Freelance MPs and peers tackle stalking
One of the most impressive things going on in Parliament at the moment is a small all-party group's efforts to create an anti-stalking law for England and Wales, along the lines of legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament.
I've reported on the work of the group a couple of times for Radio 4's Today in Parliament, and there's another instalment on tonight's programme (11.30pm, BBC Radio 4 - available as a podcast here - scroll down towards the bottom of the page). The group is concerned that the law is not effective in preventing people being targeted by individuals who become fixated on them, in campaigns of harassment and violence. Some of the evidence taken from victims, and the families of murdered victims, has been horrific. I was particularly chilled by story told by a woman who was sent a picture of a noose, accompanied by the text message "not long now, my flower." But the litany of intimidation, violence, cyber-stalking, arson and, eventually, murder, combined with the indifference or impotence of the Police and Courts, made a powerful case both for stronger laws and a change of attitude by the authorities.
The group, chaired by Plaid Cymru's Westminster leader, Elfyn Llwyd, finished taking evidence on Thursday. I was struck by the discussion of the impact of stalking on children of the target, particularly if the stalker is the estranged father, or a former partner, as is sometimes the case. That point was underlined when an American video on stalking was played to the group, including the voice of a terrified child calling the Police to say "Mummy and Daddy are fighting" before dissolving into screams.
Their report is likely to call for changes in the law, either in the form of a new free-standing anti-stalking bill, or in the form of amendments to existing legislation. The Scottish anti-stalking law includes a list of behaviour which can be considered as stalking - an idea which Mr Llwyd believes will make the authorities take complaints much more seriously. They may also call for stalking to be dealt with by Crown Courts, rather than by Magistrates Courts, which, at present, handle complaints under the Major Government's 1997 Protection from Harassment Act. That would mean tougher sentences could be imposed.
In prime minister's questions this week, Mr Llwyd got David Cameron to repeat his promise to meet the group to discuss their report - and heard him agree that the law needs to be tightened. So the group's campaign has high-level support and a good chance of success. Meanwhile in the House of Lords, Labour's Leader, Lady Royall has put down an amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Bill on stalking - I understand her aim is to test the response of ministers at Committee Stage, rather than press the issue to a vote. But she may return to the issue at Report Stage, with an amendment to allow ministers to create an anti-stalking law by regulation. The Government has launched a consultation on the issue, to be led by the Home Office Minister Lynne Featherstone and that, alongside the group's report could well lead to some fairly rapid action to change the law. Perhaps there's an example here for other parliamentarians. A serious freelance inquiry into a serious issue seems set to produce real results. I'm sure there must be plenty of other causes which could benefit from the same treatment.