You don’t get many chances to change the law of the land: many MPs never do so. I’ve been lucky – today’s Policing and Crime Bill, all being well, will be the second time that I’ve been able to play a part in doing so.
Both times I’ve been driven to action by something that happened in Gloucester, by trying to create something good out of something bad.
The first was a constituent whose death was caused by a very drunk, uninsured and disqualified driver, who received a risible sentence because the law didn’t allow for more. The government agreed to increase the maximum sentence in such cases. This time there’s a similar outcome but the journey has been more complex and much less predictable.
In May 2015 I read in The Citizen the comments of our Judge Jamie Tabor, who said in sentencing a stalker, Raymond Knight, that if he could have sentenced him for longer then he would. Judges don’t usually like increasing sentences, and Knight’s crime was only recently introduced – Theresa May as Home Secretary had rightly criminalised stalking in the last Parliament. So I decided to look closer. Little did I know what I was getting into.
Dr Eleanor Aston, a Gloucester GP who lived in Cheltenham had been stalked for 8 years. Raymond Knight had stalked her relentlessly at work, at home and at her daughter’s nursery group. He cut off the gas and slashed a water pipe at her home: he left messages on her telephone, car and in the surgery – and was suspected, but not proven, of burning down half of Dr Aston’s house.
Her life was cruelly damaged: she suffered from PTSD and had to give up being a GP. The whole family was in a nightmare that wouldn’t go away. No wonder Judge Tabor wished he could lock Raymond Knight up for longer.
So I decided to do something with my neighbour and her (Cheltenham) MP, Alex Chalk, a barrister. I suggested we aim to change the law and get more flexibility on sentencing. Judge and victim were supportive: and so we met Ministers in London.
Then Lord Chancellor/Justice Secretary Michael Gove encouraged us to do much more research into stalking: one case rarely made for good law. We went away and with the great help of our researchers talked to victims, research bodies, anti-stalking charities, and academic and police experts. Alex’s legal knowledge was crucial.
I was particularly moved by hearing the experience of Gloucester hairdresser Katie Price, who had also been badly stalked and later left our city to find peace elsewhere. Her daughter wrote a moving letter about the impact of stalking on the whole family.
Our report showed the size of the issue: one in five women are stalked in their lifetime, and one in ten men, and stalking often leads to violence.
So this wasn’t just about Dr Aston, but a much larger number of victims. In fact when we launched our report to the media, many journalists and MPs had experiences to share too. We recommended a doubling of the maximum prison sentence from five to ten years.
We discussed our report with then Sentencing Minister Dominic Raab and his officials and he joined us for its formal launch in London. There was talk of a Sentencing Bill in the Queen’s Speech.
I asked Prime Minister David Cameron for his support in PMQs. We had a Gloucestershire launch of the report, with the University of Glos and Nick Gazzard. And we created a petition, supported by nearly 30 MPs. Meanwhile Dr Eleanor Aston, supported by charities like Paladin, starred in a BBC documentary on the issue. Momentum was building.
Then the PM resigned after the Referendum and all the Justice Ministers were changed: back to square one.
Bismarck once said that the making of laws is like the making of sausages – you don’t want to know what goes into them. And so, after much discussion and many more meetings, Alex launched a 10 Minute Bill.
It was bound to fail unless supported by government, which was understandably cautious about increasing sentences and prisoners. But the Bill gave our cause more attention and so did the introduction of Stalking Protection Orders by Home Secretary Amber Rudd before Christmas. And immediately afterwards Gloucestershire based Baroness Jan Royall succeeded in an amendment in the Lords to the Policing and Crime Bill.
This helped focus the government’s mind on the case for an amendment. They have accepted our report’s recommendation and agreed to implement it – adding a doubling of religiously or racially aggravated harassment (from seven to fourteen years).
The new law will also pave the way for more remedial work as investment in specialist mental health training for prison officers increases to assess and treat these offenders.
The Minister will propose this amendment later today and I imagine it will sail through.
This is a wonderful New Year’s present for those who’ve been stalked, for campaigners, for women in general – and for Gloucestershire, which has led every step of the way.
It means that Judges will have the flexibility that Judge Tabor sought: that victims will, as Dr Aston has said, be able to sleep more easily when the worst stalkers are sentenced; and the stalkers themselves understand on the one hand the seriousness of the crime and on the other receive more help in resolving what is a severe obsession and mental health issue.
Of course this is not going to stop stalking. But it shows victims and Judges are heard, that MPs and ultimately the government listens and that laws can be changed – so that sentences better reflect the damage that a particular crime can inflict on innocent victims, most of whom (in this instance) are women. Ultimately, Justice is only as good as the laws we adapt, and how these are implemented.
It’s felt like a long and winding road, and I’m glad neither Alex nor I have kept time sheets, but changing the law within 18 months is in fact unusually fast.
Along the way I’ve learnt more about the value of legal research and much more about stalking: the known and unknown victims and the several charities; and the processes and bypaths of getting legislation changed.
There was one other unusual aspect of this campaign – Cheltenham and Gloucester working so well together. Neighbours and mostly friendly rivals, our City and Borough haven’t always had the same book open, let alone singing the same hymn. Well that’s changed. And although Alex and I won’t always agree about everything, Gloucestershire is the better for a much closer relationship between the Cheltenham and Gloucester MPs.
I want to finish this e-news about changing the law by coming back to where it started – the Judge and the victim in Gloucester Crown Court.
Thank you to Ellie Aston for inspiring us, being strong and having faith: to other victims for opening your hearts and sharing your stories: to the stalking charities like the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, the Network for Surviving Stalking, Protection Against Stalking and Paladin, and to the Hollie Gazzard Trust, the Police and the University of Gloucestershire, which just happens to be a leader in research on stalking.
This part of a long journey for Justice is now close to over, but there’s always lots more to be done on this and other good causes.
Do let me know what you think about this at firstname.lastname@example.org.