My Lords, I rise to propose this amendment, because the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, is suffering from an extremely painful frozen shoulder. She has had an injection of cortisone, which I hope is having the desired effect and, if she is listening to this debate, I hope she is seated in a comfortable chair, because she deserves a good rest. I thank in advance the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who have also kindly added their names to this amendment.
This is déjà vu all over again. We keep returning to stalking, because we have not yet been able to take all its complexities on board, for all our attempts to deal with this bit and that bit, this piece of revised guidance and a bit of training, and this new perpetrator system to replace ones that have manifestly failed; for all the admonitions for different agencies and statutory bodies that are not co-operating as they are meant to, and despite pilots here and there, X millions of pounds spent here and new resources there. Despite all this effort and the extensive time that Ministers have spent at the Dispatch Box, the headlines keep on coming up with new cases of victims who are being failed, despite all the time, effort and resources expended to try to protect them.
It is not working. Just ask the elected Members of another place, particularly female MPs, what it feels like to be stalked, targeted, and even to require personal protection. What price democracy when its representatives are being systematically intimidated to the point that it inevitably begins to impact on their mental health—and even, as we have tragically seen recently, their personal safety?
I know that the Minister and Her Majesty’s Government are serious and well intended in their attempts to deal with stalking, but our contention is that the evidence suggests that they are not doing this well enough to make a tangible difference for the estimated 892,000 female victims of stalking for the year ending March 2020. That is according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales.
The Minister will not be surprised that, in evidence to back up the case I am putting forward, I will refer to Zoë Billingham’s September 2021 HMICFRS report, Police Response to Violence Against Women and Girls. Its findings are worrying. Its findings on the much-vaunted use of stalking protection orders, introduced in January 2020—18 months before this report—are on pages 56 to 59. The report found that the application of stalking protection orders by police forces is very inconsistent. Some are using them carefully and effectively, but others are doing little or nothing. One force had failed to issue a single stalking protection order, because its legal department thought that every case had to be approved in person by the chief constable. In fact, statutory guidance makes it very clear that decision-making can and should be delegated to superintendents.
The report examined 25 stalking protection orders in detail. Two findings stand out. A majority of the orders did not contain any positive request to be placed on the person subject to the order. The report rather dryly remarks:
“This is disappointing and may indicate that forces aren’t familiar with this important change of practice.”
The second finding was that the details of 16 out of the 25 protection orders and their conditions have not been circulated and communicated within the relevant police force, so the offices within the police force were not even aware that an SPO had been issued to somebody within their jurisdiction. What happens if and when SPO conditions are breached? The report says:
“We conclude that some forces do not pay enough attention to breaches of orders, the effect they have on victims and how well they”— the police forces—
“perform in this important area.”
Enough of this report, but I strongly recommend that it should be required reading for anybody interested in or charged with the responsibility for reducing violence against women and girls.
Although it is often a significant factor in many domestic abuse cases, stalking is broader and more complex. Fifty-five per cent of stalkers are ex intimate partners, which would therefore be regarded as domestic abuse stalking, but that means that 45% are not. The latter group could be an acquaintance, a neighbour, a friend, a stranger or even a colleague. Surely it is imperative that all stalking victims are offered the same level of protection, regardless of their relationship, and sometimes no relationship at all, to the stalker. For all its many excellent new laws and guidance, the Domestic Abuse Act does not support the victims of this enormous group of 45% of stalkers.
This amendment has a straightforward aim: go back to the drawing board; look at the totality and complexity of stalking of all kinds; look at what we have tried and has worked, at least in part; acknowledge where we have tried and failed; look at the entire ecosystem within which stalkers sometimes seem to act with impunity; come up with an all-embracing plan to anticipate, prevent, intervene and even mitigate as appropriate; and deliver a solution that prioritises the protection of the stalked, prosecutes effectively when justified, tries to understand and work with perpetrators who could benefit from tailored prevention programmes, and creates a trained and educated set of voluntary and statutory agencies that are properly equipped to be proactive, rather than endlessly reactive.
In other words, it is to act swiftly to consider whether, for example, some of the very effective initiatives, such as the multiagency stalking intervention programme, known as MASIP, which is funded by the Home Office’s own police transformation fund, can be rolled out with alacrity. The early findings of the pilot schemes are extremely positive, so there is something ready— I hesitate to use the word “oven-ready”—to be rolled out very quickly.
This is what the amendment is asking the Government to do. If we do not do it, stalking will stalk us and the Government Front Bench into the foreseeable future. The Minister is already very familiar with the shock troops who support the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, on the issue of immigration and citizenship fees, known under the banner of the “Lister terriers”. I give the Minister fair warning that the Royall-Brinton group—the noble Baronesses, Lady Royall and Lady Brinton—are gathering under the banner of “Stalk the stalkers”. There is far too much talking about stalking and not enough effective action, however genuinely hard Her Majesty’s Government have tried. I beg to move.