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House of Commons Hansard
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Unlawful Killing (Recovery of Remains)
11 October 2016
Volume 615

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a presumption against eligibility for parole in cases where a person, convicted of unlawfully killing another person, has not provided relevant knowledge in their possession for the purposes of facilitating the location and recovery of the remains of the victim; to create a separate offence of withholding such information; to make provision about the available sentences for such an offence; and for connected purposes.

For a parent to suffer the anguish of losing a child is beyond words, but the horror of having such a loved one murdered is surely too awful even to contemplate, so it is harder still, if even possible, to imagine the pain of being denied the chance to hold a proper funeral and lay that loved one to rest. My constituent Marie McCourt does not need to imagine it, because for 28 years she has been forced to endure what she describes as the special kind of torture of knowing she could die without ever discovering where her daughter’s body is or being able to lay her daughter to rest with the dignity she deserves.

Marie’s daughter Helen was murdered at the age of just 22 by Ian Simms in February 1988, as she travelled home from work in the village of Billinge in my constituency. In a landmark conviction, he was found guilty of murder based on overwhelming DNA evidence, even though Helen’s body was not found. For almost three decades, Marie has been tormented because he refuses to reveal what happened to her daughter’s body. Despite this brutal act of callousness and lack of remorse, he could soon be released from jail. This is not the justice that Marie and her family deserve. Killers who inflict this kind of suffering on their victims’ families should not be released on parole. That goes to the heart of the Bill I am bringing forward today.

Before I continue, I want to say something about Marie. She had Helen taken from her in the cruellest circumstances, only to be denied the sacred right to bury her daughter. Few could have found the strength to carry on, let alone mount such a formidable campaign to have the law changed so that others do not suffer in the way she has suffered. Her quiet dignity and powerful determination are an example to us all.

Our campaign for Helen’s law, led by Marie, calls on the Government to introduce a “no body, no parole” policy for murderers. The online petition has already attracted the support of over 340,000 signatures, and in February I was honoured to accompany Marie to No. 10 Downing Street to present the petition. The Government responded to the overwhelming public support for the campaign by asking the Parole Board to review the guidelines around convicted murderers. We await the outcome of that review, which is at least welcome progress, but as Marie has so eloquently and repeatedly said, this campaign is not just about her or Helen; it is about ensuring that others who find themselves in such horrific circumstances do not have such added pain visited on them.

Just yesterday, the Home Office revealed to me that since 2007 alone there have been 30 murders in England and Wales where no body has been recovered, but as it currently stands the English legal system does not require a convicted murderer, at the end of their determined tariff, to admit guilt or reveal the location of a victim’s remains before being released. Marie believes that if parole is granted to Helen’s killer, her hopes of finding her daughter will never be realised. As I have said, she is also determined that no other family should have to live that ordeal.

My Bill seeks to acknowledge, and in some cases mitigate, the pain and distress caused to the families of missing murder victims. There are three main elements to it: first, denying parole to murderers for as long as they refuse to disclose the whereabouts of their victim’s remains; secondly, passing a full-life tariff, denying parole or release, until the murderer discloses the location and enables the recovery of their victim’s remains; and thirdly, applying the rarely used common-law offences in murder trials without a body of preventing the burial of a corpse and conspiracy to prevent the burial of a corpse, disposing of a corpse or obstructing a coroner. In essence, the proposals are simple: if a convicted killer refuses to give information to reveal the location of a victim’s body, they should not be considered eligible for parole and they should stay in prison. The proposals would effectively mean a whole-life tariff for murderers who refuse to disclose the location of their victims and enable their remains to be recovered to give families a chance to pay their last respects.

Let me be clear: the modern system of parole is widely understood to involve a prisoner earning their conditional release through good behaviour. I believe in and support the rehabilitative purpose of our penal system, but while the current tariff system for the most serious crimes reflects the consensus that the majority will at some point be able to rejoin society, one is bound to ask in what sense a murderer who is content to torment the family of their victims in such a way could ever have earnt their freedom.

In recent years, Parliament and the legal profession have begun to take the rights of victims more seriously, and I believe that this Bill would be a further step towards ensuring that victims are at the heart of our criminal justice system—where they should always be.

Let me make it clear that the proposals in the Bill would not affect any individual’s fundamental right to maintain their innocence. The law changes I propose would not impinge in any way on the rights of convicted killers to retain full access and full recourse to the appeals process. It is worth noting, however, that in the case of Helen McCourt’s killer, his guilt has only been further confirmed at every single appeals stage because of enhanced DNA evidence against him.

Let me also say that my Bill will have no impact on the work of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains in respect of those referred to as “the disappeared”; nor would it impact on arrangements set out in relation to sentencing for offences committed during the troubles or indeed any future arrangements on addressing the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. I want to acknowledge, however, that the pain and anguish felt by the families of the disappeared are the same as for any family who has lost a loved one in such awful circumstances.

We are not alone in this country in seeking to find a workable legal solution. In Australia, “no body, no parole” laws have already been passed at state level and are being examined at federal level. Quite simply, the introduction of Helen’s law is the only chance that the McCourts and other families like them have of securing some peace and the justice they deserve.

I want to acknowledge some of the families who are visiting Parliament today to attend this debate. Sheila Dolton and her daughter Nina are here. Their son and brother, Jonathan, was murdered in 2004. The family has continually written to his killer, begging for information about the son’s body, but has received no reply. Sam Gillingham was just 16 when her mum, Carole Packman, disappeared from the family home in Bournemouth in 1985, while Tracy Richardson’s mum, Michelle Gunshon, vanished in December 2004 while working at the NEC in Birmingham. Sadly, this Bill comes too late for Winnie Johnson who went to her grave never knowing where Moors murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley buried her 12-year-old son, Keith Bennett. But there is still time for Marie McCourt and other grieving mothers such as Joan Morson and Jean Taylor who also saw their children’s killers go to jail without revealing where their victims’ bodies lay. Denying a final resting place is perhaps the last heinous act by killers who have no place in a civilised society. The agony and torment caused to those who cannot lay a murdered loved one to rest is incalculable.

The families of victims quite rightly expect the law to act in their favour, instead of seeing the justice system rewarding with parole killers who decide to remain silent. For those who have had to face the loss of a loved one at the hands of a callous murderer, there is nothing we can do to make up for their loss, but if there is a way to help them receive the justice they deserve, we must take it. If there is a way to compel those who have committed the most awful crimes to assist in this task, we must do it. Most importantly of all, if there is a way to ensure that no family has to endure the suffering that Marie McCourt and so many others have, we—in this of all places—have a duty to act.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Conor McGinn, Tom Tugendhat, Mr George Howarth, Siobhain McDonagh, Tom Elliott, Vernon Coaker, Marie Rimmer, Nusrat Ghani, Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson, Carol Monaghan, Diana Johnson and Mr Alan Campbell present the Bill.

Conor McGinn accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 February 2017, and to be printed (Bill 73).