Jess Phillips (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) and all the Members who have spoken.
The hardest, but most rewarding, part of my job since becoming a Member of Parliament is getting to know the families of women and girls taken by male-perpetrated violence against women. It is always a total honour to meet the families. I am always totally bowled over by their resilience and desire to change the future for the better for other women; and Gracie’s family, and the case of Gracie’s law, is absolutely no exception. Gracie’s law is never going to bring people’s families back, but there is a desire to change things so that other families will not end up with their daughters’ names being read out on a list. I have yet to read out Gracie’s name on the list—I will do it in March—but we have to all do whatever we can to make sure that that list gets shorter, not longer.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher)—with whom it is an honour to debate these matters—this is a totally cross-party issue. There was a time, perhaps even when I first got here, when I may have questioned some people’s views on these issues, and there was certainly a time, when I started working in violence against women and girls services, when I absolutely felt it was party political issue, whereby some political parties—not necessarily just the one that he is a member of—did not take it as seriously. I do not think for a second now that that is the case or that there is any political party in this building that does not care about this issue. I do not doubt for a second that the Minister cares very deeply about the issue, but it is my job—and will be my job for the rest of time—to point out where things are going wrong and what needs to be done about that.
Quite rightly, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield pointed out that the case on which this petition hinges was not a domestic homicide; it was a case of an unrelated person, not an ex-partner, and—it is almost never that I think this—those cases can be even harder to prosecute and get action on, because there is now at least a base understanding in most police forces now around the idea that stalking is part of a pattern of domestic abuse. The role of stalking in domestic homicide must also be acknowledged, as well as the seriousness of the crime and what it can lead to.
Half of stalkers who make threats act on them, and some of these end in murder. Jane Monckton Smith has written extensively about what leads up to a fatal situation from stalking. Her study of 358 criminal homicides in the UK, all of which consisted of a female victim and a male perpetrator, revealed that stalking behaviour was an antecedent in 94% of all murders. So this is something very, very serious, and it is an alarm bell that should be being rung loudly, in order for us to end the most serious of crimes.
Between 2015 and 2017, a freedom of information request by news platform Vice and Paladin, the stalking charity that has already been mentioned, revealed that 60 women were murdered after they reported their partner, their ex-partner or a stalker to the police on grounds of domestic abuse and stalking. That is 60 women who had reported in just a two-year period. I stand here as a Birmingham Member, and I often outline that three women are murdered each week, on average, every year. In Birmingham, in the last nine days three women have been murdered—or killed, should I say. It just seems relentless. In those 60 cases in that two-year period, those men all had a history of harming other women, yet there was no proactive risk identification assessment or management of the perpetrators.
A previous history of stalking or abuse and a pattern of coercive control within a perpetrator’s relationship with his victim have both been identified as stages in the eight-stage domestic homicide timeline outlined by Jane Monckton Smith. In short, stalking is an identifiable precursor to killing. We must see it as a pattern of behaviour and it must be appropriately identified. An intervention can save a woman’s life, and we must ensure that reports are acted upon. The advocates that this petition calls for would undoubtedly help that.
Just last week, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) has already cited, there was the case of Yasmin Chkaifi. Without even having to go into the sub judice of Gracie’s case—I really wish this was not the case—there are hundreds of cases we can lean on to identify the same failures. In the case of Yasmin, she was stabbed to death in Maida Vale this month by Leon McCaskre. In the press it is reported that a friend of Yasmin had said that she had received text messages two years ago saying:
“He’s had cameras in my house recording me for months.”
“He’s stolen my mail, my phone, has access to all my personal data. I think he will kill me. I’ve tried everything.”
The press reports that McCaskre was wanted by the police when he killed Yasmin. The warrant saying that he should be held without bail was issued on 4 January after he failed to appear in court. McCaskre was accused of breaching an interim stalking protection order.
I will come to those orders, as they have been raised. I have worked in domestic abuse, sexual violence, stalking and human trafficking services for a good many years. We can make up as many good orders as we like, but an order is absolutely worthless unless the police act on breaches of it and unless there is a well-resourced police force that can, in that moment, go out, investigate the breach and make an arrest that leads to somebody being imprisoned—which, in the case of Yasmin, would have saved her life. In my experience, when I say, “Have you ever considered getting an order?”, this is the reaction I get: “Yeah, I’ve got about four.” I have personally got four restraining orders; I have been a victim of stalking and harassment. There are people in prison and sectioned for undertaking that abuse against me; and unsurprisingly their orders did not stop them.
There are other cases. Asher Maslin stalked and murdered Hollie Gazzard. Myself and the Minister met Hollie’s family. Maslin was involved in 24 violent offences, including three against Hollie, 12 against former partners, three against his mother and four against others. There was no proactive join-up of this information nor risk management. Ian Paton strangled Kayleigh Hanks to death in July 2018. He had strangled three other people, including his ex-partner, before he killed Kayleigh. There was no risk assessment or risk management of his behaviour.
Managing repeat offenders is a real concern. Research indicates that up to 56% of those charged with stalking go on to reoffend after prosecution. We already know that it is a tiny fraction who will have been prosecuted in the first place. Perpetrators’ histories are not checked, and links are not made.
Two inspections by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary revealed deeply troubling findings. Its 2014 inspection into police responses to domestic abuse revealed no risk management of perpetrators. In 2017, “Living in Fear”, a report specifically on stalking produced by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services—HMIC’s name changed in the intervening three years, and got a lot longer—revealed a 100% failure in every police service and the Crown Prosecution Service across the six areas it inspected. Out of 112 cases, not one case was properly investigated, and no stalker was proactively risk assessed or risk managed.
The most recent HMICFRS report was similarly damning. It identified that repeat offenders in the areas of stalking, harassment, abuse and violence against women were time and again not being monitored, with no offender management and no monitoring in the community of the most serious risk of harm perpetrators. Imagine if I was talking about terrorism—imagine if there were people like that living on your street and not being monitored by any intelligence agency. The trouble is that when the newspapers report these cases, the police say, “Don’t worry, nobody else is at risk”—as if all women are not at risk from the kind of hatred that killed Gracie.
Operation Soteria has been undertaken already at Avon and Somerset police, and recently at the Met—we await the findings of that when the Home Office decides that we should have them. What was found in Avon and Somerset, and I have absolutely no doubt also in the Met, was that when people were being accused of rape, abuse and stalking on the streets, as well as in relationships, police forces were routinely not even checking the accused on the system to find out if they were a repeat offender. Imagine that: “This man raped me.” “Maybe check it on the system.” That is a fundamental failing, and I cannot look at these failings across the board for every crime that women are victims of and just fall back on the idea that it is complex. It is not that complex. It is like burglary of a house: it is not that complex. Every woman who comes forward and says, “I feel scared by this,” should be listened to.
Victims have no faith in the system, and legal advocates would without question improve that. Out of 75 victim respondents surveyed, fewer than two thirds indicated that they had reported stalking to the police in the UK, citing a lack of trust in the police and the wider criminal justice system. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust’s survey of over 1,000 officers in the UK found that only 35% of police respondents had ever received stalking-specific training and that 10% of respondents received training over five years ago, with only 3% indicating that they were very confident in their knowledge of stalking legislation, while 13% were not confident at all. Imagine that is the one who you get, who is sent out to you—the one who is not confident in stalking legislation at all. We need better training on stalking: 82% of those respondents indicated that they wanted better training and that it was needed for the police to be better equipped.
In September 2020, the University of Central Lanc—Lancashire; sorry, I am from the midlands, not the north. I know everybody thinks it is the same place, but it is not. The University of Central Lancashire published “They speak for you when you can’t speak”, an academic review of the National Stalking Advocacy Service run by the charity Paladin. That report found that the support of an independent stalking advocacy caseworker—the specific kind of advocate that we are talking about—was critical in improving the responses of criminal justice agencies. Many victims explained how grateful they were for that advocacy and support. High-risk victims of stalking confirmed that an ISAC’s support increased their understanding of the nature and impact of stalking and the associated risk. The report also said that victims reported improved emotional wellbeing and enhanced safety as a result of the ISAC support. The advocacy improves victims’ experiences. It is vital.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield mentioned the Government’s response to the petition once it received 10,000 signatures. I pay massive tribute to people such as Jackie, who are the doers of changing the law. Every single change to the law was brought about by somebody sitting in a room saying, “This isn’t good enough.” It is people such as Jackie and Gracie’s family who will change the law—I have no doubt.
The £90,000 for extra stalking advocates is absolutely to be welcomed, but it would cover only what is necessary in Birmingham. It has been said that it is a postcode lottery across the board in terms of support for victims of violence against women and girls, and it is absolutely the case that in one place, people get a great service, while in another, people get a dreadful service.
The hon. Member for Bolsover made the point that nobody is perfect. I wrote down that I must point out that that is absolutely one of the best things I have ever heard a man in this place say about violence against women and girls. As a society, we have come to terms with the idea that we all know a victim. With #MeToo and the Sarah Everard case, women have poured their hearts out, with thousands more coming forward now than ever before. Women have stood up and said, “This happens to us.” As a society, we understand now that we all know a victim of abuse—such as the hon. Member, who spoke about what happened to him in childhood. It is deeply important.
However, the bit that we have not come to as a society—and we will not stop this unless we do—is this: we all know and love a perpetrator of violence and abuse. Statistically speaking, if we all know the victims, then we know the perpetrators—unless there is one very prolific, horrible man. We have to come to terms with the idea that these people, while they do those dreadful, monstrous things, are not necessarily the monsters they are described as. The people who stalk, abuse, rape and beat women and girls walk freely among us all the time. Until we can all come to terms with that as a society, whether through education or otherwise, cases such as Gracie’s will keep happening. We have to accept that those people exist and that they need monitoring and actioning. We need to listen to the voices of victims.
What my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield said about police reform is vital. I was an independent sexual violence adviser; advocates such as ISVAs have existed for 20 years and, for a good long spell, that advocacy massively improved the conviction rate. However, we have seen those rates tumble. Advocacy in and of itself, without proper police prioritisation—which needs to come from political prioritisation—is no longer enough.
As we continue to fail to monitor repeat offenders and to follow up on case after case where people come forward, it is no longer good enough for hon. Members to sit here and say, “We’re going to have a strategy. It’s up to police force areas what they decide to do.” With the greatest respect to Maggie Blyth—the officer put in charge of tackling violence against women and girls—when I had a meeting with her, she told me that, “I have to expect police force areas to take it on.” She has no teeth to say, “You have to do this, otherwise you’ll lose your job.” That has to come from the Home Secretary.