Considered in Committee
[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]
Murder or manslaughter: prisoner's non-disclosure of information
I beg to move amendment 1, page 2, line 26, at end insert—
“28B Indecent images: prisoner’s non-disclosure of information
(1) The Parole Board must comply with this section when making a public protection decision about a life prisoner if—
(a) the prisoner’s life sentence was passed for—
(i) an offence of taking an indecent photograph of a child, or
(ii) a relevant offence of making an indecent pseudo-photograph of a child;
(b) the Parole Board does not know the identity of the child who is the subject of the relevant indecent image; and
(c) the Parole Board believes that the prisoner has information about the identity of the child who is the subject of the relevant indecent image which the prisoner has not disclosed to the Parole Board (“the prisoner’s non-disclosure”).
(2) When making the public protection decision about the prisoner, the Parole Board must take into account—
(a) the prisoner’s non-disclosure; and
(b) the reasons, in the Parole Board’s view, for the prisoner’s non-disclosure.
(3) This section does not limit the matters which the Parole Board must or may take into account when making a public protection decision.
(4) In subsection (1)(a), the reference to a life sentence includes a life sentence passed before the coming into force of section 1 of the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020.
(5) For the purposes of this section, an offence is an “offence of taking an indecent photograph of a child” if it is—
(a) an offence of taking an indecent photograph of a child under section 1(1)(a) of the Protection of Children Act 1978 (the “England and Wales offence”), or
(b) an offence of taking an indecent photograph of a child under the law of Scotland, Northern Ireland, any of the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man or any other country or territory that corresponds to the England and Wales offence.
(6) For the purposes of this section, an offence is a “relevant offence of making an indecent pseudo-photograph of a child” if—
(a) it is—
(i) an offence under section 1(1)(a) of the Protection of Children Act 1978 of making an indecent pseudo-photograph of a child (the “England and Wales offence”), or
(ii) an offence of making an indecent pseudo-photograph of a child under the law of Scotland, Northern Ireland, any of the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man or any other country or territory that corresponds to the England and Wales offence, and
(b) the Parole Board believes that an image of a real child was or may have been used in the making of the pseudo-photograph;
and in the application of this section to a relevant offence of making an indecent pseudo-photograph of a child, the references in subsection (1)(b) and (c) to the child who is the subject of the relevant indecent image are references to the real child.
(7) In this section,—
“public protection decision”, in relation to a prisoner, means the decision, made under section 28(6)(b) for the purposes of section 28(5), as to whether the Parole Board is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the prisoner should be confined;
“relevant indecent image” means—
(a) the photograph to which an offence of taking an indecent photograph of a child relates, or
(b) the pseudo-photograph to which a relevant offence of making an indecent pseudo-photograph of a child relates.”.
This amends the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 to require the Parole Board to take account of non-disclosures by life prisoners serving sentences for offences relating to indecent photographs or pseudo-photographs of children.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendment 2.
Clauses 1 to 3 stand part.
This Bill, which passed its Second Reading a short time ago, seeks to respond to two incredibly tragic cases—the tragic murder of Helen McCourt, which happened 32 years ago, and the terrible abuse committed by nursery teacher Vanessa George, who abused the trust placed in her by the parents of tiny children.
Unfortunately, I have to attend a Delegated Legislation Committee, so I will not be able to take part in these proceedings. However, I thank the Minister and his team for introducing this Bill and I remind the House that it goes beyond the two names that he mentioned. My constituent Linda Jones lost her daughter, Danielle Jones, and the whereabouts of the body have never been revealed. While this Bill will help only a small cohort of people, it does go beyond the two names that the Minister mentioned. I welcome the action that the Government are taking and thank them for what they have done.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am very aware that the murderer of his constituent’s daughter, Stuart Campbell, is still in prison. It is to precisely that kind of person that the provisions of the Bill apply, because we want to make sure that when—
Can I add another name to the list? My constituent Michael O’Leary has been missing since January, suspected to have been murdered, and the individual charged with his murder is refusing to let the police know where the body has been hidden. For the families who are now living through this trauma, the fact that they cannot retrieve the body is hugely traumatic. They wanted me to put on the record today their support for what the Government intend to do.
I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He powerfully expresses the importance for the families of victims of knowing where the body of their loved one is. When prisoners, including Stuart Campbell, refuse to disclose the whereabouts of a body, it simply adds to the anguish that the families suffer. In the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions, the individual has been charged but not yet convicted. If that individual is convicted and imprisoned, and the Parole Board comes to consider his release in the future, it will be bound by the provisions of this Bill to take into account the non-disclosure when deciding whether or not to release them.
Having met Marie McCourt, who is Helen McCourt’s mother, the Lord Chancellor and I have heard at first hand just how distressing it is when a prisoner refuses to disclose the whereabouts of the victim’s body. I would like once again to pay particular tribute to Marie McCourt for the campaigning that she has bravely undertaken over these past 32 years since the murder of her daughter Helen.
Related to this is the question of the non-disclosure of the identity of child victims of indecent imagery. I notice that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) is in his place. He has been speaking out for his constituents whose children were victims of Vanessa George, the nursery school teacher who so cruelly abused the very young, very tiny children in her care, and then refused to disclose the identity of her young victims, thereby adding to the distress of the parents, the families and the victims themselves. I again pay tribute to him for the campaigning that he has undertaken on this topic.
How often are the circumstances set out in amendment 1 under new subsection (1)(a)(i) and (ii) actually likely to occur? A life sentence for photographic offences—is that actually likely to happen often?
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has turned to the particulars of the Bill, because I would now like to address them.
There are two substantive clauses in this Bill. Clause 1 relates to life sentences handed down for murder, manslaughter or indecent images. It is worth mentioning, in response to my right hon. Friend’s intervention, that amendment 1 adds into the provisions of this Bill sentences of imprisonment for public protection, which can also be handed down for making indecent images. Clause 2 covers the slightly broader type of sentence—namely, extended determinate sentences, whether they are handed down for manslaughter or the failure to disclose the subject of an indecent image. He is quite right to point out that in cases where there has been a failure to disclose the victim of an indecent image, it is more likely that there will be an extended determinate sentence than a life sentence. Indeed, in the case of Vanessa George, the sentence handed down was an extended determinate sentence, so that would have been caught by clause 2 rather than by clause 1.[Official Report, 4 May 2020, Vol. 675, c. 6MC.]
The two clauses taken together cover the range of sentences that might be handed down—life sentences and imprisonment for public protection under amendment 1, and extended determinate sentences under clause 2. The substance of these two clauses ensures that when the Parole Board considers release and comes to make its decision about dangerousness and public protection, the requirement to take into account non-disclosure, and the reasons, in its view, for that non-disclosure is put on a statutory—a legal—footing. That is enshrined in new section 28A(1)(a) and (b) in clause 1(1) . This means that at no point in the future can the Parole Board ever decide to vary its guidelines to disregard these matters. It will also very much focus the mind of the Parole Board, and send a message to it, that this House—this Parliament—takes non-disclosure very, very seriously and expects that to be fully reflected in release decisions.
I notice that the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) is now in his place. I would like to repeat the tribute I paid earlier to his and his constituent Marie McCourt’s campaigning on this topic over very many years. It is a testament to his perseverance through what has been a turbulent period in British politics that this Bill is now here in Committee. Without his work, this would certainly not have happened.
Amendment 2 to clause 1 is a technical, consequential amendment—a subsequent provision just to make sure that amendment 1 works technically.
I hope that I have explained the operative provisions of this Bill, which will place on a statutory footing the obligation on the Parole Board to consider non-disclosure of victims’ whereabouts or non-disclosure of the identity of a child victim of indecent images. I think the whole House, and indeed all our constituents, will very strongly welcome that. I commend the amendments and the clauses to the Committee.
I rise in support of the amendments that the Minister has just set out to this very important Bill.
The crimes that Vanessa George committed against the babies and toddlers in the constituency I represent at Little Ted’s nursery were simply disgusting. They will be abhorred by any right-minded person. It does not need a partisan label—a party political badge—to know that this is a good piece of natural justice: a law that should be supported by everyone of all parties.
I set out the particular case around Vanessa George on Second Reading, but on behalf of the families—those who were able to come forward—I want to thank the Minister and his ministerial colleagues for the way they have brought forward this campaign. It would be very easy for a Government to ignore a campaign by an Opposition MP, and I am grateful to Ministers for not doing that but instead looking at the victims and the severity of the crimes involved and acting accordingly by doing what is right.
Vanessa George still shows no remorse for the crimes that she committed and no remorse for the fact that she still refuses to name the children she abused. We do not know how many children at Little Ted’s nursery she did abuse, because she has not told anyone. We know how many children were there, and we have a good idea about which children might have been exposed to her cruel and evil crimes. Those children are now fast-emerging young people who are coming to terms with their place in the world and the way that they feel. The crimes that were committed against them by Vanessa George as children will have long-lasting psychological, and in some cases physical, consequences for them in future. A child not knowing whether they were a victim themselves not only deprives the families of the peace of mind of knowing but deprives that child of the help and support they might otherwise have been able to access. Uncertainty is a prison that those children and their families will be in for quite some time.
The right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) raised an issue in relation to life sentences. The families do not mind what the sentence is. Anyone who declines to name the children they abuse should not be eligible for early release. In particular, on the question whether a life sentence is passed down for an offence of taking an indecent image of a child or a relevant offence of making an indecent pseudo image of a child, I would be grateful if the Minister could set out whether that also applies to contemporaneous charges. In many cases, it is very unlikely that a life sentence would be passed down just for taking those images, but it might be passed down for the indecent images and the acts of abuse themselves, so would that collection of charges fall under the description in amendment 1 under new subsection 28B (1)(a)(i) and (ii)?
It is really important that, on behalf of the families, I try to get as robust a Bill as possible. Their experience of not knowing, of going to the nursery and of being told, in the first instance, that their child—a baby or a toddler —may have been abused and that the images may have been shared with a network of paedophiles, as well as the crushing uncertainty about whether those images might still be on a paedophile’s hard drive somewhere or in some rotten corner of the dark web, is a demon that sits with these families for quite some time, so anything we can do to make the Bill as robust as we can would be welcome.
Vanessa George received a novel sentence at the time for her crimes. That indeterminate sentence complicated the case, and the Parole Board addressed that when it tried to make its judgment. This legislation will go a long way towards preventing the early release of someone such as Vanessa George in the future. It also sends a clear message to those who abuse children that if they refuse to name the children, they will not be released early. In fact, that additional reticence—that hesitation or refusal to come forward with information—will be regarded negatively by the Parole Board.
On behalf of all the families, I want to put on record their thanks for the swift action Ministers have taken. Parliament and politics often get a bad name, but Ministers have responded swiftly and in such a decent way to a campaign that was so important to families in Plymouth. I thank them, and I encourage Members to ensure that the Bill moves swiftly through the rest of its stages in Parliament.
Progress should always be welcomed, and the Bill is progress. It sends a clear message to Parole Board members about the Government’s priorities. Our priority should be to have a laser-like focus on the victims of crime and their families.
Of all the things that can happen to us, having a close friend or family member murdered or fall victim to a paedophile is one of the greatest possible injustices. Through the police, the courts and the wider justice system, ordinary people should be able to secure redress for injustice. That is why we have these systems and why they have been introduced and built on over time. Otherwise, ordinary people would have no alternative but to take matters into their own hands.
Today, we are trying to deliver improved redress in at least one regard. We are aiming to prevent the truly horrendous injustice of a victim’s family having to watch as the person who killed their loved one walks away from prison having not revealed the location of their relative’s body. We are also aiming to prevent paedophiles from leaving their victims unidentified, with all the uncertainty and distress that that might cause families whose children were within the reach of these people.
To ensure that we truly honour the memory of Helen and others, it is vital that we ensure that the changes and the progress we are making in the House today make a difference in the real world for victims of crime and their families. That is how we ensure that campaigners such as Marie are truly able to think about their lost relatives and to take at least some comfort from the fact that their deaths have led to something positive.
Will any guidance be issued to the Parole Board on how the new statutory duty is expected to be given consideration and what weight it is likely to carry? Will the Minister outline the expected impact this change in law will have? How confident can we be that people who, prior to this law, would have been released will now not be?
I would ask that we keep an open mind on this issue. Today’s legislation is welcome and positive, but we need to make sure that, in reality, it secures the redress that victims and their families rightly seek.
As I stated on Second Reading, the Opposition support the Bill. It rightly addresses the situation of prisoners who have been convicted of murder or manslaughter who then refuse to reveal the identity or the whereabouts of the body, and also the situation of those who have been convicted of taking or making indecent images of children and refuse to identify their victims. Under the Bill, the non-disclosure in both cases is to be formally considered by the Parole Board when someone is being considered for release on licence.
The Bill is the result, first, of Helen’s law, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn). My hon. Friend’s constituent Helen McCourt was murdered, and her mother has led the campaign for Helen’s law. To this day, Helen’s murderer refuses to disclose the whereabouts of her body. That compounds the family’s grief and denies them the right to lay their loved one to rest.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) has also campaigned for the provisions in the Bill. The shocking case of the nursery assistant Vanessa George shook the community in his constituency. Vanessa George took indecent images of children at the nursery where she worked and was subsequently convicted, but she still refuses to identify the children.
I cannot praise enough the determination and tenacity of Marie McCourt, the mother of Helen McCourt, who fought and lobbied so hard to get this Bill to become law, as it surely now will do, or the community in Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, which also campaigned hard to get the Bill on the statute book in relation to the images of the children.
The Government have done a good job in drafting the Bill and placing the requirement in it on the Parole Board. The Parole Board rightly owes a duty to victims. Reliving the trauma and horror of a crime when giving a statement can sometimes be distressing and overwhelming for victims, and they should not have to go through that trauma. If the Parole Board was minded to release a prisoner because they were no longer regarded as a threat to the public, the only option open to victims to challenge that view would be to seek a reconsideration of the Parole Board decision. The Bill puts in an additional safeguard in these exceptional cases; we are not talking about a huge number of cases, and the changes will very likely impact only a handful of cases each year, but the suffering caused is immeasurable for the families and loved ones affected.
There cannot be many people who do not agree with the measures in the Bill. It is clear from the speeches on Second Reading and the comments made in this Committee stage that the Bill has cross-party support. To condemn the relatives of victims to further unnecessary anguish is truly appalling and should not go unpunished. This Bill is short—only three clauses—but by amending the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 and the Criminal Justice Act 2003, it allows for non-disclosure to be formally considered when deciding whether to release a prisoner on licence. That helps to avoid the additional pain and suffering of having to draft a victim statement. The Minister eloquently gave the details of the two amendments the Government have tabled, so I will not repeat or explain them, but both have the support of the Opposition.
As the prevalence of image sharing increases, it will be much easier for the identities of child victims of indecent images to be hidden via various software, and there is a real possibility that there could be more cases of indecent images of unknown child victims. Sentencing guidelines must keep pace with new developments in technology and the regulation of associated offences that we are yet to identify. I therefore await with interest the Government’s White Paper on sentencing, which is due later this year.
I hope the Government will tighten up the victims code and think about introducing a victims law. For now, however, the Opposition are content to support the Bill and the two Government amendments and to help Helen’s law become an Act of Parliament.
I thank the shadow Minister for the constructive tone in which he has engaged with the Bill in general and for his remarks a few moments ago. To pick up on his comments on the sentencing White Paper, we do indeed intend to bring it forward later this calendar year. Hopefully, we can look at a much wider range of issues connected with sentencing to make sure that the punishment always fits the crime. In relation to a victims Bill, it is our intention to legislate in that area later in the current Session.
I want to reassure the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on both the points he raised. Where there is a collection of offences, some of which come within the scope of the Bill but others of which do not, this Bill will be engaged when release comes to be considered, even if only one of the offences falls within its scope. His constituents can be reassured that the Bill will apply in those circumstances.
All sentence types are covered. Clause 1, which amends section 28 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, will cover life sentences and, as amended, sentences for imprisonment for public protection. Clause 2, which amends the Criminal Justice Act 2003, covers extended determinate sentences, so all sentence types are covered by this Bill, as amended. I can therefore give the hon. Gentleman the categorical assurance he requested.
In relation to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), I expect the Parole Board to give significant weight to non-disclosure. The fact that Parliament has gone as far as legislating in this area will send an extremely clear message to the people taking these decisions, and I expect this to weigh heavily on the mind of Parole Board members when they take these decisions. A wider review into the operation of the Parole Board will commence in due course—the so-called root-and-branch review announced in the manifesto last December—and there will be an opportunity for my hon. Friend and all Members to contribute to that discussion.
Putting on the face of the Bill the requirement to take non-disclosure into account means that it can never be changed, other than by a subsequent Act of Parliament. It will also send a message to Parole Board members about how important these issues are for Members of this House, for the reasons described today. I commend the amendments and clauses to the House.
Amendment 1 agreed to.
Amendment made: 2, in clause 1, page 2, line 30, leave out “Section 28A contains” and insert “Sections 28A and 28B contain”.—(Chris Philp.)
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.
Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Bill, as amended, reported.
Bill, as amended in the Committee, considered.
There are no amendments on consideration.
As no non-Government amendments have been made to the Bill, I am signing a certificate on the basis of the provisional certificate issued with the selection list. As indicated in that provisional certificate, I certify that the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill relates exclusively to England and Wales on matters within devolved legislative competence, under Standing Order No. 83J.
Does the Minister intend to move a consent motion in the Legislative Grand Committee?
The House forthwith resolved itself into the Legislative Grand Committee (England and Wales) (Standing Order No. 83M).
[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that, if there is a Division, only Members representing constituencies in England and Wales may vote.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Legislative Grand Committee (England and Wales) consents to the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill, as amended in Committee and not amended on Report.—(Chris Philp.)
I want to start by recognising the gravity of the issues that the Bill deals with and being extremely clear that it is not the intention of the Scottish National party in any way to make light of the legislation or diminish the seriousness with which consideration of it has been conducted so far. I want to offer our condolences to all the victims who have been described and congratulate the campaigners who have got us this far.
But we cannot allow a sitting of the Legislative Grand Committee (England and Wales)—what we refer to as the English Parliament—to go past completely unnoticed. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) said that he wants to see this legislation move as quickly as possible, as do I, yet here we are going through procedures that have been objected to several times and have proven themselves completely unnecessary, even with the amendments moved by the Government today.
I welcome the announcement you made earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the practice of suspending the House for a period while certifications are made has been deemed by Mr Speaker today to no longer be necessary in these kinds of circumstances, where the consensus is clear. I hope that that represents an evolution of the English votes for English laws process and that such an evolution will continue.
My hon. Friend is right to recognise the gravity of the Bill, but he is also right that we cannot let this pass without recognising the absurdity of the EVEL process. It is good to have these reforms, but the only reform required when it comes to English votes for English laws is its abolition, to get rid of this nonsense that we have to subject ourselves to on an ongoing basis. Does he agree that we have to look seriously at what progress we can make on abandoning the idea of having two classes of Members of Parliament in this House?
Yes; my hon. Friend is right. The point that we have always made is that it should certainly not be for the Government, and it should not have to fall to the Chair either, to decide what matters are or are not important to our constituents. It should be for those of us in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Minister has moved a consent motion, and it will be for the Committee to decide whether to consent, but I hope that we do not have to find ourselves in this situation too often in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
The occupant of the Chair left the Chair to report the decision of the Committee (Standing Order No. 83M(6)).
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair; decision reported.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
As Members know, the Bill ensures that the non-disclosure of information about a victim’s remains or their identity, and the reasons for that non-disclosure, are fully considered by the Parole Board when making a release decision. It is then for the Parole Board, which is an independent body, to decide what bearing such information has on the risk that a prisoner may present and whether that risk can be managed safely in their community. The Bill reflects the established practice of the Parole Board, as included in its guidance to panel members in 2017, but it goes an important step further in placing a legal duty to take the non-disclosure into account. This is part of the Government’s intention to provide a greater degree of reassurance to victims’ families by formally setting out that guidance in law.
This important Bill responds directly to real-life issues that we know have caused and continue to cause immense distress to families of victims of serious crimes. I see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn)—I will call him my hon. Friend on this occasion—who has assiduously campaigned with the McCourt family to ensure that today has become a reality. I pay tribute to him for that, as I did on Second Reading. I also see the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who brought to bear his grave concerns relating to a case in his constituency, which resulted in the expansion of the Bill to encompass the horrendous circumstances in which many of his constituents tragically found themselves as a result of material non-co-operation. I pay tribute to them, and indeed to all hon. Members who over the past few years have campaigned hard to make sure that this Bill was introduced.
It is imperative that we protect the public from potentially dangerous offenders. Those offenders who do not disclose the whereabouts of a victim’s remains or the identity of the victims in indecent images must be thoroughly assessed, and the non-disclosure must always be taken into account. We can all agree about the importance of stipulating in statute that appalling circumstances such as those addressed in this Bill must be fully taken into account by the Parole Board when making any decisions on the release of such an offender. It is clearly in the public interest that all elements of a prisoner’s release are given consideration, and in turn, it is in the interests of the Parole Board to be able to rely on statutory provision about always considering the relevant non-disclosure of information in its release assessments.
I extend my thanks to everybody who has helped to prepare this Bill, particularly the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), for his hard and detailed work, and the Bill team for their strenuous efforts. Most importantly, to all those families affected by such despicable crimes, I pay warm and heartfelt tribute. I hope they will be able to take some comfort from knowing that their dedication provides some hope for other families affected by the cruel and heartless actions of those who refuse to disclose vital information. On behalf of all those families and victims, I thank you. I appreciate the positive engagement with and cross-party support for the principles in this Bill and the Department’s help with the progress that we have made. I commend this Bill to the House.
I would like to join the Secretary of State in thanking all hon. Members for their contributions and for the tone they have set throughout the Second Reading and Committee debates.
I again give my thanks to Marie McCourt for her tireless work in making sure that this Bill—Helen’s law—has come before Parliament. Its first form was a private Member’s Bill brought in by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), and a version of that Bill has now been picked up by the Government, taking us to where we are now. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for leading the community campaign to incorporate the offences regarding indecent images in this Bill. This campaign followed the conviction of Vanessa George, who refused to disclose the identities of the children she abused.
There can be few things worse than learning of the murder of a close relative and having to endure the living hell of how it happened. There is also the trauma of the trial and the painstaking detail that is raked over to ensure a conviction. I doubt that anyone grieving will be consoled by a guilty verdict and justice being done, although it may help in the coping process, but the never-ending turmoil of not having a body to lay to rest is one of the cruellest forms of emotional torture.
The body of Helen McCourt, murdered in 1988, has never been found. Her killer, who was released from prison four weeks ago, has never disclosed the whereabouts of her body. The pain and suffering of Helen’s family sadly goes on, and if it is any comfort to Marie McCourt, this Bill passing into law will be a fitting tribute to her campaign in her daughter’s memory. It is equally distressing not knowing if your child has been the victim of the sharing of indecent images. The appalling abuse perpetrated by Vanessa George has been compounded by her refusal to disclose which of the children in her care were the subjects of indecent images.
Both Ian Simms, who was given a life sentence for the murder of Helen McCourt, and Vanessa George, who was convicted for sharing images of children at the nursery where she worked, have now been released on licence by the Parole Board. The unbearable suffering that Ian Simms and Vanessa George have caused, and continue to cause by the nondisclosure of information about their victims, endures.
At present, the only way a victim could have made their views known about a potential release on licence by the Parole Board would have been by making a witness statement to the Parole Board or seeking a reconsideration of the decision within 21 days. Both these avenues would require the victims to be proactive, invariably having to relive the distressing experience of the crime and to justify their reasons for objecting to the release. This Bill makes it a requirement for the Parole Board, for the offences stated in this Bill, to take into account the prisoner’s conduct in not disclosing information about victims and in prolonging the pain and suffering.
While a duty is owed to victims by the Parole Board, it does not go far enough in my view, and the victims code certainly needs revamping. The Parole Board’s decisions can have a profound effect on victims and prisoners alike, and no decision should be taken lightly. The fact that the Parole Board can place conditions on the release of a prisoner does not in my view go far enough, and it cannot address wilful refusal in relation to the non-disclosure of information. Let us be clear: the Bill does not extend a prisoner’s sentence, but it makes it clear that non-disclosure must be a factor in assessing the fitness of a prisoner to be released and their potential risk to the public.
In Committee and on Second Reading, hon. Members told us of their own experiences and of cases involving their constituents where the pain and suffering had been exacerbated by the conduct of the prisoner or their experience of dealing with the Parole Board. There are still issues to be resolved regarding the Parole Board, such as the transparency of its decision making, the lack of information given to victims, the lack of emotional and practical support available to victims throughout the whole process, and even keeping people up to date with decisions about a prisoner’s release. There are many areas of improvement that need to be looked at in relation to how victims are treated. Although they are outside the scope of this Bill, they are matters that need to be viewed in tandem with the Bill.
The debate and discussion we have had on this Bill shows Parliament at its best—when we are working together with a united purpose for a common good. While this Bill will not assist us in finding the whereabouts of Helen McCourt’s body or identifying the images of the children abused by Vanessa George, the measures in this Bill will, I hope, provide added pressure on prisoners to think again when refusing to disclose information about their victims. The Opposition will be supporting this Bill.
People in places like St Helens—good, decent, honest, hard-working people—expect us in this place to do what is right by them, to work in the national interest and to do together what is patently obviously right. I think, therefore, that this is a good day for the House, and a day that so many victims across the country will recognise as one on which the Government have played their role, working with the Opposition, in doing something that will alleviate a great deal of the pain and suffering felt by victims in the cases that have been referenced throughout the progress of this Bill through the House.
In the case of my constituent Marie McCourt, that is of course the murder of her daughter Helen, and today is bitter-sweet. She has been a quiet, dignified, but very tenacious champion, and I am sure the Secretary of State, the Minister and their predecessors can attest to the strength of her determination on this, but it is bitter-sweet because the murderer of her daughter has already been released. However, as I said on Second Reading, it is a testament to the character of Marie McCourt that her campaign continued, despite the knowledge that that was likely to happen, so that other families would not have to suffer.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will, of course.
I say “hon. Friend” because on this issue we have worked closely together. Will he accept my thanks for his leadership on this issue, for working so hard to make sure that this did not fall off the agenda and for making sure that today did actually happen? On behalf of my constituent Linda Jones, Marie McCourt and the others, we are grateful to the House for bringing this forward.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much not just for his words in the Chamber today, but for the co-operation we have had over the last three or four years in continuing to ensure that this agenda was to the fore. I also recognise that officials from the Department have not just delivered on this Bill and spent painstaking hours going through all the legalese required, but have met me and the family over the course of many years.
I pay particular tribute to the Secretary of State and the Minister. They made a promise to the McCourt family, and they kept it. They consistently and continually worked with the family, and they showed a great deal of empathy and support. They did much behind the scenes to ensure that Marie, John, Michael, and all the McCourt family felt sure that this Bill would be passed, as it has been. In Northern Ireland, Charlotte Murray’s family are hoping to change the law there, and in Scotland the family of Suzanne Pilley hope to do the same. This is unfinished business in a legislative sense for the rest of the UK, and we hope that those legislatures will act accordingly.
For 31 years, the community in Billinge has prayed at St Mary’s Catholic church for Helen McCourt and the return of her remains, and those prayers continue. I know that Members across the House send their sympathy and solidarity to Marie McCourt, on a day on which she can rightly take pride, although that, of course, does not return the remains of her beloved Helen.
Question put and agreed to,
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.