We have some historic court buildings, and a certain nostalgia is felt towards many of the older sites and other buildings—going beyond the 19th century to the

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18th century—but they are not always fit for purpose in the modern age and some have become obsolete. However, I do not wish to throw the baby out with the bathwater. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), when shadow Lord Chancellor in the run-up to the last election, talked, as some Members have today, about ways of rationalising the court estate. We have heard about pop-up courts, about using public buildings for judicial and non-judicial functions combined and even about using community buildings, but there is an important caveat: as hon. Members have said, we have to preserve and enhance local justice within communities through the constructive use of courts.

I fear, however, that the Government’s approach tends, sadly, towards mass culls of courts. I have been in this job for more than five years now, and I clearly remember the last major cull in 2010. Then there was a proposal to close 103 magistrates courts and 54 county courts. After the consultation, the closure of 93 magistrates courts and 49 county courts went ahead—in other words, about 90% of the original target. Members should perhaps not get their hopes up too much, but there could at least be a window of opportunity.

If the majority of the proposed closures go ahead, 40% of this country’s courts will close over not much more than five years. That suggests to me that this is more about making savings than about balancing decisions with service. The best way to illustrate that point is to look at the issue of travel times, with which some Members have dealt. I note in passing that during the last closure programme five years ago, Ministers were referring to public transport travel times, whereas now they refer principally to travel times by car. However, many court users will not have access to a car and will be entirely reliant on public transport.

Let me provide, with the help of the Law Society, one or two illustrations of what that will mean in respect of public transport times. I looked at the Courts Service in Wales. Holyhead magistrates court is due to close, and work will be transferred to Caernarfon criminal justice centre, but no public transport users will be able to reach it within an hour. It is the same with Dolgellau magistrates court, as users will be sent to Caernarfon criminal justice centre and none will be able to get there within an hour. Users of the Carmarthen civil, family, tribunal and probate hearing centre will move to a variety of courts, but even so, only 7% will be able to reach their new court within 60 minutes. I do not think that that is satisfactory. Another example, which several Members have mentioned, is that according to the Law Society and the Government’s own figures, closing Scunthorpe magistrates, county and family court would mean that not one user could reach the new court within one hour by public transport. That is not good enough.

What the Government should have done is carry out a pre-consultation to allow a much better-informed document to be produced. Should that sound overly bureaucratic, it is exactly what the Government are doing with their consultation on fixed fees for medical negligence cases. That proposal is out for consultation at the moment, allowing the Government to publish a document next month, I believe. I regard the proposal as completely misconceived, but at least I can hope for a sensible document to debate. If Members and the local justice system had had an opportunity to give their

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input, we would not have seen some of the howlers or some of the more far-fetched proposals that are in the report.

Let me exemplify the point by looking at the closure of Hammersmith county court. I do so not as special pleading, but because I have a particular knowledge of it. If Hammersmith county court closes, most users will be told to go to Wandsworth county court. For some of my constituents in the south part of the constituency, that will not be too troublesome, but it will be for those in other parts of it. I note particularly that Lambeth county court is also closing. Lambeth is where I spent most of my life when I was in legal practice. It was and is a very busy court. Southwark and Lambeth local authorities could probably keep it going permanently on the basis of housing cases alone. It is closing, however, and most users are likely to be referred to Wandsworth, so Wandsworth will have to be extended and money will need to be spent on building it up.

Another knock-on effect of the closure is that space will be freed up at Hammersmith county court and if Feltham magistrates court is closed, users will be sent to Hammersmith. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) intervened earlier in the debate, and I know that she has serious concerns about that. Feltham is a poor area and users of that magistrates court will no longer have the local justice to which they are accustomed. I use these cases as an example of what can happen in a built-up urban area, to show that there are many ramifications of these closures that might not always be apparent to a civil servant sitting in Whitehall. I am in no doubt, however, that problems in remote rural areas are in many cases worse.

We know what the negative effects are, or the potential negative effects. For instance, a very good briefing prepared for the debate by the Public and Commercial Services Union raises—not surprisingly—the issue of jobs. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us how many jobs he expects to be lost as a consequence of these reorganisations. The PCS also raises, on behalf of the family court unions, the issue of access to justice, the issue of accessibility, the issue of delay and the issue of additional costs, all of which have been raised by Members today.

However, it also concerns me that the positive effects of the closures, at least in financial terms, are often not realised. As I am sure the Minister knows, I am alluding to the answer that he gave me earlier in the week in relation to the courts that were closed in the previous round, which are still sitting on the Government estate without having been sold. It is costing nearly half a million pounds a year to keep them empty and mothballed. I am thinking especially of the courts at Knutsford and Alton, which account for £9,274 and £9,828 per month respectively. The total cost, currently, of the 13 courts that have been closed and are just sitting there—including the costs of rates, fuel and utilities, facilities management and security, and other property costs—is £478,146 a year. I do not think that that is a particularly good use of public money.

I ask the Minister to look specifically at the points made by the Magistrates Association, which asks him to ensure that there is access for vulnerable people, as well as security for staff and court users, parking facilities for staff and court users, space and resources for various agencies such as the Children and Family Court Advisory

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and Support Service and the youth offending teams, childcare arrangements, secure wi-fi, and proper provision for upkeep and renovation costs. I think that without those assurances, the position would be even worse.

This is not the only issue that is currently affecting the magistracy and magistrates courts in particular, those being the bulk of the courts that are facing closure. Not unrelated, I suspect, to the decline in the number of courts is the fact that delays are increasing: it currently takes a week longer for cases to be completed than it did four years ago. Moreover, as a consequence of the disastrous court charge, magistrates are resigning every day and every week because they do not feel that they have the discretion and the ability to do their job properly. I know that that issue is to be debated soon in the other place.

In its briefing, the PCS says:

“We are concerned that the justice system is in danger of becoming so divorced from the people who require access to it, that it can no longer be considered to be true justice.”

I suspect that that resonates with a number of Members who have to explain or justify to their constituents the fact that something that has been taken for granted for centuries in this country—local justice which can be seen and heard in local communities—is now fading fast.

4.38 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) and, indeed, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing a very important debate about a very important subject, and also on managing to secure so many speakers on what is—save for the half-hour Adjournment debate that will follow—the last debate before the conference recess.

I am not sure whether congratulations are in order in the case of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has just said that he still does not know whether he will continue in his job as a shadow Justice Minister. I wish him well in the decision-making process that will take place at another level, but I hope that he will know once the conference recess is over, and, for his sake, I hope that it is sooner rather than later.

A number of serious points have been raised by Members on both sides, and they have been put forward in an articulate and passionate manner. I pay tribute to all those Members for the way in which they spoke up for their constituents, and I hope to be able to address many of their points. There were several recurring themes, and I shall address each subject, but I shall make reference to individuals when appropriate as well.

There is one point I want to take up at the outset. Several Members talked about errors in the consultation document, and for that I make an apology. To the extent that there are errors, I apologise. I want to make it clear that this is a three-month consultation, and some colleagues have already written to me. Others should please do so, and I will seek to put the record straight wherever possible. This is not an excuse—it is inexcusable to have errors when we are making such important decisions—but there have been 91 separate

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proposals for the 91 courts, and in an age in which we still operate with human beings, I hope that some allowance can be made for human error.

The court reform programme has the full support of the judiciary. It is a programme that seeks to bring the courts and the tribunal service in Britain into the 21st century. We want to create a court system that better serves the public and other users, as well as making better use of the taxpayer’s money, which helps to pay for it. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath and the hon. Member for Hartlepool spoke knowledgably in the debate. My hon. Friend made a balanced speech, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith said. He spoke about Sir Brian Leveson’s proposals. Sir Brian makes a compelling case, and I agree entirely with his proposals. We wish to see them put in place as soon as possible.

For the record, I am proud to say that the hon. Member for Hartlepool is a friend. He made that point, and I am proud to make it as well. I hope that my saying that will serve to show that while the public might see our disagreements in the Chamber or on their television screens, there is no reason why there cannot be good friendships across the political divide.

The hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) spoke about the justice areas. I must point out to her that the Ministry of Justice does not get involved in that issue. It is a matter for magistrates, and the consultation to which she referred is really a matter for them and not for me.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) raised a number of points, and I take on board what he said. I will look into the fact that he has not received a reply to his letter. I am concerned about that, and I will ensure that he now gets a prompt reply.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), whom I saw yesterday, talked about local issues and local justice, and I will say more about that later.

The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) and I have corresponded, and she has indicated that our correspondence will continue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) made a short contribution, in which he sought an assurance that this will be a genuine consultation. I can give him that assurance.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) also spoke in the debate, and it was good to hear again what he had told me less than 24 hours ago, in a meeting room over coffee.

I want to make it absolutely clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) that I am open to other options, and I shall say more about that later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) also mentioned local justice, a matter to which I shall return.

One of the strongest recurring themes in the debate was access to justice. Of course there will always be cases that need to go to court, and the court buildings will be there for the cases that need to be heard there. In the 21st century, however, we need to look again at the way everything operates, and that of course means looking at the digital and technological age. It is out there, whether we are shopping, doing our banking, renewing our passport or our driving licence, or doing a

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whole lot of other activities, and there is no reason why the realm of justice should not consider technology as well. That, to be fair, has been acknowledged by Members across the political divide.

We must also recognise that one third of the court estate is used for less than 50% of the time available. We have to consider ways of making better use of the courts so that taxpayers’ money goes that much further.

Crucially, we also need to consider what access to justice means in the 21st century. For many, it means proximity. They believe—in the way people have believed for decades and, indeed, centuries—that there should be a court nearby to which people can go and show their physical presence in a building that we call a court, but the reality is that we have already started a judicial process whereby people deal with cases without going to court.

A substantial number of magistrates court cases are already being dealt with by post, particularly low level traffic offences, speeding, avoiding payment of the TV licence and the like. We propose that they move online, to be dealt with even more efficiently. We have successfully trialled the process, and soon people will not only plead guilty or otherwise online but will be able to pay their fines online from the comfort of their sitting rooms on a Saturday evening. They will be able pick up their phone and plead guilty and pay their fine. They cannot do that now. Access to justice can be from our sitting rooms.

The technology can be used in other ways, too, such as video-conferencing. Colleagues have talked about people travelling to courts. We do not envisage people travelling to courts as often as they do now. With the introduction of video-conferencing, victims, witnesses and others will be able to give evidence from places near to where they live, rather than having to travel to courts. In Wales, for example, a videoconferencing facility in a community centre is available for people to use if they do not wish to go further away to a court.

Going to court is a stressful experience for anyone, particularly victims and witnesses, and especially if they are vulnerable. Rather than go into an austere-looking building with sombre-looking people in a court room, it would be much better for those people to go to a more comfortable room close by that has been adapted for video-conferencing facilities.

Medway magistrates court has been connected to every police station in the county that has a custody suite. If somebody is arrested and kept overnight in a police cell, the police and the defendant do not have to go to court the following day and the video-conferencing facilities do the work that would otherwise have required people to be physically being present in court. We intend to extend the practice in Kent.

Many prisons already have video-conferencing facilities. All here will agree that it is eminently sensible that we do not have the scenario, which we had everywhere until very recently and we still have daily in many prisons, where prisoners are transported from the prisons to the courts, with all the security, travel, costs and so on involved. We are going to have a system that can dispense with the costs, the travel, the hassle and the inconvenience —it will be a lot cheaper.

We already have, albeit not to the extent we would like, a system whereby lawyers do not go to court and hang around for a considerable time before appearing

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for 10 or 15 minutes before a judge. Both sets of lawyers and a judge can agree a time and have a conference call. The lawyers stay in their offices or their chambers, and the judge stays in his or her office in the courtroom, and in 10 or 15 minutes they resolve the issue, which otherwise would have meant lawyers going to court, with all the time, stress, inconvenience and cost involved. All of that is now dispensed with. Clearly, there will be a reduction in travel times. This system will be speedier and more efficient, and it will certainly be of great assistance to those of a vulnerable disposition.

We have to recognise that the public expectation has changed—I referred to that earlier—particularly among the young. They expect that they should be able to do things online, and that is increasing. We have a duty to recognise how the world is changing and how the new generation is operating. It would be wrong for us in Parliament not to recognise that the systems for which we are responsible should adapt to the way the world is operating.

We must also recognise that the state of some court buildings is not fit for the 21st century. Some are simply not fit for purpose, some are listed and some are not compliant with the provisions of the Equality Act 2010, particularly regarding facilities for disabled people. We have courts that do not have proper facilities for prisoners to arrive and be taken in a secure fashion to a cell or a room. We have courts that do not have proper facilities to keep victims and witnesses separate. The hon. Member for Hartlepool asked what criteria we had used. We may not have used the criteria for some of the questions that he raised, but I hope that by illustrating the inadequacies of some of our courts we will have gone some way towards showing some of the practical considerations we have taken into account, as well as utilisation, of course. I spoke yesterday to a Member who contributed to this debate, along with a magistrate from his constituency. The magistrate, who was lobbying to keep his court, actually referred to some buildings as “Dickensian”.

Let me be very clear: although the current court building is up for consideration for closure, I am very much open to suggestions about other buildings, such as town halls or civic buildings. For example, where a court is utilised at the moment for one, two or three days a week, there is no reason why there cannot be court proceedings in a town hall or civic building for two days a week. Council leaders have approached me saying that they would be open to their council chamber being used as a court. Sadly, in the case of the one particularly strong representation that was made to me there are no nearby courts proposed for closure, but this person asked me to bear him in mind in case circumstances change.

I want to make it clear that, right now, we are paying for buildings seven days a week, 24 hours a day, when they are actually being utilised for a fraction of that time. The modern world says that we should move on and rent premises elsewhere.

Ann Coffey: The Minister is very eloquent about his vision for the justice system of the future. I absolutely agree with every single word he says about 21st century justice and looking at alternatives, but the problem is that I cannot relate that to the consultation document before me. I cannot see how his vision is met within the proposals for the closure of courts in Greater Manchester.

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What we are seeing is something that is too embedded in court closures, rather than that vision across the county.

Mr Vara: We have set out our arguments in the consultation document to the extent that there are other submissions that can be made. I have made it clear, and I will make it clear again, that Members can write to me. This was not a rushed consultation over a four-week period or anything like that. This was a 12-week consultation. Many Members have written to me, seeking clarifications. I have responded as promptly and as efficiently as I can. The consultation started on 16 July, so I made it absolutely clear to my office that any Member who wanted to see me in the two weeks before the conference recess should be able to do so, and I am happy to say that I have managed to achieve that. Incidentally, the hon. Lady mentioned that she had asked three questions. They have been replied to and published. One of them requires quite a bit of time to get the information, but I have undertaken to write to her. My replies might be in her office, or she might not have got round to seeing them.

There is a vision, but I invite colleagues to write in with other suggestions. I am mindful of the fact that I must give a couple of minutes to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath, who proposed the motion, but in the minute I have left I will talk about technology.

We have already started to spend a budget of some £130 million to ensure that we have a first-rate digitalised system. Furthermore, we have a world class legal system. These reforms will ensure that we maintain it. I have seen many Members, and I look forward to seeing any more who still wish to see me. Some might even want to see me for a second time, and I am happy to do that. I am certainly open to more correspondence.

4.57 pm

Ben Howlett: I want to say a huge thank you to the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue. I thank, too, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) for helping to sponsor this debate and hon. Members for delaying their departure to their constituencies for at least a couple of hours. I wish to express particular thanks to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), for his support over the past few months in addressing some of the concerns of our constituents. He has eloquently described his vision for a 21st century court system. I hope that all Members’ views will be taken into consideration when the Ministry of Justice is making its final decision as per the consultation.

Finally, let me refer to Bath. By the end of the process, the Minister will no doubt be sick and tired of hearing about Bath’s courts. We have a real opportunity to use our facilities there if they are kept for justice and rehabilitation purposes. For far too long, members of the community have been let down by our criminal justice service. I hope that, following this debate, we can use the facilities better to aid them and their rehabilitation back into society and ensure that witnesses, victims and the most vulnerable get the services they need.

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Once again, I thank the House for convening for this debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the closure of courts and tribunals services in England and Wales.


Barclays Bank Branch on Woodhill (Leicester)

4.59 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I would like to present a petition signed by 79 local residents, predominantly in the North Evington area of my constituency. Signatures were collected by volunteers in the local area and I thank Councillors Jean Khote, Luis Fonseca and Abdul Osman for their support. The residents of Leicester East declare that the proposed closure of Barclays bank on Woodhill in North Evington will have an extremely negative impact on elderly residents in the area who use the branch. The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to meet representatives of Barclays to examine the impact of branch closures on local residents. There will be more signatures and more petitions on this matter, but this is the petition that I will be presenting on behalf of my constituents today.

[Following is the full text of the petition:

The petition of residents of Leicester East,

Declares that local Barclays Bank customers are greatly concerned that their local Barclays Bank branch on Woodhill (Leicester) will be closed in the coming months and further that residents of Woodhill and the surrounding area fear that they will have to travel much further to an alternative Barclays branch in Leicester city which poses serious difficulties for some residents.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to encourage Barclays Bank to reconsider the decision to close the Woodhill Branch in Leicester, as there are no other Barclays branches in the vicinity.

And the Petitioners remain, etc].


School Hall for East Markham Primary School

5.1 pm

Robert Jenrick (Newark) (Con): I wish to present a petition on behalf of my constituents relating to the urgent need for a school hall to be provided at East Markham primary school near Newark, a highly valued rural school in Nottinghamshire whose overcrowded and unsuitable premises have held back education in that otherwise wonderful part of our great county for too long, signed by 186 parents, grandparents and governors as well as many residents of this community.

The petition states:

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to encourage Nottinghamshire County Council to provide a school hall for East Markham Primary School.

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[Following is the full text of the petition:

The petition of residents of the Newark constituency,

Declares that East Markham Primary School should have a hall provided by the County Council; further that the petitioners believe that the education of the children at the school is suffering for a variety of reasons including that there is no indoor PE or indoor drama facility, there is overcrowding and that the school has no ability to put on plays, concerts or performances for groups larger than around 30 people; and further that a local petition on this matter was signed by 186 individuals.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to encourage Nottinghamshire County Council to provide a school hall for East Markham Primary School.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.]


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Stalking (Protection of Victims)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(George Hollingbery.)

5.2 pm

Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this debate on stalking and I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

May I begin by placing on record my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who has played an active role in taking up the case? I also thank Gloucestershire CID and the officer in the case of Knight for their assistance to me, but most of all, I would like to thank my constituent, Dr Eleanor Aston. It is her dreadful ordeal as the victim of stalking that was the principal trigger for the debate. She was targeted by a stalker in a way which, as the court heard, caused her “exceptional anxiety and suffering”. She has shown great courage in supporting the debate, and she deserves the gratitude of the whole House.

I will say a little more about the circumstances of her case in a moment, but thought it might be helpful to set out my main point at the beginning. Stalking is a horrible, violating crime that rips relationships apart and shatters lives. My principal point is that the powers to punish offenders and protect the victims of this horrible offence are wholly inadequate, and that inadequacy is particularly blatant when the stalking concerned forms part of a pattern of repeat offending.

So that you know where I am heading, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am calling for two principal things. First, I want an increase in sentencing powers for offences of stalking contrary to section 4(4)(a) of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and, secondly, a review of the restrictive rule in section 265 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which means that in any case in which a court sentences a defendant for an offence that he commits on licence—not just stalking—the court must order the new sentence to run concurrently with the old one. It sounds arcane, but it is not. The situation leads to injustice and I shall explain why in a moment. The point is that currently the law does not get that difficult balance right. It creates a sentencing straitjacket that restricts the court’s ability to do justice. The judge in the case affecting my constituent thought that that was wrong. I think it is wrong, too.

I am not seeking something that would have dramatic knock-on effects. Civil servants rightly reach for their calculators to work out what the impact of any legislative change would be. But the cases in which there would be a particularly lengthy sentence for stalking, or indeed an extended sentence, are likely to be rare. Equally, the circumstances in which it would be appropriate to impose back-to-back sentences are likely to be infrequent. The simple point is that when the circumstances demand it, courts should have the tools they need to do justice and protect the victim.

I need to set out a little more detail about the case involving my constituent. Dr Aston is a general practitioner, described at Gloucester Crown Court as “successful and popular”, and she practises at a local surgery in Gloucestershire. Raymond Knight, the defendant, became a patient at her surgery in 2007. As is sometimes the case with this type of offending, the harassment began

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annoyingly but relatively innocuously, with the defendant sending cards and inappropriate messages to the surgery, but it soon became far more serious.

Raymond Knight began attending Dr Aston’s surgery and vandalising her car, and in 2009 he was convicted of harassment, contrary to section 2 of the 1997 Act, and a restraining order was imposed with conditions. It did not work. He continued to stalk her. He attended her surgery over 100 times and vandalised it, posting foul items through the letter box, and he attended her home frequently. He was arrested and multiple photos were found on his camera and computer. In July 2010 he was sentenced to a two-year community order.

Once again, the community order completely failed to work and the stalking continued. I will set out some of the details so that the House understands why I am making these points. The defendant showed up at a party for Dr Aston’s young daughter and slashed her car tyre. He was arrested again following reports of hacking a water pipe and interfering with the gas supply. In May 2013 he was convicted and sentenced to 44 months’ imprisonment for eight breaches of a restraining order and causing criminal damage.

What about the effect on the victim? Dr Aston was advised by the police to change her name and job and move address. It was suggested that she should come off the General Medical Council register. The stalking led to her being off work for many months, and she was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

What happened next? This is where the law goes wrong. The defendant was released on licence in July 2014, the half-way point of his sentence, with a condition to reside at a bail hostel in Weymouth. However, as is not uncommon in offences of this nature, within six months he was offending again. In December 2014 Dr Aston received two packages, one to her home address in Cheltenham and the other to her medical practice in Gloucester. One was threatening and abusive in content. It suggested that the defendant had been watching her and knew her car registration, where her husband worked and where her children went to school. Chillingly, the second package simply read, “Guess who’s back?”

The defendant was arrested the following day and his licence was revoked. In other words, he was required to serve the balance of the original 44-month sentence. On 15 May 2015 he was sentenced for several offences, including stalking and breach of a restraining order. In his sentencing remarks, the judge stated that the defendant had conducted a campaign for six years in which he had sought to “terrorise” the victim. But the law went wrong, because the maximum sentence the judge could impose for the stalking was five years’ imprisonment. Where there is an early guilty plea, the judge is obliged, as in all cases, to deduct a third from the sentence. That means in reality a maximum sentence of around three years and four months. Of course, prisoners serve half their sentence, so the total time to be served in prison is little more than 18 months. We should bear in mind the fact that that is for the most serious examples of stalking.

The judge in this case clearly felt that the sentence was inadequate. He stated:

“I am frustrated that the maximum sentence for harassment is five years. I would, if I could, give you longer.”

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In fact, His Honour Judge Tabor QC appears to have done his best to do justice by imposing consecutive sentences for some breaches of the restraining order, but that is somewhat beside the point.

The second problem facing the sentencing judge was that because of the restrictive wording of section 265 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, he was obliged to order that the new sentence of five years should run concurrently with the period of licence that he was serving on recall. In other words, he was not allowed to order the defendant to serve out the balance of his original sentence before starting his new one. What did the judge make of that? He added:

“I also make it clear that I feel it is wrong that I am not entitled to pass a consecutive sentence on you.”

The effect of all this is clear. In this case, the judge’s hands were tied. He was able neither to punish the offender nor to protect the victim in the way that justice demanded.

So what needs to change? First, the maximum sentence for stalking contrary to section 4A of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 needs to be increased. If we think about where stalking fits into the hierarchy, that point is well made. The maximum sentence for criminal damage—an offence against property—is 10 years, and the maximum sentence for a single one-off dwelling house burglary is 14 years. It is bordering on the absurd that the maximum penalty for a campaign of stalking over many years that left the victim feeling, in the words of the judge, “terrorised”, is so much less.

Secondly, to protect the victim, stalking should be a specified offence. That would allow the court, in the most serious cases, after a proper, evidence-based assessment of the defendant, and having found him to be “dangerous” within the meaning of the 2003 Act, to impose an extended period of licence. That would require the defendant, on release, to know that he had to obey the law for an extended period, failing which he could be returned to prison. It may be noted that in this case the judge said:

“I have no doubt at all that you are dangerous in the sense that you pose a significant risk to her in future in terms of causing her serious harm.”

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): My hon. Friend is making some powerful arguments. Does he agree that because the history of the law dates from a time before social media and the internet had exploded as it has now, when there are much greater opportunities to stalk someone and find out the details of their family, the deterrent needs to be stronger than perhaps it was in previous years?

Alex Chalk: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. He is absolutely right. I suspect that stalking is as old as the sea, but the opportunities to stalk are much greater now than they have ever been. Indeed, stalking was discussed in this House during the previous Parliament, but then, as now, there was a growing sense that the courts do not have the tools they need to be able to address it.

Let me make it crystal clear that I am not from the brigade that says we should be locking people up and throwing away the key. I am merely suggesting that there needs to be proportionality so that judges can, in appropriate circumstances, ensure that the punishment

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fits the crime and, just as importantly if not more so, that victims can be protected. Just imagine what it is like when you, as the victim, know that the person who has made your life a misery is due to be released from prison for the most serious type of stalking offence about 18 months after he was sent there.

Let me return to my point about back-to-back sentencing, which might sound arcane, but is critical. At the moment, a defendant may commit an offence of stalking, go to prison, be released at the halfway point, and then, as is not uncommon, do exactly the same again. The judge should be able to say, “Right, you go and complete the balance of your sentence. You were told that you would be released at the halfway point but your sentence has not come to an end. If you commit further offences, you are liable to be recalled on licence to complete your sentence, and then you will have to start a sentence for the new crime that you have committed.” That discretion is not open to the court. The judge is obliged by section 265 of the 2003 Act to make the sentences run concurrently. That is wrong. The courts should not be prevented from imposing a consecutive sentence of imprisonment in those cases, no doubt rare, where it is called for. I repeat that I am not saying that that should happen in every case, or even in most cases. I am simply saying that it should be on the list of options available to the sentencing judge, who views the circumstances in the round.

In the overwhelming majority of cases I believe our courts—by which I mean judges, barristers, solicitors, police officers and court staff—deliver a standard of justice of which we can all be proud. In this case, however, our criminal justice system fell short. My constituent, Dr Aston, was not given the protection she required and it is time to put that right.

5.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Karen Bradley): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on securing the debate and thank him for raising this important issue. He has made some excellent points on behalf of his constituent and I am genuinely and terribly sorry to hear about this case. It emphasises why we must get the first response right, identify stalking behaviour at the earliest opportunity and ensure that the criminal justice system does deliver justice.

First and foremost, stalking is a dangerous and devastating crime. The impact on the victim—physically, psychologically and emotionally—cannot be overstated, as we have seen in Dr Aston’s case. We owe it to the victims of this terrible crime to do everything we can to afford them the protection and support they need. It is, as my hon. Friend has said, a horrible, violating crime. This Government continue to work closely with victims, stalking support services, the police and criminal justice agencies to ensure that we are doing just that.

It may help if I set out the laws that apply to stalking. As Members will be aware, in November 2012 two new offences of stalking were introduced into the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. That was in recognition of the fact that, while stalking could be prosecuted under that Act, there was a gap in the law. Those specific offences bridge that gap in order better to protect victims and to bring perpetrators to justice more effectively. They have made a difference.

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The most recent data from the Crown Prosecution Service show that in 2014-15, more than 1,100 prosecutions commenced under the new stalking offences—almost a 50% increase on the previous year. A significant number of those prosecutions were brought under the more serious of the two offences, involving fear of violence and serious alarm or distress. Those figures are encouraging and show that the new legislation is beginning to take effect. However we know, and we have heard today, that too many victims of stalking are not getting justice and that more can be done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) pointed out, the ability to offend online increases the opportunities available to offenders, although I must make it clear that that which is illegal offline is also illegal online.

Of course, legislation alone is not enough to tackle the problem. If the new laws are to be used to best effect, it is vital that front-line police officers and prosecutors are equipped to recognise the patterns of behaviour that lie behind the fixated obsessions of a stalker. Since October 2012, the College of Policing training package on investigating stalking has been completed more than 68,000 times by police staff. More than 1,600 CPS staff have completed training on stalking and the Director of Public Prosecutions has commissioned more work to identify actions to increase stalking prosecutions even further.

The difference between stalking and harassment has always been a challenge, particularly when trying to bring a successful prosecution. The CPS is working with Government and other partners such as Paladin, which runs the national stalking advocacy service, and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which runs the national stalking helpline, to identify additional training to enable CPS prosecutors to address the issue.

We also continue to work closely with the College of Policing and the police to ensure that appropriate tools are available to put in place protective measures for victims. In July, I met the national policing lead for stalking and harassment, Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan, to discuss options for further work. ACC Shewan is currently undertaking a review of police information notices in the light of recent concerns over their use. He will consider whether PINs should be rebranded to make their purpose in addressing low-level harassment more explicit. A PIN may not be an appropriate measure in stalking cases, and guidance to officers will be refreshed to reflect that point.

The Home Secretary and I are considering further evidence on the measures available to tackle stalking and looking at whether there is more that the Government can or should do. For example, the Government have introduced civil orders to help the police deal with domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and sexual offending. We are actively looking at whether a new stalking and harassment protection order could provide an additional route to early intervention to stop this crime.

Prolonged campaigns of the kind involved in the case raised by my hon. Friend highlight the fact that both the new offences are needed. Stalking must be acknowledged as the fixated, obsessive offending that it is. We now need to focus on the early identification of stalking behaviour so that perpetrators can be stopped before someone has to suffer for so many years. The legislation has provided a springboard to drive such a shift in

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approach, but consideration of a new protection order is another step in ensuring that we do all we can to stop stalking at the earliest opportunity. A new order may include the option to place restrictions on an offender.

Alex Chalk: The court already has the power to impose restraining orders—in other words, it can order someone not to go to a certain place—but it is in the nature of such offending that offenders ignore court orders however they are badged. Does the Minister recognise that that is an issue for the criminal justice system?

Karen Bradley: My hon. Friend is right. In the case that he has raised, the offender was given a restraining order banning him from 11 counties. However, we need to look at whether we can bring in more civil orders in addition to the criminal justice legislation. Anything we can do to stop offending at the earliest opportunity and prevent it from becoming a prolonged campaign would be positive. The example he has cited really brings home the fact that we need to intervene sooner, including by identifying the signs of such behaviour as soon as possible and deciding whether any measures can be used. I do, however, understand that once an offender has started such a prolonged campaign, there is a difficulty in using civil orders, and that action must then be taken through the criminal justice system. If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will return to his point about the criminal justice system.

I must also say that we cannot look at stalking in isolation from the broader work being done across Government to tackle violence against women and girls and to protect vulnerable people and tackle exploitation in all its forms. Wider work on tackling violence and abuse may help to support an improved response to stalking. For example, the College of Policing has developed an immersive training programme for officers on domestic violence and abuse. That programme is relevant, because nearly half of stalking cases involve a former intimate partner. That was not the case in the example my hon.

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Friend has cited, but that has been shown by the statistics. Such training will be crucial in helping officers to tackle domestic abuse and implement the new offence of coercive and controlling behaviour, both of which will benefit domestic abuse victims who may experience stalking. By supporting officers to identify patterns of abuse and promoting a culture of victim belief and empathy, the new training packages will improve the police response to a range of safeguarding and public protection issues, including those of victims who are stalked by a casual acquaintance or a complete stranger, as well as those who know their stalker.

My hon. Friend and I have discussed outside the Chamber the specific points that he has made in relation to Dr Aston’s case, including his wish for stalking to be a specified offence in order to increase the level of sentencing, and for section 265 of the 2003 Act to be looked at in relation to consecutive versus concurrent sentencing. I have met my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor to discuss those points. He was disturbed by them, and very much wants to meet my hon. Friend to discuss them and to consider what the Government can do to make a practical difference. This goes back to the point that the criminal justice system has to deliver and be seen to deliver justice. Victims such as Dr Aston deserve no less.

I am proud of the progress that we are making in getting to grips with this complex offence, the effects of which can be deep and long-lasting for victims. Today’s debate has been timely in informing us of the impact and what more can be done. Once again I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is a true champion of his constituents. Dr Aston is very lucky to have him as her constituency MP. I know that he will continue to campaign for her and other victims of stalking. As the Minister with responsibility for preventing abuse and exploitation, I am determined to do everything I can, with him, to protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice.

Question put and agreed to.

5.25 pm

House adjourned.