Protection of Freedoms Bill (Programme) (No. 4) – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 19th March 2012.

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Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this, it will convenient to discuss amendments (c), (d), (e), (f) and Government amendments (g), (h), (i), (j), and (k) thereto.

Lords amendment 52, and amendment (a) thereto.

Lords amendments 59 and 68

Lords amendment 133 and Government amendments (a) to (c) thereto.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The need for legislation to create a distinctive offence of stalking has been clear for some time. I therefore start the debate by welcoming the Government’s willingness to respond to these calls for such legislation. Our amendments reflect the need to ensure that this opportunity for progress is not missed and that the evolution of these proposals continues so that they can truly meet the needs of those we wish to protect.

To put this case, I want to set out why we consider that the legislation as currently proposed is limited in its ability to deliver this protection, and what we learn from that in scrutinising the Government’s proposals that are on the table. We all now know that the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 has been unable to offer the protection from stalking required for its victims. It is estimated that there are currently 120,000 cases of stalking every year, but fewer than 4,500 were convicted of harassment in 2009; of those, only 565 were jailed.

The current legislation is not able to cope with stalking because these behaviours cannot be meaningfully defined by specific forms of contact. Rather, this is an offence about the impact of conduct or patterns of behaviour by those individuals who fixate on others and seek to cause distress, fear or alarm. The current legislation offers only the same tools that we have at present to deal with disputes between neighbours—and it has struggled to cope as a result.

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 created two criminal offences of harassment and putting people in fear of violence, as well as providing for restraining orders, which are more well known, where a breach, in theory, can lead to an arrestable offence. We now know, however, that victims of stalking talk repeatedly about the frustrations caused by the police being required to see patterns of behaviour, examples of a breach or evidence that someone has repeatedly damaged property or acted in a certain way or created a fear of violence. Others have talked about the importance of training the police, magistrates and the Crown Prosecution Service to help them understand the range of acts that fall under stalking—including, especially, cyber-stalking. That is because it is a summary offence of harassment, and many felt that the police did not go far enough and did not allocate appropriate resources to investigating these cases, or frankly, that it was seen as simply not serious enough to warrant the effort. I shall return to the question of seriousness in a few moments.

Little wonder that the recent inquiry into stalking found that 72% of victims were unhappy with the response they received from the criminal justice system, with the majority stating they had experienced stalking for over 18 months or more and through multiple forms of contact; yet only 47% said that their perpetrator was even charged. As Tracey Morgan, a key member of the inquiry panel into stalking has said:

“stalking is where domestic violence was 30 years ago. It’s seen as a joke; a celebrity problem. Victims are told they should be flattered by the attention”— but we all know of the reality. We have heard the stories of people like Tracey whose lives were torn apart by a person who fixated upon her. We have heard of the ex-partners who torment men and women online and offline; we have heard of women like Clare Bernal who was brutally murdered by her former boyfriend, despite warnings about his behaviour.

We know from other jurisdictions how having a specific offence of stalking can help to address these concerns. In the 10 years prior to the introduction of the offence of stalking in Scotland, Strathclyde police reported a total of 70 stalking-related prosecutions. In the first six months after legislation providing for a specific offence was enacted, there were 140 prosecutions in Strathclyde alone, and it is estimated that there will be between 500 and 600 in Scotland as a whole by the end of the year.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon 5:00 pm, 19th March 2012

The hon. Lady is making a powerful point about Scotland. Scotland moved straight from “breach of the peace” legislation to legislation on stalking, so the comparison is quite dramatic. We in England and Wales are in a slightly better position, but the comparison is nevertheless invidious, which is why the proposed change in the law is so essential and welcome.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

In order to establish whether the present proposals will deal with our concerns adequately, it is worth considering what has happened in Scotland as a result of the legislation providing for a specific offence, and also making comparisons with what is offered by the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

On behalf of the House, let me thank those who have been campaigning on these issues, and who have led action both in the House and outside. Working with Protection against Stalking and the National Association of Probation Officers, the all-party inquiry into stalking— in which I know Mr Buckland participated—has tirelessly and persistently made the case for new legislation. I pay tribute to both those organisations, and to Mr Llwyd, who is present, for all their work on the inquiry.

Although she was not able to be here today, I think that the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, deserves credit for putting the case for the legislation in September last year. She also stressed the need for stronger sentencing and police training to improve responses.

Finally, I think that we must all pay particular tribute to Baroness Royall, who, back in November, began tabling amendments to the Bill in the other place to introduce this law in some form and thus to force action on the issue. We can see that that tactic has worked. Ministers initially refused to accept the case, saying that the current legislation covered criminal behaviour of this kind, but their view has now changed, and that change is welcome. I note that Lord Henley himself acknowledged the work of Lady Royall in raising the issue.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. There has been a good deal of publicity and discussion on stalking over the last six or 12 months. Has my hon. Friend noticed any improvement in the attitude of police forces towards people who report stalking, given that such people have received no response in the past?

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

When I discussed the proposals with the police, they were anxious to ensure that we used this opportunity to get the proposals right. I welcomed their acknowledgment of concern about the way in which the legislation had been used to deal with the problems, and about the lack of training in what stalking might involve.

As a result of this pressure, we stand here today to debate not whether proposals are needed, but the strength of the proposals that are on the table. We can see how the proposals are evolving as the Government respond to people who have been campaigning. The new amendments—as opposed to the proposals that were put to the other place last week—reflect further movement in the right direction, given the Government’s initial response to Baroness Royall’s proposals.

It is in the spirit of ensuring that the Bill is meaningful and effective that Labour Members have tabled further amendments today. Having championed the need for legislation, we wish to ensure that this opportunity is not wasted. When we test the Lords amendment against the realities of the crime that we are discussing, and indeed the issues raised by my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, we still see difficulties. In particular, we fear that the amendment presents the appearance of progress while failing to deliver through its confusing demarcation between section 2A and section 4A offences. We also believe that it does not give the criminal justice system the full confidence that it needs to be able to address this crime in its many manifestations, whether through investigation, prosecution or conviction.

Our amendments (a) and (b) would ensure that the Bill would be what I call future-proof. When the Protection from Harassment legislation was enacted in 1997, Google did not exist. One of the compelling examples of the behaviour of the persecutor of Claire Waxman was the fact that he had searched for her name 40,000 times in a single year. The amendment reflects the need not only to train all who work in the criminal justice system to recognise that stalking can manifest itself in many ways, but to ensure that the legislation can keep pace with the innovation. As we have heard, many victims experience multiple forms of harassment, and do so many times before it is reported. These amendments would enable the Secretary of State to respond to the creativity of perpetrators and ensure that all those charged with protecting the public from these crimes are able to act. The inclusion of “inter alia” and the ability to add in additional clarification will give confidence to the Crown Prosecution Service, the police and the magistrates courts that these kinds of conduct could in future be relevant to this offence.

If the Government will not accept the amendments, they must set out now, on the record, how they propose to ensure that the criminal justice system is able fully to comprehend and respond to the way in which fixations occur, both online and offline.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

I am listening with great care to the hon. Lady’s argument about the use of the phrase “inter alia”. There may be a bit of an irony in using legal Latin to anticipate developments in respect of Google and Twitter, but I do not criticise her for that. The Lords amendment lists

“examples of acts or omissions”.

That is therefore a non-exhaustive list, so the problem the hon. Lady rightly identifies as possibly occurring cannot occur on the basis of any reasonable interpretation of the Lords amendment as it currently stands.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

This is a point of genuine disagreement, because there is concern that what should be seen as a non-exhaustive list of behaviours and conducts for the offence of stalking will instead be seen as a list of the only such behaviours and conducts. We are trying to ensure both that training is given to all sectors of the criminal justice system and that there is clarification about the wide range of perpetrator behaviours that can be included. I gave the example of Google in order to argue that if the idea of cyber-stalking had been considered when the protection from harassment law was introduced in 1997, legislators might have recognised the need to address it. Given that we so rarely get an opportunity to draft legislation, it is important that we make any new laws as robust as possible, such as by ensuring that the Secretary of State can intervene. We believe that our proposal would offer an opportunity to address any concerns that might arise. Law makers might say, “This is a list of stalking behaviours and anything else isn’t stalking.” If the Government are not prepared to accept the amendment, they must explicitly state how they will ensure that this list does not become the only list of examples, rather than a starting point for our law makers.

Our amendments to Lords Amendment 51 go to the heart of the inconsistencies in the proposals. We challenge the retention of a section 2A offence of stalking and the creation of a section 4A offence of stalking, differentiated by the concept of seriousness. We welcome the fact that, in response to Baroness Royall, the Government’s position has moved from that of the amendments tabled in the Lords, which set out stalking as purely involving a fear of violence. The new provisions go much further towards recognising the need to be able to act against perpetrators without waiting for physical harm as well as the different ways in which this crime impacts upon victims, and that is certainly welcome. However, the strengthening of section 4A does not undermine the inconsistency created by the retention of a section 2A offence for stalking.

Under Government amendments (i), (j) and (k), section 4A will apply when someone has suffered

“serious alarm or distress which has a substantial adverse effect on” their

“usual day-to-day activities”.

Yet section 2A sets out a less well-defined offence of stalking that would secure a lower level tariff. That offence would be triable only in a magistrates court, with a fine or maximum penalty of just six months’ imprisonment. We believe that such a distinction between different offences and courses of action does not stand scrutiny. Specifically, it is unclear from the evidence of this crime what kinds of cases would fall under section 2A rather than section 4A. In respect of the wording of the new amendments, it appears that a distinction would be based on proving that someone has suffered a “serious” form of distress. Therefore, the Government must set out how that could be proved—for example, whether it would be similar to psychiatric injury, where we need a psychiatrist to say there has been a serious impact on the central nervous system. This also raises the prospect of medical records having to be disclosed, potentially giving more information to the stalker at court and also creating a higher burden to prove, so the CPS would again be less likely to charge under Section 4 and default to Section 2A, with the resulting lesser options for punishment.

This also raises a point that we as parliamentarians should reflect upon in respect of whether we would ask the victims to have their lives altered as a marker of such seriousness. The survey commissioned by the university of Leicester for the Network for Surviving Stalking found that one third of victims of stalking said that they had lost their job or relationship or had been forced to move because of the stalking. Some 92% reported physical effects and 98% reported emotional effects, ranging from anxiety, sleep disturbances, anger and distrust to depression, self-harm and post-traumatic stress disorder. Half of all the victims had changed their telephone number; half of them had given up social activities; half of them had seen their performance at work affected; and a third of them had relocated. If the Home Secretary wishes to retain these divisions, she must tell us whether it is justifiable to ask victims to prove that their lives have been changed in such a serious way before we can offer them real protection. Does she not see the risk that the police could apply this “seriousness” test in choosing whether to investigate and secure a section 2A or section 4A offence, leaving victims in the horrific position of having to prove that their lives have been damaged in these ways in order to secure effective action against the perpetrators?

As many experts have pointed out, this distinction risks retaining one of the problems with the existing legislation: it is extremely unusual for someone to be found guilty under section 4 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, with just 170 of the 786 people found guilty being given a custodial sentence. Some 53,000 harassment cases were recorded by the police in 2009-10, but in only 23 was a custodial sentence of more than 12 months given for breaching a restraining order and in just 27 was such a sentence given for putting someone in fear of violence. Under the current legislation, most perpetrators receive restraining orders on multiple occasions and yet still receive fines and non-custodial sentences. Both the National Association of Probation Officers and Protection Against Stalking state that they believe that

“similar outcomes will come from an analysis of court proceedings under 2A.”

Even if a case can be made for the retention of a “lesser” offence of stalking, the division also limits the ability of the Crown Prosecution Service to respond to cases effectively by setting out two separate paths for the same crime. As NAPO and PAS have pointed out, allowing the offence to be triable either way would have two advantages. First, if evidence came out during a magistrates court trial indicating that the matter was more serious than first thought and may warrant a sentence of more than six months, the case could be sent to the Crown court for sentence. Secondly, many stalkers who do not threaten violence and who may be tried under section 2A for less serious matters are, nevertheless, highly persistent. Without the power to refer to a Crown court, such people could appear persistently in magistrates courts, being liable only for six months’ imprisonment and automatically released at three months —if they were tagged, they would come out after one month and continue their behaviour.

The amendments tabled by the Government maintain the risk that offences will not be adequately addressed, as at present, because they ask the CPS to choose between “lower-level” offences of stalking, as yet undefined, and those considered “more serious”. The challenge for all involved in addressing this offence will be to make such a distinction in any meaningful way as to merit it.

In contrast, our proposed amendments to Lords amendment 51 offer the opportunity to correct this situation and ensure that this confusion is no bar to ensuring that those who commit these crimes are given appropriate sentences. Our amendment (d) to Lords amendment 51 proposes a simple definition of stalking that could clarify the difference between “harassment” and “stalking”: between neighbours who behave in unacceptable ways towards each other and the person who fixates on a former partner or someone they have never met but serves to cause them distress.

Our amendment (c ) to Lords amendment 51 would help to ensure that it is open to the criminal justice system to respond to these crimes by making them triable either way, thus introducing the possibility, alongside the lesser sentences the Government are offering under section 2A, of a sentence of up to five years. If the Government will not accept the amendments, they need to set out precisely what constitutes a “lesser” crime of stalking and how it would be distinctive from the crimes they expect to be prosecuted under section 4A. In particular, I ask the Home Secretary to put on the record clear examples of the different criteria they expect to be applied to justify this division and to ensure that criminal justice agencies are able to understand the intent in their proposals.

Finally, our amendment (a) to Lords amendment 52 deals with how these crimes are investigated and with the importance of ensuring that the police are able to act. It would restore a power of entry to the properties of those arrested for stalking without a warrant to ensure that evidence cannot be destroyed. The power previously existed for cases of harassment, but was removed as an unintended consequence of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, and many of us believe that this omission requires attention. Again, I highlight to Ministers the risks they are taking by creating two stalking offences, where one is indictable and the other is only a summary offence. Under their proposals, the police can enter a property to search only if the offence is indictable. The confusion between sections 2A and 4A could mean that officers hesitate in using this power to investigate matters relating to these crimes for fear of not finding enough evidence to meet the “seriousness” test. Seeking this power, and thus the possibility of investigation, would help to ensure that the police would not flinch out of confusion; those committing offences that the Government believe would fall into section 4A could be investigated without the police thinking twice. Without this power, there is a very real danger of evidence being destroyed as others act to protect those arrested for this offence. The possibility that it could take hours to secure a warrant allows that possibility—that time is valuable. Indeed, as we have seen with recent attempts to destroy evidence relevant to the prosecution of those involved in phone hacking, such behaviour is not theoretical. The fact that the police are currently able to search the property of a shoplifter but not to access the property of someone who has been arrested for stalking to seek further evidence—perhaps to see the shrine they have created or computer information on social networks—further reflects the difficulties our police will have with the measures as they stand in ensuring that they effectively protect victims.

I note that NAPO and PAS state that they support the amendment for two reasons. First, it would put a limit on the amount of time that the accused had to wait at a police station before being questioned and, secondly, it would minimise the chances of the perpetrator’s associates disposing of any evidence. We have come so far with this vital legislation and I hope that the Home Secretary will go further today. None of us wishes to start again with new legislation, but victims of crime desperately need our help. We have an opportunity to create laws and ensure that there is training in all aspects of our criminal justice system that will mean that one person will no longer be able to torment another human being in these ways. There are flaws in the current proposals which I hope the Government will address by accepting the amendments. The Opposition, who have been supporting the proposals, will support the Government if they do that and will hold them to account for any missed opportunities if they do not.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Minister for Women and Equalities, The Secretary of State for the Home Department 5:15 pm, 19th March 2012

I shall be asking the House to agree with Lords amendment 51. I am pleased and proud to be standing here supporting and speaking to amendments relating to the introduction of new criminal offences for stalking. Some years ago, I secured an Adjournment debate in the House about the tragic case of Rana Faruqui, the daughter of my constituent Carol Faruqui.

Rana was stalked for some time. Sadly, the police did not pay attention to the instances of stalking that she reported to them and, as a result, Rana was ferociously murdered by the individual who had been stalking her. Since that case came to my attention, I have personally believed that we need to do more to take the issue of stalking seriously, so I am glad that we are debating this issue.

It is fair to say that when the then Government introduced the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, they believed that it would cover stalking and be adequate but we have seen over the years that it has not been taken as seriously as Members across the House would wish. Stalking is an appalling crime, both in itself and in the distress that it can cause an individual. It can also lead to physical violence and has, sadly, led to the death of the individual being stalked in cases such as that of Rana Faruqui. When I have spoken to stalking victims, they have said that some police officers are very sensitive to the issue of stalking and handle it very well and appropriately—dealing with it properly—but, sadly, others do not see the seriousness of the offence in the way that we would wish them to.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

The Home Secretary will have heard my intervention on my hon. Friend Stella Creasy. In the Home Secretary’s discussions with the police, have they begun to understand the sensitivity of stalking and that it is very difficult for someone to report it? It is at that interface at the police station that things can all go terribly wrong or well depending on the training and sensitivity of the officers concerned. Is the Association of Chief Police Officers aware of that and has she been able to discuss the matter with ACPO?

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Minister for Women and Equalities, The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I have had some opportunity to discuss this issue with ACPO and those representing victims of stalking. Their comments are similar to what victims of domestic violence say to me. If an officer has been trained specifically in the identification of stalking and dealing with a stalking victim, then they, like an officer who has been specifically trained to deal with a domestic violence victim, understand the context and the issues that the victim is facing. Officers who have not had that separate training might not understand these issues. There are certainly matters that need to be addressed in terms of how the police look at stalking. I hope that the creation of stalking offences will be part of the process of ensuring that all officers recognise the importance of the issue.

Photo of Nicola Blackwood Nicola Blackwood Conservative, Oxford West and Abingdon

I welcome the amendment, but does the Secretary of State agree that the public’s severe lack of confidence in the criminal justice system’s ability to deal with stalking is a major problem, and that legislation, while welcome, is not the whole solution? We also need training for officers; that is the only way that we will improve officers’ reactions when victims of stalking come forward, increase public confidence, and increase earlier reporting of stalking.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Minister for Women and Equalities, The Secretary of State for the Home Department

My hon. Friend makes a valid and important point. As I said in response to Jeremy Corbyn, I hope that the creation of the legislation and the offences will, in itself, send out a message, but of course that has to be backed up by training. I also hope that we can ensure that the public generally recognise the importance and significance of stalking as an offence, and the distress and problems that it causes to an individual who is being stalked. I remember holding a discussion on the subject with a number of people, and a victim of stalking made the point to me that when she first came forward to say that she was a victim, someone she knew said to her, “Oh, aren’t you lucky?”. Nothing could be further from the truth, and we need to change that attitude.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Opposition Whip (Commons), Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

That is an important point. We have seen how long it has taken the police to treat domestic violence as seriously as it should be treated. The Home Secretary’s comments show that victims are sometimes told that it is nice to receive that sort of attention. There is also the issue of the police not treating stalking seriously; it is only in very serious cases, where death may result, that we address stalking as the important issue that it is.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Minister for Women and Equalities, The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Of course, what we want is for the issue to be addressed properly earlier; we want victims to have the confidence to come forward, knowing that what they say will be taken seriously, so that the matter can be dealt with properly before it gets to the point of physical violence, or indeed, as the hon. Gentleman says, before the death of the individual who is being stalked.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat, Carshalton and Wallington

How does the Home Secretary think that the public can ensure that the issue is on the agenda for the police and crime commissioners, who are to be elected in November?

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Minister for Women and Equalities, The Secretary of State for the Home Department

From time to time, my right hon. Friend and others raise issues relating to ensuring that matters are on the police and crime commissioners’ agendas. Bodies representing victims of stalking will, I am sure, do all that they can to ensure that candidates for the post of police and crime commissioner are well aware of the issue and therefore take it into account when looking at policing in their force area.

This is, of course, the first opportunity that the House has had to discuss the issue in the context of the Bill, so I want to take a moment to set out the background to the Lords amendments. Last year, the Government consulted on whether the law needed changing to introduce a new offence of stalking. The consultation closed in February, and the majority of respondents said that a new specific offence was needed. Separately from the Government’s consultation, an independent inquiry, chaired by Mr Llwyd, also concluded that the law needed strengthening better to respond to the concerns of victims of stalking. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and his inquiry team for all that they have done to raise the importance of the issue; he has done that regularly in the House, too. I also commend the hard work done by the National Association of Probation Officers and Protection Against Stalking, who have, entirely rightly, been championing victims’ rights for some years. I hope that they have seen that the Government have responded to that.

Following the Government’s consultation and the independent inquiry, we amended the Bill in the other place to provide for two new free-standing offences—stalking, and stalking involving fear of violence—which will sit alongside the existing harassment offences in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The new offence of stalking in proposed new section 2A of the 1997 Act will be tried in the magistrates court, with a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to £5,000, or both. The new offence of stalking involving fear of violence in proposed new section 4A will be triable either way—in the magistrates court or the Crown court. If tried in the Crown court, it will have a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.

The changes that we have introduced also give the police a new power of entry for the new section 2A offence of stalking. The more serious either-way offence of stalking involving fear of violence automatically attracts a power of entry. It was clear from our consultation discussions that the police want the power to search for equipment used by stalkers so that they can gather the evidence necessary to secure convictions and prevent stalking behaviour from escalating. We have listened and responded.

There has been widespread support for these changes. Last week I received a letter from a victim of stalking, who said:

“The action your government has taken will change the lives of thousands of people for the better—and save many. Thank you for treating this crime with the seriousness it deserves.”

Our amendments mean that for the first time, we will have specific offences of stalking. However, I know there have been suggestions that we should also recognise the emotional suffering that victims of stalking experience. That is why we tabled Government amendments (g) to (k) to Lords amendment 51 and Government amendments (a) to (c) to Lords amendment 133. Those amendments will widen the section 4A offence to incorporate behaviour that causes the victim serious alarm or distress that has a substantial effect on his or her day-to-day life.

This change will mean that when a stalker causes their victim, for example, to take alternative routes to and from work, when the victim is afraid to leave the house or when they have to ask their friends or family to pick up their children from school because they are afraid of running into their stalker, this could count as behaviour that attracts the more serious section 4A offence and therefore, on conviction on indictment, a maximum five-year sentence. The message could not be clearer—anyone who ruins someone’s life with their stalking should expect to be severely punished. I know that NAPO and Protection Against Stalking have been involved in the development of these changes and I am grateful to them for their contribution.

Let me take some time to deal with the amendments in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, which are virtually identical to the ones that were tabled in another place. Amendment (b) to Lords amendment 51 relates to new section 2A(3) of the 1997 Act which sets out a list of examples of stalking behaviours. I say to the shadow Minister, Stella Creasy, who introduced the debate, that “examples” is the key word here. That is what they are intended to be—examples of stalking behaviours.

Amendment (b) seeks to add a catch-all to this indicative list of behaviours and would allow the Secretary of State to add behaviours to the list of examples. As I said, the list is intended to be illustrative only; it is not intended to set out all the types of stalking behaviour that might be exhibited. We want to ensure that it is wide enough to capture any behaviour, including stalking conduct, that has not yet been developed. The hon. Lady is right. It may well be that there are means of stalking that we cannot yet think of which will develop over time. It is right that we have within the legislation the ability to take account of those, should they develop.

The reason I think it is important not to create a catch-all provision or take a power to expand the list, but to set it as a list of examples, is that we have deliberately made it non-exhaustive. As soon as one tries to set everything down in the legislation, one risks the opportunity for individuals to find ways round the definition that has been set down in the legislation. What is important here is that the Bill says, “These are the sorts of behaviour that come into the category of stalking,” but if we try to be too rigid in setting it out, I fear that that could have a negative rather than a positive effect.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Given our shared concern about the inventiveness of perpetrators, will the Home Secretary undertake to review annually the range of behaviours that will be identified through this process so that we can understand whether it is being used as a list of examples or solely as a list of what constitutes stalking?

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Minister for Women and Equalities, The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that we will indeed keep the legislation under review. The last thing we want to do is to find that the legislation is being misinterpreted. The reason it is set out in the terms, “The following are examples,” is precisely to send a message to people that that is all they are. There will be other activities that come under the definition of stalking for the purposes of this criminal offence, but we are not putting that exhaustive list in the Bill.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

I agree with my right hon. Friend that well-trained police officers will be able to identify exactly what stalking is. From their experience and training, they will be able to say, “That is an example of stalking and we should do something about it,” and I hope the legislation will allow that to happen.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Minister for Women and Equalities, The Secretary of State for the Home Department 5:30 pm, 19th March 2012

I thank my hon. Friend for supporting our approach. It is important that a degree of discretion is available to police officers so that they can identify behaviour that is not listed but would come under the definition of stalking.

A number of the comments made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow related to the creation of two offences—the lower level and higher level offences—and I think that there is a need to differentiate between the two. The practice of having two such offences is followed in a number of other areas in the criminal justice system, which I think is important, but we will be developing training—a number of hon. Members have mentioned this—for agencies in the criminal justice system in the coming months to ensure that they are aware of the nature of the legislation being introduced, for example the point about the list being one of examples only.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

In which case, will the Home Secretary set out clearly and explicitly what she considers to be a stalking offence that would come under section 2A, rather than section 4A, because I think that there is genuine concern that having two offences but not defining the difference between them will cause problems for the police at a local level?

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Minister for Women and Equalities, The Secretary of State for the Home Department

It is normal practice when introducing offences to have a lower level and a higher level offence, and training for the criminal justice system agencies will look at identifying the sort of behaviour that might come under one or the other. Again, in these circumstances it is always difficult, and I think inappropriate, to try to state absolutely what behaviour would come under one offence and what behaviour would come under another, because the context of behaviour might be significant; behaviour that might be considered lower level in one context might be considered higher level in another. It is important that we do not try to set out absolute definitions and that discretion is available to the police in interpreting the offences and looking at the context in which they are committed. I know that the hon. Lady’s view is different from mine, but the point is similar to the previous one: the more we try to define the offence in legislation or on the Floor of the House, the less we can offer the discretion and flexibility that might be necessary to an individual officer or the Crown Prosecution Service to deal with such cases. I fear that we might end up in a situation that is not so good if the terminology we use is too rigid.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow also tabled amendment (c) to Lords amendment 51, which would make the lower-level section 2A offence triable either way. It is currently a summary-only offence, reflecting the fact that it is a lower level offence and should be properly tried in the magistrates court. More serious behaviour should be captured by the higher level section 4A offence of stalking involving fear of violence. Amendments (d) to (f) seek to capture the emotional distress suffered by victims of stalking. I have already set out how we intend to address this point, and our approach is supported by NAPO and Protection Against Stalking. She referred to the need for clarity in the criminal justice system, yet her proposals attempt to blur the distinction between the two offences and, I think, would lead to less clarity rather than more.

The Opposition’s other amendment in this group, amendment (a) to Lords amendment 52, would remove the requirement to obtain a warrant before searching a potential stalker’s property or possessions under the new section 2A offence. As the offence is a summary-only offence, which is by definition a lower level offence, I think that requiring a warrant for a search represents an appropriate balance between protecting the vulnerable in society from stalkers and respecting the rights of those who are innocent until proven guilty. The higher level offence, as I said earlier, automatically allows the power of entry, which is appropriate, given that it is a more serious offence. For those reasons, I cannot accept the Opposition’s amendments.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her clear exposition of the position. May I seek some clarification on the position regarding persistent offenders, who quite properly should be dealt with in the Crown court? Will guidelines be issued to prosecutors to deal with the particular issue of persistent offenders—in essence to ensure that they are dealt with by the either-way mechanism and can then be sent to the Crown court either for trial or for sentencing?

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Minister for Women and Equalities, The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. The persistency of an offence is a factor that should be taken into account when looking at the seriousness of it. Perhaps I can attempt to give the hon. Member for Walthamstow some indication on these matters. My hon. Friend raises the issue of someone persistently undertaking the offence of stalking, and we hope to reach a situation in which early examples, or early behaviour, of stalking can be identified, captured and therefore dealt with through the lower level offence before it moves on to stalking behaviour—the more serious offence that is set out in proposed section 4A.

We do take stalking very seriously, however, and we are determined to do all we can to stamp it out. We have created the two new offences, explicitly putting stalking on the statute book for the first time; we are giving the police the powers of entry that they need to disrupt stalkers at an early stage; and we have responded to the concerns of victims and of victims’ organisations by making it clear that behaviour which ruins lives will be properly punished. I think that those changes will make a real difference to the lives of victims, and I commend the Lords amendments and the Government’s amendments to those amendments to the House.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It is a pleasure to follow the Home Secretary and Stella Creasy in what is a very interesting debate.

Some 10 months ago I set up an all-party committee covering both Houses, including Members from all parties and none, by which I mean it included Cross Benchers from the other place as well. Mr Buckland played a very active part in the committee’s deliberations and is to be commended on the hard work that he put in.

We looked at the whole issue of a stand-alone offence of stalking, something that I have long believed to be a necessary tool in the criminal justice armoury. We were helped immensely by Laura Richards of Protection Against Stalking and by Harry Fletcher of the National Association of Probation Officers, to whom we as a committee are very grateful. The researcher Delyth Jewell also did a sterling piece of work in clerking the committee.

We took evidence from July last year, and we are indebted to those who came and gave of their time to provide evidence to us. I think in particular of the victims and the victims’ families. It took a great deal of bravery to relate some of their accounts. Many were harrowing, almost beyond belief and ended, as the Home Secretary said of her constituent, in death. They were awful situations, so we are indebted to those individuals, because they came before the committee and their evidence has convinced us all that this is an urgent matter that needs to be put right.

We took evidence from lawyers, who said that there was a lacuna in the current law. I was a Member in 1997 when the Protection from Harassment Act became law, and we thought it a fairly decent piece of legislation. Indeed, by and large it has been and has dealt with a great range of offences, but on the particular offence of stalking in large parts it has not fit the bill. The lawyers told us that they, too, thought we needed to consider a separate offence of stalking.

I agree with the Home Secretary that some police officers are very good at pursuing stalking through the provisions in the 1997 Act, but I am afraid—I say this as the brother and the son of police officers; I do not have any great beef with the police generally—that the vast majority cannot handle the problem, hence the fact that 72% to 75% of those surveyed reported that they were very dissatisfied with the police action taken. That is partly to do with complications in the provisions and partly to do with the new form of the offence, which often involves e-transmissions of some kind, and so on. It is also due to a lack of specific training, which is extremely urgent in this context.

We took evidence from psychologists who advised us that in many instances it is possible to address such offending behaviour. It is vital, in the case of individuals who would be subject to new section 4A and sent away for a period of incarceration, but also in the case of those subject to new section 2A, who would not be, that criminal psychologists get involved fairly soon in order to divert them from their behaviour, because, by its very nature and essence, stalking is an obsessive, often repeat, offence that goes on and on. We heard examples of individuals in prison who were planning the next stalking venture from their prison cell.

I am advised by Laura Richards, in particular, that about 20 to 25 practitioners in the UK are able to diagnose and, in large part, deal with stalking behaviour and divert offenders away from it. That is important, because otherwise all we will do is take them off the streets for a while and then they will be back. Whether they have committed a 2A or a 4A offence, it is vital that we make available the necessary specialist clinical services to deal with them. I am no psychologist and I am not medically qualified, but I know that they often have behavioural, as opposed to psychological, problems. People are trained to help them address that, and their expertise must be used to ensure that we have a proper, tough regime to deal with these awful offenders.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Opposition Whip (Commons), Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

The right hon. Gentleman touches on an important point. The danger is that, whatever the penalties may be, these people come out of prison and carry on committing the same offence, because they are obsessive to the point that whatever action is taken against them, they will keep on doing it and ruining people’s lives.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. By its nature, that is the kind of offence that it is, and that is how it ruins people’s lives. I have spoken to many victims who say that it is almost like having a black cloud behind them day and night, and they have to turn around every now and then to make sure that the person is not there. It is an awful situation to be in. I believe that the Bill deals with the problem in large part, if not completely; there are one or two things that I would like to discuss. I am in sympathy with some of, but not all the points raised by the hon. Member for Walthamstow.

We suggested in our report that the offence should be one that is capable of being tried either way, but to be fair to the Home Secretary, she has clearly expanded on how the Government are now looking at this. Although I would argue that stalking is never a minor offence, there are more serious initial offences. It will be partly to do with whether the person has been before the courts before for a similar offence involving a different victim or the same one. My fears are allayed, to a certain extent, by what the Home Secretary said, although we did recommend, as I said, that the offence should be triable either way, as the 4A offence would be.

Following lobbying by NAPO and Protection Against Stalking, Lord Henley announced in the other place an amendment to the wording of the amendment to include psychological harm. I welcome that amendment to the amendment—it is almost like an extension to the extension—because that is crucial. When I had the privilege of meeting the Prime Minister to discuss this, two young women were there who had given us evidence, both of whom would not necessarily fall into the physical harm category but into the psychological damage category. One young woman has received therapy for the past 10 years because of stalking. I am pleased that that element is now included. In effect, it completes the circle.

Research has shown that more than half the women who are stalked express problems that are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, sometimes on and off and sometimes without showing the symptoms immediately. A third of such women suffer similar conditions but are not diagnosed in that way. It is thought that about 80% of victims suffer psychologically. That point is extremely important, so I welcome the latest Government amendment to address that. The 1997 Act created the offence of harassment, but a conviction could be obtained only if it could be shown that the victim feared violence. We have jumped beyond that now and it is important that we have done so. I welcome that amendment, because it strengthens the Bill in many regards.

It seemed to the inquiry that part of the problem was that conduct was not taken seriously enough under the 1997 Act. The section that purported to deal with stalking behaviour made it only a summary offence, which gave the impression that it was a minor matter. As we all know, it is not a minor matter, but an extremely serious one. The impression was given that it could just be waved away by the magistrates court. That impression has been damaging. For all I know, it might have contributed to the fact that many police officers were not effective in dealing with stalking. I have not come here to run the police service down. I am a great supporter of the police service. We are looking forwards, not backwards. However, the research that we received showed that the police were not very effective in that regard.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat, Carshalton and Wallington 5:45 pm, 19th March 2012

It was put to me earlier today by senior police officers that one reason why the police have got more effective at tackling domestic violence is that more women police officers have come into the force. Did the right hon. Gentleman’s inquiry find a link between stalking being treated effectively and the involvement of female police officers?

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We took evidence from several police officers, among whom were several knowledgeable females, who had been training their respective forces. Given that we now have a large number of good senior and junior police officers who are women, it will hopefully be more straightforward to put this legislation into effect than the 1997 Act.

I had come here to argue that the inquiry wanted a single indictable, either-way gateway. However, I am persuaded by what the Home Secretary said. I do not disagree with her analysis of new sections 2A and 4A of the 1997 Act. Hopefully, there will be such discretion for the police. When a repeat offender under new section 2A comes up again, he will clearly be a customer for new section 4A. It is extremely important that that is understood. Searches without warrant will happen under new section 4A, but not under new section 2A. I still believe that that power would have been helpful under new section 2A as well, because the police tell us that the earlier we move in on such people, the better the outcome is likely to be.

Whatever legislation we enact, it is crucial that the police, prosecutors—particularly those within the Crown Prosecution Service—judges and magistrates are trained and instructed properly, through various courses, on the necessary approach to this awful offence.

I know that other Members wish to speak, so I will curtail my remarks, but I first wish to put various questions on the record. I do not realistically expect the Home Secretary, or indeed any Minister, to respond to them all this evening, but I hope she will agree to respond in writing in due course.

My first question is whether there will be a consultation with NAPO, Protection Against Stalking and other stakeholders on the interpretation by police and prosecutors of the list of stalking behaviour contained in new section 2A. I agree that “inter alia” is otiose in the circumstances. There will be a review of the behaviour covered, so the point is dealt with without our having to discuss amendment (a).

Will there be an ongoing discussion about the need for improved victim advocacy, which is vital? I can say without breaching any confidences that the Prime Minister also took the view that that was vital. Will there be a full consultation with PAS, NAPO and other stakeholders on the implementation of the new sections of the 1997 Act? The Home Secretary said that there would be an annual review, which seems to me to provide a vehicle for including those stakeholders.

Will the impact of the new sections on police practice and prosecutions be monitored once they become law later this year? Will there be a full consultation with PAS, NAPO and other stakeholders on the interpretation of the definitions of “fear of violence” and of psychological harm involving serious alarm and distress, and will those definitions be set out in guidelines or training?

Will it be possible to monitor the impact of evidence being seized because of the need for the police to obtain a warrant for a perpetrator’s arrest prior to their property being searched under new section 2A? I was going to ask whether there would be consultation on the guidelines for prosecutors, to ensure that persistent stalkers are charged under new sections 2A and 4A, but that has been dealt with, so I need not bother the Home Secretary with it.

I ask the Government to facilitate the treatment of offenders in such a way that as many as practicable can be diverted away from their offending behaviour. Appropriate courses need to be put in place for police, Crown prosecutors, judges, magistrates and probation officers, to ensure that they are thoroughly trained up. I mention Crown prosecutors because the Crown Prosecution Service has now put together a package to deal with the new legislation. Unfortunately, it will deal only with e-crime, not with crimes in general. I believe that that mistake needs to be put right.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Minister for Women and Equalities, The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The right hon. Gentleman has asked a number of detailed questions, and I will be happy to get back to him in writing. We have had very good consultation and a very good relationship with NAPO and Protection Against Stalking in developing the Bill, and I expect to continue to have good consultations and discussions with them as we take the matter forward.

On the issue of perpetrators, the aim of reducing reoffending lies behind the rehabilitation work that the Ministry of Justice is doing, and I will certainly bring the right hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of the Secretary of State for Justice.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that assurance, which I take to be an invitation to write to her. I had another seven or eight questions, but I shall not labour the House with them this evening.

Before I sit down and allow others to take the matter further, may I once more express my sincere gratitude to all the parliamentarians who took part in the research work? I think this may be the only time when a cross-party group that is not a Committee of the House has succeeded in bringing forward a change in the law. I do not know how often that will happen, but it is certainly a precedent that I favour—I would say that, wouldn’t I?

I wish again to say how grateful we are to Laura Richards of PAS and Harry Fletcher of NAPO, and to all the victims who assisted us by giving evidence. I am also very grateful to the Home Secretary, because I know she has been on the side of the angels on this issue for some time. I am sure she shares my pleasure in the fact that something positive is now being done.

The Bill’s provisions on stalking show that the Government have carried out a listening exercise, and we will now have firm laws. They will prevent lives from being ruined and, crucially, from being lost. They represent an important change in the law, and I have been privileged to play a part in achieving it. The inquiry has been the most enriching and worthwhile experience of my political life, and I am delighted to see the result.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

I will not repeat the constructive comments of Mr Llwyd and others on the provisions that all parties have accepted. I am delighted to have been part of the process, but hope that does not give me, as a relatively new Member, a false sense of what can be achieved so quickly by consensus. The Government have moved with speed and with willingness to listen, and I commend their fleetness of foot. I am grateful to them for acting and amending their own amendments. That shows their willingness to listen to the debate and to engage with NAPO and Protection Against Stalking, to which I pay tribute.

The journey does not end here. Once the Bill is passed, it is essential that we get training for police officers and guidance for prosecutors absolutely right and monitor the progress of the new laws. Stalking is emotional terrorism; it is a crime of control, a crime of manipulation and, yes, a crime of violence. It was quite clear from the evidence heard by the all-party inquiry heard these changes to the law were necessary. I started as somebody who was not convinced that the law should be changed, but I ended as somebody who was entirely persuaded. I commend the Government’s amendments to the House.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

We have listened to the debate, but we are still not satisfied on the question of lesser and more serious charges of stalking. We therefore wish to press amendment (b) to a vote.

Question put, That amendment (b) to Lords amendment 51 be made.

The House divided:

Ayes 200, Noes 286.

Division number 496 Protection of Freedoms Bill (Programme) (No. 4) — Stalking

Aye: 200 MPs

No: 286 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.

Government amendments (g), (h), (i), (j) and (k) made to Lords amendment 51.

Lords amendment 51, as amended, agreed to .

Lords amendments 52, 59 and 68 agreed to.

Government amendments (a) to (c) made to Lords amendment 133 .

Lords amendment 133, as amended, agreed to.