This first group of amendments includes 10 new clauses added to the Bill in the House of Lords against the advice of the Government. It covers four separate issues: part 2 of the Leveson inquiry; the funding of legal representation for bereaved families at inquests where the police are an interested person; the maximum sentence for the offence of stalking involving fear of violence or serious alarm or distress; and the rights and entitlements of victims of crime.
The Government have reflected carefully on the debates on all the amendments in the House of Lords. Lords amendment 134 seeks to increase, from five to 10 years’ imprisonment, the maximum sentence for the more serious stalking offence where the offender’s behaviour puts a person in fear of violence. The Government are determined to do everything they can to protect victims of what can be a terrifying crime. The House will recall that, only last month, we announced plans to introduce a new stalking protection order, which will provide the police with a new pre-charge option to help them to protect victims of stranger stalking in a similar way to orders that protect victims of domestic violence and abuse.
My hon. Friends the Members for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham) have been assiduous in pursuing this issue for some time and are to be much commended for their campaign, including the pursuit of a private Member’s Bill, on behalf of Dr Eleanor Aston, a Cheltenham general practitioner practising in Gloucester who was stalked by a former patient for seven years.
Each case must, of course, be considered by the courts on its facts, but given the harm that can be caused by the most serious stalking cases we are persuaded that, in such cases, sentencing judges should have greater latitude to pass a higher sentence that fits the crime and affords greater protection for victims. The Government amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 134 will therefore do three things.
First, the Government amendment will increase, from five to 10 years’ imprisonment, the maximum sentence for the offence of stalking involving fear of violence or causing serious alarm or distress. Secondly, it will similarly increase the maximum sentence for the equivalent harassment offence of putting a person in fear of violence, which will help to retain consistency of approach to the most serious harassment offences. Thirdly, it will increase, from seven to 14 years’ imprisonment, the maximum sentence for the racially or religiously aggravated version of the section 4 and 4A offences. In the normal way, those increased maximum penalties will apply only to offences committed on or after the date of commencement, but I trust that the amendment will have the support of my hon. Friends and, indeed, of the whole House.
The Government remain firmly of the view that, however well intentioned the motives behind them, the other Lords amendments in this group pre-empt the proper and detailed consideration of what are complex issues and that, accordingly, this House should disagree with them. I will take each of the three issues in turn.
Lords amendment 24 would require my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to proceed with what is commonly known as the “Leveson 2” inquiry into the relationships between the police and the media. Of course, it is vital that the police at all times uphold the very highest standards of integrity, whether in their dealings with the media or, for that matter, in their dealings with anyone else. However, given the extent of the criminal investigations into phone hacking and other illegal practices by the press that have taken place since the Leveson inquiry was established, and given the implementation of the recommendations following part 1, including reforms within the police and the press, the Government must consider whether proceeding with part 2 of the inquiry is appropriate, proportionate and in the public interest.
As hon. Members will be aware, the Government have sought the views of the public and interested parties, including the victims of press abuse, through a public consultation that, as it happens, closes today.