Transcript of my speech in full:
I beg to move, That this House has considered e-petition 593769, relating to funding for stalking advocates.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Mark. As you say, this case is sub judice, so I will not go into details in my contribution. However, I pay heartfelt tribute to the parents of Gracie Spinks, who are here. I spoke to Richard and Alison last week, and was very moved by their story, but also angered. The trauma that they have gone through is unimaginable, and I hope that I am able to do them and Gracie proud today.
I also put on record my thanks to Jackie Barnett-Wheatcroft for starting this important petition, and for taking the time to speak to me last week. The petition, which has more than 105,000 signatures, states:
“The Government should provide more funding for stalking advocates for victims of stalking. This would help support victims, and should also help the police to investigate cases more thoroughly, potentially helping prevent threats to life.”
That seems a wholly appropriate way to deal with this issue, and there must be best practice that can be shared between police forces to make sure that the tragedy we are talking about cannot happen again. When I spoke to Richard and Alison, and to Jackie last week, one thing that struck me was their determination to find a solution to this issue.
Gracie’s case is a tragic reminder of what seems to be the ever-rising problem of violence against women and girls. Gracie had reported her stalker to the police, which, as we know, takes a huge amount of courage. What I am about to outline is not specifically about Gracie’s case, but there may be some similarities with it. Many women are dismissed by the police when they report violence perpetrated by men. Time and again, we have seen cases of women murdered by men who they have recently or previously complained about. Just this week, Yasmin Chkaifi was killed by her ex-husband. He had an interim stalking protection order against him, and was wanted by the police for breaking it, but despite this, he still found the opportunity to kill Yasmin in the street, just yards from her home—her safe place. In Swansea, we have seen the smirking face of Stephen Hill, who beat his girlfriend so badly that she needed a metal plate put in her head. He was given a sentence of just over two years—two years for life-changing injuries.
This is not the first time that I have spoken about violence against women. Just a few months ago, we were in this Chamber debating the rise in drink spiking, and over the past 12 months, we have been inundated with stories of serious attacks on, and murders of, women across the country. We have rightly been appalled by the murder of Sarah Everard at the hands of a policeman; the police’s taking photographs of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman after they were murdered in a park; and the killing of Sabina Nessa as she walked through her local park. It cannot go on like this. The Government must recognise that we have an epidemic on our hands.
When women approach the police for support, they are often turned away and made to feel as though they are wasting police time. If someone is mugged or burgled, they are not asked to provide evidence, but a victim of stalking is. The onus is put on the victim. Many stalkers are also guilty of other crimes against their victims. Affray, criminal damage, voyeurism and other offences are often recorded in stalking cases. If a stalking advocate were on a police force, a link between those offences could be established, and we could avoid such cases as those that we are talking about today.
Much is made of postcode lotteries, but we have a police force lottery when it comes to imposing stalking protection orders. It appears that some forces are using them to much better effect than others. We need to ensure that their use to good effect is replicated. A BBC investigation in March 2021 found that only two full orders had been granted in the whole of Wales since the introduction of stalking protection orders in January 2020, despite more than 3,000 stalking offences being reported to the four police forces. It is paramount that we find out how some forces are protecting women; that information then needs to be shared across the board. Much of this comes down to the training that officers receive. How are police forces learning from their mistakes and improving outcomes for all victims of stalking?
There are also issues with trivialising the crime of stalking. I know that I have used the verb to describe having a nose at somebody on social media, and that is not acceptable. It makes it a bit of a joke, when we know that it is not, and we must all recognise that. The dangers that social media can pose cannot continue to go unchecked. We have become so much more connected. That is great for staying in touch with family and friends, but it exposes us to the dangers of having our details available to the world. Posting photos, checking into places and keeping location services on are tools that can be used to find people. Where there are no checks on people setting up accounts, stalkers can create numerous accounts and use them to bombard victims with messages.
Just last week, stories were emerging about the new threat of people using Apple AirTags to follow women without their consent. Tracking devices such as AirTags and Tile are designed to be attached to things that we may lose, such as ours keys or bag, so that we can locate them from our phone, but in the wrong hands they are the ideal tools for stalking and locating someone. Stories emerged last week of that happening in America, and of women having to rely on a beep from the offending device. Even more worryingly, only 100,000 Android users out of a potential 3 million have downloaded an app that Android users are being asked to install that identifies such tracking devices.
Safety concerns about devices and technologies used in the home, such as smart speakers giving away someone’s location, or smart devices getting hacked and compromising home security, have not yet been addressed properly by the tech giants. They need to step up and take action. They have a duty of care to everyone using their products and services. I am not sure whether the Minister has had conversations with any of them, but I would welcome their engagement on the issue, and would be interested in hearing more about how she will approach that. I thank her for her engagement on the subject after I sent over questions earlier. We want and need a constructive discussion. I know that she has met the petitioner, Jackie, but I hope that she will agree to meet the family, and other families, to discuss the best way forward.
In the meantime, very simply there are a number of questions that I, and I am sure the family and friends of Gracie and many others, would appreciate the answers to. How many stalking prevention orders have been given out since they were introduced? Are they uniformly spread across all police forces, or are some doing better than others? What assessment has been made of the pilot scheme being run by West Midlands police? Has the Minister discussed with Government colleagues and police representatives the introduction of stalking advocates to police forces in order to deal with the issue? We would also like to know whether there has been an audit of other offences recorded against perpetrators who are later convicted of stalking. It is those red flags that could stop women such as Gracie being murdered.
The themes running through my research on this subject were that police forces need to share best practice in a much more structured and regulated way, and that training across all forces needs to be massively improved—although “massively” does not go far enough. The Minister needs to take a strong lead on these issues, and shadow Front-Bench Members and I are willing to help in any way we can. I echo the calls in the petition for an advocate on each police force to be made available to victims of stalking. Patterns of behaviour can be identified if someone is looking for them, but many police forces simply do not have the time to do that.
Women want to feel safe, but we do not. Just look at this case, and look at the number of women killed in the last 12 months. Every year, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) on the Front Bench reads out the number and names of the women killed at the hands of men that year. It is a stark reminder to all of us that we are not getting any better on this, and that we need to address the issue. Look at the conviction rates for rape that have just been released.
Look at the Met’s response to the Sarah Everard vigil. As a country, we must do better, and I want to work with the Minister across the House to make sure that happens. Gracie’s parents have made it clear that they will not let this go; I will not let it go, either. Things must change. I will continue to fight for women everywhere who are suffering at the hands of men.