where the police are building a case. As well as those direct benefits, I hope the Bill’s introduction might also be a catalyst for the police to change their handling of stalking cases more generally. A number of hon. Members have already referred to the important report by HMIC and the CPS, “Living in fear”, which found that people who have suffered from repeated harassment or stalking are frequently being “let down” by under-recording, inconsistent services and a lack of understanding in the criminal justice system.
I hope that the Bill will trigger police forces to review how they handle stalking. I hope that all chief constables and police commissioners in this country will be listening closely to today’s debate and will be observing the passage of the Bill.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on introducing this Bill. In my constituency, amazing work was done by the family of Clare Wood on Clare’s law, which was about the obligation of the police to disclose details of a history of violent behaviour if these were requested. But the right-to-know element to Clare’s law has been underused, and only 43% of requests to the police have been granted, with this seeming to be a postcode lottery. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what is really to be celebrated about the Bill is that resources will be given to the police, so that they can respond swiftly and completely to requests?
Yes, I do; the hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. As I was saying, the crucial thing is not just having this important new tool, which the Bill will create, but using it as a further catalyst to changes in the way the police handle something that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) pointed out, was not even a crime until 2012. In particular, I hope that the police will take account of the best practice guidance produced by the charity Paladin, which is extremely important.
In conclusion, this Bill is a really important piece of legislation. The flexibilities it contains will allow stalking protection orders to be useful in a wide variety of circumstances. I believe that it will both improve lives and save lives, and I support it in the strongest possible way.
It is a pleasure and privilege to take part in this debate on what could hardly be a more important subject, one literally of life and death, as has been said. I join hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on bringing the Bill to this point. Stalking is an horrific and devastating crime, which causes unthinkable suffering to its victims. It is also an unusual crime, in that the onus almost always falls heavily on the victim to provide the evidence to demonstrate that a crime has taken place and to support their case against the stalker. In few other areas of criminal law is that function left so heavily to the victim.
The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was introduced to deal with many of the problems that have been covered in the debate, but it did not specifically name the offence of stalking. Sadly, it soon became clear that that Act was insufficient to deal with the scale and nature of the problem. The 2012 reforms that amended the Act and created the two new offences were an important and valuable step forward. The results can be seen in the number of prosecutions since the new offences came into force at the end of 2012.
At Christmas, West Midlands police launched a seasonal campaign on the crimes of stalking and harassment. The force campaigned to encourage victims to seek help by confiding in loved ones and reporting abuse to the police. The findings are as stark as they are horrifying. Of the cases reported, 57% were domestic-related. Much like other Members have said, victims typically suffered between 70 and 100 incidents each before they reported the harassment and stalking to West Midlands police.
The campaign coincided with the case of a West Midlands policewoman who had been the victim of harassment by an ex-partner. In support of the campaign’s launch, she said:
“When I reported it to police it felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders—and when an officer came around to my house, and realised the extent of the harassment,”
they wanted to arrest her ex-partner immediately. But, of course, things are rarely that simple in criminal law. The police have to build a case to be confident that they can bring charges.
The time taken and the burden of having to meet that level of proof often means that victims of stalking are left suffering further harassment, the consequences of which can be enormous. As the policewoman said:
“It felt as though he still had a hold on me and even months after we’d split up I could still sense him there. I used to dread opening letters and parcels in case they were from him—and I couldn’t enjoy my birthday or Christmas as he’d send gifts and notes saying how he wasn’t going to let me go. I felt on edge all the time.”
That type of behaviour, and its effect on victims, is exactly the kind of thing that the new civil protection orders in the Bill are designed to tackle.
In the past year, West Midlands police have received 290 reports of stalking, but only 61 people were charged, with others being cautioned or agreeing to out-of-court resolutions. That highlights the scale of the problem that makes the Bill necessary. We need new and more flexible measures and sanctions to deal with stalking, but although we need them to be simpler options, it is important that we make sure they are not taken as the easy option.
Civil protection orders must not replace prosecutions, so it is important that the CPS and other bodies continue to apply existing laws as fully as they can and as strongly as the law allows. This is not about replacing those prosecutions, but about the many instances of inappropriate, unwelcome and unacceptable behaviour that might not yet have escalated to that criminal threshold; about the early intervention that can change behaviour and change lives; and about protecting hundreds of thousands of men and women by preventing that stalking and harassment from spiralling into even more serious crimes. Applied properly, these orders could make an enormous difference to many lives, and that is why I am pleased to support the Bill today.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood), who made some important points. I too pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for introducing this crucial Bill and to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who has long worked hard on this issue and rolled the pitch—if I may say so—in his very able way.
This is a crucial matter for women. It is no coincidence that my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) and for Cheltenham have, like me, been involved in many prosecutions of such cases. We are aware of the utter devastation it causes to the victims, who often effectively become prisoners in their own homes and live in fear of the impact of stalking behaviour on their families, as was powerfully described by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury. I therefore welcome the change of attitude in the Bill towards a crime that is so often targeted at women. There has been a sea change like that in attitudes towards domestic violence. Very often in the past, it was treated as a form of obsessive behaviour by a former partner who perhaps had gone a little too far; it was not considered to be serious, as has been said. The number of victims of stalking crimes who then become murder victims illustrates dramatically why the Bill is needed.
There are many advantages to the new technological society we live in, but I fear that we are living our lives in a much more public way now, with many details on the internet. As described, people are using Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social media apps, and that makes information more public and increases the risk of stranger stalking. I am delighted, therefore, that I am able to be here to support the Bill. The only reason I am here—well, not the only reason—is that I, too, have a private Member’s Bill in the list, the Fetal Dopplers (Regulation) Bill, which I fear we will not get to today. I am delighted none the less that the Government have instigated a review of fetal dopplers by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, so some good has come out of it.
I will return to the subject of stalking. The devastation and psychological damage it causes is absolutely clear. The rise of the various methods of observing people via the internet, even with privacy settings, increases the ability of stalkers to target their victims—not only their victims, but, as described, their friends and family members—which causes fear and isolation. Currently, there is a gap in the law, especially for those stalked by strangers, which, very importantly, this Bill will address.
I wholeheartedly support the Bill and its aims to introduce this new stalking protection order to protect victims during the early stages of an investigation. Like many other Members in this House, it is my view that that early intervention is likely to make a significant difference in a number of cases. It may not make a difference in all cases, but it is likely to make a real difference in many of them. I am particularly pleased that these orders will be able to be tailor-made and targeted to address the specific issues, or the specific methods by which that intrusive behaviour takes place.
As MPs, we should do all we can to protect our constituents, and since stalking was made an offence in 2012, Cheshire constabulary has recorded continued increases in the number of stalking offences that are committed locally. In 2014-15, Cheshire constabulary recorded 26 stalking offences. That increased locally to 55 recorded offences in 2016-17. It is vital that we prevent this crime from becoming more widespread, that we give the police the tools to crack down at an early stage and that we provide the necessary support to victims.
I am very pleased that the Government are supporting this private Member’s Bill. It is my view that this new legislation will improve the safety of my constituents in Eddisbury by giving the police the power to address the danger that perpetrators pose while they gather more evidence. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for the work that she has put in on this issue. I also thank the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), whom I welcome to the Front Bench in her role, for the attention that she has paid to this matter. This is a really important tool in the kit. It is vital now that police forces use the tools provided by this legislation after it passes its final stage.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, particularly given that this Bill is being introduced by my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). It is always a pleasure to be here on Friday discussing Bills, which may not be the longest Bills that we have ever considered, but they are ones that have a significant impact and deal with a hole in the law that needs to be filled, and that can only be done via primary legislation.
As I said with regard to the previous Bill, it is clear why there is a need for this Bill, why it is proportionate and what effect it will have. The test that I apply on a Friday has certainly been met in this case. For me, it is time that we looked at the impact of stalking on victims. This is not just about a person pestering someone—perhaps sending the odd couple of things they did not want; it is about a person actually setting out to control their victim, to dominate their life, to make it so that they almost cannot live a normal life for fear of another person’s actions, and to control them in a way that has similarities to behaviour in abusive relationships, when people are not looking to hold someone in great affection but to control them through their actions and behaviour.
It is very welcome that in criminal offences relating to stalking, we have seen increases in sentences: we have seen it viewed as something far more serious in society and in our own law over recent years. None the less, there is still this gap for those who are engaging in behaviour that is clearly wholly inappropriate. We will now have an ability to deal with them through the court. That is why there is a clear need for this Bill.
Looking at whether this Bill is proportionate takes me to the process of the application and how the orders will be granted. It will be a chief police officer who applies and who looks at whether there is clear evidence that needs to be taken forward. It will be the magistrates court that takes a decision as to whether to apply the order and what should be done with it, and then there is the fact that it can be appealed to a Crown court. There are plenty of protections in place, which means that the Bill is eminently proportionate. Furthermore, the order can fit the person. As hon. Members have already said, it is right that some people have mental health assessments, because their behaviour in many cases suggests mental health issues. This measure is a highly proportionate part of the law because it provides for tackling and putting to the test a genuine illness that may be driving someone’s behaviour, rather than just looking to threaten someone with punishment.
I particularly like the fact that an interim order can be put in place while the main application is under way, because we would not want someone to ramp up their campaign of harassment in the hope that they might stop the order being pursued or make the victim less determined to go forward while the application was waiting to be considered by the court. I am always a bit fearful of that. Indeed, this is why we have interlocutory injunctions, which go before the main hearing, when there has been an application to court. Such injunctions mean that the actual hearing does not become a pointless affair due to the person continuing their behavioural patterns up to the point at which the court can consider the case fully.
This is a proportionate piece of legislation, but I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood), who made it clear that it should not be seen as a replacement for the criminal law. It is not about replacing the prosecution process or stopping someone being prosecuted. I was keen to speak on this Bill to make it clear that no police officer should look at this provision as an alternative to prosecution. If there is evidence that the crime has been committed, the police should go through exactly the same process; this Bill is not a substitute.
In the case of my constituent—a GP in Cheltenham—the only way in which she could begin the process of rebuilding her life was to know that the person who had been tormenting her was behind bars. We should not do it willy-nilly, but there are occasions when people have to be locked up, and this legislation should not be a substitute for custody. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I absolutely agree. This is not a substitute for someone being locked up or paying the price that Parliament has set down for certain crimes. Victims need to see justice done. As with the previous Bill we discussed, this legislation provides an additional power for dealing with poor behaviour and poor conduct in society. It is not an alternative power for dealing with poor conduct. I welcome the Minister to her place, and I am interested in hearing how she will ensure that with guidance issued to the police through the Home Office. How will the Department make it clear to the police that this is an additional provision that takes their powers further? It is not a choice between prosecution or this; it is now prosecution and this. This Bill covers behaviour that is not quite caught by current criminal offences. It is an expansion, not an alternative. The Bill does include penalties of imprisonment for continuing to breach the orders, and that is appropriate. There are some people who will not stop even after many remedies, and they probably need the threat of prison to put them off.
This Bill is welcome. It is an appropriate and proportionate step, and I am interested in how the police will implement it in my constituency of Torbay. It provides that the chief officer can apply for an order only in respect of someone in their area. How will the Minister ensure that there is co-operation between police forces in cases where the person resides outside the area or is being a nuisance to someone who goes between two areas? Those questions are about making the Bill an effective piece of legislation. How will the Minister ensure that victims of stalking—as with victims of domestic violence—feel that they can safely come forward and give their point of view, and that this new power is well known about? If people are not aware of the law, they may not know what rights they have to ask the police force to take action.
I am conscious of the time, and I have absolutely no intention of continuing to a point at which I would talk this Bill out. [Interruption.] I hear some enthusiastic approval from the Opposition Benches; I will conclude in the very near future.
I appreciate and welcome this Bill. I hope that I get the opportunity to serve on the Committee and take part in some of the detailed scrutiny of exactly how this will work and move forward. That applies particularly to the guidance that is issued to chief police officers when they make these decisions, because we want this power to be effective, and an addition, not an alternative, to the existing criminal law.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on bringing forward this very important Bill. We have had a short but well-informed debate that people who are interested in this issue will read and appreciate.
As many Members have said, stalking can be an extremely serious offence that has been exacerbated by the rise in online communication. The victims are usually women who are vulnerable to the actions of resourceful and obsessive perpetrators, and there are often links with domestic violence. The crimes can be horrific. They can combine physical and online stalking, late-night phone calls, and even home invasion. Threats of rape and murder are frequent and all too often credible. I understand that in the case of the man who murdered our colleague Jo Cox, when people went to his home they saw that he had a whole room papered with pictures of Jo, so we need to remember that this type of obsessive attention not necessarily will, but can, end in physical violence.
Far too many stalking crimes go undetected. In 2015, there were just 194 convictions for stalking offences. Yet, as other Members have reminded us, the crime survey suggests that one in five women and one in 10 men will be affected by stalking in their lifetime, while the under-publicised national stalking helpline has responded to almost 14,000 calls since it was established in 2010. Clearly, the conviction rate is barely the tip of the iceberg.
I should not refrain from pointing out the failings of the criminal justice system as it stands. Often, victims are not kept informed. Case adjournments take place without notice. Charges are altered or dropped without reference to the victim. If the victim makes it to court, they can be cross-examined by their own tormentor. Many victims say that they are made to feel that they are on trial. Serious offenders can receive no more than a suspended sentence, even if convicted.
There has been reference to the Emily Maitlis case. Of course, it is important that we repeat that stalking is not just something that affects celebrities. However, I was struck by some of the things that Emily Maitlis said: the fact that it had gone on for 20 years and felt like having a serious illness; the effect it had had on her family and her children; and, above all, the fact that her stalker was able to write to her from prison and while out on licence. Although this is an excellent Bill that I hope will pass through the House, we have to consider the whole approach of the criminal justice system to this issue, and make sure that we have a comprehensive, systematic and integrated approach to the crime of stalking.
We have heard some excellent contributions, including from my hon. Friends the Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), but also from the hon. Members for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster).
Labour Members give wholehearted support to this Bill, which will form an important part of the toolkit to deal with the menace of stalking.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for bringing this most important issue to the House. It has been an absolute pleasure working with her and her staff on this Bill. Her commitment to the issue is shown not just by the quality of the Bill but the support for it across the House.
I also thank Members across the House for the very moving and, sadly, chilling experiences of stalking that they have presented on behalf of their constituents. I note in particular the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), who both mentioned Hollie Gazzard and Alice Ruggles. I have had the privilege of meeting the parents of Hollie and of Alice, who, along with the parents of Clare Bernal and of Rana Faruqui, have somehow found the wherewithal to grapple with the grief of losing their children through this awful offence, and then to set up charities to campaign on the issue. I want to express my admiration for all such parents who can find the strength to do that.
I am also very grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) and for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) for their legal insights. As always, they have used their legal experience to great effect in the Chamber.
Stalking is an issue of great importance to the Government. The Bill will provide the police with a vital additional tool to protect the victims of stalking and to deter perpetrators at the earliest opportunity. The onus will be on the police, not the victims, to bring in the orders. That is so important. I know that the hon. Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) are concerned about this. Importantly, the orders will have the flexibility to impose both positive and negative requirements on stalkers. I hope that will address the concerns of my hon. Friends the Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Cheltenham in that, where appropriate, the court will be able to require the stalker to have a psychiatric assessment. There is also the vital criminal penalty if the stalker dares to breach the court order, which I hope will provide the safety and comfort that I know victims so desperately need.
We know that there is so much more to do and that the Bill is not a single silver bullet. I have noted with concern the thoughts of colleagues on the report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and the CPS. The report, which makes for sobering reading, sets out the scale of the improvements that need to be made. The Home Office is working closely with the CPS and the police to improve their reaction to these offences. What is more, we are going to introduce statutory guidance, alongside the Bill, to help to improve the police and the CPS’s understanding of stalking. In addition, the College of Policing will shortly publish refreshed guidance for the police on investigating stalking and harassment offences. This will all be overseen by a national oversight group chaired by the Home Secretary, whose commitment to tackling this is absolute.
I note the observation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood). Interestingly, he brought to light the research by the West Midlands constabulary showing that there are an average of 70 to 100 incidents before victims report their suffering to the police. I will take that away and consider with officials how we can address it.
Once the police have these powers, they must use them. Through the police transformation fund, we have provided £4.1 million to the police, in partnership with the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, for a multi-agency stalking interventions programme to share best practice and learning on the development of effective interventions for stalking. Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting officers from Hampshire and Gloucestershire who are doing great work on this. Again, I hope that that will address the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay about early intervention. The proposed stalking protection orders will form part of the bigger picture of tackling stalking as a vital additional tool at the disposal of our police forces.
We must not just look at stalking in isolation. As the Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, I have responsibility for protecting women and girls—and, indeed, men and boys—from all forms of violence, including stalking. The strategy to end violence against women and girls, published in 2016, sets out our ambition that no victim of abuse is turned away from the support they need. We have committed to increasing funding to £100 million to support this work. There is a great deal of overlap, sadly, between the different crime types tackled in the VAWG strategy, and we must make sure that the police, the CPS, social care professionals, health professionals and others work together to get the results needed for victims. There are key principles that must be shared, promoted and implemented when dealing with these cases. We must show empathy to victims, and an understanding and a recognition of the patterns of behaviour. We must have effective multi-agency working, we must prioritise early intervention and prevention, and we must ensure that there is appropriate victim care and support.
In conclusion, the Government are committed to drawing on the expertise and experience of victims, survivors, academics, the voluntary sector, communities and professionals to do all we can to improve the response to stalking and to VAWG generally. I must finish by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for all her hard work on the Bill, and by thanking Members on both sides of the House for their support. I hope that our collective efforts will enable us to make positive progress with this vital Bill, and to provide victims of stalking with the support and the help they need.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).