IT is important not to underestimate the dangers of stalking.
It is a crime which blights the lives of victims and can cause devastating psychological and physical harm.
And it is a crime that also costs lives, with a significant risk of escalation to murder.
The statistics are alarming.
In a 2017 study by the University of Gloucestershire, based on 358 criminal homicides, stalking behaviour was identified in the run-up to 94 PER CENT of the murders.
And stalking is getting easier. The spread of social media and other online communication, with its inherent anonymity, has only increased the misery for victims.
But the speed of change has not been matched by a more robust framework to deal with it.
Yes, we have tougher sentences — the Government was absolutely right to last year double jail terms for the worst cases from five to ten years.
But progress has been too slow in recognising these crimes.
In 2016-17, fewer than 1,000 prosecutions were commenced under stalking legislation.
It was horrifying to read the account of Nicola Roberts from Girls Aloud yesterday.
She told how she faced a barrage of more than 3,000 texts over five years from an ex-boyfriend, including threats to stab and burn her.
Soon after being handed a lifetime restraining order, her ex began following her on Instagram.
He “wanted me to know he was still watching me”, she said, chillingly.
And yet the CPS saw no realistic chance of a successful prosecution for stalking because the social media activity was not taken sufficiently seriously, despite the obvious impact on Nicola’s life.
As she put it: “I should be able to move on from an unhealthy relationship if I want and that’s not been able to happen.”
She wants change — and she is right to.
These kinds of messages leave you in fear for your life — feeling that someone is watching or following you is immensely distressing.
A bunch of flowers is not a romantic gesture when sent by a stalker but a reminder that your persecutor is still watching and can still reach you.
Stalking is a crime of obsession and fixation and it needs to be stopped before it becomes deeply ingrained.
No legislation will be effective unless it is accompanied by training at the front line of policing and across the wider courts system.
Victims must have the confidence to come forward at an earlier stage, for all forms of stalking to be recognised for what they are. It is my intention to make this happen.
My Stalking Protection Bill will introduce so-called Stalking Protection Orders (SPOs) to help fill some of the gaps in the law.
It will allow the police to act more quickly and to protect victims of so-called stranger stalking, where the stalker is not a former partner.
Importantly, it will also take the onus off the victim to have to take action, as is currently the case for stranger stalking. At present many victims are left unprotected because they have to put protective measures in place for themselves, such as applying for a civil injunction to restrain someone from harassing them.
Needless to say, many victims find this such a daunting task — not to mention expensive and time-consuming — that they end up not going through with it.
If passed, the Stalking Protection Bill would allow the police to apply for an SPO through the magistrates’ courts on behalf of victims.
Orders will require the civil standard of proof “on the balance of probabilities” but breach of an order would be a criminal offence, punishable in the most serious cases by a term of up to five years in prison.
SPOs could set out requirements prohibiting certain behaviours, such as contacting the victim either directly or indirectly.
It would be able to prohibit behaviours such as driving past the victim’s house, harassing friends, colleagues or family members, going within a certain distance of the victim or following them online.
How SPOs will help
- Ban stalkers from contacting victims, going near them or following them online
- Ban them from using encrypted messages
- Order them to register names they’re using
- Allow police to act more quickly
- Take pressure off victims to have to take action
It could also set out so called positive requirements, such as attending a psychiatric assessment.
In this digital age, the law would cover online contact from abroad and require that any IT equipment would be free from encryption, so perpetrators could not cover their tracks.
Unlike the now-abandoned Police Information Notices, SPOs will have teeth, as they would be enforceable and breaching the terms of an order would have consequences.
SPOs would also require stalkers to register all the names they use, as well as their address.
While SPOs will provide better early intervention to protect victims, they are not intended to replace full prosecution for an offence of stalking.
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They will, however, enable police to better protect the safety of victims while gathering the full evidence for the CPS to prosecute a full stalking case.
The Bill has almost completed its Commons journey but will not now return to the Chamber until late November.
When the case for change is so pressing, and the Bill is backed by members across the House, I believe the Government should bring forward the final Commons stage so we can get on with delivering this vital change to the law — which will help to save lives.
- Dr Sarah Wollaston is MP for Totnes.
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