A belated Happy New Year to all and what a happy New Year it is for Suzy Lamplugh Trust.

We ended 2016 with a visit from the Home Secretary to announce her support for Stalking Protection Orders and we begin 2017 with the Ministry of Justice extending 4A stalking sentences from a maximum of 5 years to 10 years. We look forward to supporting both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice with both of their endeavours to try and improve support for victims of stalking.

We know how awful a crime stalking is. It can affect all aspects of a victim’s life, from their physical and mental well-being to their emotional stability and financial security. Stalking has been described as ‘murder in slow motion’ and is a complete violation of a person’s life. Every day, on the National Stalking Helpline, we speak to people reporting their abuse and the ways their lives and the lives of their families have been left in upheaval.

So when the Government announces proposals like the one we saw last week to extend sentences, Suzy Lamplugh Trust is absolutely going to welcome it. Along with partner organisations and dedicated individuals, we have been calling for this change to stalking sentences for many months and this announcement shows that stalking, as a crime, is starting to be taken seriously. But lengthier sentences are not just an opportunity to protect the public from dangerous stalkers for longer: they could also provide a more realistic timeframe in which mental health teams can assess stalking perpetrators and take steps to manage their fixation and obsession.

As the Minister for sentencing reform begins the task of extending the sentences for fear of alarm through stalking, we would urge him to consider work that needs to be done to ensure that this change will have real impact. Currently, the average custodial prison sentence for stalking is 10.9 months – a long way from the previous 5-year maximum and a very long way from the proposed 10-year sentence. In addition, the number of people convicted under Section 4A (causing fear of violence) was just 194 people last year. Considering that the National Stalking Helpline was contacted by over 9,000 people last year, there is clearly work to be done to raise the conviction rate as well as sentence length.

We would urge the Government to focus heavily on increasing the conviction rate which currently sits at less than 1% of reported crimes of stalking. To do this we must train criminal justice professionals to be able to effectively use the tools already at their disposal. This means training frontline police officers to adequately identify stalking when it is presented. It means ensuring CPS prosecutors understand the difference between stalking and harassment and why a stalking charge should not be dropped to a harassment charge. And it means making sure magistrates use the powers at their disposal to adequately prevent stalkers from contacting their victims and seek a mental health assessment for them where appropriate.

Our new year resolutions for Suzy Lamplugh Trust are to continue to push for more comprehensive training for frontline professionals and to continue to improve the lives of victims of stalking.