HL Deb 06 February 1996 vol 569 cc117-9

2.55 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to legislate to combat the stalking of women by men.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the Government have recently completed an examination of the anti-stalking laws passed in the United States, Australia and Canada and are currently considering whether workable and effective legislation to combat stalkers can be introduced in the United Kingdom.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I am grateful for that constructive response. Does the Minister agree that some 5,500 people, the overwhelming majority of them women, have complained of being stalked, and that stalking induces terror and devastates their lives? That is before any assault or rape which sometimes follows. When the noble Baroness discusses these matters in relation to the United States, will she bear in mind the example of Los Angeles where a threat management unit has been established with legislation and penalties specifically aimed at this serious and obnoxious offence?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord about the horror of stalking, the fear it generates and the physical violence which is often the end result. I am able to say to the noble Lord that we are looking at lessons to be learned from abroad. The noble Lord will know that the picture is patchy. There is not a uniform approach to stalking. One of the main difficulties is that many of the activities of stalkers are already offences in this country. Many of the less serious aspects of stalking can, on the one hand, be very sinister and part of the ways in which real stalkers stalk their prey and, on the other, the harmless activities of innocent people. The problem is finding words to put on the statute book that would catch the kind of person who is of concern to all noble Lords in this House.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, has raised an important subject which needs to be addressed. However, on a less serious point perhaps I may ask my noble friend whether she is aware that there have been cases of men being stalked by women, not in the same way but with the perseverance and guile of a femme fatale, who usually achieves her object in the end. Will an attempt be made to avoid sex discrimination in any legislation?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, by way of warning, it is leap year. Therefore, I ask all male Peers in the House to beware. Of course we shall always respect the need to avoid discrimination in this respect.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, can my noble friend say how one would define stalking as distinct from any other offence? Baroness Blatch: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right: that is the difficulty. We all know that the kind of stalking which is the subject of this Question is what we want to prevent. Some of the activities involved in stalking include looking at someone, appearing at the same venue frequently over a period of time or sitting in a car in a road outside someone's house. It is difficult to regard those as criminal activities when we know that in some cases they are criminal activities but in others they are not. We also know that there are many aspects of legislation that can be brought to bear here. The police have a general power to bring people before the courts for breach of the peace. It is an offence to make indecent, obscene or menacing phone calls. It is an offence to send a letter which is threatening, offensive or indecent. It is possible to seek an injunction on someone who is behaving in an objectionable way. It is an offence intentionally to cause alarm, distress or harassment. There is a great deal on the statute book that can be used.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, would it be accurate to say that the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of York are stalked by the press?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it would be inappropriate for me to go into any detail on that. However, it has been the subject of public comment that they have been stalked. On reading through all the symptoms of stalking in preparing for this Question, I have to say that journalists come to mind.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this loose use of the word "stalker" is somewhat upsetting to someone who lives in Scotland where stalkers are highly trained, suffer an arduous life and are essential to the culling of our herds of deer? They are a very honourable corps of men; there may be some ladies among them. I hate the word "stalker" being used as though it is a bad smell.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, whatever the outcome of the deliberations of the Home Office in seeking a solution to the problem, I hope that it will not thwart the innocent activities of our noble friends in Scotland or anyone else who indulges in harmless and innocent activities. However, the heart of the problem is to put something on the statute book which will catch the sort of people of whom we speak.

I have to say to my noble friend that stalking has a very real meaning for some people who have been subject to it. I live very close to a lady who is the subject of a recent case; and I suspect that for that lady her life will never be the same again.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, amid the levity and the difficulties of definition, will the Minister accept that we are referring to areas of profound concern and danger for individuals? The difficulties of definition have been tackled by other countries. Will the noble Baroness be steadfast in considering the issue seriously, given the amount of concern that she has expressed about its consequences?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, because there has been some lightening of the subject I hope that it does not detract from its seriousness. I believe that it is serious in particular for the people whom the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, mentioned.

In America, 48 states have addressed anti-stalking legislation in different ways. In an attempt to have some consistency, Congress produced a model code for an offence. It states, purposefully engage in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear bodily injury to himself or herself or a member of his or her immediate family or to fear the death of himself or herself or a member of his or her family". That sounds fine. I suspect that as a Minister for the Home Office I should have some difficulty in persuading your Lordships to put those words on the statute book in this country.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, what about "watching and besetting"?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am tempted to say, "What about it?". Again, watching and besetting for some people is a wholly innocent activity. For others it would be rather sinister.