It was a warm, sunny Saturday in May 2020 but Sophie Walker was locked inside her house in north London, in the dark, with her 10-year-old daughter. She had drawn all the curtains and was sitting well away from the windows, doing jigsaws, listening to the country singer Kacey Musgraves and counting down the hours until her husband came home from work.

Walker, who was the founding leader of the Women’s Equality party (WEP), had good reason to be fearful. The next morning her neighbour, whom she had asked to keep an eye on the house, would call to tell her his CCTV had captured a man hanging around outside her house at 4am. Later that day, she discovered the embers of a fire smouldering in her back garden. “Near the fire was a vodka bottle with petrol in it and a big pile of wood. The word ‘cunt’ was scrawled on the path in graffiti.”

Walker was sure she knew who this man was. She believed he had been stalking her for weeks and was the person responsible for other incidents: slashing the tyres on her car, setting fire to her garden fence and eventually throwing a brick through her window, for which he pleaded guilty to criminal damage. The day Walker and her daughter were holed up, the man had already been banned from the area as part of his bail conditions. The police would later confirm that his electronic tag hadn’t been activated. “I thought: ‘I’m going to be dead before they can stop this man,’” she says. “He seemed to be able to act with total impunity.”

Through her job, Walker was acutely aware of the impact of stalking – in fact, she ran a WEP campaign on the issue in 2016 with the singer Lily Allen, calling for a register of stalkers similar to that of sex offenders. Allen backed the campaign after her own seven-year ordeal with a stalker culminated in the perpetrator breaking into her bedroom intending, he later told the police, to stick a knife through her face.

“I was appalled by what happened to her,” says Walker, who at the time was also running to be mayor of London. “But now here I am talking to you with this horrible new emotional understanding that I didn’t have then. It has changed me for life. I don’t think I will ever feel 100% safe again.”

Walker is speaking to me via Zoom from her new home. At the beginning of the year, she moved for a fresh start. “We’d raised our babies in that house, renovated it, painted it, loved it. In the end, it was a mess,” she says. The fires started by her alleged stalker were “close to my daughter’s playhouse, which was decorated with pretty pink flags. After the arson attacks it just looked tattered and hopeless.”

Walker’s ordeal started in April 2020, just as the first lockdown began. She returned from a walk to find her car tyres slashed. “It was upsetting because I thought it must have been someone having a bad reaction to lockdown and put it down to a one-off incident.”

Then it happened again. “I felt really sick,” she says. “Because we were clearly being targeted.” She contacted the police and installed security cameras.

A few days later, she was making dinner when her husband ran into the room shouting that their back fence was on fire. They called 999. The fire brigade extinguished the blaze, which had also engulfed some mature trees, but deemed it not to be suspicious.

“The police were called too, but didn’t show up,” Walker says. “I spent the whole of the next day begging them to come out because I just knew in the pit of my stomach that something was wrong, that the back of my house being on fire was related to the fact my tyres were slashed. But nobody came.” The next day, one of her daughters spotted another fire. She saw flames at the back of the house, beside her playhouse in the garden, which spread along the fence and up into the trees.

The police came and took a statement and a police engineer installed a panic button at the property. The couple made plans to send their three eldest children, who are aged 16 to 18, to stay with relatives. “My eldest daughter is autistic and was already having a really hard time dealing with lockdown. None of us slept that night – my little one spent the night in my bed feeling very frightened.” The three teenagers left the next day and did not return for several weeks.

Two days later, in the early hours of the morning, someone threw a brick through the living room window. “We heard a massive smash that shook the front of the house … Telling you this just makes me feel sick,” she says, her voice cracking, “but I remember thinking: ‘He’s in.’”

Walker delivers her keynote speech at the Women’s Equality Party’s first annual conference in Manchester, November 2016.
Walker delivers her keynote speech at the Women’s Equality Party’s first annual conference in Manchester, November 2016. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“My husband and I leapt up together and ran downstairs. I was terrified but wanted to stop him getting up to my daughter’s bedroom.”

Her attacker had fled but their newly installed CCTV picked up an image of a figure in the early-morning light. “He was wearing a parka with a hood drawn down to cover his face,” she recalls.

Walker pressed the panic alarm and the couple ran out to the street to meet the police when they arrived. The patrol car sped off and soon caught up with a man matching the description they had given. “I couldn’t tell who it was until the police arrested him and told me. After that, when I knew who it was, I saw him frequently – and realised I’d seen him frequently before.”

The man was found to be carrying lighter fuel and matches. After pleading guilty to criminal damage on 25 April in a virtual court, he was released on bail. “I was very frightened at this point,” says Walker. “I thought: ‘He’s out and the police aren’t recognising this as a pattern of obsessive and controlling behaviour.’”

On 28 April, the couple were downstairs in their house when they heard a crash from above. Walker’s husband looked out of the window and caught the man having accessed their roof and smashing the tiles with a big stick.

Again, they called the police. And again, sighs Walker, they had to explain the whole story from the start.

The man was picked up once more and charged with a further count of criminal damage and released on bail on the condition he did not enter her postcode. “I was absolutely terrified to be left in the house,” she says. “And when I was at home, I was frightened to move around inside or go near the windows in case he was outside watching.”

By the time of the weekend in May that she spent locked inside with her youngest daughter, Walker was at a complete loss. Her husband had to go away for work and “I was hysterical,” she says. “The whole situation was spinning out of control.” She turned to social media, tweeting: “There was a man in front of my house at 4am who has been ordered to stay away. Another fire at my house this afternoon. What do you do when the police and CPS seem incapable of stopping someone?”

She believes the Metropolitan police were alerted to her tweets after they were shared by her friends in political circles. After the man was arrested again that night, a senior detective rang her to say he was trying to build a harassment case. The vodka bottle filled with petrol, which police had left on her kitchen table, was finally taken away and a partial fingerprint found. However, due to the length of time it had taken to collect this crucial piece of evidence, it had been compromised.

On 4 May, Walker’s case was referred to the Met’s specialist Stalking Threat Assessment Centre and identified as stalking. The same day, the CPS refused the harassment and arson charges the police were trying to bring.

“They couldn’t charge him with stalking because he had already pleaded guilty to two counts of criminal damage,” explains Walker’s lawyer Sophie Naftalin of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, who claims there are clear “systemic failings” in Walker’s case.

“A stalking conviction could have been in the bag just on the criminal damage offences, but the prosecutor was not thinking about it in those terms,” Naftalin explains. “Sophie and her family were therefore denied the justice of him being prosecuted for stalking, which more adequately reflects their suffering and could have seen him face a more severe penalty. Stalking with intent is a much more serious offence than two counts of criminal damage.”

“Even when we used the panic button, the officers who responded weren’t across the case,” says Walker. “There was no sharing of information, no joining of the dots. The terror of someone coming after you relentlessly is matched only by the terror of the police not knowing what they are doing. It’s like a horror film with the character coming for you again and again and nobody can get there in time.”

According to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which runs the National Stalking Helpline, one in five women will be victims of stalking in their lifetime. The charity defines stalking as “a pattern of fixated and obsessive behaviour which is repeated, persistent, intrusive and causes fear of violence or engenders alarm”.

‘There is a hole in the police understanding of the psychological fear involved’ … Walker. Photograph by
‘There is a hole in the police understanding of the psychological fear involved’ … Walker. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The pandemic has emboldened perpetrators, as lockdown has confined victims to their homes and made them more easy to find. The Met reported a 300% increase in stalking reports in London during the first year of the pandemic – 7,909 offences were recorded by police between April 2020 and February 2021, compared with 1,908 between April 2019 and March 2020. The police put this down to better recording. However, a report published last month by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust revealed that stalking – both online and in person – has become more frequent and more intense during the lockdowns. Walker believes lockdown may have driven her attacker to act. “This man knew I was a sitting duck,” she says.

Walker stepped down from the WEP in 2019 and co-founded Activate, which supports women from minoritised communities who want to run for political office. She says she missed out on months of work due to the advocacy she had to do on her own case. “You become a campaigner for your own cause out of fear and to keep you and everyone around you safe,” she says. Now she is throwing herself back into the feminist campaigning that drives her professional life, including her work as chief strategy officer at the feminist law firm McAllister Olivarius.

The ONS estimates that there are 1.5 million victims of stalking in England and Wales, yet conviction rates are staggeringly low. Data from the CPS shows that only 30,931 cases of stalking were reported to the police in 2019-20 and, of these, only 3,067 were charged and 2,288 prosecuted, which is roughly double what it was five years ago.

This is not for a lack of high-profile women speaking about their experiences. The journalist Emily Maitlis described being stalked for 25 years by a man who has repeatedly breached restraining orders – even sending her letters from prison – as being akin to a “chronic illness”. The presenter Christine Lampard has told how she had to hide in her bathroom when her stalker appeared; the singer Nicola Roberts described the five years she was stalked by her ex-partner as the “unhappiest of my life”.

There have been attempts to improve things. Stalking protection orders (SPOs) were introduced in 2019. But according to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, only 9% of the victims it surveyed on its helpline whose experience of stalking started after the first lockdown had an SPO in place. Walker is not surprised. “There is a hole in the police understanding of the psychological fear involved. When I was terrified and asking them to come, I was met with ‘Calm down’ and ‘What’s wrong with you?’

“They understand crime against property, but the psychological stuff and the imbalance of power women feel – they don’t get at all.”

A Met spokesperson says: “We have made significant investments into training our frontline officers in how to appropriately respond to, and investigate, allegations of stalking and we are sorry that the victim felt our response was not satisfactory.” They add that the force has recently invested more than £7m into Predatory Offender Units that are dedicated to tackling those posing a significant risk to adults and children.

Last month, plans to introduce a register of stalkers and serial domestic abusers were shelved, sparking anger within the women’s sector. The government had briefed that it would be supporting the proposed amendment to the domestic abuse bill in the wake of the killing in March of Sarah Everard, 33, for which a police officer has been charged. Laura Richards, the founder of the stalking advisory service Paladin, said the briefings were “misleading … most likely intentionally so” and “a huge insult to victims and families”.

Walker still supports the idea of the stalking register that she campaigned for all those years ago. But she does point out that “the man who made my life miserable would not appear on a stalking register because he was never charged with stalking”.

She has no idea why she was targeted. As a feminist campaigner in the public eye, she says she is often inundated with misogynistic abuse, “including very intense and sustained violently graphic abuse via social media, mainly on Twitter.” However, given these accounts were always anonymous, she never reported any incidents to the police. The journalist Rosamund Urwin recently told of how her stalker, who had escaped from a secure unit, began abusing her online before approaching her in person.

On 11 May 2020, Walker got a restraining order against her alleged stalker. Now, she is determined to change things for other women. She has written to the Met and the Independent Office for Police Conduct seeking an investigation into the failure of frontline officers to understand and identify the offence of stalking in her case.

“I’m still here,” she says. “There are many women who are not because they were not listened to or taken seriously. If I have any leverage at all I would hope that it can be useful because, my God, we need any leverage we can get in this area. Women are just not being taken seriously.”

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