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Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Volume 681: debated on Tuesday 6 October 2020

Consideration of Lords amendments

After Clause 2

Parole board database

I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.

This Bill—Helen’s law, as we have come to know it—amends the release provisions that apply to offenders who do not disclose information relating to cases of murder, manslaughter, or taking or making indecent images of children. As Members are aware, it places existing Parole Board guidance on a statutory footing to ensure that Parole Board members must consider, when making release assessments, any non-disclosure of information relating to a victim’s remains if they were murdered, or the identity of the victims of child sexual abuse.

I once again pay tribute to the tremendous work done by the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) in campaigning for this Bill. He was inspired by his constituent Marie McCourt, whose daughter, Helen, was tragically murdered. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), many of whose constituents were abused by Vanessa George. Without their tireless work, this Bill would not be progressing through Parliament. I extend to them, once again, my congratulations and thanks.

The Government agree entirely with the spirit and intent behind Baroness Kennedy’s amendment but have some issues with its practicality. Essentially, what it seeks to achieve is already achieved by other means. The first part of Baroness Kennedy’s amendment requires the Parole Board to take responsibility for contacting the victim, but there is of course already a victim contact service as part of the National Probation Service, which has responsibility for precisely that. We think it would create duplication and possibly confusion if two different bodies had the same responsibility for contacting victims.

Their lordships expressed some concern about the effectiveness of the current operation of the victim contact service. In particular, their amendment calls for communications with victims and their families to be done on an opt-out basis so that the family is contacted automatically, and the contact ceases only if the family or victim says, “No, we don’t want to hear anything further.” A pilot of doing exactly that has been running across many parts of the country, although—in response to an inquiry from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport—not currently in Devon and Cornwall.

I am pleased to tell the House that, subsequent to the House of Lords’ consideration of this matter, a decision has been taken to roll out that programme nationally as part of the new victims code, which we expect will come into operation in early 2021. We intend to lay before Parliament a negative statutory instrument before long to give effect to that. That is precisely what the other place called for in its amendment. Subsequent to their lordships’ debate, it has been decided to progress and do that, so that part of the amendment is being done already. Their lordships might take some credit for prompting us, but it was something that we had been trialling previously, and we intended to do that. I hope that assurance that it will be done gives Members on both sides of the House a great deal of reassurance, happiness and contentment.

My hon. Friend will know that when the Justice Committee looked at these issues after a great deal of publicity and some court cases, our inquiry shared many of the concerns of the other House about the effectiveness of the victim contact scheme. Can he assure us that appropriate organisational changes, and additional resources where necessary, have been put in to ensure that the scheme can discharge these important duties adequately?

I thank the Chairman of the Justice Committee for the work that he and his Committee have done in this area, which has been very thorough and useful. I think we do accept the point that he has made, as have the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport and others, that the victim contact scheme can be improved.

I have had discussions with the Minister of State, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), who has responsibility for prisons and probation. She has asked me to pass on to the House her undertaking to meet and speak to the Victims’ Commissioner about improving the victim contact scheme. We will also be happy, either in the same meeting or a separate one, for Labour Front Benchers, including the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) and, if he wishes, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), as well as the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport and for St Helens North—and their constituents—if they wish to join the meeting—to discuss any concerns they may have and any ideas they may have for further improvements to the victim contact scheme. I am happy to put that commitment by the Minister of State on the record this afternoon.

This Bill has progressed thus far with cross-party support. It has been worked on very constructively by those on the Government Front Bench and the Opposition Front Bench, as well as by those on the Back Benches. Indeed, it would not have got here without their work, as I said earlier. I hope we can continue in that spirit of cross-party unity on this topic.

Given that the victim contact scheme exists already and the opt-out changes will be made shortly, and given our commitment to work with the Victims’ Commissioner and others to further improve the victim contact scheme, I hope the House will join me in respectfully rebuffing—perhaps that is the word, or perhaps gently pushing back—the amendments that their lordships have sent in our direction.

May I start by thanking the Minister for his comments and the tone in which he has conducted this debate? It is much appreciated by those of us on the Opposition Benches, I can assure him.

I start by paying tribute to the tireless campaigning of victims’ families, and in particular the campaigning of Marie McCourt and the families of those abused by Vanessa George. They have begged successive Governments to time the release of serious offenders in a way that is more responsive to victim circumstance. Supported by my hon. Friends the Members for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), they have changed the law for the better.

Observers of this House from the outside may think it is quite normal for people to bring forward legislation from the Back Benches and get it all the way through both Houses, but it is very unusual. In fact, I think I am right in saying that both the Minister and I have attempted in the past to introduce legislation from the Back Benches. In his case, it was to tackle industrial relations in utility companies and in mine it was to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, and both of us met with undignified failure. Those families have succeeded where we unfortunately failed. They will make a significant difference to the lives of victims’ families for generations to come. They did so knowing that it would not materially impact their own situation. They did it to save others from the torment they have endured, and we are grateful to them.

As the House is aware, the first part of the Bill implements Helen’s law. Motivated by the case of Ian Simms, it forces the Parole Board to consider the non-disclosure of key information during the release decisions of people convicted of murder or manslaughter. The unwillingness of murderers to disclose such details is a source of merciless and unrelenting anguish. That is equally true of the young victims of Vanessa George, who was convicted of sexual assault and making and distributing indecent photographs of children. She was released from prison last year, despite never naming the children she abused. The second part of the Bill guarantees the same protections for victims in such cases.

It is unforgivable that our system has not better reflected the needs of those bereaved by such horrific crimes over previous decades. For far too long, victims and their families have been treated as an afterthought in the criminal justice system. They were described as such by the victims’ commissioner for London, Claire Waxman, in a recent interview. The Bill delivers two new key statutory rights to victims and their families. I hope the Government will continue with this direction of travel apace, because, despite repeated pledges, they have still failed to bring forward the long-promised victims law, which would offer a comprehensive set of rights and protections to the victims who so desperately need them. Such a law is desperately needed now more than ever, given the increasing rate of offences for which no one is ever brought to justice because of the victim and witnesses dropping out due to various different issues. We have pledges aplenty from the Government; we need more action.

There is far more left to do to address the systemic challenges facing victims in the criminal justice system. We on the Opposition Benches will continue to press the Government on this issue and work constructively with them when the opportunity arises, as we have done today. We will campaign unfailingly until comprehensive rights are guaranteed by law for those victims who need them the most. This Bill marks one very positive step forward, and the Opposition proudly support it on its convoluted pathway from the Back Benches to the Front Bench and through both Houses of Parliament. We now look forward to the difference it will make for victims and their families.

Lords amendment 1 was proposed in the other place by Baroness Kennedy of Cradley and seeks to address the asymmetry in offender and victim rights, wherein offenders receive regular communication from the authorities—a luxury that most victims will only ever dream of. This cannot continue, and Baroness Kennedy’s amendment represents an effort to tackle the injustice. However, we are happy to have agreed with the Minister, over the course of recent weeks, commitments regarding the future of the victim contact scheme. As a result, we will not seek to divide the House on the amendment.

I want to thank the Minister and put on the record the open-spirited way in which he has engaged with me and Members from all parties as we have approached today’s debate. First, we accept his argument that the creation of a victim database would replicate the work of the victim contact scheme. Victim liaison officers perform a vital role in keeping victims and their families up to date on the release process. That extends to those affected by the shocking crimes under discussion in respect of the Bill. There is scope to improve the scheme further, and the Government have pledged to review it as part of a broader reform of probation. It is vital that the tragic cases to which the Bill applies are given substantial consideration in any such review.

Secondly, we welcome the Government’s intention to introduce an opt-out system as part of the victim contact scheme. That will help to ensure that families of victims are empowered throughout the criminal justice process, extending support to more of those in need while protecting the right to withdraw from the contact process should that be desired.

Finally, we welcome the commitment to involving the Victims’ Commissioner in any review of the victim contact scheme. In her letter dated 7 August, the commissioner laid out her thoughts on how to make the scheme more responsive to victims’ needs, including by changing it from a transactional service into a package of end-to-end support and considering the benefits of co-location with victims’ services. The Government must work closely with the commissioner to consider the viability of her proposed changes.

I thank the Minister for inviting us on the Opposition Benches to contribute to any future review; it is generous of him and welcomed by us. We look forward to working with him on this issue and finding solutions to the challenges of how we ensure that families can easily update contact details over time. It is important that our political system, and those who work within it, come together when broad agreement can be found. Not only is this how politics can better reflect most people’s experiences in their daily lives, but it is a way that we in this House can demonstrate our respect for the suffering of victims and their families by coming together and putting their needs ahead of any others.

May I join the Minister and shadow Minister in paying tribute to the victims who have worked so hard to have an appalling wrong righted, and to the hon. Members of this House who have campaigned so steadfastly for that to be achieved? I welcome, too, the spirit in which the Minister has approached this issue throughout; I think we will all end up in the same position.

When the Select Committee heard evidence relating to these matters of disclosure—I am grateful again to those members of the public who assisted us while sometimes having to relive painful experiences, as hon. Members can imagine—we had concerns about the effectiveness of the victims service at that time. I am glad to hear that those changes have been made. I hope that the Minister will ensure that it continues to have the resources needed to provide what I think we all accept needs to be a more holistic support service for victims in such circumstances.

We also have to bear in mind the new and perfectly proper responsibilities placed on the Parole Board, ensuring that it is resourced in terms of both money and suitably qualified personnel. I would submit that the chairs of the panels dealing with such sensitive cases should always be legally qualified. I hope and anticipate that the Minister will be prepared to take those suggestions on board. The Select Committee looks forward to keeping an eye on how the review progresses, and I hope that it will not take too long. I also hope that we will, as our party pledge, move towards a victims law in due course, although we appreciate the work that has been done to strengthen the victims code; that is important.

When the Victims’ Commissioner last gave evidence before the Select Committee, she expressed some ongoing concern at the variability of support for victims in general across various parts of the country. Much of the funding comes from police and crime commissioners, and the level of priority can vary—if I can put it that way—from place to place. It is probably not acceptable to have that degree of postcode lottery. I hope that we can engage constructively with the Government to find ways in which we can even out the imbalances to ensure that, wherever victims are in the country, they get the same and proper levels of support.

This Bill is an important and valuable step forward. It does credit to the parliamentary process that it has been improved and taken forward in the way in which it has. It is in that spirit that we should say to their lordships that, with respect, we regard the amendment to the Bill as now unnecessary. I am grateful to the Minister and to all concerned for this important piece of work.

I thank the Minister for his remarks, which will go a long way towards helping the families involved in the case of Vanessa George. I speak today on behalf of the families of the children who were abused by Vanessa George. Those babies and toddlers—as they were when they were abused—are still children and young adults, so they cannot be named; nor can I place on record the names of the family members who have done so much campaigning and hard work, and who have shared so many painful experiences in order to get this far. They know who they are and Plymouth is grateful to them, and I am grateful to them for their work in this respect.

Our campaign started when the news of Vanessa George’s release was made public. At first, its key objective was to prevent her early release, as someone who still held a power over the families and the victims: the names of the children who were abused. We do not believe that every child at Little Ted’s nursery in Laira was abused by Vanessa George, but we do not know which child was. That means that every single family who sent their most precious gift in the world—their child—to the nursery is living with the uncertainty over whether it is their child who was abused, and whether it is an image of the abuse of their child that is festering in some dark corner of the web somewhere. That is a cancer that eats away at people, and the courage and determination of the families throughout this process has been a real source of strength for me.

When it was announced that Vanessa George was released, the campaign then moved to strengthen the law. I want to pay tribute to the Government. As a member of the Opposition Front-Bench team, that is not something I find myself doing often, but in this respect, party politics has been put to one side. The Minister, his predecessor, who is now the Secretary of State, their Justice team colleagues and the officials went out of their way to listen to the family’s concerns and bring forward a measure that enacts the campaigns of two Labour MPs. That is testament to the importance of the issues and the sense that, despite the contested nature of our politics, there are things that we can all agree on and work together on to make our country better.

The campaign had two parts. One was tightening the law to make refusal to name children who have been abused a material consideration for the Parole Board in determining whether to release a prisoner. That legislative change is needed and I am grateful that it remains in the Bill. The second part relates to the amendment that was passed in the Lords. That was the softer side—communication and how the victims’ families felt involved in the process.

Does the hon. Member agree that it is extremely important that the contact database or the contact scheme that the Parole Board has lists each family member? So often in these instances, the trauma of what has happened leads to families breaking up. It is therefore important for each family member to know what is happening.

The hon. Member is exactly right. That point is an important part of the softer side of communication that needs to be built into the system. The majority of the families found out about the release not via communication from the authorities but through Facebook and our local media. That is an enormous tragedy for those families who were unable to prepare themselves or their children for what was coming.

The children Vanessa George abused and those we think she may have abused and their classmates are now young adults of secondary school age. They are digital natives. They were born with the internet. They know the issues in their community and they have followed this issue, sometimes with greater awareness than their parents. Schools have done a tremendous job in ensuring that they are supported through the process, but we need to build that into a system to make sure that there is proper communication.

I am therefore pleased that the Minister has said that the pilot schemes that were put in place with the probation service will be rolled out nationally, including in Devon and Cornwall. That is a huge improvement on the current situation. I am also glad that they are “opt out” rather than “opt in”. Opting in when the crime or the trial takes place is an enormously difficult decision. As has been said, only one member of a family normally makes that decision to take the lead on liaison with the authorities. For most people, liaison with the police and the criminal justice system is not something that they go through every day, and it is a difficult decision. The ability to have a system, whereby families can adjust their details over time, when email addresses change and families break up, is important. The enormous stress of this case has led to families breaking up. It is right and proper that both parents—the mum and the dad—have the opportunity to know what is happening.

I am also pleased that the Minister has set out the involvement of the Victims’ Commissioner. I have met her in relation to this case and I have found her as compassionate and skilled in her current role as she was when she was in this House. I know that her involvement will strengthen the system that flows from the Bill.

The roll-out of the victim contact scheme is important. I am glad that the Minister has made that commitment. I would be pleased to take him up on his offer of being involved with that and to feed in the families’ experiences. I have been sharing not just the communication but the whole process with Ministers. In a meeting with one of the Minister’s Justice colleagues, I spoke about the experience of one family member who gave evidence at the Parole Board hearing. It was a still a requirement to attend in person at that point, in the prison where the offender was held, to read out a statement. I could not understand why, in the 21st century, that could not be done by video link from a local court, sparing the family member the pressure of travelling. That applies particularly in the case of a female offender because we do not have as many female prisons as male prisons and that means travelling long distances, especially from the south-west, to give evidence. Coronavirus has speeded up the giving of video evidence, but I know that the Government were looking at a pilot, which was held in London, and that they are considering rolling it out nationwide. I hope that the importance of doing that can be reinforced.

On the basis of the reassurances that the Minister has provided today—I am grateful to him for doing so—I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) in saying that we will not be pressing this amendment. I think that is a good thing because, in my mind, child abuse should not be party political: it should be something where we find common ground and work together. I am grateful to Baroness Kennedy in the other place for tabling the amendment and for pressing it, because in doing so she has listened to the campaign of the victims in Plymouth and has helped to achieve movement, which is very welcome. Vanessa George robbed these children of their innocence. She robbed the families of the trust that they could place in their local nursery, which has now closed. Each of the families I have spoken to has said, “This can’t change what happened, but it can stop it happening to someone else.” That is a really important part of where we are going.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) for his championing of the first part of this Bill in relation to Helen’s law. It is enormously difficult to make a case consistently for as long as he has done, but he has done so proudly, professionally and with great courtesy. I know he will continue to support Marie and the family. Notwithstanding the personal pain that she feels at the release of Helen’s killer, she was pleased to see that this law will come into force soon and hopes that no other family will have to go through what she has gone through. That is a lasting tribute to her campaigning.

I must admit that I was ill prepared to deal with the scale of child abuse that this case presented me with. We need to equip people in public life better for that. Dealing with one case of child abuse is awful, but I was ill prepared for the scale of challenge in dealing, as in this case, with dozens of babies and toddlers who had been abused and the uncertainty around that. I am very glad that, with the support of Labour Front Benchers and of Ministers and their officials, we are getting to a point where the victims will be able to see a form of justice done in improving the system, with better communication on what is taking place.

My final remark is to Vanessa George herself. She maintains a power over the victims by withholding their names. She will know the names of some of the children she abused and photographed and whose images she shared. Wherever she is in Britain at this point, she could help the families and relieve a part of their suffering and uncertainty by naming some of the children she abused. She must know the names. She must know that naming the kids would enormously help the healing process. I appeal to her to do that, because for as long as she holds on to those names, those families will not have peace. That is a really important of this issue.

I thank the Minister for the concessions and the announcements that he has made today. They go an enormous way towards delivering on the campaign on behalf of the families from Plymouth. This is a good Bill. I hope that it can be passed into law by Christmas so that all the families of the children who were abused in Plymouth will know that there is strengthened legislation and better communication as a result of their campaign.

I would first like to express my support for this Bill as a whole. We absolutely must do everything we can to return the bodies of victims to their loved ones to ensure that they are afforded a proper burial and an opportunity to say goodbye. The death of any loved one can have a profound impact on family members and friends. From the testimony of the McCourt family, who have been the driving force behind this Bill, and that of many others, it is clear that that is magnified in cases of murder, and further still when an offender refuses to disclose where they have left the body of their victim. It is also right that the measures in this Bill extend to those who have been convicted of abusing children and making indecent images of their victims. That is a heinous crime, and families of potential victims deserve answers.

Turning to the amendment, I doubt that anyone would dispute the need to ensure that victims and their families are kept apprised of any parole applications and, indeed, of every stage of the parole process thereafter. Over the past few years as a caseworker for my predecessor and now as the Member of Parliament, I have supported constituents of mine such as the Weedon family, whose daughter Amanda was subjected to a frenzied attack by a complete stranger when walking home from her job as a nurse at a local hospital. She sustained 37 knife wounds. Even more shockingly, it was reported that the attack happened while the perpetrator was visiting the grave of his first victim. The perpetrator of these horrific crimes was sentenced to life imprisonment in the 1980s but made a parole application earlier this year. The family were subsequently informed of this and were able to make a victim personal statement and challenge the Parole Board’s decision in the necessary timeframe. Unfortunately, in this case, the prisoner was released, but the families were at least given the opportunity to make their views known.

It is crucial that victims and their families are given a voice and treated on a level playing field with the offender. Indeed, Amanda’s father, Horace Weedon, who sadly passed away earlier this year, played an active role in the years following Amanda’s murder in improving the support afforded to victims’ families, even delivering a talk at HMP Gartree to prisoners serving life sentences. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to his work.

I welcome the fact that, as the Minister highlighted, there is already a well-established process in place, delivered through the victim contact scheme, which keeps victims and their families up to date with parole applications. Sadly, however, there are still too many cases in which victims and their families are not provided with that information and find out that an offender has been released only when it is reported in the media. That is wrong. Even if the Government consider that creating a database is not the right solution, we need to look again at the process and how it can be improved, not just in the specific instances covered by the Bill but more widely.

I shall keep my remarks very short, but I want to say a few things in the cross-party spirit of the Bill. My remarks became even shorter after the Minister contacted me this morning and explained exactly the concessions that the Government are making. I am very grateful for that. I also pay tribute to the campaigners and Members of this House who have ensured that this important change in the law will hopefully come into force very soon, making life a lot better and more bearable for victims’ families, who have gone through traumatic experiences already.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill, which will hopefully bring much needed justice for the families of victims. I sincerely hope that this legislation will mean that far fewer families find themselves in the awful position of not knowing what has happened after a loved one becomes a victim of a heinous crime.

The most important issue, which is at the core of the Bill, is improving communication, disclosure and open decision making. The parole function needs to make sure that the views of victims’ families are an essential part of that function. As we just heard, there are too many examples of a victim’s family finding out the result of a parole hearing only through media reports or online. I do not doubt that everyone in the House wants to ensure that our justice system does better to support victims. Parole Board cases are of great significance to victims’ families. They must have the right to know what is happening and to have their say—a meaningful say.

The issue we are debating, which arises from the Lords amendment—much of that has already been discussed—is effective communication with victims’ families. That is currently done through the probation service. The Lords amendment would require the Parole Board to provide the essential and meaningful communication with victims’ families. I understand that the Government are offering not to amend this essential part of the Bill, but to improve the probation service to a point where justice is done for the families of victims.

The Government do, however, agree with part of the Lords amendment and have already been running a pilot for opt-out systems so that families can have regular updates, and they intend to lay a statutory instrument under the negative resolution procedure at the beginning of the new year, in line with the new victims code. All that is very welcome. We have also heard that the Government are committing to more contact between the Prisons Minister and the Victims’ Commissioner. Again, that is very welcome.

The proof of those concessions, however, will be in their effectiveness, and we will need to see how effective the system is once it is up and running. My main request is for a proper review of whether the new arrangements have the required outcome of giving the families of victims of terrible crimes the justice that they deserve, and minimising the trauma that families go through.

With the leave of the House, let me say a word or two in conclusion. I once again thank the hon. Members for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for their campaigning on this topic, and I thank the Opposition Front Bench and the Liberal Democrat Front Bench for the constructive cross-party spirit in which they have approached it.

This is an example of Parliament working at its best on an issue of profound importance to victims whose lives have been destroyed by either murderers or child abusers who seek to further torment their victims, even after the offence and their trial and conviction, by intentionally and maliciously withholding information about the whereabouts of the body or the identities of the children who have been abused. It is wicked and unacceptable, and this House, in passing this legislation, sends a clear message to those people that their behaviour is abhorrent and unacceptable, and we stand united against it.

Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.

Ordered, That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendment 1;

That Chris Philp, Tom Pursglove, Neil O’Brien, Julie Marson, Bambos Charalambous and Peter Kyle be members of the Committee;

That Chris Philp be the Chair of the Committee;

That three be the quorum of the Committee.

That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Rebecca Harris.)

Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.

In order to observe social distancing, the Reasons Committee will meet not as usual in the Reasons Room but in Committee Room 12.

In order to allow Members to safely leave the Chamber and Members who are going to speak on the next item of business to enter, I suspend the sitting for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.