Stalkers could be fined and jailed for up to five years, PM expected to announce on International Women's Day
Stalking will be recognised as a crime for the first time in England and Wales under legislation expected to be announced by the prime minister this week.
At a private meeting last month, officials from the Home Office, Crown Prosecution Service, attorney general's office, ministry of justice and the police were told that David Cameron planned to use this Thursday's International Women's Day to announce reform to legislation affecting stalking and domestic violence offences.
The prime minister is expected to use a reception at Downing Street to announce stalking is to become an imprisonable offence, carrying a sentence of up to six months and a ?5,000 fine. More serious cases will incur sentences of up to five years and an unlimited fine.
"I'm confident that we will get a positive message on Thursday from the prime minister that there will be changes to the law on stalking," said Robert Buckland, the Conservative MP who helped launch an independent parliamentary inquiry into stalking law reform.
"The government is persuaded of the need for change," Buckland added. "They are listening and the signs are encouraging that, when the Freedom Bill is given its third reading on March 12th, there will be new and improved, strengthened and toughened legislation that criminalised stalking."
Cameron has invited the key advisers to the inquiry's campaign team to Thursday's reception, including chair Elfyn Llwyd and Tricia Bernal, whose daughter, Clare, was shot and killed in Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge, London. Clare was murdered by her obsessed former boyfriend, Michael Pech, who had been previously charged with harassing his former girlfriend. Pech breached his bail conditions to murder Clare Bernal, before killing himself.
Also invited to Thursday's reception is Claire Waxman, who was awarded ?3,500 damages last month after the high court criticised the criminal prosecution service for failing to protect her from an eight-year campaign of "serious and persistent" harassment by freelance television producer Elliot Fogel.
Llwyd said the government's intention to introduce new legislation appears to be "fairly solid,". "I'm quietly confident," he said. "The prime minister would not invite us all to Downing Street on Thursday just to slap us down."
There are an estimated 120,000 cases of stalking every year but just 4,365 people were convicted of harassment in 2009, and of those, just 565 were jailed.
The figure for those found guilty of stalking is even smaller. Last year, 786 people were found guilty of the more serious offence of putting a person in fear of violence. Of those, 170 were jailed.
The statistics have raised concerns that the Protection from Harassment Act is failing to shield women. "The evidence that we need a specific offence of stalking is overwhelming," said Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the probation union. "Victims are not being taken seriously by the police or CPS. Perpetrators rarely receive custodial sentences or are treated. This is a scandal that must end without delay."
A cross-party group of 120 parliamentarians believe, however, that legislation alone is not sufficient to protect victims.
Tracey Morgan, a member of the inquiry panel stalked by a former colleague for nearly 10 years, said that fundamental changes to training, risk assessment of victims and treatment, including the establishment of a victims' advocacy scheme to signpost and support victims of stalking through the criminal justice system, are also necessary.
"We have to improve awareness and culture around stalking as well as the law," she said. : "Stalking is where domestic violence was 30 years ago. It's seen as a joke; a celebrity problem. Victims are told they should be flattered by the attention. But stalking can lead to murder, rape and a range of other, horrific crimes. For too long, it has not been treated with the seriousness it deserves. I am optimistic now that this is going to change."