Sarah Wollaston: We need a stronger, safer system for protecting victims of stalking
My Stalking Protection Bill would help to take the onus off victims and make it easier for authorities to intervene in stalking cases earlier, writes Sarah Wollaston
Stalking is a crime which blights the lives of victims and can cause devastating psychological and physical harm. There is also a significant risk of escalation to rape and murder. Based on data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, published January 2017, one in five women and one in ten men will experience stalking behaviour in their lifetime.
It is a type of harassment characterised by fixation or obsession and resulting in unwanted, persistent and intrusive behaviour causing distress or fear. Stalkers target their victims in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly and cyberstalking has added even more avenues to cause misery.
The introduction of new stalking offences in 2012 was widely welcomed and, in 2016-17, 959 prosecutions were commenced under this legislation.
This is encouraging but still represents the tip of the iceberg. It typically takes around a hundred instances of stalking behaviour before victims come forward to make a complaint to the police and it remains the case that these crimes are not consistently recognised, investigated or prosecuted.
There is more to do in training those at the front line of policing and across the wider judicial system in order for victims to have the confidence to come forward at an earlier stage and for all forms of stalking to be recognised for what they are, not brushed aside for example as a romantic nuisance.
There is also a serious gap in the law when it comes to putting in place early protection for victims of stranger stalking as they are not able to access all the measures in place for those stalked by former partners.
My Stalking Protection Bill would take the onus off the victim to put in place protection themselves and make it possible to intervene at an earlier stage by introducing Stalking Protection Orders (SPOs).
The police could apply for an SPO through the magistrates’ courts on behalf of victims. Orders would require the civil standard of proof, 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, or from going within a certain distance of them. It could also set out so called positive requirements, such as attending a psychiatric assessment.
In a digital age, there are ever more ways that stalkers can target their victims and those around them, causing fear and isolation. The proposed model would also give the courts flexibility to apply appropriate restrictions on internet use, for example, conditions that not only ban the individual from contacting their victims or those around them but could restrict them from accessing the internet from any device unless it has the capacity to retain and display the history of internet use.
Unlike the now-abandoned Police Information Notices, PINs, SPOs would 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 that they use as well as their address.
Whilst SPOs would provide better protection for victims, they are not intended to replace prosecution for an offence of stalking, which now carries a maximum penalty of ten years imprisonment. They would however enable police to better protect the safety of victims while gathering the full evidence for the CPS to prosecute a full stalking case.
This Bill would also strengthen protection for victims of stalking at an earlier stage, preferably before stalking behaviour becomes as deeply ingrained as is too often the case at present.
I hope that MPs from across the House of Commons will join me in Parliament to support the bill and to build a safer, stronger system for protecting victims of this terrible crime.
Dr Sarah Wollaston is Conservative MP for Totnes and chair of the Health Select Committee. The second reading of her Private Members’ Bill is on Friday 19 January.