Police seek tougher laws on stalking

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The Independent Online
JASON BENNETTO

Crime Correspondent

A national survey into stalking is to be carried out after police chiefs concluded yesterday that the present law against people who harass and intimidate their victims is inadequate. The move follows a series of high- profile court cases involving stalkers and amid growing concern that the existing legislation fails to protect women adequately.

Senior police officers decided yesterday to set up an inquiry into the issue and consider drawing up new anti-stalking laws. Victim support groups will be included in the survey, which is expected to include every police force in England and Wales.

At present stalking is not a crime, so statistics are extremely hard to obtain. Victim support and women's groups believe it is far more common than previously thought.

If the police back calls for new anti-stalking laws Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is almost certain to comply. Labour is already urging the Government, which says the issue is under review, to take action and introduce new laws.

The frustration caused by the present law was revealed on Tuesday when a magistrate complained he was unable to convict a defendant who had stalked 24-year-old woman for more than two years becauseno law had been broken.

Yesterday's decision for an inquiry was made at the Association of Chief Police Officers' crime committee. Assistant Chief Constable Maria Wallis of Sussex Police will head the stalking study. A spokesman said: "The Acpo crime committee is aware of concern about recent incidents."

Under existing law stalkers can only be prosecuted for actions such as threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour that enable the police to act. Police also have to prove that the stalker acted with intent to cause harassment and alarm.

The penalty for intentional harassment is six months in prison and a pounds 5,000 fine, but police say they are handicapped by the difficulties of proving intent. Eighty-five per cent of known stalkers are men, and in 80 per cent of cases, the person is known to the female victim.

Cheryl Gillan, the education and employment minister, told the Commons yesterday that Home Office ministers will consider "all options" to combat stalking. The Home Office is currently examining stalking laws in Australia, Canada, and the US. On Wednesday Labour MP Janet Anderson introduced a Private Member's Bill to make stalking an offence, but it stands no chance of becoming law because of pressure on the parliamentary timetable.

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