POLITICS

Stalkers To Face 10 Years In Prison As Government U-Turns Under Pressure From Cross-Party Campaign

Victim whose ordeal sparked change in law welcomes change

05/01/2017 21:36 GMT | Updated 06/01/2017 08:50 GMT
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Stalkers are to face a new maximum jail sentence of 10 years after ministers caved to pressure from a cross-party campaign to increase protection for victims.

The Ministry of Justice announced it would adopt tough new measures in the Policing and Crime Bill due to return to the Commons next week.

The move was swiftly welcomed by GP Dr Ellie Aston, whose own stalking ordeal and “eight years of horror” sparked the change in the law.

The current maximum five-year sentence for stalking will be doubled, and the jail term for offences which are racially or religiously aggravated will be increased from seven to 14 years.

The concession avoids a potentially embarrassing rebellion by Tory MPs, who have allied with Labour peers, Lib Dems and crossbenchers in the House of Lords to demand longer prison sentences.

The change was first revealed on Thursday night by Tory MP Alex Chalk, who has campaigned for stricter sentences on behalf of Dr Aston, a constituent of his in Cheltenham.

Writing on his Facebook page, Chalk said: “I’m absolutely delighted to announce that the campaign to better protect victims of stalking has been successful”. Within hours, the Ministry of Justice confirmed the news.

Blogging for HuffPost UK, the MP said: “The five-year maximum didn’t make sense when compared with other offences either. Shoplifting carries a longer maximum of seven years. Domestic burglary..has a fourteen-year maximum.

“Stalking destroys lives. Now, at long last, the courts can keep victims safe.”

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Tory MP Alex Chalk

The Government was defeated on the issue in December after an amendment by Labour’s Baroness Royall was backed despite claims from the Ministry of Justice and Home Office that the current law was sufficient.

HuffPostUK revealed last month that ministers were considering backing down as Downing Street left open the prospect that Theresa May would agree to stronger deterrents for a crime that plagues the lives of thousands of women.

The National Stalking Helpline dealt with more than 3,550 calls in 2016. 

But in 2015, just 194 people were convicted of stalking, with a further 835 guilty of putting people ‘in fear of violence’. The average custodial sentence for stalking was just 14.1 months, way below what campaigners have demanded.

Chalk and fellow Tory backbencher Richard Graham began their campaign after local GP Dr Aston was stalked for eight years by former patient Raymond Knight.

In March 2015 Knight was sentenced to five years imprisonment, but the judge revealed that he would have sentenced him to longer in prison if he could.

Knight launched his campaign of harassment on the 39-year-old family doctor, after becoming her patient at Hadwen Practice in Gloucestershire in 2007. 

He was jailed in 2013 but within weeks of being released he resumed a campaign of threats and harassment against the married mother of two.

ITV
Dr Ellie Aston

One package declared: “You f****** bitch. We now know where you live, where your daughters go to school, your car registration, where you and your husband work. We have been watching you.”

Another sent to her home, written it capital letters, read: ‘Guess who’s back? I’m back.’ 

Dr Aston said on Friday: “I am absolutely thrilled that a campaign which began for me 18 months ago has finally led to a significant change in the law which will benefit stalking victims everywhere.

“When the man who has stalked me for 8 years is released from prison later this year, he is highly likely to reoffend, but now there is the prospect of a much longer prison sentence which will give my family and I the peace we need and deserve.”

The GP said “the government had to sit up and listen” after her local MPs got involved, adding that “Baroness Royall stepped up at a critical moment to convince the House of Lords of the absolute necessity of this change in legislation”.

She also praised Paladin, the National Stalking Advocacy Service, for its support.

“Today turns 8 years of horror on its head for me and my family, and gives all victims of stalking more protection against the perpetrators of this soul and life-destroying crime”

Chalk wrote on his Facebook page on Thursday night: “This is the culmination of a long and difficult campaign both inside and outside Parliament.

“I would like to pay particular tribute to my constituent, Dr Ellie Aston, whose case I took up in the House of Commons alongside Richard Graham MP.

“Dr Aston has shown great bravery following her horrendous ordeal. Her courage means the courts will now have the powers they need to protect future victims of this horrible crime.”

Gyimah, who tabled an amendment to the bill on Friday, said: “Stalkers torment their victims and can make everyday life almost unbearable.

“We are doubling the maximum sentences available to the courts so these awful crimes can be properly punished. I would like to thank Alex Chalk MP and Richard Graham MP for their considerable efforts in highlighting this issue.

“We are also working across the criminal justice system to ensure mental health issues associated with these crimes are properly addressed.”

Home Secretary Amber Rudd is already including new protection orders to intervene early to keep victims safe and stop ‘stranger stalking’ before it escalates.

But the change in the law is a significant U-turn by the Government. 

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Home Secretary Amber Rudd

Home Office minister Baroness Williams opposed the Royall amendment last month, telling peers that raising the maximum jail term was not “a straightforward solution in this case” and instead offered a review of the law.

“It may be necessary in due course ​but, before moving to raise the maximum, we should give careful consideration to the implications for other related offences and avoid creating anomalies in the criminal law.”

Peers ignored her pleas and voted by 160 to 149 to back the doubling of the sentence.

And with 16 Tory MPs having already backed a Private Members’ Bill by Chalk and Graham, ministers were facing defeat in the Commons too.

Baroness Royall said: “I am very proud that my amendment which gained cross party support in the Lords last month precipitated Government action before the debate in the Commons next Tuesday. 

“This will ensure that the punishment fits the crime and most importantly it will ensure justice for the victims whose lives have been blighted.”

One in five women and one in ten men will experience stalking in their lifetime according to Home Office statistics. A Metropolitan Police study found more than 40% of the victims of domestic homicide had been stalked.

Alastair Grant/AP
Lily Allen

Recent victims have included pop star Lily Allen, online campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Labour MP Stella Creasy. Tory MPs such as Nadine Dorries and Philip Davies have experienced stalker threats too.

Allen told last year of her seven-year ordeal at the hands of obsessive Alex Gray, who was eventually sectioned under mental health laws.

Campaign group Paladin produced a report last year which found that “light touch sentences” meant only 11% of stalkers received an immediate custodial sentence for offences.

Laura Richards, who founded Paladin after she was herself stalked, blogged on HuffPost last month of the devastating impact of harassment and stalking offences.

“Stalking is a serious, insidious and psychological crime that destroys lives. It is about fixation and obsession and means that assessment, treatment and risk management are required in cases.

“However, short sentences do not allow for treatment provision. This leaves victims further vulnerable to psychological and physical harm, as well as stalkers on a trajectory to further psychosocial damage, which is unacceptable. Victims pay with their lives.”