David Cameron has admitted there is a gap in the current law on stalking. Kristiana Wrixon and Felicity Dennistoun debate whether a new offence of stalking should be created
There is no question that stalking victims are being let down. A recent report released by the charity Protection Against Stalking found that 65% of people who contacted the police and 77% of people who had contact with the Crown Prosecution Service were not happy with the response they received. The question is why? Without a doubt there needs to be better training and awareness to change attitudes but is this enough? Can attitudes really change when lawmakers do not acknowledge that stalking is a crime?
The current legislation, the Protection from Harassment Act, does not define harassment. It is vital that any new stalking legislation does not set a narrow definition of stalking that manipulative stalkers could (and would) work around to avoid prosecution. There is a number of weaknesses in the act, particularly the limited police search powers available.
Stalking is a complex crime that causes psychological harm in almost all cases. It can lead to physical or sexual assault and murder. Currently there is little support for victims or treatment programmes for perpetrators, who are often repeat offenders. It would be naive to assume there is one single change that will solve this problem overnight but new legislation would send a message to agencies, victims and perpetrators that stalking is a serious crime with serious consequences.
It may seem shocking that the Protection from Harassment Act doesn't refer to stalking but this is in fact its very strength. After all, what is stalking? It's a set of behaviours that can manifest themselves in an infinite number of pernicious and destructive ways. The breadth of the act means it can be used to prosecute any number of tactics employed by stalkers. By not ruling anything out, anything that causes harm to the victim is ruled in.
The only real problem with the current law is that it doesn't get used; many police officers and lawyers are ignorant to its existence and sceptical about the seriousness of stalking as a crime. But this isn't a reason to do away with the act. New legislation is always an attractive route for policymakers, but the things that really need to change are attitudes and awareness. The battle for understanding and knowledge of the authorities will be hard won, but it is the right one if we are to protect victims and prosecute stalkers.
This is indeed a concern with the proposals, but then the same applies if we seek to define harassment. It is also a set of behaviours that can manifest themselves in an infinite number of distressing and upsetting ways. It could be antisocial behaviour, sexual comments in the workplace, an aggressive and forthright telephone salesperson. Harassment is equally as hard to tie down as stalking and the act does not try to. Instead, it covers persistent conduct that causes distress to the target. Any stalking legislation should take a similar approach and focus on the effect that repeated, targeted, unwanted and sometimes threatening communication can have on a victim. If there has been no need for a textbook definition for the word harassment then why would there be a need for one for the word stalking.
The chief motivations behind a change in the law seem to be to send a message about the seriousness of stalking and focus on the effect on the victim. I agree that vital work needs to be done on both of these areas but we're using the wrong implements in the policy toolbox to create change. The National Stalking Helpline has made excellent progress on both counts and it's more efforts like this that are needed to support the police to bring perpetrators to justice and keep victims safe. More training for police and prosecutors is essential, public information campaigns on the scale we have seen with domestic and sexual violence and better sharing of best practice will all bring us closer to our mutual goal.
Kristiana Wrixon is the manager of the National Stalking Helpline and Felicity Dennistoun previously worked at the Home Office on stalking policy