A Private Members’ Bill proposing measures to increase protection for victims of stalking passed second reading in the House of Commons yesterday afternoon, with all-party support.
The Stalking Protection Bill, sponsored at second reading by Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes)(Con), proposes to intervene earlier and more effectively, not only in-person stalking by persons known to their victims, but also online stalking by individuals who are not known to those they stalk. Dr Wollaston stated,
There remains in the law…a serious gap when it comes to victims of what is known as stranger stalking, by which I mean those who are stalked by someone who is not a former or current intimate partner. Those victims of stalking do not have recourse to the protections available under the existing protection order regime. That is well recognised, which is why I think there is widespread support for the Bill. If we can step in at an earlier stage, perhaps we will have a better opportunity to prevent stalking before the behaviour can become so deeply engrained.
Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman agreed, noting that cases of stalking have been increasingly switching from personal to online. “The law finds it very difficult when someone is being stalked from elsewhere in the world”, he said.
Dr Wollaston confirmed that the Bill “specifically notes that acts carried out from outside this country will also be taken into account, particularly with regard to online stalking”. This will come as welcome news to victims who have been stalked and harassed by individuals posting from beyond this country’s borders.
Stalking Protection Orders
If the Bill is enacted into law, it will introduce a form of early intervention in cases of stalking, in the form of Stalking Protection Orders, which would be civil in nature but which would carry a criminal penalty if they were breached. This is not intended to replace prosecution where the criminal threshold has been met, but rather will offer a tool to ensure that victims are protected during the extremely stressful (and often long) interim period between reporting the crime and seeing it proceed to court.
Stalking Protection Orders “are intended to act not only in those types of cases, but perhaps where the criminal threshold has not been met but it is recognised that the acts are at risk of escalating”, said Dr Wollaston, adding that penalties for criminal breach will have “real teeth, with a maximum sentence of up to five years”.
The civil protection orders will allow us to put in place a bespoke regime of not only prohibitions but requirements on the perpetrators, setting out very clearly what they must not do—in other words, stop contacting not only the victim but those around them—and setting out the ways in which that might take place. In some cases, perpetrators are not well, so the Bill will also allow the court to set a requirement that they attend a mental health assessment. There is also a notification requirement: perpetrators would have to give notification of all the names and aliases that they used in order to stalk their victims, and their address.
Cheltenham MP Alex Chalk pointed out that while “sentencing is principally about protecting victims after stalking has spiralled out of control, the SPOs are about arming the courts with tools to address this behaviour beforehand; they are about prevention as well as protection”.
Mr Chalk pointed out that the SPOs set out in the Bill
will provide a powerful tool to be used while a stalking investigation is ongoing. They will give the magistrates courts a larger and better equipped toolbox with which to tackle such behaviour at an early stage and to protect victims. An order will be able to prohibit acts associated with stalking or require an individual to do anything described in the order. That can be used to impose positive obligations, which is an important difference. Ordinary bail conditions can say, ‘You must not go within a hundred yards of that address’ or ‘You must attend court on such and such an occasion’, but this order could impose positive obligations, including an obligation to attend drugs or alcohol programmes.
This could be a positive step for victims of people promoting the Hampstead SRA hoax: once issued with an SPO, perpetrators could be required not only to refrain from future stalking behaviour, but also to remove posts currently online.
‘One of the most psychologically destructive crimes’
Calling stalking “one of the most psychologically destructive crimes”, Rotherham MP Sarah Champion cited the words of a stalking victim from last year’s “Living in Fear” report, a joint project from the Crown Prosecution Service and the Inspectorate of Constabulary:
‘You carry it all the time…it’s with you day in day out. Day in day out…it’s in the back of your mind all the time, ‘What is he going to do? What are we going to find…Who’s going to come knocking at our door?’
Imagine how that feels. Imagine feeling too scared to go out to get a pint of milk or walk your dog. Imagine feeling so scared that you have to move house. …
Stalking does not have to lead to physical violence to be incredibly harmful. In a case study from the “Living in fear” report, Elaine became aware of seven websites that were created about her containing malicious content, including pictures of her and details of her personal life which were then shared with her children and employers. When Elaine initially contacted the police, she felt that they were not interested. They advised Elaine that there was not enough evidence to arrest the person as there was no direct threat. It took 12 months of monitoring the posts before the person was arrested. Understandably, Elaine was scared to go out of the house. She had to change to a lower-paid job where she would have some anonymity. Her children had to move schools and she has suffered with anxiety.
A stalking protection order would have given the police an option for an early intervention that would have protected Elaine while the investigation was ongoing. Like Elaine, many victims report being unsatisfied with the police response to stalking.
MPs discussed the need for better internet tracking capability, as well as the urgent need to bring police up to speed on the reality of stalking.
Banbury MP Victoria Prentis described a chilling case of stalking which had occurred in her constituency, noting that the stalker did not limit his attention only to his victim, but contacted members of her family. This is a familiar story to those targetted by the Hampstead hoax: they were harassed online, but also had to cope with vitriolic and disgusting emails and texts sent to their friends and families. One person reported that Charlotte Ward had “mined” his Facebook friends list, sending messages to all 300 of his friends and family, notifying them that he was a “baby-eating paedophile”.
Mr Chalk pointed out that
if the SPOs are going to work, they will have to be deployed quickly. If there is too much delay, there is a risk of the behaviour becoming entrenched and therefore far more difficult to address. Why do I say that? Because my experience as a prosecutor in court, prosecuting offences of this nature and speaking to witnesses and victims, tells me that committed, entrenched stalkers show themselves unwilling to comply with orders of the court, or even incapable of so doing, even though that might lead to imprisonment. Very often, by the time someone gets to the long process of prosecution, the stalker will have ignored the police officer who told them to stop, and they will have ignored the harassment warning and the bail conditions that ordered them to stop. If a solution is to work, the problem needs to get nipped in the bud early, which will require police officers to take matters seriously.
In other words, standing back and hoping that the stalking behaviour will pass, as seems to have happened on so many levels in the Hampstead case, is simply not good enough.
What does this mean for Hampstead hoax victims?
At present, while this Bill shows encouraging signs of progress in the treatment of cases of stalking, it means very little in practical terms. As the following graphic will show, it has now passed second reading, and will proceed to the Committee stage:
While this is a significant achievement for a Private Members’ Bill, most of which die on the Order Paper or at first reading, it will be some time before the Bill can pass through all the stages needed to receive Royal Assent (assuming it makes it that far). Will it be enacted in time to help victims of this hoax? Given the glacial pace at which Westminster tends to work, that’s doubtful. (Then again, back in 2015 we all thought the Hampstead hoax would be over within the year. Slight miscalculation there.)
Even so, we see this as a very positive, forward-thinking development in the approach to stalking—particularly stalking of the online variety—and we wholeheartedly applaud it, along with those who have helped it proceed to this stage