HC Deb 06 March 1996 vol 273 cc370-1

5 pm

Ms Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a new criminal offence of stalking and for a prohibitory order with criminal sanctions against stalking; and for related purposes. I am grateful for this opportunity to raise an issue of importance to women in the week of International Women's Day. There has been much publicity this week about Tracey Sant, who suffered a three-year hate campaign of a former colleague Anthony Burstow. The details almost defy credibility. Burstow's unpleasant activities included sending Miss Sant a soiled sanitary towel, stealing her underwear from a washing line, pouring solvent over her car and writing her sinister notes—all because when Miss Sant decided to end their friendship, Burstow refused to accept it. He embarked on an excessive campaign that has left an indelible mark on her health and life. Earlier this week, Reading Crown court gaoled him for three years for inflicting psychological grievous bodily harm.

That was the first case of a stalker being convicted of grievous bodily harm, but it took five days of tortuous legal wrangling before the court was able to reach a decision. The reason is simple: the law is inadequate to deal with the problem. That is why the police sergeant involved in the case has called for action to make it easier to prosecute stalkers.

The Police Federation has also come out in favour of a specific crime of stalking. The editorial in Police last month revealed that the police annual conference will call on the Government to introduce laws to combat such criminal harassment. As it pointed out: it is frightening enough knowing your every move is being watched, that you are being followed. But what if you are being trailed day after day, bombarded with unwanted letters, flowers and gifts, plagued with telephone calls and even go to collect your child from school to find a stranger has beaten you to it. It can ruin your life and that is what is happening now to ordinary people, mainly women. Vanessa Kennedy, a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice), was subjected to an eight-year ordeal that she describes as psychological torture. She still lives in fear of the man who has forced her to change her identity, destroyed her family and driven her to move house. She has attempted to commit suicide four times. Vanessa claims that Laurence Hammond threatened to cut her into pieces and make her pay for her rejection of him. He would describe in detail how he would torture her and other women; the images were terrible, and still give her nightmares.

Those who describe stalking as merely a nuisance should try speaking to a victim. They are mistaken if they think that just celebrities and members of the royal family suffer. The stories of ordinary women's lives that are devastated by the actions of obsessive former partners, or sometimes complete strangers, go largely unreported. Only victims who can afford to or who are entitled to legal aid can resort to civil law. Even then, an injunction is often not worth the paper on which it is written.

When ordinary victims turn to the police for help, the police are sympathetic, but tell them that, other than giving them a mobile phone, possibly installing a panic button in their home and driving past their house every so often, there is very little that they can do. Stalkers know that; when they are convicted of offences such as breach of the peace and making nuisance telephone calls, they learn to restrict their behaviour, keeping just within the law.

The unwanted attention can go on for months, even years. Some victims close to breakdown have felt that the only way in which to escape their stalker is to flee abroad. Others, their lives in tatters, can only pray that their tormentor will tire and move on, or be imprisoned for another offence. While the targets of obsession go on suffering, police officers throughout Britain are frustrated and angry about the absence of a specific offence of stalking.

During the passage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, an amendment that would have introduced a new offence of stalking, which was supported by Labour members of the Committee, was voted down by the Government. At the time, we deplored the Government's failure to take the opportunity to provide protection for women who are subjected to obsessive and frightening harassment.

British women who have been stalked are frustrated by the inadequacy of British law. In the words of one: You get to the stage where you think the only way the police will take action is if he sticks a knife in you". It is time that Britain followed the example of Canada, America and Australia, where stalking is a crime.

The National Anti-Stalking and Harassment Campaign recently submitted detailed proposals to the Home Office that would give greater protection to victims of stalking. If stalkers are not stopped, they can go on to assault the object of their obsession; in extreme cases, they may commit rape, and they may even commit murder, with which the family of Catherine Ayling is still struggling to come to terms. We must have new legislation to put an end to such a travesty of justice, which destroys the lives of many women. Stalking must be made a crime.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Janet Anderson, Ms Tessa Jowell, Mrs. Bridget Prentice, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Ms Ann Coffey, Mrs. Margaret Hodge, Mr. Mike O'Brien, Ms Jean Corston, Mrs. Helen Jackson, Mr. Don Touhig, Mrs. Anne Campbell and Mrs. Maria Fyfe.

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