At last, justice for victims of stalking. I am delighted that the Government is taking decisive action to strengthen protections for those targeted by this horrible, violating crime. The decision to double the maximum sentence from five to ten years doesn't just recognise the seriousness of this offence, most important of all, it gives the courts the tools they need to keep victims safe.
This moment represents the culmination of a long campaign in Parliament which I launched alongside Richard Graham MP (Gloucester) back in September 2015. I would like to pay particular tribute to my constituent, a Cheltenham GP named Dr Eleanor Aston, whose case I took up in the House of Commons. Dr Aston has shown great bravery following her horrendous seven-year ordeal which first triggered my call for change. Her courage means that judges will now have the powers they need to put victims first.
Her stalker was a former patient whose fixation started in 2007. He turned up at her surgery over a hundred times. He posted foul items through the letter box. He followed her on patient visits, slashed her tyres, and sent threatening mail. He even appeared at a children's birthday party her daughter was attending. After serving a short prison sentence, he restarted his campaign - a pattern which is not uncommon in this type of offence.
Dr Aston received packages at her surgery in Gloucester and her home in Cheltenham. They were threatening and abusive and one made clear he knew where her children went to school. The second package simply said "Guess who's back". When he was arrested again, a search on his computer revealed the enquiry "How long after a person disappears are they assumed dead?"
The effect on Dr Aston was profound. She was advised by police to change her name and job, and move address. It was suggested she should come off the GMC register. At one point she had to leave work and developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It's clear that the judge at the sentencing hearing thought he did not have the tools he needed. At Gloucester Crown Court, the judge stated that he had "no doubt" that the stalker was dangerous and that he posed a "significant risk to [her] in terms of causing her serious harm". But he went on to express frustration that the maximum sentence was five years, adding "I would if I could give you longer."
And therein lays the problem. Early release rules require that in practice a five-year maximum means that a stalker who pleads guilty for the worst imaginable offence will serve just 18-20 months. That's insufficient time for meaningful psychiatric treatment and rehabilitation. And it's insufficient time to allow victims to feel truly safe.
The five-year maximum didn't make sense when compared with other offences either. Shoplifting carries a longer maximum (seven years). Domestic burglary, which similarly can leave victims feeling violated and traumatized, has a fourteen-year maximum.
The call for change was launched with a debate in the House of Commons I led in autumn 2015 and included the publication of a detailed written report making the case for improved protections that Richard Graham MP and I co-authored. I am grateful for the tide of support received from so many organisations outside Parliament, from victim groups, and also from MPs of all parties. I am grateful too to Baroness Jan Royall for leading Opposition support for these changes in the House of Lords, by tabling amendments to the Police and Crime Bill.
Stalking destroys lives. Now, at long last, the courts can keep victims safe.