Stalkers face tougher prison sentences

Stalkers are to face a new maximum jail sentence of 10 years following a government U-turn. The Ministry of Justice announced it would adopt tough new measures in the Policing and Crime Bill after ministers conceded to pressure from a cross-party campaign to increase protection for victims. The new Bill is due to return to Commons next week.

The current maximum five-year sentence for stalking will be doubled, and the jail term for offences which are racially or religiously aggravated will be increased from seven to 14 years.

The move was welcomed by GP Dr Ellie Aston, whose stalking ordeal sparked the change in the law.

The change was revealed on Thursday night by Conservative MP Alex Chalk, who began the campaign for stricter sentences on behalf of Dr Aston, a constituent of his in Cheltenham. Writing on his Facebook page, Chalk said: “I’m absolutely delighted to announce that the campaign to better protect victims of stalking has been successful”. Within hours, the Ministry of Justice confirmed the news.

Chalk and fellow Conservative backbencher Richard Graham began their campaign after Dr Aston was stalked for eight years by former patient Raymond Knight.

Dr Aston said on Friday: “I am absolutely thrilled that a campaign which began for me 18 months ago has finally led to a significant change in the law which will benefit stalking victims everywhere.

“When the man who has stalked me for 8 years is released from prison later this year, he is highly likely to reoffend, but now there is the prospect of a much longer prison sentence which will give my family and I the peace we need and deserve.”

The concession avoids a potentially embarrassing rebellion by Conservative MPs, who have allied with Labour peers, Liberal Democrats and crossbenchers in the House of Lords to request longer prison sentences.

The Government was defeated on the issue in December after an amendment by Labour’s Baroness Royall was backed despite claims from the Ministry of Justice and Home Office that the current law was sufficient.

Home Office minister Baroness Williams opposed the Royall amendment last month, telling peers that raising the maximum jail term was not “a straightforward solution in this case” and instead offered a review of the law.

“It may be necessary in due course but, before moving to raise the maximum, we should give careful consideration to the implications for other related offences and avoid creating anomalies in the criminal law,” she said.

However, peers ignored her pleas and voted by 160 to 149 to back the doubling of the sentence.

Speaking about the change, Baroness Royall said: “I am very proud that my amendment which gained cross party support in the Lords last month precipitated Government action before the debate in the Commons next Tuesday. This will ensure that the punishment fits the crime and most importantly it will ensure justice for the victims whose lives have been blighted.”

Home Secretary Amber Rudd is already including new protection orders to intervene early to keep victims safe and stop ‘stranger stalking’ before it escalates.

In 2016 alone the National Stalking Helpline dealt with more than 3,550 calls. But statistics from 2015 show that just 194 people were convicted of stalking, with a further 835 found guilty of putting people ‘in fear of violence’. The average custodial sentence for stalking was just 14.1 months, way below what campaigners have demanded.

According to Home Office statistics, one in five women and one in ten men will experience stalking in their lifetime. Furthermore, a Metropolitan Police study found more than 40 percent of the victims of domestic homicide had been stalked.

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