Leader: Arming women against stalkers

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The Independent Online
Women around Britain will shudder. A young mother living in Cambridgeshire, supposedly under police protection, is raped by a stalker who had followed her for months. This morning many women will be feeling more vulnerable as a result. The perpetrator, who had previously attacked his victim, is still on the loose a fortnight after the rape.

This case sounds like a horror film designed to describe a world almost beyond the reach of the law, in which the police are powerless to protect people against a known threat. But this is not Hollywood. This is not a crazed fan in pursuit of a star protected by private bodyguards. This is middle England.

The police have said they were "comfortable" with the protection they were giving the woman. They clearly underestimated the viciousness of the man they were dealing with. He followed his victim for four months, sent her letters and left messages on an answerphone which threatened violence and sexual offences. He then raped her in her own home. Even though the man involved has a number of distinctive features and was in the area for a considerable time, the police have yet to identify him.

It is too early to judge the way the police dealt with this case. It may have been that there was an operational shortcoming that can be easily corrected. But it is certainly difficult to avoid the conclusion that the seriousness of the threat was not recognised, despite many warning signs. Everyone lives with the remote possibility of random violence. But women understandably and rightly expect the police to deal with someone who makes them terrified to go to bed, pick up the telephone or visit the supermarket.

After this case the police will face an uphill struggle if they are to convince women that they will be supported properly when in danger. It may be that the authorities should consider, in future, offering 24-hour protection in such cases until the stalker has been dealt with. Whatever the details the police should urgently review their procedures.

It is also time to take a careful look at the law covering stalking, an offence of which there is growing awareness. At the moment, a stalker, if charged at all, is likely at worst, to face action under the 1986 Public Order Act, which provides a maximum pounds 1,000 fine as punishment for someone found guilty of threatening someone else. Alternatively, a stalker can be bound over to keep the peace or can face a civil injunction restraining him from repeating his behaviour.

These measures are hardly draconian. They are unlikely to provide adequate or speedy protection for a woman, whose life can become a misery before the law finally steps in. Here is an area in which politicians could fruitfully explore the possibilities for strengthening the law. There are civil liberties to be weighed up: it would be a mistake to whip up hysteria over a single case. But calm consideration should be able to generate a specific anti- stalking law along the lines of changes that have already been introduced in California.

This attack occurred in the Prime Minister's constituency of Huntingdon: he would be better off dealing with its worrying implications than trading empty insults, as he did yesterday, with Labour over which party is soft on crime.