Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to you for being in the Chair this afternoon, and I am grateful to be called to speak about what is a very important subject, not just for me in Kent but for many across our country and, as I know from the messages of support I have received, for many around the world.
Lockdown has brought home to many of us the stress of childcare, and we have all learned to respect teachers even more than we already did. Certainly, I know that I am not alone in being delighted that schools have reopened and that our children are able to expend the energy that they accumulate through the day in charging around a playground rather than charging around a sitting room.
We have spoken frequently about the importance of childhood and of protecting the most vulnerable in our society, because we understand that failing to care for children is not just wrong; it is a betrayal of the trust that they should be able to have in our community and in the adults around them. But few betrayals are worse—in fact, no betrayal is worse—than parental abuse. That has long been recognised: 700 years ago, Dante wrote about it, putting the betrayers of family into the lowest circle of hell. He was right to do so, because those who harm their own children are beneath contempt. Our society should reflect that in our laws, and that is why I have secured this debate.
Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of getting to know an extraordinary young man whose story has moved much of the nation. Tony Hudgell, from Kings Hill, has become a household name in recent months thanks to his exceptional fundraising efforts in June. This House has had the pleasure of his company before—indeed, were we not under the current regime, I have no doubt that he would be in the Gallery now. I am delighted to say that I am perfectly certain that he is watching from home as we speak. I know that Paula and Mark, Tony’s parents, will be supporting him, and he will be picking out individuals he recognises, because he has followed politics for several years.
Tony’s first visit to this House happened on 8 January 2019, when I presented a petition hand-signed by more than 12,000 people asking for tougher sentences for child cruelty offences. Tony, his parents and his supporters, who have come to be lovingly known as Bear’s Army, spent the summer of 2018 heading across Kent in support of their campaign. It was not possible to travel very far without hearing about their petition, or to go into many shops without seeing it.
Tony made a further visit on 12 February 2019 when I introduced the Child Cruelty (Sentences) Bill to the House. Unfortunately, we were unable to have time for its Second Reading because of the general election that followed last year. The purpose of this debate is to ask the Government whether they will adopt the policies that the Bill aimed to introduce. It sought to increase to imprisonment for life the maximum custodial sentence for the offences of child cruelty, and of causing or allowing a child or vulnerable adult to die or suffer serious physical harm. It is more commonly known as Tony’s law, in honour of that extraordinary young man, Tony Hudgell himself.
It is worth remembering that Tony’s story is pretty extraordinary and, sadly, horrific, but it is not unique. Shortly after Tony was born, he was attacked by his biological parents. His fingers and toes were broken and the ligaments in his legs damaged. Despite extensive surgery, Tony had to have both legs amputated. He was only admitted to hospital 10 days after the injuries were sustained. It is impossible for us to know the pain that Tony must have suffered in his first few weeks of life.
Tony was lucky, however—extraordinary to say after what I have just recounted—because he was adopted by a real and loving family. His real parents, Paula and Mark, who have loved him and cared for him like a real family does and should, have given him an extraordinary home. His brothers, sisters and parents are an inspiration to so many, and certainly to me. They have given Tony the best possible upbringing after the hardest start in life. They are rooted in the community, both in Kings Hill and in the great kingdom of Kent. They are forces to be reckoned with, and their campaigning on this issue has won the appreciation of so many.
For many years, I have worked with Paula and Mark for justice for Tony. We started back in 2016 when the Crown Prosecution Service initially failed to bring charges against Tony’s biological parents. Eventually, charges were pressed, and in 2018 they each got 10 years in prison. Witnessing Tony’s biological parents being charged and sentenced for the crimes that they had committed brought a sense of closure on Tony’s first few difficult weeks alive. Unlike his birth parents, however, Tony got a life sentence.
Tony’s law, as I shall refer to it throughout this debate, is not intended to help Tony. His biological parents got the maximum sentence available at the time, and—thank God—he has now found the home that we all wish he had had to start with. I hope that this law will sit on the statute book and never be used, but it is the very least the House can do to recognise the extraordinary efforts of this inspirational young man. Tony’s law aims to send the message that we cannot and will not tolerate severe offences committed against the most vulnerable among us; that although they are not old enough to vote or stand for Parliament, still their life and safety matter as much as that of an adult.
Tony became a household name for many of us this year. Across the nation, he captured so many hearts. As part of his quest to improve his walking on his prosthetic legs, he set a goal of walking 10 km in 30 days to raise £500 for Evelina London Children’s Hospital—just across the river at St Thomas’—where he was treated and recovered from the horrendous injuries he had sustained. Tony, his family and his friends are hugely grateful to the hospital and I personally offer it my deepest thanks.
Tony, who always seems to achieve the impossible, despite anything put in front of him, has demonstrated that his courage and the love of his family can carry him anywhere. He did not raise £500: he raised £1 million, and more. Not only that but he smashed his target even further, and just last week he started walking into school for the very first time. In this debate, I am asking the Government to do what Tony has been doing for ages: helping those who need it most. I know they are already aware of the remarkable young man that Tony is.
My hon. Friend is speaking so movingly about this case. I add my support for Tony and his family, and for my hon. Friend’s campaign and for doing anything to bring about the changes that he wants. Would he support a wider look at sentencing for offences against children, which often seem to be unduly lenient in some of the most egregious cases?
I thank my hon. Friend for his words. He is absolutely right that a review of child sentencing is required, because we are really talking about demonstrating that our society and this country recognise that the most vulnerable require the most protection.
I am very pleased to say that in July Tony received a award, and I was very honoured to carry it to him. The Prime Minister himself asked me to present a Points of Light award to Tony. Only a few weeks later—completely by chance, I am sure—the Prime Minister visited Tony’s school, the fantastic Discovery School in Kings Hill. I know the Prime Minister will be listening to this debate, and I am sure he remembers the conversation, because Tony was not exactly shy about putting his case. As anybody who knows him will attest, he has an amazing sense of life and passion and no lack of confidence. He would make a fantastic Member of Parliament one day. Tony has not forgotten meeting the Prime Minister, and I know that the photos take pride of place.
For those of us who have had the honour of knowing Tony for many years, and who share his drive, determination and commitment to the nation through his fundraising challenge, it is only right that we as parliamentarians show the support that the nation has already shown by introducing this law in his name.
I should like to focus much of this debate on how we can enshrine Tony’s law in our legislation, having been unable to progress the Child Cruelty (Sentences) Bill in the last Parliament. That Bill sought to amend the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 and the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 by extending the term of the relevant sentences. They are small amendments that would go a long way to ensuring adequate sentencing for the most extraordinary cases, such as Tony’s.
Let us be clear: Tony’s case is both unusual and extraordinary, and Tony’s law only seeks to address sentencing of the most extreme cases. Figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that for offences of cruelty to and neglect of children from 2014 to 2018 only 114 offenders received an immediate custodial sentence for those crimes. Each of these 114 cases is one too many and horrific for not only the victims but the whole community. The purpose of Tony’s law is simply to increase to life imprisonment the maximum sentence possible for judges to resort to in the most serious cases. Not all those 114 offenders received the maximum sentence, and when a judge decides to give a more lenient sentence because of circumstances brought out in the trial, this legislation would make no difference; it would not change that.
In Tony’s case, which is included in these figures, the judge was extremely clear when he sentenced Tony’s birth parents. Indeed, at the sentencing hearing in February 2018 at Maidstone Crown court—a court I know well, having been put in the visitors’ box as a form of childcare when my father was sitting as a Crown court judge—Judge Philip Statman painted a vivid description of the case. Understandably, he could not comment on the maximum sentence being 10 years—that is a matter for Parliament and the sentencing authorities—but he could say the following:
“I cannot envisage a worse case than the one I have had to deal with over the course of the last two weeks.”
That is quite something for a judge who has dealt with so many serious offences in his career. Following the two-week trial, the jury took less than an hour to return a unanimous verdict. Anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of our Crown court system will recognise that not much of a debate was needed on this case.
The courts are rightly separate, and sentencing is up to the judge, but it is up to us, as a Parliament, to reflect the views of our society and to legislate to ensure that judges are able to give sentences that reflect the crimes committed and the abhorrence that our society feels towards them. We can do our bit to support Tony’s family by ensuring that the maximum sentence is appropriate for the crime. Under current law, the maximum sentence for this crime is 10 years, which is what Tony’s biological parents received. However, if Tony had been an adult, the perpetrators would most likely have been charged with grievous bodily harm with intent, which carries a maximum sentence of life. How is it right that our law treats the most serious abuse of children differently from the abuse of adults?
A child’s life, as any parent will know, is the greatest responsibility that anyone can be trusted with. Children are, of course, particularly vulnerable. They are under the care of others, and unlike most groups in society, they do have not have the ability to influence not just policy and law but the space around them. We have a duty to protect children where the system or those responsible for their care fail them. We have a moral obligation to ensure that the law, in no uncertain terms, spells out that a child’s life matters just as much as that of an adult. To do this we need to empower the courts to give sentences to those who commit offences against children that match those for offences against adults. Whether it is an offence of child cruelty or grievous bodily harm with intent, sentences must be consistent, and we need to give judges the option of handing out longer sentences when needed, as Judge Statman could have done in Tony’s case.
I understand the Government’s argument. I have been told that the maximum sentence is capped because, in cases like this, it is impossible to be certain who committed the harm, because of the impossibility of such a young child bearing testimony. Of course I understand that that usually makes sense. There should be a limit on the sentences applicable when we cannot be certain and the charge is shared, but this is very different. This is not just about the violence committed against the child but about the very betrayal that the parents committed. This is a violation of the foundation of our society, the basics of family and the essence of community. It is not just a crime of violence.
I do not understand the argument that, because of the lack of certainty around guilt, a sentence should be capped. Clearly the court can make a decision where there is doubt and can make a judgment on the length of the sentence accordingly. That capability should be left to the judge. Surely my hon. Friend is simply trying to give the judge more discretion to give a longer sentence in the most egregious cases.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This law—or rather, the law that I tried to introduce and am now arguing for—would not change the minimum sentence. If there were extenuating circumstances or reasons why the judge said that perhaps domestic abuse meant the situation was not the same for both parties, the judge would have the discretion, but would also have the ability, were it needed, to increase the sentence.
In Tony’s case, it is true that I could not say whether one party or the other inflicted the blows that did the particular damage to baby Tony, but I can say that both failed. I can say for certain that, in not calling an ambulance for 10 days, in watching Tony suffer, they both failed. They both failed in the most egregious and horrific way a parent can, and unless there are mitigating circumstances, as my hon. Friend says, that could easily be reflected and easily come out in a court, the judge would have the discretion to impose a maximum sentence beyond the 10 years available.
I am sorry to say, because I wish it were not so, that this has become more urgent, not less. Coronavirus and the lockdown that we have all been through have increased the dangers faced by vulnerable children, not decreased them. New research by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that Childline has seen a 22% increase in the number of counselling sessions about physical abuse and a 53% increase in contacts from people with concerns about children experiencing physical abuse since lockdown started. While clearly not all these will be criminal, and far fewer worthy of the maximum sentence, the justice system must be able to respond to the most serious offences committed.
The impact of physical abuse on children is not just severe but enduring. Both the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative and the Harvard Center on the Developing Child have published well-respected research showing that experiencing trauma of any kind at a very young age can have a sustained and devastating impact on brain development. This impacts the ability to form and maintain relationships, results in lower educational and employment outcomes and increases the chances of being victims once again. It can create extremely severe and long-term issues. Increasing the maximum sentence will not solve that, but parents must have a good understanding of developmental harm to children, and our court system must be able to set sentences to reflect that. Our judicial system already has the ability to determine which crimes should be classed as having aggravating circumstances, and it is essential that the legal maximum sentences address the impact of any crime on the victim and on our whole society.
Back in 2019, after the introduction of the Child Cruelty (Sentences) Bill, I met the Minister responsible, the right hon. Rory Stewart, who presented me with Ministry of Justice data showing how few cases of this nature and gravity occur per year. That is something that I personally welcome, as, I know, does everyone in the House. However, we also need to accept the need to ensure that those few who are victims of these crimes are given justice that reflects the severity of crimes committed. We cannot have a justice system that fails to amend the necessary legislation on the basis simply that only a few children will be impacted.
I consequently wrote to and met the Crown Prosecution Service on 4 July last year, and I am pleased to note that the Director of Public Prosecutions raised my concerns with the senior judge who chairs the Sentencing Council. Indeed, I have a letter from the director of legal services at the Crown Prosecution Service, dated 19 July 2019, which states that they
“still stand by to assist with any further work”
in relation to extending the statutory maximums for offences involving child cruelty. It is my firm belief following these meetings that, should this Government be willing to introduce Tony’s law, the Sentencing Council would be able to update its guidance appropriately and the CPS would be able to lend its support to this.
As I mentioned at the start of this debate, in Tony’s case we—I must emphasise that I played only a small part, because Paula and Mark are absolutely the heroes here and they led the way, with help from Kent police and the police and crime commissioner, Matthew Scott—were able to help persuade the CPS to re-evaluate its original decision on pushing charges against Tony’s biological parents for the crimes they had committed. It shows that much work yet remains to be done. Not all children have a Paula and Mark in their lives, and it falls to us in this House to ensure that those children are heard too. The introduction of Tony’s law would be the best way to make this happen. I am not particularly bothered if the Government seek to amend either of the two Acts I mentioned earlier or find an alternative route to bring in legislation—that is a matter for them and for the Clerks. It really does not matter how it is done, so long as the aims contained in Tony’s law can be implemented. What does matter is that those who have committed the most horrific crimes against vulnerable children serve the appropriate sentence.
As a parent, I know there is no guidebook on how to care for or raise a child; it is hard work, and all of us know how many mistakes we have made. But having a child and watching them grow is the greatest privilege I have ever had, and I am sure I speak for many in this House when I say that. Making the abuse of children the ultimate act of betrayal and the ultimate breach of trust is a duty that falls to us all. On average, about 700 people a year are convicted of cruelty to or neglect of children. They are rightly punished by our criminal justice system. This change seeks to focus only on those most serious cases, where the abuse suffered by the victim causes life-changing injuries, and it seeks only to give judges a wider set of tools and the discretion to use them—tools they would have if the victim were an adult.
Tony Hudgell will never be able to walk like me or you, Mr Speaker. Tony’s first steps have been harder than anyone’s. He has proved, not in private but in front of the whole nation, that he has the drive, determination and character to overcome any challenge or hardship placed in his way. He has won the nation’s hearts and is one of the many heroes our country has cherished during this extraordinarily difficult time. He has won the appreciation and recognition of everyone from the Prime Minister to the Duchess of Cambridge and, probably most importantly for Tony, Chelsea football club.
I hope the Government are willing to recognise this extraordinary young man and his achievements, and introduce the law that is rightly in his name. Tony’s law seeks to ensure that individuals who commit the most serious acts of cruelty against children face appropriate punishment when convicted of this crime. It would be a welcome and important step towards ensuring that our policies and our laws reflect the importance we place on our children’s lives and wellbeing. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and hope very much that we will be able to work together in days to come.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) for securing this important debate. I am conscious that I have only a few minutes to do justice to a very important subject, so I would like to offer him the opportunity to discuss the matter further with me or another Minister in the Department.
This story is horrific and tragic. No child should suffer what Tony sustained at the hands of his biological parents. Like my hon. Friend, as a parent I cannot begin to imagine the pain inflicted on Tony, and the physical and emotional impact that it has had on his life. I pay credit to the work that his parents, Paula and Mark, have done in campaigning on this issue. I know that they have worked hard, along with my hon. Friend, to draw this matter to the attention of the authorities in a number of ways.
The offences of child cruelty under which Tony’s parents were sentenced are not the only penalties available in such a case. A person can also be prosecuted for a number of other offences—for example, an offender can be prosecuted for GBH or attempted murder, and both those offences carry the maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Additionally, if the victim of a serious assault is a child, that is clearly an aggravating factor and likely to lead to an increase in any sentence. It follows that the law and penalties for the most serious cases are the same for children as for adults. Indeed, sentences imposed for offences against children can often be higher.
Since my hon. Friend first brought this matter to our attention, my officials have been looking at sentences for child cruelty, and have kept them under review. Statistics show that there is currently no pressure on the maximum penalty for the offence of child cruelty because, as my hon. Friend pointed out, fortunately there are not many of these cases—
House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).