HC Deb 28 April 1999 vol 330 cc346-8 3.37 pm
Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to empower the courts to make orders which restrain the conduct or movements of a person convicted of certain criminal offences, for the purpose of protecting the victim of the offence; to make similar provision with respect to orders which require statutory agencies to provide services to certain persons; and for connected purposes.

When I first considered the introduction of a ten-minute rule Bill, I wanted to revisit the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 to see whether a definition of stalking is now needed. The Act does not define stalking and, having discussed the matter with a number of interested groups— including the Suzy Lamplugh Trust—it seemed that the Act itself is better for that.

I believe that part of the Act's success is due to the introduction of restraining orders that prevent the perpetrator from contacting his victim after sentence is served. Restraining orders had not originally been part of my Bill, but were added after advice from Tim Lawson Cruttenden and Neil Addison—two lawyers who also advised my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) now the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting, when she introduced the original Stalking Bill as a ten-minute rule Bill in 1996. I am grateful to them for the support that they have given me with my Bill. They, too, had the support of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and the Association of Chief Police Officers.

It seems to me and to the supporters of the Bill that, if such orders were successful in stopping stalkers from harassing their victims again, it may well be appropriate to extend them to others who might return on their release from prison to victimise their original target. It is for that reason that I want to give the courts—it must be the courts —the opportunity and flexibility to impose restraining orders on people convicted of other serious crimes.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is rightly keen to redress the balance in favour of the victim. For example, that is why the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill has been so warmly welcomed. Protecting witnesses and victims while they are giving evidence is essential to ensuring that people who commit serious crimes are brought to book. However, it is equally important that they are also protected after the criminal has served his sentence.

The criminal courts have been able to impose bail conditions for many years, and typical conditions include staying away from the victim or from specific areas. However, the fact that such conditions end once the defendant has been sentenced often produces results that the victim finds difficult to understand. It seems odd that a defendant who claims to be innocent—and who may indeed be innocent—can be forbidden from contacting someone whom he is alleged to have assaulted, but that, once he has been convicted, he is free to return to, to speak to, and therefore to cause fear and concern to, the person whom he has been convicted of assaulting.

Restraining orders are currently restricted to convictions under sections 2 and 4 of the Protection from Harassment Act—in other words, a defendant who merely causes another to fear that violence will be used against him or her can be ordered not to contact the victim again, but someone who actually uses violence cannot be made subject to a similar order. An example of that might be the recent case of Burstow, the stalker who was released having served a three-year sentence for causing psychological bodily harm to Tracey Morgan. He immediately began contacting her again, but the police were powerless to do anything until he had done enough to breach the Protection from Harassment Act.

Burstow's contacting his victim again was not enough to cause a breach, as there was no order specifically prohibiting him from doing so. My Bill would rectify that, and cover many other incidents of the sort that victims experience all too often. It is simply not true that victims who express alarm that, "The man who raped me now lives around the corner," are automatically calling for him to be returned to prison. What they want is for him to be prevented from having any contact with them again, so enabling them to rebuild their lives in peace.

Let me give a couple of examples of the sort of people whom I hope would be affected by the Bill. Currently, the only way a victim of domestic violence can ensure safety is through a civil injunction. Unless the woman qualifies for legal aid, that has to be obtained at her own expense, and she certainly has to endure two court appearances in respect of the same incident. A burglar who returns to the estate that he robbed or a drug dealer who returns to his favourite corner cannot be prevented from doing so. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 addressed some of those issues, but it can be applied only through a court other than the one in which the criminal was originally convicted. In addition, it appears that that Act applies only to offences affecting a community, rather than a single individual.

Extending restraining orders to other serious offences would mean that, at the same time as a prison sentence was imposed, a burglar could be prevented from revisiting the estate on release, or a rapist could be prevented from contacting the person he has raped or returning to the area in which the rape occurred. My Bill would cover any offence punishable with imprisonment of five years or more—in other words, a serious arrestable offence. It would also cover certain other offences relating to the use or threat of violence, racial hatred and personal harassment.

Where a crime of common assault or domestic violence occurs, the victim would benefit from a court order being attached to the prison sentence. Such an order would be quicker, it would reduce the need for legal aid because it would be dealt with by the sentencing court, and it would be processed by the Crown Prosecution Service. The order would also be of considerable help to victims of domestic violence because a civil injunction does not carry with it the powers of arrest.

The second part of the Bill relates to what I have called protection orders. The two orders are thematically linked. If a person believes himself to be a danger to others, or if a statutory agency such as a health authority can provide evidence to a court that a person is likely to be a danger to others, a protection order may be made which would mean that the person concerned was taken into protective custody. A breach of the order would not, in itself, be a criminal offence, but the police could detain the person in police custody and return him or her to a place stipulated by the health authority. The order would have to be made by a circuit judge in a county court, and he would have to give written reasons for his judgment. The police or the local authority could be asked to provide information if the request were reasonable. The case of Michael Stone, who was convicted of the brutal murder of Mrs. Russell and her daughter Megan, might have fallen into that category.

The measure would affect only a small number of people, but it would provide an opportunity to protect both the individual and the potential victim of a serious violent offence. That protection to the individual and to his potential victim is very much in line with the European convention on human rights. For that reason, I hope that the House will be able to support this Bill. It will give further assurances to the general public—and to victims in particular—that we are serious about protecting our citizens from violence, from the fear of violence and from intrusion into their lives.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Bridget Prentice, Mr. Vernon Coaker, Ms Ann Coffey, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Mr. John Heppell, Mr. Phil Hope, Mrs. Jacqui Lait, Kali Mountford, Mr. Ian Pearson and Joan Ruddock.