Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)
I am grateful to have the opportunity to lead this debate. Before I begin, I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) for championing Helen’s law in this House last year, following the tireless campaigning of Marie McCourt after her daughter Helen McCourt was murdered in 1988.
This is not a speech that I would ever have wished to make. On 15 June 1995, Ms Jane Harrison disappeared following a trip to Wood Green shopping centre. She has never been seen again and her body has never been found. She was just 32 years old. Jane was murdered by her jealous and controlling partner, Kevin Doherty. Jane left behind a grieving family, devastated parents and sisters, and two young sons, then aged 14 and just 18 months old. I would like this House to acknowledge the presence of Jane’s family in the Public Gallery today. I know that the Harrisons would be very grateful for the opportunity to meet the Minister in person to discuss their case.
The path to justice for the Harrison family has been long, and at times it has felt impossible. In January 2013, after 18 years of heartache and agony for the Harrison family, Kevin Doherty was finally sentenced to 12 years in jail for manslaughter. At the time of Jane’s murder, Doherty was leading a double life. He was married to someone else with whom he had other children, but he was also in a relationship with Jane. Together they had a baby, and Jane also had a teenage son from a previous relationship. Doherty was a controlling partner, and had been abusive to Jane previously.
On the day of Jane’s disappearance, the couple were seen arguing near her flat on Poet’s Road, Islington. The last trace of Jane was at 5 pm in Wood Green shopping centre, buying items for the family’s holiday to Florida. However, Doherty had already cancelled plans for the holiday without Jane knowing—because he knew that they would not be going.
Doherty claimed that he had later dropped Jane off at her mother’s house and that she had never returned home to him. Jane was reported missing by Doherty the following day. It was not until 2012 that technological advances allowed for cell site analysis to be undertaken, which proved that Doherty had lied to police in 1995 when he had originally been arrested. Doherty had claimed that Jane had called the landline at the family flat twice after she had disappeared. On both occasions the calls happened in the presence of witnesses. Call analysis in 2012 showed that the calls had actually been made from Doherty’s mobile phone. Furthermore, Doherty’s movements in the days after Jane’s disappearance did not tie in with cell site data. So what happened on 16 June 1995 remains largely unknown.
We do know that Doherty killed Jane. No one else has ever been investigated as being connected to the case. Doherty’s manslaughter conviction in 2012 should have provided the Harrison family with closure, but 12 years is not enough for a man who took away a loving mother, sister and daughter from her family.
At the same time, Doherty has never expressed any remorse for Jane’s murder, nor has he ever revealed the location of her body. Doherty’s final act of remorseless cruelty has meant that the Harrison family have never been able to give Jane the dignity of a funeral and a resting place. The Harrisons have never had somewhere to visit together on anniversaries—somewhere to place a bunch of flowers.
Jane’s parents, Phyllis and John, devoted their lives to searching for justice for their daughter and raising the two beloved sons she left behind, but they died before they were able to see Doherty finally being brought to justice. Jane’s sister, Claire, told me that it was her mother’s dying wish that Jane was found and laid to rest with her parents, but calculated murderer Doherty has denied the family that source of closure.
I hope that the Minister can empathise with the horror that the Harrisons felt when they discovered that Doherty, the same man that not only murdered Jane, but had concealed for 22 years where her body is, could be eligible for parole next year, six years into his 12-year sentence.
While we are waiting on Helen’s law, there is nothing to stop the Parole Board from changing its deadlines. I would like to hear from the Minister about how he is going to act on the letter that I received in May 2016, saying that this whole matter would be reviewed by the Parole Board. When will those guidelines be updated to prevent people such as the murderer of Jane Harrison from being released on parole?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend.
The English legal system does not require a convicted murderer to admit guilt or to reveal the location of a victim’s remains before they are released on parole, after their determined tariff. It should be common sense that Kevin Doherty, like Ian Simms, the murderer of Helen McCourt, should under no circumstances be eligible to apply for parole. The law must be changed to acknowledge the suffering that Doherty has caused to the Harrison family.
Today, I wish to reaffirm my support for the campaign led in parliament by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North. First, murderers like Doherty must be denied parole for as long as they refuse to disclose the whereabouts of their victim’s remains. Secondly, Doherty, and those like him, must serve a full-life tariff, without the option of parole or release, until the murderer discloses the location, and enables the recovery, of their victim’s remains. This must pertain regardless of their behaviour in prison.
Thirdly, as stipulated in Helen’s law, the following rarely used common law offences must automatically be applied in murder and manslaughter trials without a body:
“preventing the burial of a body and conspiracy to prevent the burial of a body, disposing of a body, obstructing a coroner”,
as applied in the case of Regina v. Hunter in 1974. Those pieces of legislation would serve to properly enforce laws that are already in place but rarely used.
Currently, decisions are made by the Parole Board on a case-by-case basis, but the law needs to change so that it is, by default, on the side of victims and their families, not on that of the murderers. Even putting aside the families’ pain and grief, these murderers are dangerous. By refusing to admit their guilt, and by denying families this small act of closure, they demonstrate their culpability and their very real threat to society.
Sadly, hon. Members will know that Jane Harrison’s is one of so many devastating cases in which a body has never been found. I wish to take the opportunity to remind the House of the many other murder cases in which the body has never been recovered, including that of Helen McCourt in 1988, who was just 22; Keith Bennett in 1964, who was just 12 years old; Paul Morson in 2011, who was 32 years old; Danielle Jones from Essex, who was 15; Suzanne Pilley from Scotland, in 2010; and little April Jones in 2012, who was just five years old.
The families of each of those victims have suffered untold grief, without the humanity of a funeral and a peaceful resting place. Indeed, since 2007, there have been 30 murder cases throughout England and Wales in which no body has been recovered. In every single one of those cases, a murderer who continues to torment the families of their victims in such a cold-blooded way should under no circumstances be eligible for freedom. Jane’s killer should not have the option of freedom until Jane’s family are granted the dignity of a final resting place for her.
Without robust laws in place, our justice system can go horribly wrong. Take the example of the notorious Sidney Cooke, convicted child molester and serial killer. In 1989, Cooke was sentenced to 19 years for the manslaughter of 14-year-old Jason Swift, and he was guilty of the murder of seven-year-old Mark Tildesley. But in 1989, his sentence was reduced to 16 years, and he was paroled nine years later, in April 1998, having refused rehabilitation in prison and having never revealed where Mark Tildesley’s body was to his bereaved parents.
Mercifully, Cooke was rearrested in 1999 and received two life sentences. Nevertheless, that demonstrates that our justice system has made terrible mistakes in the past. We must act now to stop that happening again in future. The policy of “no body, no parole” is already in force in South Australia, and it is being considered in Australia at federal level. Under the law, convicted murderers in prison are given an opportunity to co-operate with the police in exchange for more lenient sentencing or parole options. All states in Australia have considered something like this, with South Australia and Victoria taking the lead in its actual implementation.
The law will only apply to people who have the opportunity for parole anyway, so someone could not get a lesser charge for information on the whereabouts of a body if they had no chance of parole from the outset. At the same time, just describing the location of a victim’s body would not guarantee a murderer early release. The Parole Board would still have the final say and could deny it if the perpetrator still posed a threat to society. As of now, Australia is the only country that has implemented something like this, even at the local level.
Along with my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North and many others, I firmly believe that the UK could lead the way and be the second country to enshrine this law. This would not only give grieving families the chance for some closure but serve as a future example to others. I hope that the Minister will today outline the Ministry of Justice’s plans to amend the law to reflect this groundbreaking and fair mechanism, to deliver justice to the families who deserve it and to the memories of so many people. Jane Harrison’s family must not be let down by our justice system, and I hope that the Minister will agree that we all have a duty to preserve Jane’s memory. Jane should be remembered in life, more than in death, as a loving mum, sister and daughter.
This was not an easy speech to write and this is a very difficult subject for any of us to talk about, so I would like to end with a few words from Jane’s sister, Claire, who I know has fought for years for justice for her sister:
“We were so close, and we spoke every day. She was a wonderful sister, and a devoted mother. And I know that the last thing that my sister thought of the day she died was of her two boys.
This grief that we have carried for twenty-two years, it doesn’t get easier—it gets harder each day. And not to have some closure, somewhere for us to gather, to lay flowers —it is absolute agony.
I want to ask the Minister, what if this was a member of your family? Can you put yourself in our shoes? Could you stand to see a man who has caused such devastation walk free?
Please help us, for the sake of our whole family, for the memory of our wonderful Jane—and for all those who have had to suffer the same agony before and since.”
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this important debate today. I should like to express my deepest sympathies to Jane Harrison’s family. It is impossible to imagine the pain they have experienced and continue to suffer after losing Jane in such tragic circumstances. I should also like to take this opportunity to extend my deepest sympathies to Marie McCourt, who has tirelessly campaigned for a law change in memory of her daughter, Helen.
On a personal level, when considering this debate and, indeed, the private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), I recalled the sight of Winnie Johnson, the mother of Keith Bennett, who died never knowing where her son was buried. Indeed, her face etched with agony on every anniversary of the Moors murders stays with me. To lose a loved one in such circumstances is truly horrendous. The fact that Winnie was then denied the opportunity to give her son a proper burial is too awful even to comprehend, so I understand why the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden has secured this debate and why the hon. Member for St Helens North is pursuing his campaign for Helen’s law.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden has set out the background to the case. I must stress that, as a Justice Minister, I would not normally comment on individual cases. As should be clear, this case involves a conviction for manslaughter, not murder. I do not think it would be helpful to revisit now that conviction or to discuss the difference between what amounts to the offence of murder or manslaughter. It might be helpful, however, for me to explain the different options available when sentencing for manslaughter and the different consequences of these sentences.
Murder is the only offence that carries a mandatory life sentence. In every case where someone is convicted of murder, they will receive a life sentence. Apart from the most serious cases, which receive a whole-life order, the court will set a tariff for the offender. That means they will serve a minimum time before they are considered for release, and will be released only when the independent Parole Board considers it safe to do so.
Manslaughter, on the other hand, has a maximum penalty of a life sentence, but that sentence is discretionary, rather than mandatory. The judge can impose a life sentence, or any other sentence short of a life sentence, having considered all the factors in each case. The length of the custodial sentence imposed must reflect the culpability of the offender. In the case of manslaughter, that can vary widely given the wide range of behaviour that the offence covers. Defendants convicted of manslaughter can, and do, receive standard determinate sentences.
In contrast to a life sentence, and since the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, prisoners serving a standard determinate sentence are automatically released at the halfway point of their sentence. The remainder of the sentence is served on licence in the community. While on licence, offenders will be subject to probation supervision and the licence will include appropriate conditions. If an offender breaches those conditions, they may be recalled to prison. I stress that offenders serving standard determinate sentences are released automatically by statute and are not considered for release at the discretion of a body such as the Parole Board. It is worth noting that an offender convicted of manslaughter who is serving a determinate sentence of whatever length will not be eligible for release earlier than the halfway point of their sentence under the home detention curfew scheme.
The judiciary are of course aware of how sentences are structured when determining the appropriate sentence in a case, and explain the effect of the sentence in open court. Therefore, any offender subject to a determinate sentence will be released at a fixed point, irrespective of whether they admit their guilt or co-operate with the authorities, and their sentence will come to an end at a fixed point. There is no discretion under the law to hold them beyond the sentence that was imposed by the court. To change that would require a significant change in the law and to sentencing generally. It also raises some practical issues that I will mention briefly.
The practical issues are similar to the issues championed by the private Member’s Bill of the hon. Member for St Helens North—otherwise known as Helen’s law—in response to the murder of Helen McCourt. I stress that the Government sympathise with the calls for a Helen’s law. Along with the sentencing Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), I met the hon. Member for St Helens North to discuss his private Member’s Bill earlier this week. I congratulate him on his approach during that meeting. I again express my respect and admiration for Marie McCourt, who has led the campaign for Helen’s law. I pay tribute to her commitment to the issue and her tireless work over many years. As I said earlier, any murder is horrific and no family should have to go through such a traumatic experience with the added pain of not knowing the whereabouts of their loved one and being denied the chance to lay them to rest. For that reason, the Government welcome the discussion generated by the Unlawful Killing (Recovery of Remains) Bill.
I think the hon. Member for St Helens North would be the first to accept that his Bill does not present a legally sound solution to this difficult issue. In short, it proposes to deny release to those who refuse to disclose the whereabouts of their victims’ remains. The Government recognise the honourable intentions behind this approach. There are, however, some concerns regarding how the proposed changes can be delivered—concerns regarding the legality of some of the provisions, as well as the potentially adverse effect on the families of victims if they were made aware of information disclosed by offenders. As the victims Minister, I will always represent and work hard towards delivering in the best interest of victims of crime. As such, I intend to ensure that any changes made to the current process are tailored towards delivering a just and fair outcome.
I do not want to get into any technical or legal details during this debate, but let me say that we all have to be careful not to support something that would create perverse incentives for offenders to lie about where the victim’s remains are located, to try and secure release or to further torment victims’ families. There is a risk that each and every time an offender claimed to remember where the victim’s remains had been buried, they would have to be taken seriously, which could result in them being allowed to leave prison temporarily to help authorities search for the body. In that regard, I think, once again, about Winnie Johnson. We do not want offenders creating false stories to toy with victims’ families or to create false hope. The further pain and anxiety that could be inflicted upon victims’ families as a result of this is simply unthinkable.
Additionally, while the Government have been unable to examine the Bill in detail, there are several other complex practical and legal issues arising from the proposals. These could include avoiding arbitrary sentences; being clear about the level of co-operation required and whether this needs to lead to a successful outcome; and avoiding unlawful retrospective application of provisions.
I would, however, like to reassure the House that the Government are taking this issue very seriously. As already mentioned, I met the hon. Member for St Helens North earlier this week to discuss his Bill and the options going forward. The Government understand the importance of this issue and are committed to considering what more can be done.
I want to place on record my thanks to the Minister and the Ministry of Justice for meeting me this week and for the constructive approach they have taken. Notwithstanding what he has said, I do not believe that any of the practical difficulties is insurmountable. In terms of the impact on victims, the thing that is causing Marie McCourt and her family and Jane Harrison’s family most torment and anguish is the thought that the murderer of their loved ones will be released from prison. The Minister should make no mistake about that whatever.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and, of course, I get that.
The Government wrote to the independent Parole Board last year and asked it to review its guidance in respect of prisoners serving life sentences who do not accept full responsibility for their offence and who wilfully fail to disclose the whereabouts of their victim. While it is not directly relevant in this case, the Parole Board is strengthening its guidance, which will be issued in the spring, clarifying the issues that may need to be considered where the offender does not disclose the whereabouts of the victim’s body. While the guidance reaffirms that the Parole Board’s primary focus is on the risk to the public, it makes it clear that the offender’s withholding of this information may raise factors that are relevant to risk and can therefore result in the offender not being released.
I should also mention that the Parole Board continues to improve and develop the way it liaises with and involves victims in its decision making. I very much welcome its approach, which recognises how difficult it must be for victims to engage in any consideration of an offender’s release.
In addition, the Government are aware of the recent developments in some other countries, and we will be examining these approaches in more detail and seeing how they work in practice. Mercifully, these cases are rare, but we will consider whether these approaches would be appropriate for our justice system in England and Wales.
With reference to the question that was raised about the family having a chance to influence the conditions of release, it is not appropriate for me to discuss individual details of the case here. As the Department has previously said, we will be happy to meet the family to update them. I know they have been kept informed of any developments in the case by the victim liaison officer in the national probation service, on any move to open conditions and on the eligibility and conditions for any temporary release.
I would like to end by again extending my deepest sympathies to the family of Jane Harrison, and I thank the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden for drawing this issue to the attention of the House. As victims Minister, I firmly believe that victims are at the heart of our criminal justice system, and I know that this is a deeply distressing and troubling issue for victims’ families.
There is, sadly, no easy solution here. I can tell the hon. lady that we will examine all the options that might provide a lawful and effective way to discourage offenders from withholding information. We all agree that we should consider any practical solution that will allow families to lay their loved ones to rest.
Question put and agreed to.