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National Stalking Awareness Day

– in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd April 2015.

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Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-12902, in the name of Rhoda Grant, on United Kingdom national stalking awareness day. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises National Stalking Awareness Day, which falls on 18 April 2015; notes that the focus for this year’s activities keeps the spotlight on raising awareness of the dangers of stalking among young people; understands that the 2010 NUS report, Hidden Marks, highlighted that 60% of college students experienced stalking; further understands that research shows that stalking among young people is being overlooked in favour of bullying; welcomes this focus for the 2015 National Stalking Awareness Day and believes that it will both help raise awareness of stalking and have it recognised as much as a young person’s problem as it is an adult’s, and believes that bullying in its severest form is stalking.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I have pleasure in bringing forward this debate to highlight national stalking awareness day, which took place on Saturday 18 April 2015. The first United Kingdom national stalking awareness day took place in 2012, when organisations in Scotland, England and Wales united to mark the day and highlight their work to put a stop to stalking. The event has grown, with the public sector as well as charities now participating in it annually. This year, the day is being marked by a series of events this week to raise awareness of stalking.

I cannot talk about stalking or indeed mark the day without paying tribute to the work of Ann Moulds, who has campaigned on stalking. Back in 2010, Ann persuaded me to lodge amendments to the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill to make stalking a crime in Scotland. However, she has not stopped there. She continues to campaign and raise awareness of stalking. Ann was a victim herself. She could have allowed that to daunt her, but instead she has fought for legislation and recognition of the trauma that stalking can cause, ensuring that help and support are available to people who suffer stalking. She set up Action Scotland Against Stalking and chairs the Scottish national stalking group. I pay tribute to her for bringing forward this issue and ensuring that it is very much at the forefront of the public consciousness.

This year, national stalking awareness day focuses on young people. A schools anti-stalking poster was designed by Ayrshire College creative arts student Leonie Smith. It raises awareness of stalking and will be sent to every school, college and university throughout the UK. The aim is to encourage young people to seek help if they are being stalked.

Research has shown that stalkers are often mistaken for bullies by parents, teachers and police. Although bullying is extremely serious, it is different from stalking. Stalkers tend to obsess about their victims and carry out a pattern of behaviour. Individually the actions often appear innocent, but together they can be terrifying.

The aim of this year’s events is to raise awareness among young people so that they know what stalking is and how to recognise it. It is important that young people know how to protect themselves and how to seek the protection of the law. In an age when social media is used regularly, we sometimes give more information on those platforms than we would have given on any other mode of communication. In 2014, Action Scotland Against Stalking launched the award-winning schools DVDFriend Request” to help young people recognise the dangers of stalking online. Ann Moulds tells me that every time the film has been shown, a young person has plucked up the courage to disclose that they have experienced similar behaviours to those in the film.

The aim of the exercise is to raise awareness and highlight how stalking has links to other abusive behaviours, such as bullying, paedophilia, sexual exploitation and revenge porn. Until recently, we had never heard about revenge porn, but now it is rife. Intimate pictures taken in a consensual relationship are shared on the internet without the permission of the participants. Ellie Hutchinson has pioneered much of Scottish Women’s Aid’s work to end revenge porn. She has worked hard to illustrate that revenge porn is in itself a form of stalking that has to be tackled. I welcome moves by various agencies to address revenge porn as a real and serious issue. We need legislation that deals with it and other forms of cyberabuse.

It is important that young people recognise the signs of predatory behaviour online as well as in day-to-day life, so that they can take steps to raise the alarm and protect themselves. Many cyberbullies are guilty of stalking and the law is there to protect people of all ages from this insidious crime.

Stalking continues to be a problem in Scotland, but we now have legislation to protect victims. Despite that, we have recently seen cases where legislation has been powerless. If a perpetrator is unfit to stand trial, it appears that the law is powerless to protect a victim. That cannot be the case. The law must be there for the protection of victims and there must be ways of ensuring that someone who is unfit to stand trial gets the help and support that they require, while ensuring that they are unable to perpetrate abuse on their victim. I am glad the Scottish Government is consulting on that, but I am unsure whether the proposal of access to criminal non-harassment orders will serve the purpose, given that criminal charges must also go through the courts. I hope that responses to the consultation will indicate a better way forward that looks after the vulnerable but protects victims.

We have come a long way in recognising the problem of stalking, but there is a long way to go to protect victims. I hope that the debate helps to raise awareness in some way that leads to better support for victims of stalking.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

In the usual manner, I thank Rhoda Grant for securing this important debate and I pay tribute to her not simply for her speech—I echo the comments that she made—but for the work that she has carried out on the issue, particularly in 2010 and before that, and on matters relating to the protection of women, children and the vulnerable.

I echo Rhoda Grant’s comments about and praise for Ann Moulds, who deserves praise from the entire chamber for her pivotal role in achieving the legislation that we now have on stalking. It is fair to say that, had it not been for Ann Moulds, it is unlikely that we would have that legislation. Having been a victim of stalking herself, she pursued the matter tirelessly despite the trauma that she had undergone. Many other people would have wanted simply to get on with their lives, but she recognised the need to ensure that no one else went through what she had gone through and that those who had done were given access to justice.

It has to be said that Ann Moulds pursued the legislation sometimes in the face of institutional inertia. As the justice secretary at the time, I must take my share of accountability for that. She certainly shook the foundations of the police, the prosecutors and the Government, where there was initially a mantra that the current legislative procedures applied, that no additional legislation was necessary and that breach of the peace and other forms of legal action were available. She managed to drive a wedge through all that and was pivotal in persuading me of the necessity for specific action. As a consequence, she changed the views of the police, prosecution and officialdom.

Stalking is a dreadful offence that is committed in a myriad of ways and is carried out by various people against a broad spectrum of society. That is why it is appropriate that it should not be viewed simply as an offence that is committed by men against women. Raising awareness of it among children is appropriate, as are the points that Rhoda Grant made about revenge porn. There is a presumption, perhaps based on Hollywood movies or television shows, that stalking involves an unknown person—who is never seen—breathing heavily over the phone or some masked individual following a woman home in the twilight. However, the likelihood is that the victim will know the person who is stalking them.

Equally, the stalker will not necessarily present a knife at the victim’s throat or carry out any acts of violence. As a consequence of that, stalking is sometimes not viewed as particularly troublesome. The perception of those in authority might be that the victim should just ignore it and get over it or that it is only a few phone calls or an awful lot of emails, letters or whatever. Sometimes, it does not register on the scale for those who should be looking after the interests of the victims. It is certainly not a serious assault, but its effects on the individual are manifest and severe. That is why it should be tackled, whatever manifestation it comes in. The new electronic media have opened up a whole variety of ways in which stalking can be committed, and revenge porn is another aspect of it. It is not simply about someone turning up at a person’s workplace and following them home or whatever else. It is, therefore, appropriate that we take action.

It would be remiss of me not to say that the action that has to be taken must be built on. I fully understand that the legislative timescale and process are such that action cannot be taken at present on corroboration, but the victims of stalking—like other victims of sexual offences such as the elderly and children who suffer abuse in silence and isolation—will not get access to justice unless we tackle the routine requirement for corroboration. Most aspects of stalking take place not in public but in private. We have done a lot as a Parliament, and Rhoda Grant—along with Ann Moulds—deserves great credit for securing a specific piece of legislation to tackle stalking. However, even given the raising of awareness and the driving home of the message that stalking will not be condoned in any shape or form by courts or prosecutors, we must ensure that there is access to justice for the victims and that justice will be delivered.

I once again thank Rhoda Grant for raising the issue, but it is the irrepressible Ann Moulds and her tireless campaigning who deserves our greatest thanks for the action that she has taken.

Photo of Margaret McCulloch Margaret McCulloch Labour

I, too, congratulate Rhoda Grant on securing the debate on national stalking awareness day, which took place last week. She has brought an important issue to the Parliament; I commend her for doing so.

Stalking is an intrusion; it is even an invasion. It is sometimes difficult to define, but we all accept that no one should have to live in fear or distress because of the behaviour of others.

Stalking is unwelcome and unsettling. In many cases, it is recurring. Sometimes it is overtly menacing. Although anyone can be a victim of stalking, it is twice as likely to affect women as men. Women’s Aid describe stalking as

“one of the most frequently experienced types of abuse”.

There must be a robust response and a deeper awareness and understanding of the problem.

I will touch on cyberstalking and how technology is changing physical stalking, too. A variety of behaviour is considered to be stalking: loitering, sending unwanted calls or messages, or being overfriendly with a victim. I worry that victims may feel that, in isolation, some of that behaviour seems more strange and unusual than disturbing or threatening. I worry that they feel they have to wait until a more discernible pattern of behaviour emerges over time until they seek advice or go to the police.

If the actions of a stalker make anyone feel fear or concern, I hope that they would report the matter as soon as they can. I also hope that the police would respond sensitively and effectively.

Just as the actions of a stalker can be hard to define, sometimes their behaviour towards their victims is more obvious, pernicious and aggressive: threatening or obscene calls and messages; following and surveillance; interfering with someone’s mail or belongings; invading someone’s personal space; invading their home; and physical aggression. No one should have to live in fear because of such behaviour or the behaviour that leads to it, not least our young people.

The focus of this year’s national stalking awareness day on the risks to young people allows us to think about personal safety in a world that is more connected through social media and online interaction.

There has been a concerted and commendable effort to make young people aware of cyberbullying and how behaviour on those platforms has an impact in the real world, but we must develop a better and broader understanding of cyberstalking, too.

Just as the internet is another means for us to communicate and share our lives with each other, I am sad to say that it is also another medium for stalkers to exploit. It is another way for them to send unsolicited or abusive messages, to blackmail or to seek proximity to someone by using technology and gathering the information people place online.

The national stalking helpline advises its callers to change their passwords regularly and keep their antivirus software up to date. It warns about the dangers of stalkers using malware or keylogging software to break through our cybersecurity and target their victims further.

There are reports of stalkers ordering items online to be delivered to the homes of their victims and using the geo-location features on apps to find out where their victim is or where they have been. For the generation who most use such apps and for whom technology is such a big part of their lives, we have to communicate the significance of cybersafety. It has never been so important.

Women’s Aid tells the story of Chandra in its digital stalking awareness materials. It is a story that the chamber needs to hear. Chandra left her violent husband and fled to a secret location, but her husband found her and started stalking her at her new address. He knew all her movements, what she was doing and where she had been. Her husband had installed spyware on her mobile phone, and from that he had been able to pinpoint her location, watch her through her camera and even listen to her through the handset.

Society as a whole needs an education in how pernicious stalking is in today’s world, so I applaud the efforts of all those who have participated in national stalking awareness day.

Photo of Margaret Mitchell Margaret Mitchell Conservative

I thank Rhoda Grant for bringing this important debate to the chamber.

The fact that one in six women and one in 12 men are stalked at some point during their lives is alarming. The debate presents a welcome opportunity to raise awareness of a dangerous and deeply damaging form of harassment.

The extent of the problem that is faced by female students in universities and colleges across the United Kingdom was highlighted by the National Union of Students in its 2010 report, “Hidden Marks”. It found that a quarter of stalking victims reported that the obsessive behaviour that they had been subjected to had affected their mental health, their studies and their relationships. More worryingly still, it found that only one in five victims reported such incidents to their institution or the police. The main reason that was given for not reporting them was that the victim did not believe that they were serious enough to report.

To mark national stalking awareness day, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust has released a two-minute animated film that looks at what stalking is and offers support to those who are experiencing it. The video firmly rejects any misguided notion that stalking is trivial, flattering or romantic. Instead, it portrays it for what it is—namely, a very serious crime, which can take the form of sending disturbing and often distressing emails, making non-stop phone calls and engaging in social media abuse. Crucially, the film makes it clear that more than 80 per cent of victims are stalked by someone they know, with the majority of perpetrators being ex-partners.

Stalking is clearly a form of abuse that can have devastating consequences in undermining the victim’s sense of security and their ability to live life without fear. In the worst cases, some victims are driven to remove their names from the electoral register for fear of being traced by the stalker. In such cases, fundamental freedoms such as the right to vote and the right to live without fear, which the rest of us take for granted, are denied to those affected.

It is therefore incomprehensible that the Scottish Government has chosen to exclude stalking statistics from its crime statistics. To spell that out, the Government’s claim that crime is at a 40-year low does not take into account thousands of incidents—including incidents of stalking—that are categorised as offences rather than crimes. Only crimes are included in the headline 40-year low claim.

Furthermore, in the Government’s statistical bulletin that was published in November last year, stalking is merely categorised as one of a number of miscellaneous offences, which include breach of the peace and offensive behaviour at football matches. If that was not bad enough, it was revealed last week that there have been reports of some police officers trying to dissuade victims of such offences from pursuing complaints by warning them that they would have to go court and testify.

Stalking is a serious crime that blights victims’ lives and which often has long-term consequences. It should be recognised as such, so national stalking awareness day, in seeking to raise awareness of what constitutes stalking and its devastating effects, is both timely and welcome.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

As others have done, I commend my colleague and friend Rhoda Grant for bringing the important issue of stalking to the chamber. I also commend her for the tireless work that she does on violence against women and children more generally. I join her in recognising national stalking awareness day and the fact that, this year, emphasis is being put on raising awareness of stalking among young people.

Although stalking is not exclusively a women’s issue, I understand that it affects women disproportionately, with one in six women being stalked at some point in her life. Young women especially are affected. As Rhoda Grant points out in her motion, stalking can manifest itself in a number of ways and needs to be taken seriously.

Stalking is not romantic, trivial or funny—it is worrying, serious and illegal. Contrary to common belief, most stalkers are former partners or friends of victims or are, as Kenny MacAskill and Margaret McCulloch pointed out, somehow known to them. The British crime survey shows that threatening phone calls and letters are the most common types of stalking behaviour, but as Margaret McCulloch illustrated, victims can also be followed and spied on. Indeed, some have had their homes broken into or have been the victims of violent behaviour.

There is no doubt that advances in technology have led to a huge increase in cyberstalking, which Rhoda Grant and other members mentioned. It is a particular issue for young people and students, given the high level of social media use among younger age groups. Although it is not a physical method of stalking, it can be just as intimidating; after all, we as elected members know the level of abuse and vitriol that can be directed at people online. Moreover, according to the domestic violence charity Women’s Aid, 41 per cent of women reported that a partner or ex-partner had tracked them down through their online activities, and 36 per cent of those women claimed that they had felt threatened by such behaviour. At this point, I should say that it is important that Women’s Aid gets support for its vital work, which is why I was pleased to note today that Scottish Labour’s women’s manifesto has committed to investing more than £2 million in Women’s Aid centres across Scotland.

We must acknowledge that any kind of bullying is unacceptable and can lead to tragedy. Indeed, young victims of bullying can take to self-harm, with suicide as the tragic outcome. Given that stalking can be a particularly extreme form of bullying that commonly involves violent and even murderous behaviour, it is important that victims of stalking, especially young people, are supported and are educated about what stalking is and, as both Margaret Mitchell and the “Hidden Marks” report have highlighted, how it can be reported. We must also ensure that there are strong links between the police, the national health service, student unions and specialist voluntary services to make the process easier for victims.

In closing, I echo the sentiment that is expressed in the motion that

“bullying in its severest form is stalking”.

I once again congratulate Rhoda Grant on bringing this important issue to the chamber.

Photo of Marco Biagi Marco Biagi Scottish National Party

First of all, I join the chorus of members who have acknowledged Rhoda Grant’s securing of this members’ business debate to highlight the scourge of stalking and give this important issue the chamber time that it deserves. I absolutely support the sentiment that is expressed in the motion, which recognises the severity of stalking and its effect on adults and young people alike, and I also agree with the remarks that Ms Grant made in her speech that it is important to keep in mind the distinction between bullying, which is unacceptable behaviour, and stalking, which is a criminal offence.

The NUS’s “Hidden Marks” report, which was published in 2010, provides a real sense of the damaging effects of stalking on young women. It states that 12 per cent of women students who participated in the NUS’s national online survey between August 2009 and March 2010 reported that they had been subjected to stalking. In those cases, almost 90 per cent of perpetrators were men and most were known to their victims. That is broadly in line with other findings. For example, in 2012-13, the Scottish crime and justice survey found that 8 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds and 10 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds had experienced at least one form of stalking or harassing behaviour in the previous 12 months.

As we have heard, stalkers exhibit a wide range of behaviours. They follow victims; they send unwanted messages and gifts; they damage property; and, as Margaret McCulloch pointed out, they even invade homes. As has been made clear, the opening up of the online sphere of human interaction has in many ways created new opportunities for those behaviours to manifest themselves.

As Kenny MacAskill suggested, the sense that in some official eyes such acts might individually appear to be trivial has led to the issue not being taken as seriously as it should be. However, when those acts are viewed through the eyes of a victim of stalking, they take on a new and chilling form, and their severity is indisputable.

Contrary to the popular perception of stalkers as strangers who obsessively watch and follow their victims, in reality most stalkers are known to their victims, as Margaret Mitchell pointed out. Indeed, stalking can be perpetrated by the victim’s partner or ex-partner as part of a broader pattern of abusive and controlling behaviour. The links to wider issues of violence against women are clear.

For people who experience stalking, it can have a massive impact on their lives and cause considerable fear and distress. A quarter of the women students who reported stalking in the NUS survey said that it had affected their mental health, studies and relationships. In the most serious cases, stalking can be a precursor to serious assault, rape or even murder.

We have supported strengthening of the criminal law to deal with stalking. We supported bill amendments that Rhoda Grant lodged that led to the introduction of the statutory stalking offence in 2010. The maximum penalty when a person is tried on indictment is five years in prison.

We are currently consulting on a number of measures to strengthen the criminal law further in a number of areas in relation to violence against women. For example, we are consulting on whether a new offence is required better to reflect the true nature of domestic abuse as experienced by victims, including patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour, and a new specific offence that is related to the non-consensual sharing of intimate images—commonly referred to as “revenge porn”.

That is in addition to of funding commitments that were announced on 28 March. Over the next three years, we will invest an additional £20 million to tackle and better support victims of violence against women. That is on top of record funding for initiatives to tackle violence against women, with £11.8 million having been allocated for 2015-16.

Stalking is different from bullying. We take bullying very seriously: bullying of any kind is unacceptable and must be tackled quickly wherever it arises, whether in the home, in the workplace or in school. We want every child and young person in Scotland to grow up free from bullying, and we want them to develop respectful, responsible and confident relationships with other children, young people and adults. However, it is important that there is a clear distinction between bullying and stalking. Stalking is criminal and involves people—usually men—using it to establish power and control over their victims. Sexual assault and exploitation are not types of bullying; they are abuse. Although those behaviours may start out as bullying, we must ensure that our children and young people and society as a whole understand that sexually aggressive behaviour and bullying are completely unacceptable and that, without confusing the two, the consequences of taking part in either can be serious.

We do not believe that criminal behaviour including stalking, domestic abuse, rape or sexual assault is inevitable. Preventing that offending behaviour requires us to take action to challenge the negative attitudes and societal power struggles that often underpin it.

We are supporting work in schools by the mentors in violence prevention Scotland programme, which is an approach to gender violence that aims to equip our young people with an understanding of what constitutes healthy relationships and which creates an environment in which negative behaviours can be challenged. That should be part of everybody’s contribution and role. We are also supporting a partnership that is led by respectme and a range of partners from Rape Crisis Scotland and Zero Tolerance to the child exploitation and online protection centre, which aims to raise awareness of gender-based issues including bullying, harassment and violence.

We can see from the figures that, since the offence of stalking was introduced in October 2010, the number of offences that have been recorded by the police in Scotland has increased year on year. In 2013-14, 875 offences were recorded, which is a 45 per cent increase on the 605 offences that were recorded in the previous year. We believe that that is due to more victims of stalking having confidence in the police and our criminal justice system. A range of members have highlighted that that is vital to ensure that those crimes are reported and can be tackled. The figures will go up before they go down, but they must go down, and they will go down.

We should all recognise the devastating effect of stalking on victims, and we should continue in the chamber and beyond to work to eradicate it and all other forms of violence against women.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I thank you all for taking part in this important debate.

Meeting closed at 17:34.