That is very gracious of the hon. Lady, and I am grateful. The context for the proposals was the horrific seven-year ordeal suffered by my constituent at the hands of her former patient. I will not go through all the detail now, but I will set out some of it. He turned up at her surgery over 100 times. He posted foul items through the letterbox. He followed her on patient visits, slashed her tyres and sent threatening mail. He appeared at a children’s birthday party her daughter was attending. That caused her exceptional anxiety and fear. After serving a short prison sentence, he—in a pattern that is not uncommon with this type of offence—restarted his campaign. Dr Aston received packages at her surgery in Gloucester and at her home in Cheltenham. One was threatening and abusive, and made it clear that he knew where her children went to school. The second package simply said, “Guess who’s back”. When he was arrested again, the search on his computer revealed that the inquiry, “How long after a person disappears are they assumed dead?” The judge who sentenced Dr Aston’s stalker made it clear that he did not think he had the tools he needed, stating in open court that he had no doubt that the stalker was dangerous in the sense of posing a significant risk, but he went on:
“I am frustrated that the maximum sentence...is five years. I would, if I could, give you longer.”
These proposals mean that instead of the maximum sentence being lower than that for shoplifting, it would be put on a par with that for another violating and upsetting crime—burglary. They mean that we no longer have the completely unsatisfactory situation in which the maximum a stalker can serve in prison on entering a guilty plea, even for the worst imaginable repeat offence against the same victim, is just 20 months.
I should also make it clear what this is not about. It is not about saying that all stalking cases should suddenly lead to longer sentences—that is plainly a matter for the discretion of the courts—but about ensuring that in the most serious cases, where victims are truly at risk of serious harm, whether physical or mental, the courts have the tools they need to protect the innocent. It is not about throwing away the key and giving up on offenders. Ultimately, I and others want prison sentences that reform the offender and address the underlying obsession in an effective way. The reality, in fact, is that longer sentences, in appropriate cases, can provide the prison system with a greater opportunity to rehabilitate and to treat.
I want to thank parliamentarians from both sides of both Houses—including Baroness Royall, for the role she has played—who have backed these measures, both in relation to my private Member’s Bill in this place and in their support for the detailed report that I co-authored with my hon. Friend Richard Graham, who has shown extraordinary dynamism in this campaign.
I want to pay tribute to this Government. I am enormously proud that more has been done by this Government, both since 2015 and in coalition, than by any other in history to recognise the seriousness of this type of offending. In just a decade, stalking has gone from being treated almost as a joke to being recognised for the serious offence it is. This step builds on vital work that has gone before—from creating the offence in 2012 to enacting stalking protection orders that can offer protection to victims at the first sign of trouble—and should properly be seen in the context of other vital measures that are relevant to this topic, not least the introduction of Clare’s law to protect women from potentially abusive and dangerous partners.