The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose the amendment and five minutes in which to make a winding up speech. All other Members who speak will have five minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with concern that for too long stalking has remained a hidden crime, which is not only insidious and terrifying, but can result in psychological harm and, in the most serious of cases, murder; and calls on the Minister of Justice to examine whether the introduction of new legislation to protect and safeguard victims of stalking is needed in Northern Ireland.
First, I must declare some interests as a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the all-party group on domestic violence, and I recently took part in a BBC 'Spotlight' programme highlighting the hidden issue of stalking in Northern Ireland, and its lack of legal definition and framework in which agencies can act to protect and support victims.
The motion asks us to note with concern that stalking is a hidden crime. It is terrifying and can result in psychological harm and, in more serious cases, physical harm. I, along with my colleagues, am calling on the Minister of Justice to look into the seriousness of stalking and to conclude that legislation should be introduced to safeguard the victims of stalking in Northern Ireland. This is something I have had the anxiety of dealing with myself, and I have a number of constituents who are currently trying to protect themselves from stalkers.
I want to thank the Justice Minister for meeting me, Peter Weir and a female victim of stalking before recess and for taking the time to return my calls over the summer. The Minister will be well aware that I have been active in gaining as much information as possible about this issue, and I am glad she is in the Chamber today as I know she is committed to exploring the issue of stalking and its non-status in any form of legal definition. I look forward to hearing what she has to say.
What is stalking? Who knows? As I said, there is no legal definition, and Northern Ireland is the only UK jurisdiction not to have one.
"However, it is generally accepted that it includes repeated attempts to impose unwanted communications and/or contacts ... that ... cause distress and/or fear in any reasonable person."
That is what the PSNI website has to say.
The Stalking NI website describes stalking as:
"an obsessive fixation which is powered and renewed with continuous, unwanted contact attempts to their target, using texts, emails, letters, social media, door calling, 'drive-bys', following, suddenly appearing in shops, or visiting places of work".
I have permission from one of my constituents, who describes it much better than I can, and I ask the Speaker for his indulgence as I read an emotive and harrowing excerpt, as I feel it is important to hear a first-hand experience of stalking.
"Following my exit from a five-month relationship, this man, unknown to me, had been gathering all my personal information, routines, and had kept intimate images, which I thought were deleted. He verbally threatened to have me shot and has a known history of assault. I have been followed around my town, dual carriageways, socially to friends' houses and places of work. He has stalked my friends, my ex-partner, my family and was outside my daughter's school. He has disguised himself in passing my house and posed as potential clients to my work email addresses as recently as November 2015. He has sent letters, cards, emails, texts, and has tried to destroy my livelihood. He has painted a black portrait of me and slandered my work ethic on social media. The PSNI have been unable to act, and I was told, unless he assaulted me, they couldn't; and in 2012 the PPS didn't prosecute. They told me to evidence everything, but this was difficult to do as my instant reaction is to run. Every day, I woke up with a feeling of dread knowing that, no matter what was ahead of me, he would follow me. It was like a very heavy black cloud following me everywhere I went; only I could see it. I have to keep all doors locked at all times, and I do not answer the door unless I know who it is. I watch over my shoulder and scan everywhere I go. I park my car under CCTV cameras and keep it in well-lit areas. I have my children aware of the last four digits of every vehicle he drives, as I do. I get leg shakes and palpitations when I see his car, knowing he wants me dead. I have felt degraded, humiliated, intimidated and ashamed, not knowing what is coming next or who he has shown the images to. I have nowhere left to go, and he will not stop."
In 2011, there was a parliamentary inquiry for England and Wales into stalking by the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group, chaired by the Rt Hon Elfyn Llwyd MP. It found that the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was not fit for purpose for stalking offences. Two new offences of stalking were included in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 and they sit alongside the existing offences of harassment in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. This makes stalking a more serious crime, with the potential for five years in prison. We still use the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act in Northern Ireland. I must concur with others that the chief shortcoming of the 1997 Act was its failure to name stalking in law. Indeed, the review concluded that the Protection from Harassment Act (PHA) was not an effective tool against stalking, that too many perpetrators were falling through the justice net and that there was need for a comprehensive reform.
I thank the Member for giving way and note her very personal comments on her constituent. We all have constituents who have been victims of online stalking, whether stand-alone or coupled with physical stalking. I note that the motion described stalking as a hidden crime, but cyberstalking can be even more veiled. Does the Member agree that keyboard warriors who prey on the innocent and vulnerable should equally be subject to the full rigours of the law and included in any future legislation?
I thank the Member for her intervention. I will get to this later in my speech but, yes, I agree wholeheartedly.
The Departments of Justice and Health jointly introduced a 'Stopping Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse in Northern Ireland Strategy' in March. It includes new Government definitions of domestic and sexual violence and abuse. Included in those definitions of violence and abuse are physical and digital stalking. I am pleased that the strategy recognises the link between the two. However, the document defines stalking only in an intimate relationship. Stalking also happens outside intimate relationships and, therefore, work to address it in those circumstances needs to be included in this strategy. We must do more.
In December 2015, the Home Office started a consultation for England and Wales on the possible introduction of a stalking protection order. The consultation ended in February 2016 and we await its imminent results. The Westminster Government have recognised the need for a review of the legislation around stalking. I ask only that the Northern Ireland Assembly does the same and asks for legislation to be put in place here. My SDLP colleagues also ask for that. I support their amendment and I am pleased to have their support on this issue here today and hopefully in the future.
The law currently allows for a number of offences, namely harassment, causing another to fear violence, breach of an injunction prohibiting harassment and breach of a restraining order, but the number of convictions for offences under the Act is not reflective of the problem. In 2014, no one was convicted of causing fear to another. Four were convicted for breach of an injunction prohibiting harassment, and two were convicted for the breach of a restraining order. That alone screams that it is not affording enough protection for victims or giving the police and the courts enough legislation to prosecute. I recently asked the Minister of Justice in a question for written answer to detail the number of prosecutions for stalking under the PHA 1997 in each of the last five years. The Department's answer was:
"Stalking is a colloquial term and there is no specific offence of stalking in Northern Ireland."
"Colloquial" — if I were not so angry, I would have laughed. The women who I have been trying to support through this deserve more. They deserve the freedom to walk down the street, sleep without fear and feel safe in their home, and not to be made to feel as though they are wasting police time and making a nuisance of themselves. Stalkers are manipulative and cunning and, in some cases, use a protection from harassment order to harass and legally stalk their victims. I know of that happening right now.
We in this Chamber must —
Thanks. Does the Member agree that one of the problems with obtaining a just outcome in cases of harassment and stalking is that, for example, in our local harassment legislation, there is a defence effectively of good faith in that, if you did not know that what you were doing was harassment, you have a bona fide defence? Likewise, in the stalking provisions in England, there is the good faith defence. Does the Member agree that, to have effective legislation, that line of defence needs to be removed from the legislation?
I thank the Member for his intervention. Yes, you are right. These people are delusional. They have no idea what they are doing, or else they do know what they are doing and are doing it deliberately. They know the law so well now and are using it to attack their victims.
We in this Chamber must put in place a framework that enables the justice system and the PSNI to protect victims and prosecute perpetrators, thus empowering victims and their support networks. So, I not only call on the Minister but plead, on behalf of the targets of stalking, that she directs her Department to develop a legal framework. A legal definition will enable us not only to protect victims but to monitor reports of stalking, arrests and consequent prosecutions.
I thank all those who have taken the time to join me in the Chamber today, and I look forward to hearing what they have to say and to working with them in the coming months on this harrowing issue.
I beg to move the following amendment:
Leave out all after "Justice" and insert “to develop and table new legislation to enable crimes of stalking to be prosecuted based on the stalker’s behaviour and the effects on the victims.”
I commend the Member for bringing forward this important issue, and I assure her that our amendment is purely for the purposes of strengthening the motion and allowing the Assembly to be more directive on the legislation that will be needed. As the Member said, there is no formal legal definition of stalking. Most experts agree that it is a long-term pattern of unwanted, persistent and intrusive behaviour directed by one person to another that engenders fear and distress in the victim. We feel that the impact on the victim, which may vary, should be at the centre of the legislation. There are behaviours that, at third hand, might not fall into any other legal category but that, taken over time and compounded, can be a huge intrusion and can have a terrifying impact on the victim. Indeed, while some of the behaviours that constitute harassment will be similar to those manifesting in stalking, a key difference is the obsessive fixation usually on one person, although we are aware of career stalkers who move on from one woman to another. Mrs Hale has painted a very vivid and terrifying picture of how that can feel for the victims, who are usually women.
(Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ruane] in the Chair)
Stalking can be done by strangers or in the context of an ongoing domestic violence relationship. I understand that, in around half of cases, it is taking place where there is only a very casual acquaintance between the perpetrator and their victim. Almost by definition, stalkers are delusional and obsessive and, in many cases, go to very extreme lengths to contact, follow and monitor their victims. In very many cases, the motivation is what they see as revenge for a woman who they believe has rejected their advances. There is an underlying societal problem in that some men have a sense of entitlement to the attention of women, and that fundamentally needs to be addressed as it is feeding that kind of control. Some terrifying stories have been reported around the world on the fatal consequences of this sense of entitlement by hopefully a very small minority of men.
We obviously do not have statistics for here, but the crime survey for England and Wales suggests that one in five women and one in 10 men will experience the manifestations of stalking at some point in their lifetime. While, as Members have said, it is a specific criminal offence in England, Scotland and Wales, there is no legislation here. In an answer to a written question earlier this year, the then Justice Minister, David Ford, suggested that his Department was planning to undertake a review of aspects of the criminal law and that legislation might be brought forward in the next mandate. Through this amendment, we are calling for that work to be completed and for specific legislation to be developed that goes beyond harassment, which simply does not encompass the full and terrifying nature of stalking.
The Protection from Harassment Order 1997 refers to harassment or stalking as being a course of conduct that causes distress, alarm or fear of violence. The stopping domestic violence and sexual violence strategy of March 2016 specifically refers to stalking, but there is no legislative outworking.
That is only in the context of intimate relationships and, therefore, would not address half of the cases that do not appear to be covered.
Mrs Dobson also touched on cyberstalking. With all the benefits of new media and social media, it is, unfortunately, a tool of control for those who have unprecedented access to the daily lives of women whom they choose to stalk. While it is mentioned in the stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse strategy, again, there is no legislative outworking and none at all outside of intimate relationships.
A useful legislative format is available. The Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 provides a specific criminal offence of stalking. Section 39 lists a set of behaviours and, crucially, has a catch-all:
"acting in any other way that a reasonable person would expect would cause [the victim] to suffer fear or alarm", which covers lot of what would appear to be very minor and mundane actions that can have a terrifying effect. In England and Wales, stalking was made a criminal act in November 2012, when two new offences were introduced. The police have statistics for 93,000 harassment offences and 3,100 stalking offences, of which 1,000-plus are being prosecuted. There, you can face up to five years in jail, whereas, here, the maximum is two years for harassment.
We support the motion, but we want a specific outcome and a commitment to bring forward legislation.
Tréaslaím le moltóirí an rúin seo agus tacaím leis an leasú chomh maith. My party welcomes the debate. I will speak in support of the amendment as it builds on the trajectory of the intent of the motion, which I fully commend.
There are recognised links between domestic and sexual violence and abuse and stalking. As mentioned by the previous contributors, definitions of domestic and sexual violence and abuse were previously set out in March in the joint departmental seven-year strategy. While that acknowledged that stalking in its physical and digital forms is a type of domestic and sexual violence and abuse, and as was mentioned by previous contributors, we still do not have a legal definition of stalking or any effective legislation here in the Six Counties. That fact has been discussed by the Assembly since 2012, yet there has been no measurable progress. That is not good enough.
Stalking is a deeply insidious and invasive psychological form of criminal abuse, with shocking side effects and consequences for victims. If the targeted victim does not give attention to the stalker, it is likely to escalate into something much more sinister. As the previous contributor mentioned, one in five women and one in 10 men are likely to be victims of stalking at some stage in their lives. Worryingly, on average, 21 people who are connected with a victim will also be impacted as secondary victims of that crime.
Stalking is a breach of human rights and, therefore, undermines article 8, which is in the Human Rights Act, yet here in the North, it is not a specific criminal offence. Stalking complaints are currently addressed within the framework of the Protection from Harassment Order. However, in England and Wales, because the Protection from Harassment Act did not effectively deal with stalking, it was amended, and two stalking offences were introduced in 2012. More significantly, since 2010, Scottish law has made stalking a specific criminal offence. Scottish law has made stalking a priority crime, and we should follow its lead. We require effective legislation, but prosecution and conviction rates will also depend on training to change attitudes towards stalking, improving investigations and securing robust prosecutions. In parallel, there needs to be a concentrated focus on digital stalking, cybercrime and online abuse.
The crime of stalking has existed for far too long beyond the effective reach of law in Ireland, North and South. In that context, a LeasCheann Comhairle, this gap in our law should be closed by the Department of Justice. I commend the Minister for taking the importance of this debate on board. She should consider how the matter can be prioritised as an item of all-island cooperation.
A lot of people will think that this is quite a soft debate, given what happened over the summer, when a £1 billion property deal was linked to one political party and another party tried to —
OK. Because a lot has happened over the summer, some people will see this as a soft debate. It is not. This is a good, strong debate, and I thank the Member for Lagan Valley for bringing it to the Floor. I do not want just to repeat everything that has been said; word for word, I agree with all of it. It is important that we show that we are a united Assembly.
We have heard that there is no legal definition of stalking, but it is clearly linked to intimidation and harassment. It is unwanted communication, done in a distressing manner. It can be in the form of telephone calls, letters, emails, texts, sending or leaving unsolicited material, graffiti or messages on social media, which, if looked at in isolation, probably do not look that bad, but, when brought together or done repeatedly, take on a far more sinister aspect.
Stalking may also take the form of unwanted intrusions, including following, waiting for, spying on, approaching or accosting a person or going to their home. In addition to communication and intrusion, the stalker may engage in a number of associated behaviours, including ordering or cancelling goods and services, making unwanted complaints or threats, property damage and violence. These all have a major effect on the victim, and we must remember that this is about the victim. The stalker frequently threatens their victims either directly or indirectly. Examples of indirect threats include sending wreaths or violent images to the victim. Stalkers will often make written or verbal threats. They have been known to threaten violence months or even years into the future and have, indeed, followed through on these threats. This crime robs people of their dignity and peace of mind and, often, leaves them in fear of their life.
As mentioned earlier, in December 2015 a Home Office consultation paper, 'Introducing a Stalking Protection Order', described how, although stalking can take place within the context of an ongoing pattern of domestic violence and abuse, in around half of cases it seems that stalking takes place where only a very casual acquaintanceship exists between the perpetrator and victim. How big is the problem? Without reiterating what has been said, it is really quite hard because we do not have a definition. PSNI statistics reveal that between 2014 and 2015 there were 3,050 recorded incidents of harassment and 540 of intimidation. I have already —
I thank the Member for giving way and for highlighting those figures. Does he agree with me that, whilst harassment covers all sorts of ills, sins and issues, stalking is something completely different?
Absolutely. I totally agree with the Member; that is the whole point of the debate. We take on harassment and intimidation, but what we really need is a specific act of stalking.
We have already heard what it is like in England and Wales, and we have had the figures for harassment in those areas. The average victim is stalked about 100 times before going to the police. Only 1% of such complaints result in criminal charges. What is the current legislation? As we heard, there is none. We have talked in this House previously about harassment, causing another to fear violence, breach of an injunction prohibiting harassment and breach of a restraining order, all of which may be prosecuted under the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997.
We have been told that we will keep an eye on the legislation in GB to see how it progresses, but we have not taken the next step forward. In 2012, the UK Government introduced two offences: stalking; and stalking involving a fear of violence. In Scotland, stalking was made an offence in 2010. There is absolutely no reason why stalking should not become a specific offence here in Northern Ireland.
What can be done to help the situation? People in Northern Ireland are entitled to the same protection as that of their fellow citizens in the rest of the UK. If stalking is a separate offence in Great Britain, it should be a separate offence here in Northern Ireland. Having a specific offence of stalking would send a very clear message to those who perpetrate stalking, as well as to the victims, saying that it will not be accepted. Remember as well the families of those who are being stalked; the children also suffer from this. The Ulster Unionist Party absolutely agrees with the sentiment of the motion —
We will obviously support the motion. We will support the amendment also, although I must say I have far more sympathy with the motion, but it is entirely up to the Minister what way she moves on this once the debate is complete.
I pay tribute to Mrs Hale straight off, because it is not easy to come here and talk in such a personal way about something like that that has happened. I have had the experience, so I will just say, "Well done, Brenda, and thank you for bringing the motion to the House".
The motion uses words like "hidden crime", "insidious", "terrifying", "psychological harm" and "in the most serious of cases, murder". That is not an exaggeration. Those things happen. The mystery perhaps is that the PSNI — I was on the Policing Board for five years with Mrs Hale — does not appear to have specific statistics to highlight the actual extent of stalking in isolation from the overall term "harassment". It seems odd that, in the 1997 Act, which everybody has referred to, there is an attempt to define stalking. I remember in the last mandate when we tried to define the term "bullying in schools", and such difficulties we had, particularly in the case of cyberbullying. I believe that a large proportion of what now constitutes stalking in this country is to do with cyberstalking, which is so difficult to tie down and prosecute. The 1997 Act makes an attempt at it, almost by giving examples of what it means. It states:
"stalking is where an individual is fixated and/or obsessed with another."
It talks about:
"repeated contact with, or attempts to contact, a particular victim."
It talks about the person pursuing a course of conduct in breach of section such-and-such that amounts to harassment. It even gives the specific examples of:
"following a person; contacting, or attempting to contact, a person ... publishing any statement ... relating or purporting to relate to a person ... monitoring the use by a person of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication"
— there to my mind is a half-hearted attempt to bring in cyberstalking —
"loitering in any place ... watching or spying on a person."
There is a fair bit there, but I agree with the thrust of the motion and the amendment that what is required, if we can come up with it here, is a specific definition of what stalking means.
I was struck by what Claire Hanna said, which was that the Scottish Parliament has, not for the first time, come up with something. I know our legislators have a horror of anything vague, so I wish them luck with this one, but it talks about acting in a way that would cause harm or distress — or all the other words you could use — to a reasonable person of reasonable intelligence. That sort of definition exists in some of our laws already as a catch-all, as Claire said. It is worth pursuing.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about this in due course. I hope that she is minded to pursue it, and I hope that we can come to a satisfactory outcome to try to put a stop to the sort of experience that the proposer has so graphically explained to us today.
Thank you, Mr — Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. It is the new term; my apologies.
I commend my colleague Brenda Hale for bringing the motion before the House. She is a tremendous MLA doing sterling work for her constituents. As she said, it is something that has personally affected her and her family. I also commend DUP Councillor Peter Martin, not of this House but of Ards and North Down Borough Council, who has done tremendous work with some victims of stalking.
There is absolutely no doubt about it: this is something that needs to be uncovered. No doubt the Minister will be getting advisers coming to her and saying, "Minister, it's OK; we have this covered. This is covered under harassment legislation. That is the case at the minute". It is time that that activity was uncovered; it is time that it was put on the statute book in its own right. If we clump stalking in with harassment, which we have done, it means that we do not understand the nature and essence of stalking, we cannot measure the scale of stalking, and we cannot fathom its effects on victims and their families. If someone is charged with some offence because they have stalked somebody, it is not because they have stalked somebody; it is for some other offence. That defeats the purpose; it means that those people find it acceptable to continue to carry out their activity.
At the minute, stalking — it grieves me to say this — is the butt of many a joke. It should not be. I know that the Minister's advisers will say, "It's not enforceable, Minister; we can't do this". The seatbelt law is not enforceable, but it changed people's mindsets and it saved lives. My point is that every law is enforceable if guidance is issued. However, if we cover it up and pretend that it is not there, we will never be able to enforce anything.
For victims of stalking, their workplace, neighbourhood, street and home become a prison. The very body that contains their soul becomes a prison. Their mind becomes their prison. Their computer and phone are windows of despair and anxiety. They feel that no one is listening to them. There is no law to protect them. The police do not have guidance to support them; that is clear when you read the stats and the evidence about how long some people are being victims. In some cases, it is 18 months, and 42% are stalked for more than 24 months. That could simply be because nobody is helping those victims. People are getting away with that crime.
It is not harassment. Harassment is many things; it is two neighbours falling out over a hedge and one person then harassing the other.
This is completely different. The people who commit this crime are delusional. They need help, and sometimes they need to be removed from society and treated. How are we to treat the perpetrators if we do not even acknowledge that they have committed a crime? We should go much further than just having crimes of stalking. If we had crimes of stalking —
I support the motion and the amendment. I thank the proposer of the motion for bringing it to the House.
Much has been said about the current legislation on stalking and the new legislation in England and Wales, where stalking was made an offence in 2012 and new offences introduced. However, if we are to introduce new legislation, we have to look at the lessons learned from the legislation in England and Wales. Even with the new laws in England and Wales, there is much evidence that the Crown Prosecution Service and the police service should be doing more to protect victims, as evidence presented in court cases shows that victims are still at risk of violence from their stalker. As the police charge the stalker with lesser offences, the stalker gets away with a lesser penalty and remains free to offend again.
The courts and the police system, as was widely publicised in England and Wales, are failing victims of stalking and harassment. Much more needs to be done, as victims of stalking believe that the police and courts are underusing new laws because they are not trained in exactly what stalking is or the danger and harm that it causes to its victims.
If there is to be effective legislation here — I hope that there will be — the courts, the police and all those responsible for protecting victims need to be given the right training in how to deal with stalkers and repeat offenders. We need to protect people and ensure that those who commit these offences are given the appropriate sentences and receive the proper treatment so that they do not reoffend.
Like the proposer of the motion, I want to share with the House the words of a victim — I know her personally — of a stalker:
"Almost every day, he was there. He would turn up when I was out shopping for the weekly groceries. He would turn up at the school gate where I was picking up my child. He followed me into the health centre, where I had my doctor's appointment. Sitting in church with family, he would sit in the row behind me. I never knew this man until he started following me. At first, I thought I was imagining it all, but then it became apparent that this person deliberately targeted me for reasons unknown to me. He followed me daily, stood outside my house staring in the window and walking up and down the street outside my home. One day, he got quite close to me and spoke. He said that I looked nice and that he liked what I was wearing. I went home and locked the doors in a terrified state. From that day on, that was the start of my living nightmare. I lived under the fear of this man for almost 14 months before I told anyone, frightened of what he would do to me or my family if he ever was confronted. Eventually he was, when police finally believed me and agreed to covertly watch him stalk me. But it was no easy task at first to convince the police. I was depressed, frightened and was a shell of my former self, and, to this very day, I am always looking over my shoulder, unable to trust or accept an act of kindness from a stranger."
A lot of people think that stalking happens just to someone who has celebrity status, but it can happen to anyone. I am thankful that we have the Minister here. There needs to be a robust media awareness campaign on stalking and harassment. Will she consider that?
Stalking and harassment includes behaviour that happens two or more times and is directed at or towards you by another person and which causes you to feel alarmed or distressed or in fear of violence that may be used against you. Some advice that I have picked up through research in the Assembly is that one of the things that can make it difficult for police and others to deal with harassment and continuous stalking is the repetitive nature of what may seem like small incidents. Helping the police and courts to see the bigger picture can make it much easier for them to deal with the offender's behaviour. That can include keeping a diary of events and the times, dates and locations the stalker strikes. It is a good idea to include all of that information, including keeping copies of letters, text messages and cyber —
I am pleased to contribute to the debate, and I support the motion and the amendment. Everyone has the right to be protected from stalking, no matter what form it occurs in, and to have to the right to support if and, unfortunately for many, when it occurs. The reality is that, for many, stalking remains a hidden issue. This is mainly for two reasons. First, reporting figures do not reflect the full scale of stalking because much of it goes unseen and unreported. Secondly, as many Members have already referred to, without a sound definition and understanding, stalking can be downplayed as banter or as something that is just in the victim's imagination.
Nowhere are these two issues around the hidden nature of stalking more true than in the online world, which many have referred to. Therefore, it is important to talk about stalking not only in the physical sense but, importantly, in the digital sense. Members, especially those from the previous Assembly mandate, will know that, for some time, I have campaigned and advocated for greater internet safety, especially for our children and young people, in the form of a comprehensive, cross-departmental internet strategy. Young people in particular, who are most clued-in to technology, are not always aware of the risks of engaging in online activity. From my experience as a mother, it seems that parents are always having to play catch-up when it comes to understanding the new programmes and applications that our children have access to daily. This means that any debate on stalking must give considerable focus to stalking that takes place online.
We know from a survey conducted by Bedford University five years ago that online stalking is now more common than physical stalking. In addition, the report found that in many cases the stalker was a complete stranger or a casual acquaintance to the victim. This shows how the nature of stalking online can be different from face-to-face stalking, where, more often than not, the stalker is known to the victim. With social networking sites and forums on the internet playing a bigger part in our social lives, there is now more opportunity than ever before to meet and interact digitally. With people increasingly uploading personal information online, there is a greater chance of that being misused for contacting an individual with the intention of stalking, intimidating and abusing that person. Where the stalker is unknown to the victim, which is often the case online also, this has been referred to as stranger stalking, and this activity sits outside the stopping domestic and sexual violence strategy set out in March this year.
Added to this, stalking, particularly online stalking, is not a specific offence under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Given the advances in social media and technology over the last two decades since the Act was introduced, we need to seriously consider, as my colleague Doug Beattie said, whether the current legislation, which is different from that in GB, is fit for purpose to protect and safeguard victims in Northern Ireland.
Furthermore, as my party's education spokesperson, I feel that more action is needed on educating and informing children and young people on how they can keep themselves safe online and, on this specific issue, how to notice stalking and how they should report it. Stalking is not an isolated matter, and we know that there are links between it and sexual abuse and violence. As such, there is need for a joined-up approach, so, for example, the strategy on stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse in Northern Ireland covers schools having to teach on sensitive subjects such as child abuse and domestic and sexual abuse. I feel that an important extension of this strategy would be to provide teachers with the necessary skills to educate children and young people about online stalking, reporting procedures and inappropriate internet behaviour.
As this is a pressing issue and one that will only grow in the future, we simply cannot sit idly by with legislation that is well past its use-by date. I commend the motion and the SDLP's amendment and look forward to the continuing debate.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and thank those who tabled the motion for bringing it to the Floor of the Assembly. I support the motion and the amendment.
As has been said by almost every Member today, there is no legal definition of stalking and there is no crime of stalking in the North. England, Wales and Scotland have legislation, as we know. Stalking takes many forms. It may be someone that the victim knows well — in many cases, an ex-spouse or ex-partner. It may be a casual acquaintance or a complete stranger. The methods that stalkers use are wide and varied and can range from sending flowers to the victim and following the victim to constant phone calls, emails, texts and so on. In many cases there are secondary victims. It is not unknown that a woman being stalked will find some day that the stalker has been speaking to her children, without the children knowing exactly what is happening.
While we have no crime of stalking here, there is, as has been mentioned, the Protection from Harassment Order 1997. Victims can take out a court injunction against those who harass them and claim damages for anxiety and any financial loss that they may have incurred. However, the point is that harassment and stalking are two completely different animals. As has already been said today, the conviction rate under the harassment Order does not reflect the level of stalking that takes place in society here. The absence of violence does not mean that the victim is unaffected. Most victims of stalking undergo severe psychological distress, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, paranoia and in some cases post-traumatic stress disorder. Stalking itself may be difficult to define, but any legislation could include a list of example behaviours. If it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck — everybody knows the rest of that.
Legislation is one weapon against stalking, but it is also important that victims know what they can do to try to prevent it. The first thing they should do is keep a log including the date, time and location of when the stalking has taken place. They should keep all correspondence whether it is cards, letters or electronic correspondence such as emails, texts or messages on social media. They can screenshot any electronic correspondence. They should try to gather evidence, if they can, without endangering themselves or aggravating the stalker. If they can get photos with their phone, for example, or if someone is with them who can be a witness to what has happened, that would be useful.
It is also important, in conjunction with any new legislation, that the police are given the proper training. One of the difficulties with stalking is that when incidents are reported they are treated in isolation and not as part of a pattern of behaviour, so training for police is important. I rest my case there, as most of the other points have been made.
Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker.
Stalking is very debilitating for the individual who is at the end of it. It is unsettling; it can be very frightening; it can be a form of terrorism; and it can take over their life. They cannot have a normal life; they never feel at ease. It ought to be taken very seriously, and I am glad that there is unanimity across the Chamber today.
Why has Northern Ireland legislation fallen so far behind? It is three years since stalking legislation was introduced in England and Wales and, indeed, in Scotland. For that matter, England is already consulting on further amendments with their 2015 consultation on stalking protection orders. We clearly need to get up to date and address the issue.
Typically, stalking may involve an ex-partner who feels spurned in some way, but that is not the only format. We need to make sure that it is much wider than just domestic violence situations; it can take many, many complicated formats. Others have talked about the "stranger stalker" — someone who gets fixated. I agree with my colleague Sandra Overend that the online issue makes this problem very intrusive and difficult to manage. One of my constituents contacted me over the weekend, feeling that their life was being threatened again. In this case, it was a spurned ex-partner, so it is the old girlfriend stalking the new girlfriend and hurling lots of abuse at her. It is complicated. Someone may adopt multiple identities online, and it becomes difficult to trace.
It strikes me that this needs to be taken much more seriously by the police, whose advice to date has been "Change your Facebook settings", and that is about it. I am gathering information and intend to make sure that a much better response is required. This has highlighted to me the fact that we need much more specific legislation, so that there is recognition of the turmoil that this can cause to an individual's life. Even though no violence has occurred and even though it is not the ex-partner, it is simply someone whose life is being destroyed by someone who is trying to intimidate them online.
It is clear that our legislation is not enough. We need greater expertise, and, if we have specific legislation, I have no doubt that the PSNI will pay more attention to this area. They will have more specialism in this area and will be able to give better advice. They will also be able to approach people when necessary — it may be all that is needed at an early stage — to make them aware that it is a specific criminal offence. There will be a shot across the bow and, hopefully, that will be the end of it. Where people are persistent and ignore that, clearly, they need to be held to account and brought before the courts to address what they have done. We need all our citizens to be able to live in peace in their own home and to enjoy their activities online without threat of stalking or abuse.
Thank you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker. First, I welcome Members back to the Assembly. I look forward to working with you in this new term and, hopefully, trying to get some work done in this mandate.
I thank those who tabled the motion, which raises serious and concerning issues around the behaviour known as "stalking". The motion recognises that incidents of this nature are often hidden and are devastating for the victims of such acts. I also note the amendment tabled by the SDLP. Whilst I would be informed to fully commit to the legislation at this stage, I am minded to consider legislation in the area if necessary, subject to the full legislative process, including consultation. I welcome the opportunity to debate the issue —
Will the Minister agree that, in order to be effective, the legislation that she refers to would have to include the introduction of a stalkers register in the manner of the sex offenders register; that stalking cases should be kept open; and that, given recent experience, it ought to be easier for the women victims of stalking — this is largely a gender-specific crime — to obtain legal aid?
I thank the Member for his intervention. If he would give me time to get into the depth of my speech, he would hear that I am minded to thinking in a similar way.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the issue in the Chamber and look forward to a useful and valuable discussion. I pay tribute to those who tabled the motion for highlighting this behaviour because it ruins so many lives. I also welcome the opportunity to outline some of the work that is under way in my Department on stalking and related matters, which, I hope, Members will find reassuring.
Stalking and harassment are particularly insidious crimes, as outlined in the motion. Whilst they are most often committed against women, they can be directed at anyone in our community. I pay thanks to Brenda Hale. It is really brave to stand up and show leadership by sharing your experience. It has made an impact on me today on how I will take this forward. You should be commended for doing that. Such behaviour is, rightly, abhorrent, and I am clear that any incidents should be subject to the full rigour of the law. If that means strengthening the law, we should consider that here today.
The nature of stalking can be obsessive, with offenders going to extreme lengths to contact and monitor their victims using a range of means. Stalking conduct can be prolonged, persistent and intrusive. The actions of a stalker can appear innocuous to outside observers but are intensely disturbing to the person being stalked and harassed. I have heard at first-hand the experiences of victims of this behaviour, as well as Mrs Hale, and, before the summer recess, I appreciate that I had the opportunity to meet other victims of stalking. Having heard their accounts at first hand, I realised that we need to take the issue more seriously.
Stalking can take a number of forms, whether it is stranger stalking or stalking by former or current partners. To me, that almost amounts to some form of domestic abuse. In some cases, stalking behaviour arises from relationships that appear to start from genuine affection but then turn to obsession. We know that stalking can take place in the context of domestic and sexual violence and abuse. We have reflected this fact under new government definitions in the stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse strategy.
In my short time as Minister, I have met, as I said, a number of individuals. I stand with those individuals and organisations and make a commitment today that, in my tenure as Justice Minister for the next five years, tackling domestic and sexual violence and abuse is a key priority. In five years' time, if I have not progressed in some way in tackling domestic and sexual abuse in Northern Ireland, it will be my failure, and those five years will have been in vain.
As part of the strategy and in my Department’s continuing work to tackle domestic and sexual violence and abuse, we are exploring the introduction of a range of measures to protect victims. They include a potential domestic violence disclosure scheme to alert people to previous violent offending; and domestic violence protection notices and orders that allow for immediate protections to be put in place for victims. We are considering a new domestic abuse offence to capture patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour. We are also working on enhancing the special court listing arrangements in Derry/Londonderry for domestic violence cases, building on the pilot scheme that is happening here. This enhancement will not only improve support services for victims but seek to change the abusive behaviour of perpetrators. I want to say more about those initiatives.
As Members may be aware, a domestic violence protection notice enables police to provide immediate protection to victims for 48 hours and a domestic violence protection order for up to 28 days. These prohibit the perpetrator from entering the home, thereby giving victims protected space to explore the options available to them and make informed decisions regarding their safety.
Officials are working with key stakeholders to progress work on the development of appropriate guidance, which will outline the procedures and processes required to manage a phased implementation of the new controls in early 2017.
My Department sought views through a public consultation on the creation of a specific domestic abuse offence to capture patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate relationships. We have also sought views on whether a domestic violence disclosure scheme should be introduced in Northern Ireland. Such a scheme would provide a specific framework for disclosing information about an individual’s violent and abusive history to a new partner where there are concerns about their safety. Although further work on the shape of both initiatives will be required, I am happy to announce that I intend to introduce them in Northern Ireland. I look forward to sharing my proposals with the Justice Committee and my Executive colleagues in due course. Analysis of the very informed consultation responses is in train, and, naturally, I will want to consider the detail and outcome of this prior to engagement with the Justice Committee in the coming months.
Work with partners continues with regard to implementation of domestic homicide reviews in Northern Ireland. Sadly, we have seen very recently the devastating consequences that can arise from domestic violence and abuse, and our thoughts go out to all the families affected by those tragic incidents, which are sadly still happening to this very day. We need to ensure we learn from each of those incidents and make certain that agencies are responding appropriately to the victims of domestic violence and abuse when it occurs. We must offer appropriate support, resources and interventions in a timely and coordinated manner with an aim of preventing further abuse.
To ensure that the justice system is successful in tackling domestic and sexual violence and abuse, I have instructed officials to seek out best practice and international developments in this area, and also to seek a wide range of views from stakeholders, including the community and voluntary sector.
It is great to hear, Minister, that you are touching base with all the agencies. Are you doing any work with housing providers on this issue? As far as I am aware, there is absolutely no onus on housing providers to move victims who are being terrorised in their own homes, although we have provision for harassment and intimidation. Our cultural understanding really limits that to issues of orange and green or political intimidation, but for domestic violence and stalking there is really no onus on housing providers. Are they included in the agencies?
I thank the Member for her intervention. As I said, domestic violence and sexual abuse will be my overarching priorities in the next five years. My approach is to consult a number of stakeholders, including housing providers, as you have outlined. It is important that we have a full social picture of how domestic violence has an impact on the lives of people in Northern Ireland. I appreciate that intervention, but this is something that I am minded to do anyway. Thank you.
I am committed to making sure that the PSNI and other justice partners have the best possible tools to tackle domestic and sexual violence and abuse, and that the law provides the best possible protection to victims. I want to ensure that all victims can enjoy a life without fear, including the victims of stalking. A number of Members have outlined the existing law, and I think it is important that we reiterate it, because stalking is more than harassment, as some people have suggested.
On 30 June, the Justice Committee received a briefing from Professor Evan Stark on coercive control and domestic violence. During the discussion, it was noted that, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland does not have a specific offence of stalking. The Committee subsequently requested details of the legal protection from stalking-type behaviour that currently exists in Northern Ireland, and my Department responded on 22 August.
Before outlining my views on the need for additional legislation, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the existing laws that provide protection against harassing and stalking behaviours. Other Members have referred to the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, the Malicious Communications Act 1998 and the Communications Act 2003. These provide a range of powers that offer protection against a number of actions that may constitute stalking behaviour. Harassment, putting people in fear of violence, sending offensive messages, threats or obscene material and causing anxiety by the sending of messages are all offences covered by those criminal laws.
Although the 1997 Order does not specifically refer to stalking, it was designed to criminalise many forms of harassment, including conduct that amounts to stalking. The Order provides that, if a course of conduct is embarked upon by an individual that causes fear or distress to the victim concerned, that individual is guilty of an offence if they ought to have known that such conduct amounted to harassment. A course of conduct is defined as actions taking place "on at least two occasions". A person guilty of this offence is liable to up to two years’ imprisonment on conviction on indictment, and/or an unlimited fine. On summary conviction, the maximum penalty is six months’ imprisonment.
The 1997 Order also created the offence of causing another person to fear violence, again requiring this to have happened on at least two occasions. A person guilty of that offence is liable to up to seven years’ imprisonment on conviction on indictment, and/or an unlimited fine. On summary conviction, the maximum penalty is six months’ imprisonment. The Order further enables a victim to seek an injunction or a restraining order to prevent the defendant from causing further harassment. Breach of an injunction or a restraining order carries a penalty, if convicted on indictment, of up to five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine, or, on summary conviction, of six months’ imprisonment.
There are a number of other offences in relation to the above Acts, but I am not going to go through the various punishments for them because I want to come back to the whole point of defining stalking in law. The Justice Act 2015 makes provision for making a violent offences prevention order (VOPO). When commenced, hopefully later this autumn, the VOPO will be available to help mitigate the risk of violent reoffending from certain individuals and could be used in those extreme cases where a victim of stalking is at risk of serious harm, physical or psychological, from the offender.
The police would apply for an order through the courts, and it would be for the court to decide whether making an order is necessary.
As previous speakers noted, specific stand-alone offences of stalking have been created in Scotland and in England and Wales. Those offences have been in operation in Scotland since 2010 and in England and Wales since 2012. Although neither piece of legislation defines stalking in the strict legal sense, both set out examples of behaviours that may constitute the offence. Maximum penalties for the offences are five years' imprisonment on conviction on indictment.
As Justice Minister, I am keen to ensure that the criminal law in Northern Ireland is fit for purpose and that we learn from the experiences of other jurisdictions, where they can make a difference for the better. I have already asked my officials to review the existing laws on stalking here and elsewhere and to report to me on the need for the introduction of additional legislation to safeguard victims of stalking in this jurisdiction. Although that work is at an early stage, they have begun to engage with officials in England and Wales and in Scotland to identify the impact of the new offences in terms of prosecutions and convictions.
I note, however, that the Home Office has concluded a consultation on the introduction of a stalking protection order to supplement its offence and that responses are being considered. Proposals to augment a relatively new law might suggest that gaps have been identified in how the stalking offence operates in England and Wales and reinforce the need to ensure that any changes to the law in this area are carefully considered and properly developed. In the meantime, I am keen that we recognise and acknowledge that there is no white card for all those who carry out this appalling behaviour. Stalking is beyond doubt a criminal activity under existing law, and we should take care not to send the message that Northern Ireland is a safe place for stalkers. It is not.
I will turn briefly to the amendment, which calls for specific new legislation to enable stalking to be prosecuted:
"based on the stalker's behaviour and the effects on the victims".
As I said at the outset, I am reluctant to fully commit to the amendment as specifically worded at this stage. It is quite prescriptive, and I feel that, until I am fully informed, I cannot make a decision on the matter. But I will commit to saying that, if gaps are identified in the work we are doing to see whether we can find a space for new legislation in Northern Ireland, I would be minded to do so.
However, I assure the whole House that I listened intently to what was said in the Chamber and that my officials will be mindful of the arguments that have been made as they continue with their review. I will keep the Justice Committee and the House informed as the work progresses. I am therefore happy to support the motion. I hope Members are reassured that, as well as a number of initiatives I outlined on domestic and sexual violence and coercive control, my Department has already begun to examine the need for new legislation to protect and safeguard victims of stalking in Northern Ireland.