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Part of Stalking Protection Bill – in the House of Commons at 11:09 am on 23rd November 2018.

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Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing) 11:09 am, 23rd November 2018

I would like to start by congratulating wholeheartedly Dr Wollaston, who, with her characteristic diligence, perseverance and cross-party approach, has succeeded in uniting the House behind these important measures that will protect victims and save lives. I can think of few tasks more important to this House than keeping our constituents safe, and she has done all our constituents a huge service through this Bill.

We have heard the emotional and chilling testimonies of constituents who have brought their cases to their MPs. They show why this Bill is so important, and it will undoubtedly ensure better and earlier protection for victims of these terrible crimes.

Far too many stalking crimes go undetected. In 2015, there were just 194 convictions for stalking offences. Yet, the crime survey suggests that one in five women and one in 10 men will be affected by stalking in their lifetime, while the under-publicised national stalking helpline has responded to almost 14,000 calls since it was established in 2010. Clearly the conviction rate is barely the tip of the iceberg.

Providing the police with the vital additional tool of this Bill is important to protect victims, and, importantly, puts the onus and the priority on the police. The hon. Lady knows that we wholeheartedly support this Bill and will continue to do so as it makes its way through the other place.

However, as is clear from this debate, it will be important to continue to keep the measures under review and look at what more might be needed in future in order to build on this architecture to ensure long-term safety and protection for victims. There are simply too many gaps in the current legislation as it stands. With increased technology and globalisation it is important that legislation covers cyber-stalking and crimes carried out from other countries, and it is also important that measures extend to strangers.

Last year the House amended the law so that perpetrators of stalking may now receive much longer maximum sentences. We know that the way that victims are dealt with is simply not good enough, however. Charges are amended and dropped with no notice and victims can be cross-examined by their own tormentor in court. It is a matter of deep regret that the Government have failed to bring forward a victims law, as promised in successive manifestos. It would enshrine the rights of victims in law and create important new measures to support victims. If the Government chose to bring forward such a law, they would have the full support of Labour for the creation of an independent victims advocate, who would help the victim navigate their fundamental rights at a traumatic time, when the array of services and institutions they have to deal with can often be overwhelming and bewildering. The rights of victims often end up, almost unwittingly, falling by the wayside in this process.

The measures in this Bill are essential for early intervention, not just because prevention is always better than cure, but because even before arriving at sentencing, victims of stalking face additional hurdles in their treatment by the criminal justice system. It has been shocking to hear that victims experience on average 100 occurrences before coming forward to report the crime. As with all serious crime, the police and the entire criminal justice system need an integrated and informed approach if the issue is to be tackled effectively. Better detection and better treatment of victims must be their priorities. That has been very apparent in today’s debate.

This insidious form of harassment has been acknowledged and recognised only over the last few years, and the impact on, and implications for, victims and the difficulties they face in attempting to get the authorities to take them seriously has been described by several Members. Alex Chalk made an excellent speech, in which he compellingly described this form of crime as “murder in slow motion”. He talked about how the victim’s freedom is constantly chipped away and horrendous psychological damage caused, and the feeling that the crime will not be taken seriously by the authorities. As constituents of mine have experienced, such crimes are sometimes taken seriously only once an actual violent crime has been committed.

Despite the obvious progress made since 2012, I have repeated conversations with the police about the difficulties they face in bringing successful prosecutions. As we know, access to the police and support for victims is at an all-time low, and there is serious concern that despite all the tools the police undoubtedly now have to tackle harmful crimes such as these and crimes of domestic violence and coercive control, they do not have the resources to devote to the kind of service necessary for the support of victims and for the required level of investigation to secure a successful prosecution. The numbers of these crimes are rising year on year while prosecution rates continue to fall.

Huw Merriman made the important point that, with such limited resources, it is inevitable that if the police are to focus on these crimes they will deprioritise other areas. He said that the Government have a duty to ensure that resources are continuously available to enforce the legislation that we bring forward in this place. The police are constantly frustrated that we reach for a legislative response in dealing with serious issues and crimes while not ensuring that they have the resources on the ground to get the job done.

That issue was raised by several other Members, too. James Cartlidge raised the issues that Suffolk experiences because of the funding formula; next-door Norfolk, with very similar issues and priorities, receives significantly more funding. The issue of the pensions gap was also raised, and the £165 million of further cuts for 2019-20, which is forcing police and crime commissioners to use their precept to plug the gap. The hon. Gentleman rightly said it was indefensible to ask local people to pay more in rates to plug a gap for the Treasury when that money should only be spent in the local area on local policing priorities.

Indeed, an unusually high number of Conservative Members have raised the issue of resources today and the fact that the police simply do not have the resources that need to be devoted to investigations in order to secure prosecutions for these crimes. Despite the rise in serious crime, this Government have cut the number of police officers by over 21,000 and continue to make cuts, with below-inflation budget rises even given the precept flexibility—and now there is the £165 million pension gap. Those cuts have consequences, and they are having consequences in every community in our country.

When our officers face this much pressure, it leads to the downgrading of crimes; that has been reported on a number of times over the last four or five years. To add to that, officers have not been sufficiently trained to tackle stalking crimes. That decreases the chance of prosecution even with new legislation. Police forces need the specialist resources required to address crimes such as stalking which touch on and concern violence against women in particular.

The measures in this Bill are vital but not sufficient. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes again and all who have supported the Bill’s safe passage through the House, particularly the Minister and her officials. It is a privilege to support this Bill and I wish it speedy passage through its remaining stages.