I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is a short Bill—it consists of just three clauses—but its importance cannot be underestimated. It responds directly to real-life issues that we know have caused, and continue to cause, immense distress to the families of victims of serious crimes.
Despite its full and proper title, this is a Bill that we have all come to know as Helen’s law. Helen’s mother, Marie McCourt, has long campaigned for this change to the law. I want to take the opportunity—and I am sure that the whole House will want to join me—to pay tribute to her bravery, her determination and her tenacity. It is in large part thanks to her that we have reached this point at all.
Let me tell the House something about the case with which we are dealing. Helen McCourt was a 22-year-old insurance clerk from the village of Billinge, near St Helens in Merseyside. On the evening of 9 February 1988, just over 32 years ago, Helen disappeared while on her way home from work. The following year, Ian Simms was convicted of her murder and ordered to serve a minimum of 16 years in prison as part of his mandatory life sentence, but he has never revealed where Helen’s body is, and, despite extensive searches, her remains have never been found, which has compounded the misery and the grief of the McCourt family.
I have had the pleasure of meeting Mrs McCourt and her family on several occasions, often in the company of the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn). Their dignity in the face of such unimaginable distress is something quite astonishing. All they want is the opportunity to lay their dear daughter to rest.
We have all lost people who are dear to us. We all know the closure and comfort that can arise from laying a loved one to rest. When we take into account the horrific circumstances of Helen’s death, a proper burial and an opportunity to say goodbye must take on a wholly different dynamic for the McCourt family and others in their position. The campaign has resulted in this legislation. We have responded to the issues raised by it to identify a solution that works within the existing sentencing, release and Parole Board framework to ensure that a failure on the part of a prisoner to disclose such vital information is rightly and properly taken into account as part of the risk assessment of the prisoner before any release. It is the least we can do to support the victims of such horrendous crime, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—who is present in the Chamber to lend her consistent support to victims, their families and those who have suffered as a result of criminality—for the close partnership working that we have in Government to deal with this important agenda.
I shall now deal with the clauses in the Bill. Clause 1 will amend the release provisions that apply to life sentences for murder and manslaughter in order to place a statutory obligation on the Parole Board to consider a non-disclosure of information about a victim’s remains when making a public protection decision—that is, a decision to release—about such a prisoner. In order for the Bill’s provisions to apply, the Parole Board must not know the location of a victim’s remains, and the board must believe that the prisoner has information about this that he or she has not disclosed to it. This is the essence of the prisoner’s non-disclosure, and it is this that must be taken into account by the board when assessing whether a prisoner can safely be released on licence.
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to say that the Bill is morally necessary and the right thing to do. Does he agree that this is really no more than an extension by analogy of the way in which remorse will be taken into account in sentencing, in that those who admit guilt and give full assistance to the police are regarded as more likely to have accepted their guilt? That is true in relation to the approach of the Parole Board too, and this is therefore just a simple extension of the fact that someone who has done their best to accept what they did, even in the most awful of crimes, may be less of a threat to the public in the future than somebody who makes a blanket and wilful denial and is therefore likely to be much less reformed and much less safe to let loose.
My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, like me, has much experience in the criminal justice system. He will know that deciding whether remorse is real or feigned is sometimes a difficult judgment for a court to make. He makes his point very well.
I think it is right for me to deal at this stage with the concept of whether we should have gone further and introduced a rule of “no body, no release”. Tempting though that might be—and I listened carefully to the arguments—there is a danger that if we proceed too far along that path, we could inadvertently create an artificial incentive for people to mislead the authorities and to feign co-operation or remorse. Of course, in another context, we see the dangers that are inherent in what I have described as superficial compliance with the authorities. There is a fine balance to be maintained, but I think that the Bill as presented maintains it in a way that is clear, that increases public confidence in the system and that makes it abundantly plain to those who are charged with the responsibility of assessing risk that, in the view of this House, this issue is of particular public interest and public importance when it comes to the assessment that is to be made.
I was dealing with the essence of the non-disclosure, and I would add that the Parole Board must in particular take account of what, in its view, are the reasons for the non-disclosure. This subjective approach will allow the board to differentiate between circumstances in which, for example, the non-disclosure is due to a prisoner’s mental illness, and cases in which a prisoner makes a deliberate decision not to say where a victim’s remains are located. This subjective approach is fundamental to the proper functioning of the Bill. It ensures that the non-disclosure and the reasons for it—in other words, the failure by the prisoner to say what they did with the victim’s remains—are fully taken into account by the board when it comes to decision making. It is then for the Parole Board, as 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. It reflects the established practice of the Parole Board, as included in its guidance to panel members in 2017, but it goes a step further in placing a legal duty to take a non-disclosure into account. This, as I have already mentioned, is part of our intention to provide a greater degree of reassurance to victims’ families by formally setting out the guidance in law.
I turn now to the second part of the Bill, which deals with the non-disclosure of different types of information by offenders. This has been prompted by the horrific case of Vanessa George. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) in his place. Vanessa George was recently released by the Parole Board after serving 10 years in prison, following conviction for multiple counts of sexual abuse against children at the Plymouth nursery where she worked. She also photographed the abuse of those children in her care and sent the images to other paedophiles. This was a horrific case, which those of us who had young children at the time, me included, remember all too graphically. Vanessa George’s crimes have caused widespread revulsion. Her abuse of the trust placed in her by the families of the children she was meant to care for and protect is shocking. Their pain has been compounded by the fact that the children she photographed cannot be identified from the images, and that she has refused to disclose their identities to the authorities. All the families involved have been left in a truly terrible limbo, not knowing whether their child has been a victim.
Again, we are seeking to respond by stipulating in law that such appalling circumstances must be fully taken into account by the Parole Board when making any decisions on the release of such an offender. Clause 2 of the Bill will amend the release provisions that apply to an extended determinate sentence that has been imposed for the offence of taking or making indecent photographs of children and, as in clause 1, we will place a statutory obligation on the Parole Board to consider the non-disclosure of information about the identity of a child or children featured in such images when the board makes a public protection decision, including one to release the prisoner. The provision will apply when the Parole Board does not know the identity of the child or children in such an image but believes that the prisoner is in a position to disclose it and has chosen not to do so. It is this non-disclosure and the reasons for it, in the view of the Parole Board, that must be taken into account before any release decision is made.
I heartily applaud the Government for taking this important step. Does the Secretary of State agree that we also need to reassure people that when such an individual comes to be sentenced the first place, if they have not at that stage disclosed where the body is or the identity of the victims of their crime, the judge should be able to take that into account in setting the minimum period that they should serve? In other words, will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that the impact does not simply crystallise at the point of release?
My hon. Friend speaks with much experience as a counsel who has prosecuted and defended in cases involving serious offences. He is absolutely right to remind us that it is the function of sentencing either to reflect remorse and give credit for a plea of guilty, which is a mitigating factor, or to reflect an aggravating factor such as the complete non-co-operation that we sometimes see from offenders in this position. Indeed, he knows that that is properly reflected in the sentencing guidelines where applicable, and that in offences of this nature, the court uses schedule 21 as a starting point when it comes to the gradations of seriousness in the offence of murder. This allows judges to move up, as well as down, from that starting point.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a fair point. Is not that reinforced by the fact that the sentencing judge in the Vanessa George case specifically referred to the gravity—“indecency”, I think his phrase was—of her non-disclosure? Is it not only logical that the Parole Board should be able to take equal regard when considering release?
My hon. Friend is quite right. Indeed, that was an aggravating factor that was specifically taken into account by the sentencing judge.
I was drawing a comparison with clause 1. As with clause 1, the provision is already standard Parole Board practice in that panels routinely take such circumstances into account as part of their decision making, but I believe that the issue of non-disclosure of vital information is of such importance—and causes such distress to families and victims—that it must be addressed in statute.
This is a narrow Bill, but it has wide implications. It ensures that a failure or refusal to disclose specific information on the whereabouts of a victim’s body or the identity of child victims of indecent images is always taken into account by the Parole Board. A murder such as that of Helen McCourt and the depraved crimes of Vanessa George are not things that people can easily move on from, but the ability to lay a loved one to rest or to find out for certain whether children were abused may offer the families and young victims themselves an opportunity to find at least some closure and to address the long-lasting effects of such horrific crimes. I very much hope that the Bill will attract support on both sides of the House and can enter the statute book as soon as possible. The acute distress that such cases cause cannot and should not be overlooked.
First, I pay tribute to those who have worked so hard to bring the Bill before Parliament. Marie McCourt’s formidable campaign for Helen’s law in memory of her daughter, Helen McCourt, is the reason we stand here today for the Bill’s Second Reading. Helen McCourt was murdered in 1988. Her body has never been found. Helen’s murderer was released from prison last week and has provided no information about the whereabouts of her body. The unimaginable pain caused to Helen’s family and other victims of such unthinkable crimes is only compounded when they are denied the dignity of laying their loved ones to rest. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) for his support for Helen’s family with his campaign.
Secondly, I would like to highlight the case of a serious sex offender whose non-disclosure of information about their living victims will cause untold distress to a community for years to come. Vanessa George abused multiple children at the Little Ted’s nursery, where she worked in Plymouth. She was sentenced in December 2009 after being charged with seven offences, including sexual assault and making, possessing and distributing indecent images of children. She was given an indeterminate sentence for reasons of public protection to serve a minimum of seven years for her crimes against toddlers and babies.
Vanessa George was released in September 2019 with a number of conditions, but to this day she has not revealed the names of the toddlers and babies she abused. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) campaigned for such offences to be included in the Bill. He also strongly objected to her release from prison, as he believes, rightly, that her non-disclosure shows no remorse. The nursery where she carried out her horrendous crimes, and the wider community that have been so profoundly affected by her actions, fall within my hon. Friend’s constituency. As the identities of all of Vanessa George’s living child victims are not known, they will not be able to access the emotional and psychological support services that they need as a result of the crimes that she committed against them.
Vanessa George’s conditions of release state where she cannot live and work, and that she cannot use the internet, but they are almost impossible to regulate. More profoundly, affected families were not informed that she would be released and only found out through social media and local news. Put simply, victims and their families who have already suffered psychological harm should not be put through the additional emotional trauma caused by offenders who refuse to disclose information about their victims. When offenders do refuse to disclose information, it is right that they are viewed as still posing a threat to the public.
My party supports the Bill as it will put into statute already established guidance for the Parole Board when making decisions about the suitability of serious offenders for release. The Parole Board’s role is to protect the public by carrying out risk assessments on prisoners to decide whether they can be released safely back into the community. The decisions the Parole Board makes can be life-changing for victims and prisoners, so we must never underestimate the gravity of the conclusions that the panel members come to. The Parole Board’s guidance advises panel members to consider any failure or refusal by an offender to disclose the whereabouts of their victim’s remains when assessing suitability for release. It is also established Parole Board practice to consider the non-disclosure of relevant information by offenders in cases involving living victims. That guidance and practice will now become law under the Bill. It does not change the statutory release test, but rather the Parole Board must consider the non-disclosure of information when applying the release test and making its assessments.
The Bill puts into statute two requirements for the Parole Board. The first is in relation to offenders convicted of murder or manslaughter. The Parole Board will be legally required to consider whether the offender has refused to reveal the details about the location of the victim’s body. The second requirement is in relation to offenders convicted of taking or making indecent images of children. The Parole Board will be legally required to consider whether the offender has refused to reveal details about the identities of the victims.
Some will be disappointed and question whether the Bill’s provisions will make any practical difference, given the guidance that is already followed by the Parole Board. Some may believe that we need a policy of no body, no parole, such as that in force in parts of Australia. As many will know, the Bill is a variation on a ten-minute rule Bill tabled in 2016 by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North. His Bill proposed an assumption against eligibility for parole in cases of a convicted offender’s non-disclosure about their victim’s remains. However, it is still right that the Bill is before us and will be put into statute. It has taken over three years, two general elections and two Prime Ministers for the Government to offer their own variation of Helen’s law.
This is a simple Bill, but one that we wholeheartedly welcome. However, as it relates to the release of offenders guilty of some of the most serious crimes imaginable and, according to the Government’s explanatory notes, the consequences of causing additional distress to victims and their families, it is concerning that the Government should have taken so long on such a serious matter. It suggests that the Government still have a long way to go on their commitment to putting victims’ views at the heart of the criminal justice system.
There is much to be done to support victims. Before becoming a shadow Justice Minister, I sat on the Justice Committee for over two years. In 2018, we raised serious questions about the transparency of the Parole Board’s decision making, about the lack of information given to victims and about the lack of emotional and practical support that is available to help victims through the whole process. We raised questions in particular about victims being kept up to date with decisions about the release of prisoners.
The Victims’ Commissioner recently reported on victims’ levels of satisfaction and found they were less satisfied than ever before that their views are heard and taken into consideration. That is no surprise to us, given the distress caused to victims in the cases that I have already spoken about. When victims choose to present their victim support statement to the Parole Board panels, they are agreeing to take part in an incredibly stressful, upsetting and emotional experience as they seek to uphold justice. We raised concerns that not enough is being done to give victims the practical and emotional support they need during these oral hearings. In the two serious and well-known cases that I outlined at the start of my speech, victims have voiced their anxiety, distress and frustration at the parole process.
In another well-known case, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley refused to disclose the location of the body of Keith Bennett, the young boy they murdered in 1964. Keith’s mother, Winnie Johnson, tirelessly made the case to keep Ian Brady from being released into the community, unless he revealed information about the whereabouts of Keith’s body. Winnie was denied the right to give her son a dignified burial and to lay him to rest, and she died before ever finding her son.
I know that society can never fully take away the grief and distress of victims of serious crimes, but the Government should be putting every effort into alleviating some of the pain and making the parole process at least bearable. Years of cuts undermine the hard work of staff across the criminal justice system and specialist support services. As I mentioned, the decisions the Parole Board takes are life-changing for victims. So, to conclude, it is clear that, although Labour Members welcome this Bill, we will not allow the Government to be complacent, either in their duty to protect the public or in their duty to support victims who are already suffering such immeasurable pain.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me so early in this important debate.
I warmly welcome today’s Second Reading and the introduction of a Bill that will place a statutory obligation on the Parole Board to take into account an offender’s non-disclosure of certain information when making decisions about the release from prison of certain prisoners. It is right, proper and decent that the Parole Board should be required to take into account the failure of a prisoner to disclose the whereabouts of a victim’s body, or the identity of a child victim in indecent images.
I want to focus my remarks on non-disclosure about murder victims. The Bill has been a long time coming, and at times I was concerned that we may never see it come forward. It is most welcome because this is not some technical law change; it is about real people, real victims, real families, and real hurt and anguish. This is about Helen McCourt and her family. It is about my constituent Linda Jones and her family, and her murdered daughter, Danielle Jones. It is about all the families who have been denied the opportunity to put to rest a loved one who was killed or murdered in the most distressing way. The number of families involved in the non-disclosure of victims’ bodies may be small, but however small the cohort is I am sure we can all understand the pain and hurt caused by withholding the whereabouts of a loved one’s body. This legislation is welcome, but, unfortunately, Helen’s law comes too late for some.
I believe that Marie McCourt is watching these proceedings. Together with my hon. Friend—I will call him that—the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), she has campaigned for many years for the introduction of such a Bill. They will have to live with the fact that for Marie this comes too late. Despite pressure on the Parole Board, attempts at a judicial review and an application for reconsideration from the Justice Secretary, all of which were unsuccessful, the Parole Board stuck to its original decision and a few days ago Helen McCourt’s killer, Ian Simms, was released, having never disclosed the whereabouts of Helen’s body. I can only imagine how distressing it must be for Marie to hear us talking about those tragic events, and to know that Simms has been released must be heartbreaking. I can only express my personal sorrow that this legislation did not come earlier and that we were not able to stop Simms’ release.
I do hope that Marie will take some comfort from knowing that her dedication to this cause, her steadfast belief that the law should change and her determination not to give up is what has brought us here today, and that it will provide some comfort and hope for other families affected by the cruel and heartless actions of those who refuse to reveal the location of a victim’s remains. On behalf of all the families and victims, I thank you, Marie. I thank you on behalf of Linda Jones, the mother of Danielle Jones, who was last seen alive on 18 June 2001.
First, the police thought that Danielle had been abducted. I do not wish to go into all the details of the case, for fear of causing renewed distress, but I can say that ultimately the investigation became a murder inquiry. On 14 November 2001, Danielle’s uncle, Stuart Campbell, was charged with murder, although her body had not been found. At the ensuing trial, in December 2002, Campbell was found guilty of both abduction and murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, to run concurrently with a 10-year sentence for abduction. The High Court later ruled that Campbell should serve a minimum of 20 years before being considered for parole, meaning that in November 2021, despite never revealing the location of Danielle’s body, Campbell could be considered for release.
The loss of a child—the murder of a child—would be hard enough, but to never have the opportunity to say goodbye and know where they are must be an intolerable burden for Linda and the family to bear. Although this Bill will not bring Danielle back, I hope it will encourage Campbell and others who withhold such information to reconsider their actions and give families some small comfort by revealing the location of victims’ remains. If they do not, I, for one, believe—and I am sure others agree—that parole should be denied. With all the caveats that we have heard from the Justice Secretary, if the victims have to live with the indeterminate pain of not being able to get some form of closure, I see no reason why the perpetrators should be able to move on. This welcome Bill goes some way to achieving that. It will therefore receive my full support, and I hope the support of the whole House, so that Helen’s law can stand as a memorial to all the victims, their families, and, in particular, Marie’s tireless campaign to see justice done.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), who has been with me and other colleagues every step of the way on this campaign in Parliament over the past three years. For Marie McCourt, it has been much longer than that, and I want to acknowledge her. It might seem a strange thing to say when we are discussing what I suspect many would view as a technical Bill, but the genesis of our being here today to debate it on Second Reading is in love—the love of Marie McCourt for her daughter, Helen. I am so proud and pleased to see Marie and her husband, John, and their close family friend Fiona Duffy, who has done so much work in the campaign, here to see this come to fruition today.
I want to pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Justice and his ministerial team for the way in which they have approached this legislation. As I will go on to say, it is not everything that we had wanted or hoped for, down to the crossed t or the dotted i, but he is a man of his word and put a significant amount of effort into ensuring that all the legal complications that were put before us were overcome. I also want to acknowledge the presence of the Home Secretary on the Front Bench, because from the Back Benches she strongly supported our efforts and used her influence on government, and it is good to see her return to her place. I want to thank her for her support for this Bill.
As has been said, Helen McCourt was murdered in my constituency, in Billinge, which lies between St Helens and Wigan, in 1988. The death devastated her family—Marie, her mother, and her brother, Michael—but it was the love they had for Helen and for each other that allowed them to remain together as a family unit. It was the love that the community in Billinge and St Helens have shown for Marie since then, up to this very week, which has been a tremendous testament to the strong sense of solidarity that we have there. Marie’s campaign, driven entirely by Marie, not only attracted half a million signatures from people across the country, to the purpose of what the Bill is today, but meant that many more families, such as the Joneses, and others, knew that they were not alone. They knew that it was not just them, that they were not the only ones facing the horror, trauma and awfulness of not only having a loved one murdered, but then not being able to give their loved one a final resting place. For Marie, that feeling is centred very much around the church in Billinge where, two years ago, for the 30th anniversary of Helen’s death, hundreds of people from across the community came out to show their love, solidarity and support for Marie.
The Bill applies only to England and Wales, but only yesterday in Northern Ireland the murderer of a young woman called Charlotte Murray was sentenced to 16 years. He has not revealed the location of her remains. Her sister Denise very eloquently and profoundly—I do not know where she got the strength from; it was incredible—talked about the especially cruel suffering that families like hers endured. The judge said that the murderer’s not revealing the location of her remains was the most serious aggravating feature of the case. That is why this Government Bill, based on the private Member’s Bill—Helen’s law—that we first brought before the House to unanimous support three years ago, is so vital, not just for the families we know about already, but unfortunately for the families who will face this heinous and terrible scenario in future.
Today is bittersweet because, as many in the House will know, just last week Helen McCourt’s murderer was released from prison. Marie has shown dignity, tenacity and sacrifice in continuing to pursue the campaign throughout the frustrations of Helen’s law falling because the House was prorogued and Parliament then dissolved. The fact that she has stuck with it because she knows that it will help other families is testament to her and to her character.
Ian Simms was released. The Parole Board in my view made an appalling decision that, to his credit, the Secretary of State for Justice gave it the opportunity to rectify. The Parole Board did not do that. Arising from this Bill and that case are wider questions to be asked about the Parole Board and about how victims feel in relation to its conduct vis-à-vis assessing dispassionately the actions of the perpetrator rather than concentrating on the sensitivities of the family. The fact that he was released just days before the 32nd anniversary of Helen’s death was quite frankly incomprehensible to me and caused additional suffering and hurt to the McCourt family.
The reason I took on the campaign in Parliament on Marie’s behalf was not just that she is my constituent and a dear friend, but that it was the right thing to do. This is very simply a case of what is moral and what is just. If a person murders someone, is convicted of that crime and does not reveal or give information as to the whereabouts of their victim’s remains, they should not be entitled to be released from prison, because the families of victims are never released from their sentence, especially because they have no right or recourse to give their loved ones that final place of rest.
Although the Bill is not absolutely a “no body, no parole” law, I understand that it will hugely strengthen the criteria that have already been laid down by the Parole Board. It would ill behove anyone watching this debate or hearing about the sequence of events that led up to Ian Simms’s release not to ensure that this legislation is a hugely significant factor when they look at parole for convicted murderers.
As I did in the discussions on the initial private Member’s Bill, I wish to address the justifiable concerns of those who ask, “What if someone is innocent?” Of course, the Bill will not take away the right of any convicted criminal to appeal his or her sentence. In the case of Helen McCourt’s murder, he did appeal and has done so on multiple occasions. If anything, his guilt, and the proof thereof, has only been enhanced by that process. The Bill will not in any way absolve our judicial system from the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty; all it does is ensure that when someone is convicted of a crime and proven to be guilty, they should be held accountable and made accountable for what they have done.
I thank the Daily Mirror for its support for this campaign over many years, and my local newspaper, the St Helens Star, as well as so many colleagues from all parties who, in discovering that they had in their constituencies families in awful situations similar to that of the McCourts, made a huge effort to support, reach out to and involve those families in an inclusive, passionate and ultimately just campaign.
I am very proud to see the Government bring forward this Bill, which challenges a few orthodoxies. One is that the Government do not listen; the second is that we cannot change the law from the Back Benches; and the third is that one citizen does not have the power, solely based on her love for her daughter, to do right by her memory.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) and his excellent campaign, and echo many of the sentiments that he expressed in the superb speech that he just delivered to the House. I also express my gratitude to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor for all his work and efforts, since his appointment, to focus on victims and to put their rights front and centre. I am also extremely grateful to the Home Secretary for her work that focuses on the rights of victims, which traditionally we perhaps have not put so much at centre stage. The Government do themselves proud by making such a commitment to victims, and the Bill is an example of that desire to put victims front and centre.
I of course welcome the Bill, understand the rationale behind it and support it, but I wish to make some remarks that I should be most grateful if Ministers considered. Those remarks relate to the Parole Board’s role, which the hon. Member for St Helens North alluded to just a short moment ago. The placing of a statutory duty on the Parole Board to ensure that the issue of non-disclosure is properly considered is a positive step and a very welcome gesture, but the Bill will not fundamentally change the Parole Board’s current practice. The families in such cases will still have to rely on the Parole Board’s discretion, and that raises some questions about the Parole Board’s role when it comes to victims’ interests.
We have already heard about concerns relating to the Parole Board’s accountability and transparency, and there are clearly some gaps in its duties relating to responsibilities to victims. In the light of recent high-profile cases—for example, the Worboys case—there has clearly been a loss of public confidence in the Parole Board. There is a real need for the law to be seen to be on the side of victims. Yes, that is exactly what the Bill seeks to achieve, but in relying solely on the Parole Board’s discretion, it does not quite achieve that.
In the Worboys case, the Parole Board decided in January 2018 to release this serial offender early, after only eight years. The then Lord Chancellor was unable to intervene—in fact, he backed the Parole Board’s decision—leaving it to victims to mount a judicial review, which fortunately found that there had been shortcomings in the decision-making process. The courts were therefore able to require the Parole Board to revisit the decision, more information then came to light, and Worboys was sentenced further for additional attacks.
A feature in the Worboys case was the Parole Board’s failure to notify victims of Worboys’s forthcoming release. Another feature was that the Government felt completely powerless to intervene on behalf of victims. The case was not a one-off. The Parole Board is, of course, bound to balance the need to keep the public safe against the human rights law that prevents the arbitrary detention of offenders—that is the Parole Board’s job and its duty, and that is what it does—and the Bill will still allow the Parole Board to release an offender who has failed to disclose the known whereabouts of a victim’s body or failed to disclose the identity of a child victim. The Parole Board is not bound, by this Bill or by any other requirement, to take into consideration the rights of victims. I would very much like Ministers to consider how in future they can look at the Parole Board’s role and augment it to ensure that victims’ rights are up there with the rights of offenders. Clearly, this Bill will still allow a killer, sentenced to life, to be released, even if he has failed to disclose the whereabouts of a victim’s body. Most people would say that such a person may not be properly rehabilitated if he is refusing to co-operate on something as basic as the location of a victim’s remains, or the identity of a child.
The Bill raises issues about the Parole Board that were out there and being discussed, but that were not satisfactorily addressed in the previous Parliament under previous Lord Chancellors. Perhaps, this new Government, with the new approach that has been so much on display with the current Lord Chancellor, could consider how the role of the Parole Board could be looked at in more depth. I know that there was a review of the Parole Board in 2018. One recommendation was that there should be a further, more in-depth review into the Parole Board’s activity to see how legislation might actually make it a more transparent and accountable body. I would very much welcome such a review, especially if we could pursue it in a little more depth. We must continue to ensure that the rights of victims are equal to those of the offenders.
I also wish to touch on another issue around the Parole Board. In Telford, I have been trying to find out whether a serious perpetrator of child sexual exploitation, who was sentenced to a 26-year extended sentence in 2012, has been released. He was eligible for parole seven years later, in December 2019, and I cannot get an answer on whether that has happened. I cannot get an answer, because I do not know his prisoner number. If I am unable to learn whether he has been released, the community I represent is also unable to know. The victims and their families also want to know. We do not want a Parole Board that does not feel that it has any duty to the victims. That is something that this new Government, with their commitment to victims and their families, can do so much about. I know that victims’ families and the wider community would truly appreciate such a step.
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for being late for the start of this debate. The Liberal Democrats also welcome this Bill. It is a good move and we are glad to see it here today. I am pleased that the hon. Member has been talking about the rights of victims in particular. The Bill responds to a number of cases, including that of Vanessa George, a nursery worker who was convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse and of taking and distributing indecent images of children. She then refused to name those victims. Does she agree that we need the Government to take many more steps to provide support and advice to victims of sexual abuse, including by providing sustainable grant funding for specialist independent support services in relation to those who are survivors of violence against women and girls?
I just wish to thank the Secretary of State for this Bill. On the issue of victims of child sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, there is nothing better than holding abusers to account for those whom they have victimised. Forcing them to disclose their victims takes away their power, which is why this is such a welcome Bill. It shows that we are listening to the victims and saying to the perpetrator that they can no longer hold in their heart the secrets of the people that they have abused. I very much welcome that, and I thank the Secretary of State for his boldness in taking this forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I agree with every word that she has said.
I wish to conclude by saying that this is a Government who are on the side of victims and their families, and that this is exactly what this excellent Bill intends to achieve. I urge Ministers on the Front Bench to continue their good work in this arena, and particularly to place some pressure on the Parole Board to focus on the rights of victims. Again, I thank the Government for all their good work.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) who has done so much to champion justice especially for those people who have been abused as children. I welcome the two sets of provisions in the Bill. I will constrain my remarks to Vanessa George and the abuse of babies and toddlers in Plymouth. First, though, let me say how grateful I am to Mr Speaker and to the Opposition for allowing me to speak from the Back Benches instead of from my usual spot on the Front Bench. This is a very important constituency issue for those whom I represent.
Speaking up on behalf of those children who attend Little Ted’s Nursery has been, although very difficult, a privilege and an honour. The experiences of those children have been so utterly harrowing. Because their identities are still unknown and because there is a desire to keep what is left of their childhood innocence intact, not many people have come under the media spotlight and been recognised publicly for what they have done. I want to thank all the families for their courage, their steadfast determination and for their love of their kids. Without them and their work, we would not be here today with this Bill in front of us. I would love to name all of them and give them credit, but I prefer to give them the even better privilege of just knowing that they were listened to and that their children’s innocence is safeguarded.
Ever since the news of Vanessa George’s release came to light, I have been campaigning to keep her behind bars. I am not a hang ‘em and flog ‘em politician. That is not my style. But when it comes to the abuse of babies and toddlers, what Vanessa George did both in terms of the acts she committed and of her continual refusal to name which children she abused and which she did not has cast a whole new light over my views on the Parole Board and her release.
As the Front-Bench teams have touched on, the case around Vanessa George is exceptionally disturbing. The abuse, including the penetration of babies and toddlers and the photographs of that penetration and abuse, is something that is really, really difficult for many of us to understand—how someone could do that and how someone could then share those images. The severity of that case was part of the reason why she was given an indeterminate sentence. It was for reasons of public protection. The indeterminate sentence has somewhat complicated this case along the way due to its particular legal position. When sentencing, the words of the judge to Vanessa George were quite profound. She said:
“I cannot emphasise too strongly that this is not a seven-year sentence. It is emphatically not. It is, in effect, a life sentence. Many, and I suspect everyone deeply affected by your dreadful deeds, will say that would not be a day too long.”
The parents of those babies and toddlers were let down twice: first, by a system that did not protect their children in a place where they should have been safe; and, secondly, as one parent told me through tears, that George was released with the identity of those children still not known.
When we talk about matters such as this, we sometimes talk about the identity of the victims, but, in this case, it is not only the victims, but those young children who could be victims. We do not know precisely which children she abused. I have heard the stories of what happened when this news came to light. Parents gathered in a hall and were separated into two groups. One group was the parents of the children who could have been abused and the other the parents of those who were probably not abused. Hearing about how friends were separated into two groups was just harrowing.
I will return to that in a moment, but there is a point about communication that is also key. Many of the families heard about this on social media. The campaign that the parents and I started after her release called not only for a change in the law, which is what we are seeing today, but for a change in how the Parole Board works. The hon. Member for Telford spoke about the operational side of this, which is also really important. Changing the law to keep people like Vanessa George behind bars is important, but how that is communicated and how parents and victims are involved is especially important.
I want to echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) in thanking the Secretary of State for the way in which he has engaged on this. Much in this place is a disappointment, but in this case the cross-party working and the professional way that not only the Secretary of State but his Ministers engaged with me and with the families’ concerns are truly remarkable. It is an example that shows that cross-party working can deliver results, and I thank the Secretary of State sincerely for that work.
This is a commendable step brought about through Marie McCourt’s tremendous efforts over 32 years and the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn). Does my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) agree that although we still have a long way to go, this is a huge step in the right direction for justice for victims?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and the way in which Ministers have merged two campaign asks in a single piece of natural justice is quite sensible.
I have some concerns. Personally, I think that Vanessa George should still be behind bars. I do not see how a woman who refuses to name the children she abused should be let out and, indeed, I believe that if someone abuses a child, the state should say that for the childhood of that victim the perpetrator should be behind bars. That would give those children the entirety of what remains of their childhood in a protected space away from the accused. The fact that Vanessa George has been released without naming the children she abused shows that something was not right with the law and the experience of many of the parents throughout this process has been to stumble across deficiencies and difficulties in how it has worked. That needs to be addressed.
With all his experience in this tragic case, does the hon. Gentleman believe that the fault lay with inadequate powers for the Parole Board, in that they felt that they had no option, or did the Parole Board have the power not to release Vanessa George and choose not to exercise that power, in which case there is something terribly wrong with the recruitment practices for membership of the Parole Board?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I would not wish to sit on a Parole Board for all the money in the world. It must be an incredibly difficult decision to choose whether or not to keep what are in many cases very serious offenders behind bars. As regards Vanessa George, I think the Parole Board had no choice but to release her, and that is why this change of law is so essential. Indeed, initially I called on the Secretary of State to reopen the investigation to ensure that no stone was left unturned, and no charge was missed that could be put against her to try to keep her behind bars. The dedication and professionalism of Devon and Cornwall police in reopening the file and ensuring that nothing was left in it showed that the system had done as much as it could do, which is why a change in the law is absolutely necessary in ensuring that we can keep someone like Vanessa George behind bars.
I would be grateful if the Minister could address my concerns about how the law will be implemented. Thankfully, there are very few cases like that of Vanessa George and very few cases in which there has been child abuse on this scale where, when it has come to light, the names have been withheld. But there are many more cases in which a charge of taking an indecent image of a child sits alongside other more serious charges, and reading the Bill I am unsure how these provisions will work alongside additional charges when the primary charge is more severe. If the conviction is spent on the first charge, does the ability to withhold information on a subsequent charge of taking indecent images mean that the whole sentence could be locked down?
There is a concern, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), who made a professional debut at the Dispatch Box, about what happens to Vanessa George regarding licence conditions. I am grateful to the Parole Board for setting such comprehensive licence conditions that mean that she cannot go back to Plymouth, that she should never bump into or to be seen near any of the children that she abused, and that she should never be able to access the internet. We can now buy internet-enabled fridges, so there is a real difficulty in enforcing some of the minor points of those conditions. May I ask the Minister whether, if a licence condition is now triggered and she is called to jail, the provisions in the Bill would apply? Or would they fall away, and would these provisions apply only to new offences?
Very briefly, as I am grateful for the time the House has given me to speak, the operation of the experience around Vanessa George has shown that it is not only the deficiency in the words of the law that needs to be looked at but the whole journey for victims, particularly those brave and courageous parents who gave evidence at the parole hearings. I would like the Government to look into introducing a system of video links through which victims—or, in this case, the parents—could give evidence. Going into a jail where the perpetrator of such heinous crimes against their children is being held—especially when that jail is far away from where they live—is a really harrowing experience for parents. The ability to give evidence via video link from the local court is common in the rest of the criminal justice system, but not in Parole Board hearings.
There is also a point about communications. Many of the parents who were involved in the Vanessa George case found out about her release on Facebook or via our local paper. That is not because of a lack of willingness from the authorities to keep those parents’ details. It is that there have been 10 years of changing email addresses and addresses. For some parents, the stress of the abuse even broke the relationship and couples went their separate ways, meaning that the communication point was held by just one person. The process needs to be looked at again. I encourage the Secretary of State to look at the principle that was adopted with the new organ donation law: an opt-out system. This would mean that everyone, especially for these most severe cases, would be automatically included in the system, unless—for very good reasons that I think we can all understand—those people choose to opt out of getting regular updates. Implementing such a system would make a substantial difference.
There is a real opportunity to take some of the lessons learnt from the Vanessa George case and not only to make better law, but to ensure better operation of the Parole Board’s processes. I believe that many of the children she abused still do not know what has happened to them. Many will not know how they feel or that they are feeling the way they do because of their childhood experiences; they will not know about what is going on. Having spoken to many of the parents, I know that there is a daily worry. They ask themselves, “What happens if my child asks me about her?” or “What happens if they ask, ‘Did I go to that nursery?’” These are live questions for many of the parents.
The parents and children I have spoken about this afternoon have a life sentence ahead of them. There is no escape. Just as my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North mentioned that there is no escape for families who cannot have a body to bury, so there is no escape from the realities of this sentence. Now that Vanessa George has been released, she may be watching these proceedings. To her, I say: name those kids and let us give the families the peace that they deserve.
It is an honour and a pleasure to follow so many thoughtful and compassionate speeches, and to see such cross-party consensus. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) for his campaign, and to the Home Secretary and fellow Ministers for bringing the Bill to the House.
On 10 September 2001, I was in New York and had lunch with my wife at the World Trade Centre. The next morning, I saw the twin towers collapse. I was a journalist at The Observer at the time, so while others were fleeing ground zero, I went down there and saw the world’s worst terrorist incident close up. The reason I mention this is that the biggest impact of that terrible tragedy on me was the response of the relatives of victims. From Tuesday lunchtime—a few hours after the attacks—pictures of people started popping up around Manhattan, stuck to lamp posts and railings, with messages asking, “Have you seen this person?” By the evening, whole areas in New York, such as Union Square, were covered with pictures of faces of people who were missing, put up by relatives who were desperately searching for them.
I spoke to many relatives of the missing, as they went from hospital to hospital, visited known favoured places, went to work and called friends to see if they could find their missing husband, wife, brother, sister, son or daughter. There were literally thousands of people, all looking—looking even when, really, there was no longer any hope. The relentless energy they put into it was astonishing. The one thing that they could not do was what they were told to do, which was to stay at home and wait for a phone call. There were thousands of people with missing loved ones, and all their reactions were fundamentally the same. As the hours turned to days and the days turned to weeks, it remained all-consuming: the need to know; the need for some form of closure.
When reading the case of Helen McCourt, this is what I was reminded of. The circumstances are different from what we are discussing today, but this most powerful and natural human reaction—this psychological imperative in response to loss—is what motivates the legislation that is Helen’s law.
As we have heard, on 9 February 1988, Helen McCourt, a 22-year-old insurance clerk, went home after work and got off a bus just 500 yards from her house in Merseyside. She was never seen again. Her body has never been found. She had worked as a barmaid in the local pub, the George and Dragon, which was next to her house and where she was also a regular. The publican, Ian Simms, was convicted of a murder on overwhelming evidence. Her blood and fingerprints were found in his flat above the pub. Part of her earring was found in the boot of his car. He was imprisoned, but has always refused to say where her body is. He has just been released from prison, but is still refusing to say where the body is.
Helen’s mother, Marie McCourt, has campaigned relentlessly since her daughter’s murder. I want to join the tributes that we have already heard to Marie McCourt and to that campaign, without which this legislation would not be here today. Without the body of her daughter, Marie McCourt cannot bury her. She cannot have full closure with a funeral. She cannot visit her daughter’s grave to lay down flowers and to remember her daughter. She cannot properly grieve.
Not knowing the location of the body does not just mean that the victim’s family suffer even more than they already are. For the murderer, not revealing the location of the body means that he retains some control over his victim’s family. Those involved have talked about how it can give the murderer gratification. It certainly shows that the murderer has not properly taken responsibility for his crime or felt remorse. If the murderer is released without revealing the location of the body, it compounds the family’s suffering. The family do not know where their loved one’s body is, and the one person who does know is walking around freely and refusing to say. It is unconscionable. But this is what has now just happened.
Ian Simms may insist that he is innocent, but that is simply not the case: the evidence was utterly conclusive. He is still refusing to let Marie McCourt have a proper funeral for her daughter. That is why I support Helen’s law and why over half a million people signed a petition to for it to be made law. That is why I support this Bill. I regret, as some said earlier, that the Bill did not come in time to stop Ian Simms being released from prison.
The number of cases that the Bill affects may be small, but the injustice it corrects is huge. The issue of murder without a body has a long and difficult history. Courts used to be very reluctant to convict someone of murder when there was no body. But more recently, forensic science has become far more sophisticated, and, as with the case of Helen, courts are now more willing to pass convictions for murder even when there are no bodies. Cases like this are bound to become more frequent.
This Bill does not go as far as some campaigners have called for: an automatic ban on release from prison for murderers who do not reveal where the bodies are. But it does impose a legal requirement on parole boards to take into account the fact that a murderer has not revealed the location of their victim’s body. That sends a very clear message to parole boards of what society and Parliament expect of them. Putting that into law will ensure a more consistent and fairer approach.
I agree with the Government that we cannot automatically impose a ban on the release of murderers who refuse to reveal the location of the body. What happens in cases where the murderer would be willing to reveal the location of body but genuinely does not know where it is? What if the murderer cannot remember, perhaps because of dementia? The variety of cases means that parole boards have to have some discretion, and I think this Bill gets the balance right.
I have always believed that justice needs to focus far more on the rights, wishes and needs of victims, and for that reason I commend this Bill to the House.
It is an honour to take part in this debate, in which I have heard one of the finest speeches since I have been here. The hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) articulated for us all the emotion, the feeling and the motivation behind the long campaign that his constituent has waged on this issue. I have been a criminal defence solicitor for 16 years. This legislation should have been on the statute book 16 years ago: it has been far, far too long. It is reasonable, it is proportionate, it is morally correct, and it is a matter of blinding common sense.
In the short time that I have, I want to make two points and pick up on a comment made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) regarding Vanessa George’s case. Two things dominate criminal proceedings, whether it is a less serious offence or the most serious offence. The first is public protection. Vanessa George could not be released by the Parole Board unless it felt that there was not an issue of public protection. The Parole Board somehow came to the conclusion that a lady who was withholding the names of victims was not a threat to the public. That defies logic and common sense. The Parole Board could have held Vanessa George in custody but chose not to, and these are the issues we are talking about.
Public protection and the protection of victims are central. When I used to stand up in the magistrates court and a defendant pleaded not guilty, I made bail application after bail application, some successful and some not. The reason why some were not successful was that the courts prioritise the interests of victims—they prioritise the public interest, and that is what the Bill does.
The second point I would like to make is about rehabilitation. We can all say warm words about the concept of rehabilitation, but sadly, in my experience— certainly for the vast majority of those whom I represented —I cannot say that rehabilitative sentences worked, nor had the impact of custodial sentences. I agree with the discretion provided for in the Bill. We cannot have a situation where defendants with mental health issues or suchlike can be judged on events that happened a long time ago. But if there is evidence to suggest or to state quite categorically that somebody who has received a substantial custodial term is aware of where their victim’s body is, or is aware of a child victim, it seems obvious to me that that person is not rehabilitated. If they are not rehabilitated, they continue, in my view, to pose a threat to the public. These matters should be at the forefront of the Parole Board’s decision-making process. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) that we should review how the Parole Board discharges its functions, but this is a good Bill and a much needed one, and I am glad to be part of this debate.
I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), who made an incredibly powerful speech, and to the Government for bringing forward this legislation, which is not before time.
I want to make a small point about my constituency. There were more than 1,800 victims of sexual assault at the Medomsley detention centre between the 1960s and 1980s. The perpetrators included a gentleman called Neville Husband, who raped boys every day for 15 years and is now known to have had at least 300 victims locally. While I welcome the Bill, I would like to see it extended beyond the crimes mentioned today for those who do not reveal information about victims. Many of those men died before they could come forward, often by suicide. It is incredibly important to recognise that more cases would benefit from the Parole Board bearing in mind the fact that people are not willing to put on record the crimes they have committed.
I would like to mention other cases in the public domain in which criminals have been convicted but their victims have still not been identified. In the recent case of Reynhard Sinaga, we know that there are more victims of his rapes in Manchester, but they have not been identified, and he has never sought to help the police identify them. It would be right for the Parole Board to take that into account in his case and that of others who have acted in a similar way. Similarly, in the case of John Worboys, which my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) raised, the names of some victims are still not known. In some cases, mementoes are taken from crimes, and often the perpetrator will know the victims but still will not reveal their names.
While I welcome this Bill for victims of paedophilia, murder and manslaughter, I urge the Government in future criminal justice Bills to look at extending this provision to cover other victims.
First, I add my name to the chorus of tributes to Marie McCourt and her family and to Opposition Members who have campaigned for the measure heartily and brilliantly for a number of years.
I welcome the Government’s Bill as part of an overall move to restore faith in the system, and to keep people who are a risk to the public behind bars. We should be in absolutely no doubt that people who refuse to acknowledge where bodies are, or where their victims are, are trying to replay the crime to the families over and over again. It is clear from the speeches that we have heard that that is something that the Parole Board should take into account.
That is possible only because we are talking about extended determinate sentences. The Parole Board is involved with people on those sentences, not with those on standard determinate sentences. There is a universal belief about the importance of remorse in those cases. When standard determinate sentences are used—for example, in rape cases—remorse cannot be taken into account. That ties into conversations that we have had about delegated legislation and other Bills, so I add my name to that of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) in urging that the measure should be extended to other cases.
Time is short, so I shall make three brief points. First, I should like reassurance that offences under clause 2 with regard to indecent images should not ever fall under standard determinate sentences. We have discussed serious offences that are subject to such sentences, and I should be grateful for reassurance from the Minister that that will not be the case. Secondly, on the duty for the Parole Board to take this into account, as numerous pieces of testimony have shown today, the Parole Board is not always as efficient in doing that as it should be. It would be useful if the Department monitored the impact of the Bill on sentencing and the extension of sentences as a result of its introduction. Things that people have been asked to look at do not always translate, so I add my name to those of many other Members in urging that we make sure that that happens.
Finally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who is no longer in his place, said, courts do not take this into account in sentencing as much as they could. It is not necessarily the case that the Bill should address that, but the more that we can do to encourage that and put pressure on courts to do so, the better. No one can argue that people who commit these terrible crimes should not be in prison for a very long time, and the sentences that we have discussed are, in my view, and that of many members of the public, nowhere near long enough. The idea that people who have committed these heinous crimes are walking the streets with no notice for the victims’ families grieves me furiously, as I am sure it does many hon. Members, so reassurance on that would be helpful.
I have two sons and I cannot imagine life without them, let alone losing one to a murderer. When Helen McCourt was murdered in 1988 her family lost a beautiful young lady with her whole life ahead of her. It is impossible to understand the pain that they must have felt all those years ago, but of course, the pain has not stopped, because the cruelty continues. It is indeed cruel not to allow grieving families the opportunity to lay their loved ones to rest. This cruelty must be dealt with.
Helen’s law will mean that the Parole Board must consider this cruelty when reviewing an offender’s suitability for release. A murderer who refuses to reveal the location of a victim’s body is not suitable for release. Parole Board guidance makes it clear that offenders who withhold information may still pose a risk to the public and could therefore be denied parole. Helen’s law will, however, make it a legal requirement for the Parole Board to consider the withholding of information when deciding whether an offender should be released.
Helen’s law follows the tireless campaigning of Marie McCourt, Helen’s mother. I want to praise the bravery and tenacity of Helen’s mum, who through a terrible tragedy has managed to bring about these much-needed changes. Murderers who refuse to disclose where their victims are located only prolong the suffering of innocent families and deny them a proper burial. This legislation will mean that families will not have to endure a lifetime of suffering and not knowing where their loved ones’ remains are. It is said that time is a great healer, but not in cases like this. The only thing that can help to start healing the wounds is to support victims’ families through this Bill.
With the leave of the House, it has been heartening to hear so many thoughtful and passionate contributions to this debate from across the House. One thing that is very clear is the universal support for the Bill to pass through its next stages and become law.
I wish to pick up on some of the points raised in the debate. The hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) gave a moving account of his constituent and her suffering. The facts of that case are very similar to those in the case of Helen McCourt. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) spoke with great passion in a brilliant speech that encapsulated the spirit and essence of why we are here today. The hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) shared her insightful experience of her dealings with the Parole Board and explained why there is a need to reform it. That may be outside the terms of this Bill, but it is also an issue that we take into account.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) spoke with genuine passion about the need to learn from experience and the need for change and why the Bill also encapsulates the abuse of children and the unspeakable and unimaginable pain and suffering when victims are not identified. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) talked about the need for closure, his experience at the twin towers at ground zero and the people who are unable to find closure, and why this Bill is so important to find closure. The hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) spoke about his experience as a criminal lawyer and the need for public protection and rehabilitation. Again, these are areas that need to be impactive.
The hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) spoke about the need for the Bill to be extended to other areas, which was also touched on by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott). That may be an issue that we can come to in Committee, but these are important issues that we need to consider. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) talked about the cruelty that continues if the location of the body is not disclosed. That is the enduring suffering that the families of the victims who are unable to get closure have to experience.
I hope the Minister considers the important points raised in this debate. There is an issue about the Parole Board, the need for communication, the need for regular updates and transparency about the workings of the board. The Bill is right and we need to make sure it passes through all its stages. Knowing where a victim’s remains have been disposed of, or the identity of children who are the subject of indecent images, and not disclosing the information must surely be an indication as to whether a prisoner has truly shown remorse or not. The victims must be properly supported and must be put at the heart of our justice system.
Serious concerns have been raised in the debate, particularly about the transparency of the Parole Board’s decisions, the lack of information communicated to the victims and the lack of support they are given throughout the parole process. However, as has been stated by Members, the Bill is an example of what can be achieved through cross-party co-operation. I very much hope that it is put on to the statute book as soon as possible. Labour will certainly be voting for the Bill today on Second Reading. I very much look forward to taking part in the Committee stage and Third Reading.
We are standing here today because of two incredibly tragic cases: the tragic murder of a wonderful young women, Helen McCourt, 32 years ago at the age of just 22, in the prime of her life with everything to look forward to; and the terrible abuse committed by a nursery teacher, Vanessa George, who abused the trust that was placed in her by parents of tiny children. Yet from these tragic cases, today’s debate shows some good can come. I pay particular tribute to Marie McCourt, who I believe is in the House today, for her tireless and very brave campaigning. I can only imagine the grief and anguish she must have experienced every day that she has campaigned on this case, bringing back, as it must have done, the terrible memory of what happened to Helen. Yet she has persisted and she has persevered, because she has been determined that others will not suffer the terrible grief and anguish that she has. There can be few sacrifices for a parent more poignant than to go through this sort of experience, reliving terrible events, simply to help others avoid the same experience. As a parent myself, I thank her and pay tribute to her for the enormous sacrifice she has shown by campaigning in this way over so very many years. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I would also like to thank the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), her constituency Member of Parliament, who has campaigned with energy, vigour and, I must say, a great deal of charm in making sure that this issue has not been forgotten, despite the political upheaval of the past few years. There may have been general elections, referendums, Dissolutions and Prorogations, but thanks to his hard work, persistence and perseverance this issue has not been forgotten. The Second Reading of the Bill today is testament to his hard work on this topic.
I might say the same thing about the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who has campaigned for his constituents; parents who, for reasons he explained, have not wanted to come forward into the public gaze, not wanting to expose their children to the publicity that would have accompanied them stepping into the limelight. He has spoken for them: he has spoken for those parents and for those children. He has made sure that the Bill encompasses those particular circumstances as well. I thank him and pay tribute to him for the fantastic work he has done in making sure that those children are not forgotten by this House.
As hon. Members have said, the Bill is a testament to the House of Commons and our system at its best. We have worked together. We have co-operated. We have overcome obstacles where we have encountered them. I think everybody who has been involved in this process can be extremely proud of the part they have played in it. I thank the shadow Minister for the support he has shown today in backing the Bill.
I would like to pick up on one or two of the points raised by hon. Members in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) reminded us that victims should be at the heart of the process. I entirely agree. The victims Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), is on the Front Bench listening to the debate, together with the Lord Chancellor. It was only last September that the Government put more money into independent sexual violence advisers, who are there to help victims of sexual violence, and into rape centres. I very much hope there is more the Government can do in the weeks and months ahead.
My hon. Friend the Member for Telford also mentioned the fact that there is still an element of Parole Board discretion, as there has to be, for the reasons the Lord Chancellor clearly outlined in his opening speech. We are very mindful that the operation of the Parole Board does need careful consideration. A number of Members have made reference to that this afternoon. In addition to the review already under way, we will be conducting a root and branch review of the way the Parole Board operates to make sure the points raised by hon. Members are fully taken into account. That follows a relatively recent change whereby the Lord Chancellor can ask the Parole Board to reconsider a decision if he believes that the decision was not right the first time. That was introduced following the John Worboys case. I know that he has used that power a number of times and that it has, on some occasions, been successful. I take on board entirely the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Telford made.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport asked some questions, one of which was: if there is a number of offences that somebody is serving a prison sentence for and only one of the sentences qualifies under clause 2, would the provisions still apply? The answer is that they would still apply, if the qualifying offence is one of a number of qualifying offences. He mentioned such things as video links for parents or families of victims to give evidence at Parole Board hearings, as well as contact details and opt-out, rather than opt-in communications, and those points were extremely well made. I hope that the root-and-branch review will look at them and I thank him for raising them.
The hon. Gentleman asked about recall. The provisions that we are debating apply to the first release that may occur. If a prisoner is released and then recalled, the statutory provisions that we are enacting will not apply, but the Parole Board guidance will, requiring it to take into account the non-disclosure—so the statutory provisions will not apply, but the Parole Board, under its guidelines, will have to account for those matters.
I turn to the questions that were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), who I can see is showing an interest in these topics. Where there is a standard determinate sentence, the provisions of the Bill do not apply because there is no Parole Board decision—release is automatic. Whether a sentence is a standard determinate sentence is a matter for the trial judge at the point of sentencing and it depends on whether the trial judge decides that the offender is dangerous. Clearly, for murder cases, for example, a life sentence with a tariff is mandatory, but with some of the indecent image offences in clause 2, it is conceivable that if a judge did not find that the offender was dangerous, they might hand down a standard determinate sentence. However, that was not the case with Vanessa George—it was an extended determinate sentence—and the expectation is clearly that any serious offender who is dangerous will receive an extended determinate sentence, and therefore, the Bill’s provisions would apply to those offenders.
On standard determinate sentences and releases more generally, the House rightly passed a statutory instrument a week or two ago moving back the automatic release point from half-way to two thirds for longer sentences, of seven years and over. We intend to go further in the sentencing review and Bill later this year to make sure that the most serious offenders serve more of their sentence in prison, respecting the expectation of victims, which so many Members have spoken about this afternoon.
This law places on a statutory footing the fact that the non-disclosure of a victim’s whereabouts or the identity of child victims of indecent imagery must be considered by the Parole Board. That means that there is no discretion for the Parole Board to disregard these considerations—it has to take them into account—and there is no way that anybody, other than this House, can ever change this provision in future. This is a significant step forward for victims. It will make sure that non-disclosure is properly and fully considered by the Parole Board in all circumstances, and it sends a clear message to any prisoner who is currently serving one of these sentences that this House finds it unacceptable that they fail to disclose the whereabouts of a victim’s body or the identity of victims.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) talked about his constituent, Linda Jones, and her daughter, Danielle Jones, who was murdered by Stuart Campbell, who is currently serving a prison sentence. The message that Stuart Campbell and others like him should hear loud and clear, on this day, from this House, is that their failure to disclose is unacceptable and abhorrent and that they should make that disclosure straightaway. We are striking a blow today for the rights of victims and their families, who deserve to be able to move on with their lives following crimes of the most appalling kind. I pay tribute again to the bravery of Marie McCourt in bringing this matter forward over so many years. The Bill is a testament to her bravery and to her daughter, and it is right that we shall know it as Helen’s law.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
PRISONERS (DISCLOSURE OF INFORMATION ABOUT VICTIMS) BILL (PROGRAMME)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7))
That the following provisions shall apply to the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill:
1. The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.
Proceedings in Committee, on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading
2. Proceedings in Committee, any proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative Grand Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings in Committee of the whole House.
3. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings in Committee of the whole House.
4. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House, to any proceedings on Consideration or to other proceedings up to and including Third Reading.
5. Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Maria Caufield.)
Question agreed to.