This is my column from the Ham & High published last Thursday:
There was a girl I knew when I was growing up – let’s call her Joanna for the purposes of this column. We shared our growing pains from school dramas, parental clashes (hers) paternal loss (mine) and of course – boyfriend issues.
One such boyfriend turned out to be a nightmare after Joanna had ended their relationship. One night she called me, came over and in tears told me what she was going through: phone calls that never stopped – persistent following. Whenever she came out of wherever she was – he would be outside. One night I remember she called me because he was in the garden outside her flat just standing looking up at her window. She was frightened and felt hounded and abused – as if her life wasn’t her own.
Joanna’s suffering only stopped when she moved abroad. But her suffering, albeit truly dreadful, was of a different order than the experiences of the three women I met on Monday in Manchester.
I was there to launch the Coalition Government’s consultation on stalking. There I met Rachel and Kelly – victims of terrifying stalking themselves – and Sarah. Sarah’s sister Katy had ended up being murdered by her partner. There were countless incidences, police called, social services involvement, family involvement – but none of the interventions held sway. And that is the issue – that despite the fact we have the laws in place to deal with stalking – still victims feel they are being let down.
The tales told to me in Manchester were of clear threats being present and opportunities to address the harm being missed, sentences not passed, agencies not acting, police not taking the issue seriously enough, prosecutors not passing stiff enough sentences, breaches of restraining orders being virtually ignored.
In Joanna’s day (over 30 years ago) – that was just tough. The police weren’t interested and if there was no actual assault – then women (and men) just had to put up with it.
Since 1997 we have had the Protection from Harassment Act (1997). This is the law which is there to protect all of us from stalking in all its forms. The Act was drafted so that it might extend to any form of persistent conduct which causes alarm or distress. However, it doesn’t specifically mention the word stalking or cyber stalking.
Stalking and cyber stalking are included within the Act, but some campaigners and organisations in this arena believe that because the actual words are not mentioned specifically – the police do not always realise that the Act can be used to tackle stalking and fail to take the appropriate action to deal with it.
The definition used in the British Crime Survey is ‘two or more incidents (causing distress, fear or alarm) of obscene or threatening unwanted letters or phone calls, waiting or loitering around home or workplace following or watching, or interfering with or damaging personal property by any person, including a partner of family member’.
According to the British Crime Survey last year almost 1 in 25 women aged 16-59 are a victim of stalking every year. Over a lifetime, stalking affects almost one in five women and one in ten men.
Stalking is an issue which profoundly affects many lives often in the most devastating ways and it is a priority in the Government’s program to tackle violence against women and girls and is underpinned by the ‘Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls – Action Plan which you can see at http://www.homeoffice.govuk/vawg
Stalking removes our most basic of rights – that of feeling safe in our own skin and in control of our own life. The effect of stalking on victims’ lives can be incredibly wide-reaching. Stalking is a crime of power, control and intimidation, with victims denied the right to chose who is in their lives and who is not. It is a crime which can reach into every corner of a victim’s life and every minute of their day.
Whether it is training or attitudes for the police and other agencies, the impact of the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines or whether restraining orders are effective or not or whether it is a change in the terminology in the law or both – action is clearly needed.
That is why we need to know what more we can do to ensure that perpetrators of this crime are brought to justice and victims have support. That is why we are consulting to see what more we might be able to do.
The consultation will run for twelve weeks.