STALKING offences are set to hit a record high this year in Essex.

Home Office data shows the number of stalking offences recorded in the six months between April and September by Essex Police is already 53 per cent higher than the number recorded during the whole of the previous year.

Essex Police recorded 1,168 stalking offences between April and September. By comparison, in the 12 months to March 2020 there were 764.

It means in the first six months since the coronavirus pandemic hit, stalking was reported six times a day on average.

The Suzy Lamplugh Trust said calls to its National Stalking Helpline have risen since the start of the pandemic, with cyber stalking cases also surging.

As lockdown restrictions eased in June, a higher number of victims came forward to report stalking, compared to the first lockdown months.

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Between June and September, 754 such crimes were reported in Essex – 340 more than the previous three months.

Across England and Wales, 44,990 stalking incidents were reported to police between April and September – 39 per cent more than in the whole of 2019-20.

Natasha Osben, from Clacton, is affiliated with think tank Autonomy’s Feminist Futures Programme.

She said: “The reported increase in stalking offences in Essex are a serious cause for concern for people in Tendring.

“A man who murders a woman is likely to have previously abused her or stalked her.

“A man who progresses to stalking is likely to have started with a less serious pattern of behaviour such as verbally harassing women in public or opportunistically flashing unwitting victims at random.

“Women are being let down by our failing justice system which fails to take the nature of these crimes seriously.”

Changes in law and procedures may have had an impact on the figures.

In January 2020, the Home Office introduced Stalking Protection Orders, which ban perpetrators from approaching their victims and may also force them to seek professional help.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Home Secretary and Witham MP Priti Patel acknowledged the situation.

She said: “So many of you have bravely shared your own experiences of harassment, abuse and violence online over recent days, so today I am re-opening our nationwide call for views on tackling violence against women and girls.

“The Government is listening.”

Changes to the way stalking is recorded were introduced in April 2019 with the crime being recorded in addition to the most serious offence involving the same victim or offender.

Since April 2020, all cases of harassment reported between ex-partners must also be recorded as stalking, unless the police are satisfied stalking is not a factor.

However, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust said that while these changes may have contributed to a rise in reports, there was still significant underreporting of the crime.

A spokesman for the charity said: “Since March 2020 we have seen a rise in calls to the helpline, clients are more distressed and are requiring much greater support, we have also seen an increase in cyber stalking cases.

“Demand has fluctuated to the helpline over the course of the pandemic, in some periods it has tripled on pre-covid levels.

“The introduction of Stalking Protection Orders has been very much welcomed, though we do still hope to see more police forces issuing them.

“According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales there are around 1.5 million victims of stalking each year and as such we believe there is still significant underreporting of this crime.”

Victoria Atkins, Safeguarding Minister, said: “The Government introduced Stalking Protection Orders last year to crack down on this deeply distressing crime, and I know that police forces are making good use of them.

“These orders are designed to stop perpetrators at the earliest opportunity and prevent them contacting victims - for those who refuse to be rehabilitated, we have doubled maximum sentences for stalking and harassment to 10 years.

“The Home Office also part-funds the National Stalking Helpline and has allocated £211,000 to stalking-focused charities to help them to deal with the consequences of the pandemic.

“The increased reporting in this instance demonstrates greater public awareness around stalking offences and the commitment of the police to tackle this abhorrent crime.”