Harassment law must be revised to tackle the rise in ‘cyber stalking’


By Elfyn Llwyd, MP.

I'm sure we are all familiar with the tendency to trivialise the idea of 'stalking' someone in everyday conversation, and in social media the idea of "following" someone on twitter is accepted - but it can have sinister connotations.

The British Crime Survey estimates that up to 5 million people experience stalking in any one year. According to the findings of the NUS's survey 'Hidden Marks' (2010), 12% of female students had been stalked while at university or college.

But "cyber stalking" too is not a new phenomenon. Unfortunately however it is on the rise and most widespread amongst – though not limited to – young people.

It is the same behaviour as that displayed by stalkers everywhere, but the pervasiveness of the internet with its many opportunities to contact people, mean we must become savvy to this new medium.

Cyber stalking is not covered by the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act, meaning that the thousands of people who are harassed over the internet are not able to cite this as a crime.

This is made more difficult by the fact that stalking is not sufficiently defined in law. Stalking is of course difficult to delineate, since it can be psychological as well as physical.

The conviction rate for those accused of stalking is also worryingly low.

But anyone who is made to feel intimidated, frightened for their safety or worried by another's deliberate and intrusive actions has a legitimate cause for grievance. No one should have to suffer stalking.

We need to acknowledge stalking as the life-altering fixation that it is and I believe the Act must be updated as a matter of urgency to reflect this growing trend.

This week I was privileged to chair an event in Westminster to raise awareness of attitudes towards stalking and harassment. It was well supported by members of parliament and representatives from the police force, support groups and those with direct experiences of stalking and the harrowing experiences they've suffered.

I'm pleased to say that the campaign is gaining real momentum now, with close to 80 MPs from all parties supporting our call for a full review of the outdated Protection from Harassment Act – but these are only baby steps.

Crucially we must also combat society's lenient attitude towards stalking.

In 2009, 53,000 cases of stalking were recorded by the police – no doubt a drop in the ocean when considering the real number that went unrecorded, due to fear, or a lack of confidence that anything would be done to combat the problem.

That is why the law must be changed – so that we can give victims the conviction that their ordeal will be dealt with sensitively and effectively.

Stalking is characteristic of obsessive behaviour, which means that getting conviction rates up on its own won't stop these problems occurring. That is why training on dealing with stalkers must be given to parole staff and, in the long term, we must combat the root of the problem by introducing treatment programmes for serial stalkers.

I believe that tackling the law on this is the first step to acknowledging the severity of the issue and I will continue to campaign hard for this to happen.