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15 May 1996

Stalking our rights away

Ellie Lee examines what's really at stake in the stalking debate

On 9 May the government announced that they were to introduce a bill to outlaw 'stalking'. This was in response to a Bill brought by Janet Anderson, a Labour MP. The government decided that while her Bill was flawed they would take on the issue themselves before the general election. While this may well be a cynical attempt by the Tories to present themselves as the defenders of the weak, the issue represents both a redefinition of what being guilty before the law means and a major attack on our rights.

Janet Anderson defined stalking as following, watching, approaching, telephoning, interfering with property, leaving offensive material around or regularly visiting 'so that the other person is likely to be harassed, alarmed, distressed or to fear for their safety'. Her Bill proposed the creation of a prohibitory order that magistrates could use invoke which allowed for an 'exclusion zone' around the 'victim', compulsory counselling and a maximum of five years in prison for the 'stalker'.

While this sounds like a progressive move to protect women from the unwanted attentions of obsessives, it is important to recognise the consequences of any proposed legislation:
  • Stalking is not a threat to women. Janet Anderson has recently lowered her estimate of the number of 'sufferers' from 5000 in March to 3000 now. More serious problems, like the fact that 800 000 women have to survive on less than £2.50 per hour pay is not even discussed.

  • There are already plenty of laws to deal with any alleged 'stalkers'. The call for a new law rests on a significant redefinition of what problems laws should actually deal with.

  • The idea behind the proposed law is that what somebody feels about the actions of another person, not what the person actually does becomes paramount. The original Bill suggested that the actions of somebody accused of stalking are a problem if they make another person feel 'harassed, alarmed, distressed or fear for their safety'. Thus a feeling, a sense of fear in somebody's head, an idea, whether accurate or not, that somebody else is putting you at risk becomes the important point in law. The key legal issue thus becomes the alleged intention behind any given action rather than the seriousness of the action.

  • The attempts to legislate against stalking represent a severe attack on civil liberties. We are no longer judged on our actions - by what we meant or did by them. Instead we are judged on another person's perception of our actions. A defence of 'innocent until proven guilty' becomes impossible since there is no longer any basis for innocence - except perhaps for mind-readers.

  • If this becomes law people will be treated as pathetic victims. The Bill suggests that people (particularly women) are likely to feel harassed and upset by telephone calls or by being watched. Indeed, in a recent landmark ruling against a 'stalker' these kinds of actions were deemed capable of inducing 'psychological grievous bodily harm'. It is therefore suggested that we feel as damaged by receiving nuisance telephone calls as by having our legs broken.

The only winner in this charade is the long arm of the law which wins greater powers as the protectors of the weak in the face of the evil threat of 'stalking'. The Conservatives, like New Labour, want to remove 'the freedom stalkers have to terrorise innocent people'.

What we need to do is expose the manner in which our freedoms are being removed in the name of dealing with an issue that is not a problem.

For more background information see Male violence: look who's stalking in the current issue of Living Marxism.
  • Ellie Lee is convening a course on Policing the Family at The Week conference in July.

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