Today the chief inspector of probation has published his independent review into the Probation Service’s management of Jordan McSweeney, who murdered Zara Aleena on 26 June 2022 as she walked home after an evening out with friends.
Today’s report follows another independent review into the management of Damien Bendall, who in September 2021 murdered an entire family—killing pregnant Terri Harris, her two children, John Paul and Lacey, and Lacey’s 11-year-old friend, Connie Gent. Bendall also pleaded guilty to rape.
Immediately upon learning that first Bendall and then McSweeney had been charged with murder while subject to probation supervision, Ministers asked the chief inspector to undertake independent reviews.
Before I address the chief inspector’s findings, I wish to express my deepest sympathy towards the families and friends of the victims. They have suffered the most awful loss and continue to endure unimaginable suffering.
The chief inspector found serious failings in each case. The Probation Service did not assess the level of risk posed by McSweeney and Bendall properly—and that fundamental flaw meant that neither offender was managed as closely and robustly as was necessary to protect the public. I wish to apologise unreservedly to the families for these wholly unacceptable failings. We are determined to make sure that they are not repeated.
I have accepted the 10 recommendations made by the chief inspector in the case of McSweeney, having accepted his 17 recommendations in the case of Bendall. His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has already implemented a comprehensive action plan to address the failings in the case of Bendall, including new mandatory checks with the police and children’s services before a probation officer may recommend to the court that an offender may be sentenced to an electronically-monitored curfew. And HMPPS has today published its action plan to address the failings in the case of McSweeney, including mandatory training to improve the quality of risk assessments and new processes to ensure the swift recall of offenders who have breached their licence conditions and are no longer safe to be managed in the community.
Over and above the specific actions taken to implement the chief inspector’s findings in each of the two cases, I should set out the action this Government are taking to strengthen the Probation Service and ensure that it is equipped to manage offenders effectively and so protect the public.
We have unified the Probation Service in order to raise standards. We recognise that the Probation Service needs more staff, which is why we have invested heavily, injecting extra funding of more than £155 million a year to deliver tougher supervision of offenders, reduce caseloads and recruit thousands more staff to make the public safer.
This has helped us boost our trainee probation officers by 2,500 over the last two years and we plan to recruit a further 1,500 by March this year.
Beyond these changes, we are reforming the parole system, as we announced in March last year, including increasing ministerial oversight of release decisions for the most serious criminals.
I recognise that the action we have taken and continue to take cannot bring back Terri Harris, John Paul Bennett, Lacey Bennett, Connie Gent and Zara Aleena. However, I can assure their loved ones, this House and the public that we are determined to do everything in our power to make sure that these kinds of tragedy can never happen again.
I commend this statement to the House.