Stalking laws will also cover racial offences

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Tough anti-stalking laws proposed yesterday by the Government will also protect vic- tims of racial and neighbour harassment, with offenders facing up to five years in jail.

The plans are more hard-hitting than expected - a person could be prosecuted if they harass someone twice. Similarly, an injunction to prevent unwanted admirers sending gifts and making calls can be obtained if the nuisance activities occur more than once.

Police will also be given the powers to arrest a suspect without a warrant and search them and their property.

There are concerns that individuals may abuse the proposed legislation to foil legitimate work carried out by investigative journalists.

The planned laws are a combination of civil and criminal measures and a new injunction designed to deter low-level harassment, and two criminal offences, have been created.

Several thousand people, mainly women, are thought to be the targets of stalkers every year - but at the moment they have no legal way of preventing such harassment. Far more people suffer racial harassment, abuse and intimidation, and countless residents have to endure noisy neighbours.

The Government intends to introduce the measures, which will apply in England and Wales, in a ready-made Private Member's Bill to be entrusted to a Tory backbencher to pilot through the Commons. If it enjoys all- party support, it could become law by Easter.

Under the proposals, anyone who uses words or behaviour, on more than one occasion, which puts their victim in fear of violence could face up to five years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. In the lesser offence, anyone using words or behaviour more than once that cause harassment, alarm or distress, could be imprisoned for up to six months and/or face a pounds 5,000 fine.

Courts would also be able to make a restraining order immediately after convicting a person of either of the two criminal offences. A breach of the order, which may state the offender must not contact the victim, would carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Under the civil remedy, a victim would be able to seek a restraining injunction from the courts if the words or behaviour, used on more than one occasion, caused the victim to be harassed, alarmed or distressed. Breaches, which could include making telephone calls and sending flowers, would be criminal offences punishable by up to five years in jail.

Announcing the initiatives, David Maclean, the Home Office minister, said their reach could extend beyond stalking to help protect the victims of other forms of harassment. "These new laws will give help to people being harassed by their neighbours, and they will also provide protection to the victims of racial harassment."