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Stalkers set to face tougher punishments under new measures

Stalkers will face longer jail terms under a drive to toughen the punishments handed to those responsible for the most devastating campaigns of harassment.

The maximum custodial sentence available to courts in England and Wales for stalking will rise from five to 10 years under measures to be announced on Friday by the Ministry of Justice.

If the offence was racially or religiously aggravated, the most severe sanction will double from seven to 14 years.

Ministers argue the plans will help ensure the punishment reflects the severity of the crime and its damaging consequences on victims.

Figures show that 194 people were convicted of stalking in England and Wales in 2015 and the average custodial sentence was just over a year at 14.1 months.

Justice Minister Sam Gyimah said: "Stalkers torment their victims and can make everyday life almost unbearable. We are doubling the maximum sentences available to the courts so these awful crimes can be properly punished.

"We are also working across the criminal justice system to ensure mental health issues associated with these crimes are properly addressed."

The Government will seek to implement the change through an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill, which is currently going through Parliament.

It will also raise the maximum sentence for harassment - from five to 10 years, and seven to 14 years if racially or religiously aggravated.

Last month ministers announced plans for Stalking Protection Orders to tackle culprits as soon as their victims raise the alarm.

Under the measures, suspects could be ordered to stay away from their targets or have their internet use restricted even if they have not yet been arrested or charged.

Statistics suggest one in five women and one in ten men will be affected by stalking in their lifetime, while the National Stalking Helpline has responded to almost 14,000 calls since it was established in 2010.

In the 12 months to June 2016, police recorded 4,168 stalking offences, an increase of 32% on the previous year.

The move came after the Government suffered a defeat in the Lords over the maximum sentence for stalking.

Labour former Lords leader Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, whose successful amendment forced the Government climbdown, said: "I am delighted by the Government's decision to double the maximum sentence for the heinous crime of stalking from five to 10 years.

"This will ensure that the punishment fits the crime and most importantly it will ensure justice for the victims whose lives have been blighted - victims like Ellie Ashton whose case was the catalyst for the excellent Bill presented to Parliament by Alex Chalk MP.

"I pay tribute to Alex and Richard Graham MP for the work they have done to raise awareness about stalking but also to extraordinary campaigners like Laura Richards and the charity Paladin.

"I am very proud that my amendment, which gained cross-party support in the Lords last month, precipitated Government action before the debate in the Commons next Tuesday. I now hope that long awaited sentencing guidelines will follow this welcome announcement."

Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said: "In December, the Government voted against Labour peer Baroness Royall's amendment to increase the maximum sentence for stalking.

"Thankfully, under pressure, the Tories have changed their mind. But more still needs to be done to ensure that victims of stalking feel confident enough that their complaint will be investigated properly when they first report it."

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