A new national hotline to be launched this month for the two million people stalked in the UK every year will consist of just one phone line, staffed by a single operator. Critics warned this weekend that government under-funding of the new service could leave terrified victims unable to get through to the helpline.
"They need to speak to someone sympathetic," said Jane Harvey, a spokeswoman for the charity Network for Surviving Stalking (NSS). "Putting people on hold isn't the answer."
The hotline operator will be able to pass on information to local police – against the caller's wishes if necessary – if they believe the stalker to be dangerous. The operator will talk the caller through a 12-step risk assessment used by the police, in order to ascertain how dangerous the stalker is. A 2005 study by the University of Leicestershire found that 18 per cent of stalking victims said they had been sexually assaulted, 19 per cent said their homes had been broken into, and 12 per cent said their children had been threatened with violence.
"It is the first of its kind," said Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan, of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo). "We'll have to assess it, and if we feel it needs more funding, then we can look at it further down the line."
Although they welcome the hotline, experts expressed concern yesterday about the psychological toll that running the service alone will take on the operator. Dr Lorraine Sheridan, a stalking expert and senior research officer at Heriot-Watt University, said: "They are going to be hearing some dreadful things, and I imagine he or she will be affected. People don't report it for ages, by which time they are very damaged." The hotline operator will also provide vital counselling services.
"All victims want is to be believed," Dr Sheridan said. "They get an overwhelming sense of satisfaction from that. If [the operator] can say, 'I've spoken to 11 other women this week who have told me things like this', then that will help victims a lot."
Tracey Morgan, who was stalked by a colleague for nine years until he was jailed for the attempted murder of another woman, said: "I felt like I was going out of my mind. I realised stalking isolates you; people called me 'an emotionally paranoid female' to my face." Ms Morgan later established the NSS to help other victims.
The high-profile murders of 22-year-old Clare Bernal, shot dead by a former boyfriend in Harvey Nichols department store in 2005, the death of 26-year-old Tania Moore at the hands of her obsessed ex-boyfriend in 2004, and the killing of 35-year-old horsewoman Rana Faruqui in 2003 have all highlighted the potentially devastating outcome of stalking cases. Yet the Leicester study found that half of victims reported being told they were being paranoid or over-reacting.
The police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are now considering new measures to crack down on stalkers, including mandatory psychological assessments for anyone accused of it, longer jail terms for those convicted, and new legislation to make stalking a specific offence under law.
'There has been nothing for stalking victims until now'
Rana Faruqui, 35, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2003 after a stalking campaign. Her mother Carol, 67, is now an anti-stalking campaigner.
"I think that she would have phoned a line like this and found out. She would have wanted to do what she could to help herself. We knew what was going on, up to a point. One resource is better than no resources at all. Basically, there has been nothing for victims of stalking until now. More funding is definitely needed to protect women. It could save lives. We've got to find something which makes sense of our daughter's death. I don't want other mothers to go through what I go through every day."