Alex Chalk is MP for Cheltenham, and Richard Graham is MP for Gloucester.
Stalking matters. According to Paladin, a national stalking charity, one in five women and one in ten men will be affected by stalking during their lives.
And the effect on victims can be serious. A staggering 40 per cent of domestic homicides are preceded by an episode or episodes of stalking, according to the Metropolitan Police.
Even in the less serious cases, lives can be destroyed. Victims can be forced to move home or change jobs. Others see their relationships fall apart.
Even psychological injury, in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is not uncommon. Nor are these wild exaggerations: we have met individuals who have suffered in all these ways and more.
So, given all that, how does the criminal law protect victims? Not very robustly, it turns out. The maximum sentence for the even the most serious cases of stalking is just five years’ imprisonment (of which the defendant serves only half).
To put that in context, the law provides for a longer sentence (seven years) for stealing a Mars Bar. That seems hard to justify. By way of comparison, the maximum for an offence which can leave victims feeling similarly violated and traumatised – domestic burglary – is fourteen years.
The other reality is that short sentences can simply make matters worse. Research shows that 42 per cent of those convicted go on to commit a further stalking offence. Clearly the five years maximum is insufficient for any real chance at rehabilitation.
Evidence we gathered from a national stalking charity suggests that shorter sentences can even increase the risk of harm to a victim. As obsessive stalkers are locked up for only weeks at a time, they often further fixate on their victim, and are then released without the social constraints of relationships or a job which they likely lost on imprisonment.
So why are we taking up this issue? The trigger has been the case of a Cheltenham GP, Dr Eleanor Aston. In May 2015, her stalker was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for his second conviction for stalking. It was a harrowing tale.
Raymond Knight’s campaign against Dr Aston started in 2007; it included slashing her tyres, appearing at one of her children’s birthday parties, and probably burning down her house. Dr Aston’s life was plagued for eight years and she developed PTSD.
When passing sentence in Dr Aston’s case, His Honour Judge Tabor QC stated: “I am frustrated that the maximum sentence for harassment is five years. I would, if I could, give you longer”.
The case shone a light on a gap in the law, which is clearly insufficiently robust to protect victims. Further research revealed to us that this was no anomaly. Stalking is obsessive, and many cases show that these small, often repeated sentences have little effect.
Claire Waxman, who set up the charity Voice4Victims, told us about the five convictions given over ten years which did little to deter the man who stalked her. He even visited her daughter’s nursery and followed her after work in his car, receiving only two years’ imprisonment on his third breach of a restraining order.
Minister for Sentencing, Dominic Raab MP, has seen our report and found it very informative, saying that it highlights the ‘ordeals that victims of stalking have suffered’, and we hope that this will continue to be the case in educating others about the impact of stalking as the campaign goes on.
He is ‘in principle, supportive of a move to increase the maximum penalty for stalking’. This is an encouraging backdrop to our launch of the report in Parliament and we hope many MPs will want to support it.
This week is National Stalking Awareness Week, when we take the time to recognise the realities of stalking, and look at ways to better protect victims. It is only by increasing the maximum sentence from five to ten years’ imprisonment that we can give the courts the tools they need to do justice and do right by these survivors.
It’s time for victims to be properly protected – and so our campaign continues as we push for this change.
If you have been affected by stalking, please call the National Stalking Helpline on 0808 802 0300 for advice and support.