I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to increase the maximum sentences available to the court for stalking offences;
and for connected purposes.
Stalking is a horrible, violating crime. It rips relationships apart, destroys careers, and can cause lasting mental harm. All too often it is the gateway to serious violence. Put bluntly, it shatters lives. Yet, despite the vital progress made by the coalition Government in criminalising stalking in 2012, the sentencing powers available to the courts to protect victims remain wholly inadequate. It is high time that we did something about it.
I began this campaign, together with my hon. Friend Richard Graham, after learning what had happened to one of my constituents, a GP living in Cheltenham and working in Gloucester. Over the course of seven years, Dr Eleanor Aston suffered a horrific ordeal at the hands of her former patient. He turned up at her surgery more than 100 times. He posted foul items through the letter box. He followed her on patient visits, slashed her tyres and sent threatening mail. He even appeared at a children’s birthday party her daughter was attending. It caused exceptional anxiety and fear.
After serving a short prison sentence, and in a pattern that is not uncommon in this type of offence, he restarted his campaign. Dr Aston received packages at her surgery in Gloucester and her home in Cheltenham. One was threatening and abusive and made it clear he knew where her children went to school. The second package simply read, “Guess who’s back”. When he was arrested again, a search on his computer revealed the enquiry, “How long after a person disappears are they assumed dead?”.
The effect on Dr Aston was profound. She was advised by police to change her name and job, and move address. It was suggested that she should come off the General Medical Council register. At one point, she had to leave work and developed post-traumatic stress disorder.
How did the criminal justice system protect her? It is clear that the judge himself thought that he did not have the tools he needed. When passing sentence at Gloucester Crown court for the second time, the judge stated to the stalker:
“I have no doubt at all that you are dangerous in the sense that you pose a significant risk to her in future in terms of causing her serious harm… I am frustrated that the maximum sentence…is five years. I would, if I could, give you longer.”
Therein lies the problem.
In practice, a five-year maximum means that a stalker who pleads guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence for the worst imaginable offence will serve just 18 to 20 months. In reality, sentences are far shorter than the maximum—typically around 10 months. That means stalkers are out in five, often unreformed, untreated and ready to carry on where they left off.
There are three central reasons why the law needs to be changed. First, the most fundamental imperative is to protect the victim. In a digital age, there is more opportunity than ever to terrorise victims and make their lives a misery. Anonymous accounts can be used to send threatening messages. In one case I am aware of, the stalker set up a fake Facebook profile in the name of the victim’s dead father. In another, the stalker created an account to impersonate the victim—a successful author—and used it to send abusive messages to work colleagues.
What has shone out from the conversations I have had with victims is not just the extent to which they are devastated and consumed by their ordeal, but the extent to which they can only truly get on with their lives when they have the reassurance of knowing that their stalker cannot come and hurt them. One can see their anxiety ratchet up with each day as the release date gets closer.
The fact is that courts frequently sentence repeat offenders. The fixation and obsession associated with this offence mean that offenders often ignore repeated warnings handed down by the police or the courts and often ignore short sentences. According to Paladin, the stalking charity, 42% of those convicted and subject to a restraining order go on to reoffend. The courts need powers that enable them to reflect that in the length of the sentence for a repeat offender.
The second reason is the need for rehabilitation. Ultimately, I want to see prison sentences that reform the offender and address the underlying obsession in an effective way. However, the evidence from psychiatrists that emerged in our report suggests that repeat short sentences do not have that effect. Instead, they can make things worse. Resentment can fester, ready to burst out on release. Longer sentences, in appropriate cases, can provide the prison system with greater opportunity to rehabilitate and treat stalkers.
The third point is that the five-year maximum makes no sense when compared with other offences. To put it in perspective, the equivalent maximum for shoplifting is seven years—two years longer. For fraud, it is 10 years; for burglary, another violating offence, it is 14 years; and for street robbery, it is life. Despite stalking being such a violating, intrusive crime and despite it having the capacity to do such significant physical and mental harm, it is still treated as a minor offence. That will not do. At the very least, the maximum needs to be increased to 10 years’ imprisonment.
The call for greater sentencing powers for judges has been backed by charities, criminologists and victims’ groups, as well as by MPs and peers from all parties. As for the judiciary, one recently retired circuit judge, his honour Judge Wade, was quoted in our report this year as saying:
“I entirely agree that the present sentencing regime for this often very worrying offence is quite unsatisfactory. I consider that Parliament must revisit this matter soon… Stalkers can be dangerous and delusional, and their often unpredictable behaviour can easily escalate to serious or even fatal violence.”
“Offenders need to know that they will be brought to justice for making others’ lives a misery. We will do all we can to protect victims of stalking more effectively and to end this appalling crime.”
The previous Prime Minister, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend Richard Graham at Prime Minister’s questions, called stalking a “dreadful crime”. It is therefore no surprise that the coalition did more than any Government in history to tackle the menace of stalking, including by creating a specific offence in 2012, but there is still more to do.
For as long as the courts are left in a sentencing straitjacket and forced to treat this as a minor crime, victims will not be properly protected. The task falls to those of us in this Chamber at this time to get on and finish the job.
Question put and agreed to.
That Alex Chalk, Richard Graham, Jim Dowd, Liz Saville Roberts, Sir Henry Bellingham, Robert Neill, Victoria Prentis, Michelle Donelan, Liz McInnes, Rishi Sunak, Caroline Ansell and Dr Sarah Wollaston present the Bill.
Alex Chalk accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday