All 10 contributions to the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020

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Tue 11th Feb 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Commons Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons & 2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons & 2nd reading
Tue 3rd Mar 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Lords Chamber

1st reading (Hansard) & 1st reading (Hansard) & 1st reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 1st reading
Tue 3rd Mar 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Commons Chamber

Committee stage:Committee: 1st sitting & 3rd reading & 3rd reading & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Committee: 1st sitting & Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons & Committee stage & 3rd reading
Tue 28th Apr 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading
Wed 20th May 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee stage:Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords & Committee stage
Wed 1st Jul 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords & Report stage
Tue 8th Sep 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Lords Chamber

3rd reading (Hansard) & 3rd reading (Hansard) & 3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 3rd reading
Tue 6th Oct 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Commons Chamber

Consideration of Lords amendments & Consideration of Lords amendmentsPing Pong & Ping Pong & Ping Pong: House of Commons
Tue 3rd Nov 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments & Consideration of Commons amendmentsPing Pong (Hansard) & Ping Pong (Hansard) & Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords
Wed 4th Nov 2020
Royal Assent
Lords Chamber

Royal Assent & Royal Assent & Royal Assent

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons
Tuesday 11th February 2020

(4 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Second Reading
14:26
Robert Buckland Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Robert Buckland)
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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.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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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.

Robert Buckland Portrait Robert Buckland
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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 distinguish 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.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con)
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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 in 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?

Robert Buckland Portrait Robert Buckland
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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.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill
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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?

Robert Buckland Portrait Robert Buckland
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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.

14:41
Bambos Charalambous Portrait Bambos Charalambous (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)
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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.

14:50
Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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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.

14:57
Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Lab)
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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.

15:05
Lucy Allan Portrait Lucy Allan (Telford) (Con)
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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 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 of 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.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper (St Albans) (LD)
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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 the hon. Lady 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?

Lucy Allan Portrait Lucy Allan
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I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising the rights of victims, particularly of women and girls, in this place.

Joy Morrissey Portrait Joy Morrissey (Beaconsfield) (Con)
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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.

Lucy Allan Portrait Lucy Allan
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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.

15:14
Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op)
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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 restrict 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.

Marie Rimmer Portrait Ms Marie Rimmer (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab)
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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?

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
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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.

Julian Lewis Portrait Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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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 it felt that it 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?

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
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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 incredibly difficult 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 learned 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 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.

15:27
Anthony Browne Portrait Anthony Browne (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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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 her 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.

15:33
James Daly Portrait James Daly (Bury North) (Con)
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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.

15:34
Richard Holden Portrait Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)
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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.

15:40
Laura Trott Portrait Laura Trott (Sevenoaks) (Con)
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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.

15:43
Lee Anderson Portrait Lee Anderson (Ashfield) (Con)
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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.

15:45
Bambos Charalambous Portrait Bambos Charalambous
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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.

15:49
Chris Philp Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Chris Philp)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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 it 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:

Committal

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.

Other proceedings

5. Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Maria Caufield.)

Question agreed to.

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

1st reading & 1st reading (Hansard) & 1st reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 3rd March 2020

(4 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 3 March 2020 - large print version - (3 Mar 2020)
First Reading
16:10
The Bill was brought from the Commons, read a first time and ordered to be printed.

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Committee stage & 3rd reading & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Committee: 1st sitting & Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons
Tuesday 3rd March 2020

(4 years, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 3 March 2020 - large print version - (3 Mar 2020)
Considered in Committee
[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]
Clause 1
Murder or manslaughter: prisoner's non-disclosure of information
14:18
Chris Philp Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Chris Philp)
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I beg to move amendment 1, page 2, line 26, at end insert—

28B Indecent images: prisoner’s non-disclosure of information

(1) The Parole Board must comply with this section when making a public protection decision about a life prisoner if—

(a) the prisoner’s life sentence was passed for—

(i) an offence of taking an indecent photograph of a child, or

(ii) a relevant offence of making an indecent pseudo-photograph of a child;

(b) the Parole Board does not know the identity of the child who is the subject of the relevant indecent image; and

(c) the Parole Board believes that the prisoner has information about the identity of the child who is the subject of the relevant indecent image which the prisoner has not disclosed to the Parole Board (“the prisoner’s non-disclosure”).

(2) When making the public protection decision about the prisoner, the Parole Board must take into account—

(a) the prisoner’s non-disclosure; and

(b) the reasons, in the Parole Board’s view, for the prisoner’s non-disclosure.

(3) This section does not limit the matters which the Parole Board must or may take into account when making a public protection decision.

(4) In subsection (1)(a), the reference to a life sentence includes a life sentence passed before the coming into force of section 1 of the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020.

(5) For the purposes of this section, an offence is an “offence of taking an indecent photograph of a child” if it is—

(a) an offence of taking an indecent photograph of a child under section 1(1)(a) of the Protection of Children Act 1978 (the “England and Wales offence”), or

(b) an offence of taking an indecent photograph of a child under the law of Scotland, Northern Ireland, any of the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man or any other country or territory that corresponds to the England and Wales offence.

(6) For the purposes of this section, an offence is a “relevant offence of making an indecent pseudo-photograph of a child” if—

(a) it is—

(i) an offence under section 1(1)(a) of the Protection of Children Act 1978 of making an indecent pseudo-photograph of a child (the “England and Wales offence”), or

(ii) an offence of making an indecent pseudo-photograph of a child under the law of Scotland, Northern Ireland, any of the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man or any other country or territory that corresponds to the England and Wales offence, and

(b) the Parole Board believes that an image of a real child was or may have been used in the making of the pseudo-photograph;

and in the application of this section to a relevant offence of making an indecent pseudo-photograph of a child, the references in subsection (1)(b) and (c) to the child who is the subject of the relevant indecent image are references to the real child.

(7) In this section,—

“public protection decision”, in relation to a prisoner, means the decision, made under section 28(6)(b) for the purposes of section 28(5), as to whether the Parole Board is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the prisoner should be confined;

“relevant indecent image” means—

(a) the photograph to which an offence of taking an indecent photograph of a child relates, or

(b) the pseudo-photograph to which a relevant offence of making an indecent pseudo-photograph of a child relates.”.

This amends the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 to require the Parole Board to take account of non-disclosures by life prisoners serving sentences for offences relating to indecent photographs or pseudo-photographs of children.

Rosie Winterton Portrait The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Rosie Winterton)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 2.

Clauses 1 to 3 stand part.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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This Bill, which passed its Second Reading a short time ago, seeks to respond to two incredibly tragic cases—the tragic murder of Helen McCourt, which happened 32 years ago, and the terrible abuse committed by nursery teacher Vanessa George, who abused the trust placed in her by the parents of tiny children.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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Unfortunately I have to attend a Delegated Legislation Committee so I will not be able to take part in these proceedings. However, I thank the Minister and his team for introducing this Bill and I remind the House that it goes beyond the two names that he mentioned. My constituent Linda Jones lost her daughter, Danielle Jones, and the whereabouts of the body have never been revealed. While this Bill will help only a small cohort of people, it does go beyond the two names that the Minister mentioned. I welcome the action that the Government are taking and thank them for what they have done.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am very aware that the murderer of his constituent’s daughter, Stuart Campbell, is still in prison. It is to precisely that kind of person that the provisions of the Bill apply, because we want to make sure that when—

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Can I add another name to the list? My constituent Michael O’Leary has been missing since January, suspected to have been murdered, and the individual charged with his murder is refusing to let the police know where the body has been hidden. For the families who are now living through this trauma, the fact that they cannot retrieve the body is hugely traumatic. They wanted me to put on the record today their support for what the Government intend to do.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He powerfully expresses the importance for the families of victims of knowing where the body of their loved one is. When prisoners, including Stuart Campbell, refuse to disclose the whereabouts of a body, it simply adds to the anguish that the families suffer. In the case that the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) mentioned, the individual has been charged but not yet convicted. If that individual is convicted and imprisoned, and the Parole Board comes to consider his release in the future, it will be bound by the provisions of this Bill to take into account the non-disclosure when deciding whether or not to release them.

Having met Marie McCourt, who is Helen McCourt’s mother, the Lord Chancellor and I have heard at first hand just how distressing it is when a prisoner refuses to disclose the whereabouts of the victim’s body. I would like once again to pay particular tribute to Marie McCourt for the campaigning that she has bravely undertaken over these past 32 years since the murder of her daughter Helen.

Related to this is the question of the non-disclosure of the identity of child victims of indecent imagery. I notice that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) is in his place. He has been speaking out for his constituents whose children were victims of Vanessa George, the nursery school teacher who so cruelly abused the very young, very tiny children in her care, and then refused to disclose the identity of her young victims, thereby adding to the distress of the parents, the families and the victims themselves. I again pay tribute to him for the campaigning that he has undertaken on this topic.

Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

How often are the circumstances set out in amendment 1 under new subsection (1)(a)(i) and (ii) actually likely to occur? A life sentence for photographic offences—is that actually likely to happen often?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) has turned to the particulars of the Bill, because I would now like to address those.

There are two substantive clauses in this Bill. Clause 1 relates to life sentences handed down for murder, manslaughter or indecent images. It is worth mentioning, in response to my right hon. Friend’s intervention, that amendment 1 adds into the provisions of this Bill sentences of imprisonment for public protection, which can also be handed down for making indecent images. Clause 2 covers the slightly broader type of sentence—namely, extended determinate sentences, whether they are handed down for manslaughter or the failure to disclose the subject of an indecent image. He is quite right to point out that in cases where there has been a failure to disclose the victim of an indecent image, it is more likely that there will be an extended determinate sentence than a life sentence. Indeed, in the case of Vanessa George, the sentence handed down was an extended determinate sentence, so that would have been caught by clause 2 rather than by clause 1.[Official Report, 4 May 2020, Vol. 675, c. 6MC.]

The two clauses taken together cover the range of sentences that might be handed down—life sentences and imprisonment for public protection under amendment 1, and extended determinate sentences under clause 2. The substance of these two clauses ensures that when the Parole Board considers release and comes to make its decision about dangerousness and public protection, the requirement to take into account non-disclosure, and the reasons, in its view, for that non-disclosure is put on a statutory—a legal—footing. That is enshrined in new section 28A(1)(a) and (b) in clause 1(1) . This means that at no point in the future can the Parole Board ever decide to vary its guidelines to disregard these matters. It will also very much focus the mind of the Parole Board, and send a message to it, that this House—this Parliament—takes non-disclosure very, very seriously and expects that to be fully reflected in release decisions.

I notice that the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) is now in his place. I would like to repeat the tribute I paid earlier to his and his constituent Marie McCourt’s campaigning on this topic over very many years. It is a testament to his perseverance through what has been a turbulent period in British politics that this Bill is now here in Committee. Without his work, this would certainly not have happened.

Amendment 2 to clause 1 is a technical, consequential amendment—a subsequent provision just to make sure that amendment 1 works technically.

I hope that I have explained the operative provisions of this Bill, which will place on a statutory footing the obligation on the Parole Board to consider non-disclosure of victims’ whereabouts or non-disclosure of the identity of a child victim of indecent images. I think the whole House, and indeed all our constituents, will very strongly welcome that. I commend the amendments and the clauses to the Committee.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I rise in support of the amendments that the Minister has just set out to this very important Bill.

The crimes that Vanessa George committed against the babies and toddlers in the constituency I represent at Little Ted’s nursery were simply disgusting. They will be abhorred by any right-minded person. It does not need a partisan label—a party political badge—to know that this is a good piece of natural justice: a law that should be supported by everyone of all parties.

I set out the particular case around Vanessa George on Second Reading, but on behalf of the families—those who were able to come forward—I want to thank the Minister and his ministerial colleagues for the way they have brought forward this campaign. It would be very easy for a Government to ignore a campaign by an Opposition MP, and I am grateful to Ministers for not doing that but instead looking at the victims and the severity of the crimes involved, and acting accordingly by doing what is right.

Vanessa George still shows no remorse for the crimes that she committed and no remorse for the fact that she still refuses to name the children she abused. We do not know how many children at Little Ted’s nursery she did abuse, because she has not told anyone. We know how many children were there, and we have a good idea about which children might have been exposed to her cruel and evil crimes. Those children are now fast-emerging young people who are coming to terms with their place in the world and the way that they feel. The crimes that were committed against them by Vanessa George as children will have long-lasting psychological, and in some cases physical, consequences for them in future. A child not knowing whether they were a victim themselves not only deprives the families of the peace of mind of knowing but deprives that child of the help and support they might otherwise have been able to access. Uncertainty is a prison that those children and their families will be in for quite some time.

The right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) raised an issue in relation to life sentences. The families do not mind what the sentence is. Anyone who declines to name the children they abuse should not be eligible for early release. In particular, on the question whether a life sentence is passed down for an offence of taking an indecent image of a child or a relevant offence of making an indecent pseudo image of a child, I would be grateful if the Minister could set out whether that also applies to contemporaneous charges. In many cases, it is very unlikely that a life sentence would be passed down just for taking those images, but it might be passed down for the indecent images and the acts of abuse themselves, so would that collection of charges fall under the description in amendment 1 under new subsection 28B (1)(a)(i) and (ii)?

14:29
It is really important that, on behalf of the families, I try to get as robust a Bill as possible. Their experience of not knowing, of going to the nursery and of being told, in the first instance, that their child—a baby or a toddler —may have been abused and that the images may have been shared with a network of paedophiles, as well as the crushing uncertainty about whether those images might still be on a paedophile’s hard drive somewhere or in some rotten corner of the dark web, is a demon that sits with these families for quite some time, so anything we can do to make the Bill as robust as we can would be welcome.
Vanessa George received a novel sentence at the time for her crimes. That indeterminate sentence complicated the case, and the Parole Board addressed that when it tried to make its judgment. This legislation will go a long way towards preventing the early release of someone such as Vanessa George in the future. It also sends a clear message to those who abuse children that if they refuse to name the children, they will not be released early. In fact, that additional reticence—that hesitation or refusal to come forward with information—will be regarded negatively by the Parole Board.
On behalf of all the families, I want to put on record their thanks for the swift action Ministers have taken. Parliament and politics often get a bad name, but Ministers have responded swiftly and in such a decent way to a campaign that was so important to families in Plymouth. I thank them, and I encourage Members to ensure that the Bill moves swiftly through the rest of its stages in Parliament.
Kieran Mullan Portrait Dr Kieran Mullan (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Progress should always be welcomed, and the Bill is progress. It sends a clear message to Parole Board members about the Government’s priorities. Our priority should be to have a laser-like focus on the victims of crime and their families.

Of all the things that can happen to us, having a close friend or family member murdered or fall victim to a paedophile is one of the greatest possible injustices. Through the police, the courts and the wider justice system, ordinary people should be able to secure redress for injustice. That is why we have these systems and why they have been introduced and built on over time. Otherwise, ordinary people would have no alternative but to take matters into their own hands.

Today, we are trying to deliver improved redress in at least one regard. We are aiming to prevent the truly horrendous injustice of a victim’s family having to watch as the person who killed their loved one walks away from prison having not revealed the location of their relative’s body. We are also aiming to prevent paedophiles from leaving their victims unidentified, with all the uncertainty and distress that that might cause families whose children were within the reach of these people.

To ensure that we truly honour the memory of Helen and others, it is vital that we ensure that the changes and the progress we are making in the House today make a difference in the real world for victims of crime and their families. That is how we ensure that campaigners such as Marie are truly able to think about their lost relatives and to take at least some comfort from the fact that their deaths have led to something positive.

Will any guidance be issued to the Parole Board as to how the new statutory duty is expected to be given consideration and what weight it is likely to carry? Will the Minister outline the expected impact this change in law will have? How confident can we be that people who, prior to this law, would have been released will now not be?

I would ask that we keep an open mind on this issue. Today’s legislation is welcome and positive, but we need to make sure that, in reality, it secures the redress that victims and their families rightly seek.

Bambos Charalambous Portrait Bambos Charalambous (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As I stated on Second Reading, the Opposition will support the Bill. It rightly addresses the situation of prisoners who have been convicted of murder or manslaughter who then refuse to reveal the identity or the whereabouts of the body, and also the situation of those who have been convicted of taking or making indecent images of children and refuse to identify their victims. Under the Bill, the non-disclosure in both cases is to be formally considered by the Parole Board when someone is being considered for release on licence.

The Bill is the result, first, of Helen’s law, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn). My hon. Friend’s constituent Helen McCourt was murdered, and her mother has led the campaign for Helen’s law. To this day, Helen’s murderer refuses to disclose the whereabouts of her body. That compounds the family’s grief and denies them the right to lay their loved one to rest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) has also campaigned for the provisions in the Bill. The shocking case of the nursery assistant Vanessa George shook the community in his constituency. Vanessa George took indecent images of children at the nursery where she worked and was subsequently convicted, but she still refuses to identify the children.

I cannot praise enough the determination and tenacity of Marie McCourt, the mother of Helen McCourt, who fought and lobbied so hard to get this Bill to become law, as it surely now will do, or the community in Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, which also campaigned hard to get the Bill on the statute book in relation to the images of the children.

The Government have done a good job in drafting the Bill and placing the requirement in it on the Parole Board. The Parole Board rightly owes a duty to victims. Reliving the trauma and horror of a crime when giving a statement can sometimes be distressing and overwhelming for victims, and they should not have to go through that trauma. If the Parole Board was minded to release a prisoner because they were no longer regarded as a threat to the public, the only option open to victims to challenge that view would be to seek a reconsideration of the Parole Board decision. The Bill puts in an additional safeguard in these exceptional cases; we are not talking about a huge number of cases, and the changes will very likely impact only a handful of cases each year, but the suffering caused is immeasurable for the families and loved ones affected.

There cannot be many people who do not agree with the measures in the Bill. It is clear from the speeches on Second Reading and the comments made in this Committee stage that the Bill has cross-party support. To condemn the relatives of victims to further unnecessary anguish is truly appalling and should not go unpunished. This Bill is short—only three clauses—but by amending the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 and the Criminal Justice Act 2003, it allows for non-disclosure to be formally considered when deciding whether to release a prisoner on licence. That helps to avoid the additional pain and suffering of having to draft a victim statement. The Minister eloquently gave the details of the two amendments the Government have tabled, so I will not repeat or explain them, but both have the support of the Opposition.

As the prevalence of image sharing increases, it will be much easier for the identities of child victims of indecent images to be hidden via various software, and there is a real possibility that there could be more cases of indecent images of unknown child victims. Sentencing guidelines must keep pace with new developments in technology and the regulation of associated offences that we are yet to identify. I therefore await with interest the Government’s White Paper on sentencing, which is due later this year.

I hope the Government will tighten up the victims code and think about introducing a victims law. For now, however, the Opposition are content to support the Bill and the two Government amendments and to help Helen’s law become an Act of Parliament.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the shadow Minister for the constructive tone in which he has engaged with the Bill in general and for his remarks a few moments ago. To pick up on his comments on the sentencing White Paper, we do indeed intend to bring it forward later this calendar year. Hopefully, we can look at a much wider range of issues connected with sentencing to make sure that the punishment always fits the crime. In relation to a victims Bill, it is our intention to legislate in that area later in the current Session.

I want to reassure the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on both the points he raised. Where there is a collection of offences, some of which come within the scope of the Bill but others of which do not, this Bill will be engaged when release comes to be considered, even if only one of the offences falls within its scope. His constituents can be reassured that the Bill will apply in those circumstances.

All sentence types are covered. Clause 1, which amends section 28 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, will cover life sentences and, as amended, sentences for imprisonment for public protection. Clause 2, which amends the Criminal Justice Act 2003, covers extended determinate sentences, so all sentence types are covered by this Bill, as amended. I can therefore give the hon. Gentleman the categorical assurance he requested.

In relation to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), I expect the Parole Board to give significant weight to non-disclosure. The fact that Parliament has gone as far as legislating in this area will send an extremely clear message to the people taking these decisions, and I expect this to weigh heavily on the mind of Parole Board members when they take these decisions. A wider review into the operation of the Parole Board will commence in due course—the so-called root-and-branch review announced in the manifesto last December—and there will be an opportunity for my hon. Friend and all Members to contribute to that discussion.

Putting on the face of the Bill the requirement to take non-disclosure into account means that it can never be changed, other than by a subsequent Act of Parliament. It will also send a message to Parole Board members about how important these issues are for Members of this House, for the reasons described today. I commend the amendments and clauses to the House.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Amendment made: 2, in clause 1, page 2, line 30, leave out “Section 28A contains” and insert “Sections 28A and 28B contain”.—(Chris Philp.)

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill, as amended, reported.

Bill, as amended in the Committee, considered.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There are no amendments on consideration.

As no non-Government amendments have been made to the Bill, I am signing a certificate on the basis of the provisional certificate issued with the selection list. As indicated in that provisional certificate, I certify that the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill relates exclusively to England and Wales on matters within devolved legislative competence, under Standing Order No. 83J.

Does the Minister intend to move a consent motion in the Legislative Grand Committee?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

indicated assent.

The House forthwith resolved itself into the Legislative Grand Committee (England and Wales) (Standing Order No. 83M).

[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]

14:43
Rosie Winterton Portrait The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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I remind hon. Members that, if there is a Division, only Members representing constituencies in England and Wales may vote.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That the Legislative Grand Committee (England and Wales) consents to the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill, as amended in Committee and not amended on Report.—(Chris Philp.)

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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I want to start by recognising the gravity of the issues that the Bill deals with and being extremely clear that it is not the intention of the Scottish National party in any way to make light of the legislation or diminish the seriousness with which consideration of it has been conducted so far. I want to offer our condolences to all the victims who have been described and congratulate the campaigners who have got us this far.

But we cannot allow a sitting of the Legislative Grand Committee (England and Wales)—what we refer to as the English Parliament—to go past completely unnoticed. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) said that he wants to see this legislation move as quickly as possible, as do I, yet here we are going through procedures that have been objected to several times and have proven themselves completely unnecessary, even with the amendments moved by the Government today.

I welcome the announcement you made earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the practice of suspending the House for a period while certifications are made has been deemed by Mr Speaker today to no longer be necessary in these kinds of circumstances, where the consensus is clear. I hope that that represents an evolution of the English votes for English laws process and that such an evolution will continue.

14:45
Pete Wishart Portrait Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is right to recognise the gravity of the Bill, but he is also right that we cannot let this pass without recognising the absurdity of the EVEL process. It is good to have these reforms, but the only reform required when it comes to English votes for English laws is its abolition, to get rid of this nonsense that we have to subject ourselves to on an ongoing basis. Does he agree that we have to look seriously at what progress we can make on abandoning the idea of having two classes of Members of Parliament in this House?

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes; my hon. Friend is right. The point that we have always made is that it should certainly not be for the Government, and it should not have to fall to the Chair either, to decide what matters are or are not important to our constituents. It should be for those of us in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Minister has moved a consent motion, and it will be for the Committee to decide whether to consent, but I hope that we do not have to find ourselves in this situation too often in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

The occupant of the Chair left the Chair to report the decision of the Committee (Standing Order No. 83M(6)).

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair; decision reported.

Third Reading

14:44
Robert Buckland Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Robert Buckland)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

As Members know, the Bill ensures that the non-disclosure of information about a victim’s remains or their identity, and the reasons for that non-disclosure, are fully considered by the Parole Board when making a release decision. It is then for the Parole Board, which is 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. The Bill reflects the established practice of the Parole Board, as included in its guidance to panel members in 2017, but it goes an important step further in placing a legal duty to take the non-disclosure into account. This is part of the Government’s intention to provide a greater degree of reassurance to victims’ families by formally setting out that guidance in law.

This important Bill responds directly to real-life issues that we know have caused and continue to cause immense distress to families of victims of serious crimes. I see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn)—I will call him my hon. Friend on this occasion—who has assiduously campaigned with the McCourt family to ensure that today has become a reality. I pay tribute to him for that, as I did on Second Reading. I also see the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who brought to bear his grave concerns relating to a case in his constituency, which resulted in the expansion of the Bill to encompass the horrendous circumstances in which many of his constituents tragically found themselves as a result of material non-co-operation. I pay tribute to them, and indeed to all hon. Members who over the past few years have campaigned hard to make sure that this Bill was introduced.

It is imperative that we protect the public from potentially dangerous offenders. Those offenders who do not disclose the whereabouts of a victim’s remains or the identity of the victims in indecent images must be thoroughly assessed, and the non-disclosure must always be taken into account. We can all agree about the importance of stipulating in statute that appalling circumstances such as those addressed in this Bill must be fully taken into account by the Parole Board when making any decisions on the release of such an offender. It is clearly in the public interest that all elements of a prisoner’s release are given consideration, and in turn, it is in the interests of the Parole Board to be able to rely on statutory provision about always considering the relevant non-disclosure of information in its release assessments.

I extend my thanks to everybody who has helped to prepare this Bill, particularly the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), for his hard and detailed work, and the Bill team for their strenuous efforts. Most importantly, to all those families affected by despicable crimes such as these, I pay warm and heartfelt tribute. I hope they will be able to take some comfort from knowing that their dedication provides some hope for other families affected by the cruel and heartless actions of those who refuse to disclose vital information. On behalf of all those families and victims, I thank you. I appreciate the positive engagement with and cross-party support for the principles in this Bill, and the Department’s help with the progress that we have made. I commend this Bill to the House.

14:51
Bambos Charalambous Portrait Bambos Charalambous
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would like to join the Secretary of State in thanking all hon. Members for their contributions and for the tone they have set throughout the Second Reading and Committee stages of this debate.

I again give my thanks to Marie McCourt for her tireless work in making sure that this Bill—Helen’s law—has come before Parliament. Its first form was a private Member’s Bill brought in by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), and a version of that Bill has now been picked up by the Government, taking us to where we are now. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for leading the community campaign to incorporate the offences regarding indecent images in this Bill. This campaign followed the conviction of Vanessa George, who refused to disclose the identities of the children she abused.

There can be few things worse than learning of the murder of a close relative and having to endure the living hell of how it happened. There is also the trauma of the trial and the painstaking detail that is raked over to ensure a conviction. I doubt that anyone grieving will be consoled by a guilty verdict and justice being done, although it may help in the coping process, but the never-ending turmoil of not having a body to lay to rest is one of the cruellest forms of emotional torture.

The body of Helen McCourt, murdered in 1988, has never been found. Her killer, who was released from prison four weeks ago, has never disclosed the whereabouts of her body. The pain and suffering of Helen’s family sadly goes on, and if it is any comfort to Marie McCourt, this Bill passing into law will be a fitting tribute to her campaign in her daughter’s memory. It is equally distressing not knowing if your child has been the victim of the sharing of indecent images. The appalling abuse perpetrated by Vanessa George has been compounded by her refusal to disclose which of the children in her care were the subjects of indecent images.

Both Ian Simms, who was given a life sentence for the murder of Helen McCourt, and Vanessa George, who was convicted for sharing images of children at the nursery where she worked, have now been released on licence by the Parole Board. The unbearable suffering that Ian Simms and Vanessa George have caused, and continue to cause by the nondisclosure of information about their victims, endures.

At present, the only way a victim could have made their views known about a potential release on licence by the Parole Board would have been by making a witness statement to the Parole Board or seeking a reconsideration of the decision within 21 days. Both these avenues would require the victims to be proactive, invariably having to relive the distressing experience of the crime and to justify their reasons for objecting to the release. This Bill makes it a requirement for the Parole Board, for the offences stated in this Bill, to take into account the prisoner’s conduct in not disclosing information about victims and in prolonging the pain and suffering.

While a duty is owed to victims by the Parole Board, it does not go far enough in my view, and the victims code certainly needs revamping. The Parole Board’s decisions can have a profound effect on victims and prisoners alike, and no decision should be taken lightly. The fact that the Parole Board can place conditions on the release of a prisoner does not in my view go far enough, and it cannot address wilful refusal in relation to the non-disclosure of information. Let us be clear: the Bill does not extend a prisoner’s sentence, but it makes it clear that non-disclosure must be a factor in assessing the fitness of a prisoner to be released and their potential risk to the public.

In Committee and on Second Reading, hon. Members told us of their own experiences and of cases involving their constituents where the pain and suffering had been exacerbated by the conduct of the prisoner or their experience of dealing with the Parole Board. There are still issues to be resolved regarding the Parole Board, such as the transparency of its decision making, the lack of information given to victims, the lack of emotional and practical support available to victims throughout the whole process, and even keeping people up to date with decisions about a prisoner’s release. There are many areas of improvement that need to be looked at in relation to how victims are treated. Although they are outside the scope of this Bill, they are matters that need to be viewed in tandem with the Bill.

The debate and discussion we have had on this Bill shows Parliament at its best—when we are working together with a united purpose for a common good. While this Bill will not assist us in finding the whereabouts of Helen McCourt’s body or identifying the images of the children abused by Vanessa George, the measures in this Bill will, I hope, provide added pressure on prisoners to think again when refusing to disclose information about their victims. The Opposition will be supporting this Bill.

14:56
Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

People in places like St Helens—good, decent, honest, hard-working people—expect us in this place to do what is right by them, to work in the national interest and to do together what is patently obviously right. I think, therefore, that this is a good day for the House, and a day that so many victims across the country will recognise as one on which the Government have played their role, working with the Opposition, in doing something that will alleviate a great deal of the pain and suffering felt by victims in the cases that have been referenced throughout the progress of this Bill through the House.

In the case of my constituent Marie McCourt, that is of course the murder of her daughter Helen, and today is bitter-sweet. She has been a quiet, dignified, but very tenacious champion, and I am sure the Secretary of State, the Minister and their predecessors can attest to the strength of her determination on this, but it is bitter-sweet because the murderer of her daughter has already been released. However, as I said on Second Reading, it is a testament to the character of Marie McCourt that her campaign continued, despite the knowledge that that was likely to happen, so that other families would not have to suffer.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will, of course.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I say “hon. Friend” because on this issue we have worked closely together. Will he accept my thanks for his leadership on this issue, for working so hard to make sure that this did not fall off the agenda and for making sure that today did actually happen? On behalf of my constituent Linda Jones, Marie McCourt and the others, we are grateful to the House for bringing this forward.

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much not just for his words in the Chamber today, but for the co-operation we have had over the last three or four years in continuing to ensure that this agenda was to the fore. I also recognise that officials from the Department have not just delivered on this Bill and spent painstaking hours going through all the legalese required, but have met me and the family over the course of many years.

I pay particular tribute to the Secretary of State and the Minister. They made a promise to the McCourt family, and they kept it. They consistently and continually worked with the family, and they showed a great deal of empathy and support. They did much behind the scenes to ensure that Marie, John, Michael, and all the McCourt family felt sure that this Bill would be passed, as it has been. In Northern Ireland, Charlotte Murray’s family are hoping to change the law there, and in Scotland the family of Suzanne Pilley hope to do the same. This is unfinished business in a legislative sense for the rest of the UK, and we hope that those legislatures will act accordingly.

For 31 years, the community in Billinge has prayed at St Mary’s Catholic church for Helen McCourt and the return of her remains, and those prayers continue. I know that Members across the House send their sympathy and solidarity to Marie McCourt, on a day on which she can rightly take pride, although that, of course, does not return the remains of her beloved Helen.

Question put and agreed to,

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

2nd reading & 2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 28th April 2020

(4 years ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 3 March 2020 - large print version - (3 Mar 2020)
Second Reading
15:03
Moved by
Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Keen of Elie) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, this Bill will stipulate in statute an obligation on the Parole Board to ensure that the non-disclosure of information is always considered when making a release assessment. The Bill will put established practice on a statutory footing and respond directly to real-life issues that have caused immense pain to the families of victims of serious crimes.

The Bill, sometimes referred to as “Helen’s Law”, is a result of the work of Helen’s mother, Marie McCourt, who has campaigned tirelessly for this change. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to Mrs McCourt’s resolve. It is in large part thanks to her that we have reached this point.

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, Helen disappeared while on her way home from work. The following year, Ian Simms was convicted of Helen’s murder and ordered to serve a minimum of 16 years in prison. Ian Simms has since been released but has never revealed where Helen’s body is and, despite extensive searches, her remains have never been found. This has compounded the unimaginable suffering of the McCourt family.

We will all appreciate the closure and comfort that can come from laying a loved one to rest. The McCourt family, and others like them, have been wilfully and cruelly denied this comfort. Mrs McCourt has campaigned for a change in the law to represent this, to acknowledge the added distress this causes for the families of victims, and there is wide public support for such a change.

I would like to take a moment to reflect on another case which has shaped the development of the Bill. In 2009, Vanessa George was convicted for multiple counts of sexual abuse against children at the Plymouth nursery where she worked. She did not stop at the abuse of the children but photographed these horrendous acts in order to share them with other depraved individuals. Her abuse of the trust placed in her by the families of the children she was meant to care for and protect is truly shocking.

The pain felt by the victims and their families has been compounded by the fact that the children she photographed cannot be identified from the images she produced, and she has hitherto refused to disclose their identities. Many families who placed their trust in Vanessa George do not know, and may never know, if their children fell victim to her cruelty. She was released by the Parole Board after serving 10 years in prison.

When considering the release of an offender like Vanessa George or Ian Simms, the Parole Board must always take into account this withholding of such significant information. That is why we are legislating, through this Bill, to directly address this current gap, and to seek to bring some small solace to victims and families.

Clause 1 will amend the release provisions that apply to life sentences for murder and manslaughter, and sentences of imprisonment for public protection for manslaughter and the offence of taking or making indecent images of children. This places a statutory obligation upon the Parole Board to consider a non-disclosure of information about a victim’s remains or the identity of a victim in an indecent image when making a public protection decision, being a decision to release, about such a prisoner.

Clause 2 of the Bill effectively replicates what Clause 1 achieves but in relation to the release provisions that apply to an extended determinate sentence which has been imposed for manslaughter or the offence of taking or making indecent photographs of children. Functioning in the same way as Clause 1, it will place a statutory obligation on the Parole Board to consider the non-disclosure of information about the location of a victim’s remains or the identities of a child or children featured in indecent images when making a public protection decision, including a decision to release.

In order for the Bill to apply, the Parole Board must not know the location of a victim’s remains or the identity of a victim in an indecent image but must believe that the prisoner has information about this that they have not disclosed to the board. 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.

Furthermore, the Parole Board must particularly take account of what, in its view, are the reasons for this non-disclosure. This subjective approach will enable the board to differentiate between circumstances such as when, for example, the non-disclosure is due to a prisoner’s mental illness, and cases when a prisoner makes a deliberate decision not to say where a victim’s remains are located.

Subjectivity is fundamental to the proper functioning of the Bill. It is for the Parole Board, as an independent, court-like 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 the community. The Bill reflects the established practice of the Parole Board but goes a step further and puts a legal duty on the board to take the non-disclosure into account.

While, as I have set out, the measures in this Bill may seem relatively small or technical, I cannot stress enough the importance of this Bill and the support it has from victims and families. The crimes of the likes of Ian Simms and Vanessa George are harrowing, and families affected by these crimes deserve the peace of some element of closure, whether that is the opportunity to lay a loved one to rest, or the certainty of whether or not they were abused. This Bill offers families and victims a chance to achieve that.

I hope that the “Helen’s Law” Bill will attract support from all sides of the House and enter into the statute book as soon as possible. I beg to move.

15:10
Baroness Kennedy of Cradley Portrait Baroness Kennedy of Cradley (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I add my voice to the tributes paid to Marie McCourt. Her campaign to secure this legislation was formidable and supported by her local Member of Parliament, my honourable friend the Member for St Helens North, whose 10-minute rule Bill tabled in support of Marie’s campaign back in 2016 informed the legislation we have before us today.

The Bill has been a long time coming—in the other place it was noted that 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—but thanks to the campaigners’ persistence and the Government’s constructive approach to this legislation, the Bill is now before us. It rightly has an enormous amount of cross-party support.

The first part of the Bill, introducing a new statutory obligation on the Parole Board to consider the non-disclosure of information about a victim’s remains when making a public protection decision, is a welcome step forward. It is not a “no body, no parole” Bill, so it is not everything the campaigners wanted, but it sends a clear message to Parole Board panels that the Government’s view is that a refusal to give information that can ease a relative’s pain, such as non-disclosure of remains, should be a significant factor in their decision-making.

In taking this legislation forward in practice, will guidance be issued to Parole Board panels on this new duty? For this legislation to work, it is vital that Parole Board panels view this new duty as a critical part of the eligibility criteria and not as a peripheral addition. How will the Government ensure that this happens? Even though it is not a “no body, no parole” Bill, that is the aim of this legislation, so will the impact of the legislation be subject to its own review?

I move briefly now to the second case that has shaped the Bill and to which the Minister referred: the horrific crimes of Vanessa George, who was convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse against children at the Plymouth nursery where she worked. I pay tribute to my honourable friend the Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, who has spoken out on behalf of the distressed parents of George’s child victims. To protect their children, the parents rightly wanted to stay private, so the support of their local MP has been critical, especially as he has ensured that this Bill includes 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.

It is tragic that this legislation is not in place in time to deliver for the victims in the George case. She has refused to disclose to the authorities the identities of the children she photographed, but she has been released, so already distressed parents not knowing whether their children were abused will continue to live in fear, pain and concern for their children. At this point, we must acknowledge that for Marie McCourt, too, the timing of this Bill is heartbreaking, as Helen’s murderer has been released, as the Minister said, without providing information on her whereabouts.

It would be remiss not to mention in this Second Reading that much more needs to be done to support victims in the parole process. Can the Government give assurances that the needs and experiences of the victims will be put at the heart of the root and branch review of the parole system which the Government have promised?

The way in which victims give evidence to the Parole Board needs to be modernised. It is daunting for a victim or their family member to travel, sometimes hundreds of miles, to give evidence in the prison holding the abuser or murderer in question. Making victims go through the necessary security to read out their statement seems an undesirable way to treat them. Can the use of video conferencing from a local court be adopted as standard practice for Parole Board panels?

There is also a lack of support and help for victims in compiling and presenting their evidence to Parole Board panels, which should be addressed. Support and clear advice in plain English is particularly important if you are a young person having to give evidence.

Sadly, many of the parents involved in the George case found out about her release on Facebook or via the local paper. I am sure every effort was made to contact the parents in this instance, but in general the change of contact details over time and the opt-in approach of the victim contact scheme cause issues. Again, technology should be developed to modernise this scheme so that victims can opt in and opt out at any time and update their contact details easily. The Government should also consider changing the law so that victims are automatically included in the scheme unless they opt out. Will the Government consider that option?

Finally, measures to increase the transparency of how decisions are made and how the Parole Board works are to be welcomed. In this area, simple changes can take place without the need to wait for a review or legislation. For example, victims should be given the high-level summaries of decisions without having to apply for them.

Today’s Bill is a welcome and positive step in the right direction, but we have to do more to support victims in the parole process, and put mechanisms in place to make sure that the aim of the Bill becomes a reality and gives victims and their families the information they rightly seek.

15:16
Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull (CB)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, it is a privilege to speak in support of a Bill that is perhaps largely technical but one that has been shaped by and responds to the most profound and challenging of human experiences. I commend the Government for their manifesto commitment to the Bill and for progressing it to this stage, despite the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, I pay tribute to honourable Members in the other place who have championed its cause over several years, in particular the Member for St Helens North, Conor McGinn, and the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, Luke Pollard. Despite elections, changes of leadership, Brexit, Dissolutions and Prorogations, they have not allowed this issue to be sidelined.

I join in the tributes, which I know will continue, to Marie McCourt, whose tireless campaigning not only attracted nationwide support, but, as importantly, helped other families in similar situations to her own to realise that they were not alone. Her loss was unfathomable; her courage, tenacity and resolve over many decades is remarkable.

The Bill will be vital in helping bereaved families come to terms with their grief and to deal with what for most people will, mercifully, remain unimaginable. It will also be important in restating the Government’s commitment to the safety of our communities and their willingness to take steps, as and when they are necessary, to evolve institutions whose core function is to protect society.

The Bill enshrines in law what is already the practice in parole boards, which is to fully consider the failure by the prisoner to disclose information about the victim’s remains, or the identity of child victims of indecent imagery. Given this, on the surface it might appear to change little. However, it will make decisions more consistent and fair across the system. Importantly, it responds to the pleas of victims’ families, demonstrating that they have been heard. It means that the Parole Board no longer has discretion to disregard non-disclosure in making its decisions—a distinct change, and one that Parliament alone will have the power to reverse.

The Bill can also be seen as part of a wider and necessary process to increase the efficiency, transparency and accountability of the parole system. The review of Parole Board Rules, presented to Parliament in February 2019, made welcome improvements, including enhanced engagement and communication with victims, the new reconsideration mechanism, and standard practice documents to ensure a more robust, transparent and consistent approach to decision-making.

The review also recognised the importance of ensuring a fair hearing for prisoners with mental health needs and learning disabilities, and noted the need for explicit provision in relation to

“the procedure that should be followed in cases where the prisoner is found to lack mental capacity to participate in the parole process.”

I would welcome reassurance from the Minister that he is content that the need for this explicit provision for prisoners lacking mental capacity is adequately addressed in new Section 28A(2), which states:

“When making the public protection decision about the life prisoner, the Parole Board must take into account … the prisoner’s non-disclosure; and … the reasons, in the Parole Board’s view, for the prisoner’s nondisclosure.”


At Second Reading in the other place, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice said:

“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.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/20; col. 747.]


Is the Minister fully confident that this provides adequate protection for prisoners with mental health issues and effectively balances the imperative for justice with respect for human rights? I would also be grateful if, in winding up, he could give some indication of the timetable for the tailored review of the Parole Board, and for the root-and-branch review promised in the manifesto and reiterated at Second Reading in the other place by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice.

Amidst a crisis such as the one we currently face, it would be easy to put to one side numerous other pressing problems that afflict society. This makes it doubly commendable that the Government have moved forward with the Bill, fulfilling a manifesto promise and, more importantly, demonstrating a strong commitment to victims of crime and their families. It is a reminder that, while Covid-19 and the suffering it is causing is front of mind in many of our deliberations, other sorrows and tragedies continue to play out in communities, families and the lives of individuals. The Bill will never take away their loss but, in putting the support of victims and their needs at the centre of the justice system, it may help grieving families to achieve some kind of closure and finally to lay loved ones to rest.

15:21
Lord Garnier Portrait Lord Garnier (Con)
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My Lords, I have read the debates on the Bill in the other place, and I can well understand the alacrity with which it was approved. I can also understand the sense of outrage and distress felt by those close to the victims of killers, be they convicted of murder or manslaughter, when they are denied knowledge of where their loved ones have been abandoned by the criminal. To be denied a funeral because the person responsible for the death will not tell the relevant authorities where the remains are unquestionably adds to the distress and grief of the family.

We know of the cases which have been the catalyst for the Bill. There will be, I have no doubt, examples of the heinous behaviour that predated the Moors murders in the 1960s. More recent cases have been cited and in all of them, the simple recitation of the killer’s name is enough to reawaken the revulsion and hideous sense of loss that these foul people have aggravated by refusing to disclose the whereabouts of their victim’s body. For the parents of children who may have been sexually abused, the horror they have to contend with in not knowing whether the convicted sex offender abused their child is only to some miniscule amount mitigated by their child being alive and with them at home. Imagine the fear these parents must harbour that later, in adolescence or adulthood, their child will be traumatised by remembering or coming to realise what happened either to them or their classmates many years before.

The Bill is designed to mark in public policy the revulsion that right-thinking members of society feel for these serious offenders who, not content with killing or abusing their victims, add to the pain and suffering of their victims’ families and friends by keeping secret information which, if they had a scintilla of remorse or empathy, they would give up to the police. No doubt there will be some killers and sex offenders who take a perverse pleasure in prolonging the agony caused by their crimes by refusing to say where they have abandoned the body of their victim, or withholding the identities of those whom they have abused.

The Bill, as has been explained by my noble and learned friend and by the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy and Lady Bull, concerns the obligations of the Parole Board when it considers whether an offender merits release from prison. It places a statutory duty on the board to consider circumstances where the offender does not disclose the sort of information I have referred to as part of its assessment of whether they should be released from custody. The board is already subject to non-statutory guidance to the same effect so the Bill, when enacted, will promote that to a statutory duty. Although I understand the welcome the Bill was given in the other place and congratulate the Members of Parliament who have campaigned on behalf of victims and their families to bring it into law, I am not sure that the approach adopted by the Bill goes far enough.

The Parole Board has always had the power to consider the release date of long-term prisoners and, although its decisions are in certain circumstances amenable to judicial review, its procedures are essentially held in private. The public and the media do not attend its hearings and its reasoned decisions are not, as a rule, published. Decisions about the liberty of the subject, especially concerning the future of offenders imprisoned for very serious violent or sex crimes, should be made in public, or at least the reasons for the Parole Board’s decisions, be it to release or not, should be available to the public. I can see that there may be certain facts or details about the victim and the case as a whole that may need to be kept confidential but, by and large, the default position should be for open justice.

I have a further concern about what is proposed by the Bill. I am not convinced that it is right to revise this aspect of the criminal justice system by guidance, even when that guidance is imposed through the medium of a statutory duty. In my judgment, if a prisoner is to be faced with a longer period in custody, it should be through a statutory arrangement, but that arrangement should not be administrative. Rather than telling the Parole Board that it must take into account that an offender has not provided certain details about their offences, it should be a discrete criminal offence, subject to appropriate defences, for a convicted defendant not to inform the police or other proper authority where or how a victim’s remains were disposed of.

The trial of the defendant for this additional offence would take place in open court before the same judge who presided over the murder, manslaughter or sex offence trial or, if the offender had pleaded guilty to the killing but none the less refused to say what had been done with the body, before the same judge sentencing for the original offence. The trial of the offence of non-disclosure could take place immediately after the finding or plea of guilty of the killing or sex crime, or later, depending on the facts of the case. There might, for example, need to be a delay while a co-defendant who had pleaded not guilty to the murder, manslaughter or sex abuse, as the case may be, was tried before dealing with the offence of non-disclosure.

The trial of the allegation of non-disclosure should not just be before the same judge who tried the murder or sex abuse case; the judge should try it without a jury. That would be quicker, of course, but would also avoid any deliberate or unwitting bias against the convicted killer or sex offender in the mind of the jury which had only just reached a guilty verdict, or of a new jury which will know of the first and highly prejudicial conviction. It would also enable the judge to be sure that the facts proved to his satisfaction in the first trial could, where relevant to the issue of non-disclosure, be available without re-proof in the non-disclosure trial. There would be a reasoned and dispassionate judgment which explained what the judge had found and why the facts applied to the relevant law led to the verdict of guilty or not guilty.

If there were a verdict of guilty, the judge could then first sentence the defendant for the original offence and, secondly, impose a consecutive sentence for the crime of non-disclosure. If sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, the defendant would be told that the minimum tariff for the murder would be, for example, 25 years and that the determinate sentence for non-disclosure was five years, to run consecutively from the end of the tariff, making a total of 30 years before release on licence could be considered. If the offence merited an extended determinate sentence, the judge would add the two sentences together, making sure that the overall number of years was neither unduly lenient nor manifestly excessive and that the two sentences would run consecutively and not concurrently.

There is no doubt a good deal of procedural and legal detail that will need to be thought through, but I suggest that the scheme I have advanced, if only in outline, better fits the purpose intended but not achieved by the Bill before us. I ask the Government to see whether what I have proposed might not better deal with the very real concerns of those who have so enthusiastically and rightly supported this Bill.

15:28
Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, I first welcome my noble friend Lord Ponsonby to the Opposition Front Bench and make it clear that I fully support this Bill and its aims. I pay tribute to the campaigners, including, as we have heard, the McCourt family, led by Marie McCourt. They have sought this change to the legislation and, along with the families of the victims of Vanessa George, have enabled this to happen. It is thanks to them that the Bill is here. Hopefully, when it soon becomes an Act of Parliament, it will be able to give some comfort to the families of victims in future.

I also pay tribute, as have other noble Lords have, to my honourable friends in the other place—the Members for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport and for St Helens North—for their work campaigning with the families of victims, which has helped bring this legislation forward today. I also pay tribute to the Government for bringing the legislation forward, for putting it in their manifesto and following that through —we are all very pleased it is here. The Bill is fairly short, of course. It has two clauses that amend the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 and address the release of prisoners under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, made a number of points. He is a respected lawyer and I am sure that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, will respond to those points. These detailed questions of law need to be addressed and I hope we will get a response to them.

In respect of the crime of murder, as we have heard, the Bill brings into force provisions which have become known as Helen’s law. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, referred to that in his opening remarks. In responding to the debate, will he set out in more detail for the House how this process will work, compared to the guidance given to the Parole Board previously, and this new statutory obligation to consider the non-disclosure about a victim’s remains? Would the Parole Board always have considered this question—I think it probably would—or might it not have considered the non-disclosure of victim’s remains because it had the discretion not to consider that matter?

Will the noble and learned Lord also address the situation where someone is convicted of the crime of manslaughter but is given a determinate sentence of some years in prison? Does he believe that the issue would not in effect arise, in that someone who was convicted of the crime of manslaughter and had refused to disclose what happened to the body would expect to receive a life sentence from the court, as opposed to an ordinary determinate sentence or an extended determinate sentence, which are, of course, covered in the Bill? For anybody given an ordinary determinate sentence, one would assume that the victim’s remains had been recovered, due to the nature of the crime they had committed attracting that type of sentence.

Will the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, address the fact that the Bill requires the Parole Board to consider the issue but does not prevent it deciding that someone is still suitable for release? In such a case, will he confirm that the powers of the Secretary of State in these circumstances have not changed but will stay as they are at present? Will he also set out where we are in respect of people convicted of murder but who do not admit their guilt and, in some cases, protest their innocence? What happens to them? Are they, in effect, in denial and not allowed to be considered? It would be interesting to find out.

My noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley made an important point about contacting victims and their families to seek their views before somebody is considered for release. Again, I hope the noble and learned Lord can address that point. It is very important because people move away over what can be a period of many years and contact with them can be lost. The possibility of their finding out through the media, including social media, is not something we would want to see in the future.

The Bill is important in helping the families of victims come to terms with the hurt and the grief. In that sense, the Government should be congratulated on bringing the legislation forward. On the other side, there is the issue of the mental health of some prisoners, and that of human rights, which must be a concern for all of us at all times. These are of course rights that murderers deny their victims and their victims’ families, but human rights are still important. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord can address that in his remarks. I look forward to his response in due course.

15:35
Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick Portrait Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick (CB)
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My Lords, I remind the House of my interest in the register as founder and chairman of Crime Concern, which gave birth to Victim Support. All of us agree that the Bill is much needed and timely. It may be simple in the paragraphs contained in it, but it is profoundly essential. It is a dignity measure for victims—a measure that strips bare those vindictive and harsh offenders who wish to hide behind their crimes and the mask that an illusion will eventually pass over our concerns. These vulgar and violent crimes cannot and should not be forgotten.

I am conscious that the seriousness and importance of this legislation reflects a great effort on the part of the Ministry of Justice and the Government to tighten the law. We cannot disagree, given the cases involved that have set the boundaries for the Bill, that it is vital and necessary. When the Minister comes to wrap up the debate, will he indicate whether the Government have an interest in bringing forward any further legislation to tighten up other aspects of the law on the release of prisoners? Whether they are appropriate or not, there may be further dimensions for consideration by the Parole Board, or even by those with wider sentencing or probation powers.

Yesterday, we heard in the other place that just 33 prisoners have been released out of the proposed 4,000 in the decision of the Ministry of Justice on 4 April. This would imply that the release procedure has gone wrong somewhere. We know that a few offenders were released and then recalled. It also suggests that the promise of release for good reason, as agreed by many in this House and the other place, as well as by public campaigners, means that sometimes too many people are allowed to languish for too long in our system. That is itself an element of injustice. How will the Government fulfil their responsibility, set out on 4 April, to release prisoners who pose no harm to wider society, in particular as they have done not only for pregnant women prisoners but for those with disabilities, of great age or who are suffering from other illnesses? Can the Minister comment on that aspect or, if it is not in his brief, will he write to the House? This is a matter of dignity. While the Bill is about dignity for victims, the entire criminal justice system needs to have that element of dignity about it.

My noble friend Lord Hogan-Howe, who is not in his place today, and I have been looking at a number of cases involving miscarriages of justice relating to offenders that are of serious concern. We are here to pass a vital Bill because it will place further duties on the Parole Board and on the structure of how considerations of parole and possible release are brought forward. What consideration is the Ministry of Justice now giving to beefing up the need for enhanced legal aid to support those in need of better consideration of their cases? What thought is being given to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which seems to have been consistently weakened over decades so that its ability to bring forward cases of genuine need—to see that justice is done—is now much reduced? In particular, perhaps I may highlight what seems to be the number of IPP prisoners who are languishing while being held in our prison system, given that the current number is around 2,400. They are serving indeterminate sentences with no notice of release.

I am raising these issues because the Bill is about justice for victims but, at the same time, we should not make others the victims of injustice by allowing miscarriages of justice to be disregarded. I hope, as would we all, that as the Bill passes on to the statute book—as it should, so that families, in particular the McCourt family, get some sense of peace at long last because the right thing has been done—we do not allow the wrong thing to continue simply because it does not make for a good headline. I ask instead that justice is comprehensive and that the Ministry of Justice takes account of all those affected by the criminal justice system.

15:39
Lord Balfe Portrait Lord Balfe (Con)
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My Lords, I would not imagine that there is anyone in this House who does not support this Bill; we extend our sympathy to those who sadly gave rise to it and our congratulations to those in the other House who have brought it this far. I fully support the Bill, but I have some questions, which I will address to the Minister and the House.

The briefing note says that the Bill puts into statute already established guidance for the Parole Board. The delegated powers memorandum says that where

“the offender has not disclosed the location of the victim’s remains, the Parole Board must take that into account in determining that prisoner’s suitability for release.”

I do not think that anyone could disagree with that, but it leads to the question: why is this necessary? Why do we need to guide the Parole Board—unless we believe that maybe it has lost its way?

If we are going to have greater transparency for the Parole Board, which I think is a good thing, we also need to know—from the Minister, I hope—when the review that was indicated in the Conservative Party manifesto is expected to report and to lead to some changes. It could be argued that part of the problem is, first, the personnel on the Parole Board, and, secondly, the omerta that surrounds much of its proceedings. Both of these things I have no answer for, but they need to be looked at.

I note that the Bill does not extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland. Is it envisaged that within the devolved Administrations settlement it will be discussed with them, with a view to then bringing matters into line?

The provisions for reviewing convictions also probably need to be looked at. As has been mentioned, some people in prison maintain very rigidly that they are innocent. They may be guilty but have convinced themselves that they are innocent, or they may think that they have been wronged. I am not against a tough system on release, but there has to be an adequate system for reviewing the convictions of those who maintain their innocence—at least the evidence should be looked at again. It is in no way a comparable series of offences, but one thinks of Guildford and Birmingham and the way in which miscarriages of justice were carried through in the past. It is possible, in a very febrile atmosphere, that a conviction might be upheld; the Parole Board may meet in secret but trials are conducted in public, and it is possible for people to be carried away.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, mentioned wilful non-disclosure. There is a certain amount of wilful non-disclosure, but we also need to be careful of what I think of as “mind-blanking”: in other words, the psychiatric condition where people just cannot face the fact that they have done something, or their mind goes completely blank. There is a condition where you just forget everything that has happened.

I have often thought that Ian Brady, who led the police and the judicial authorities a merry dance for many years over the location of the Moors murders bodies, had probably forgotten where they were. But it was an excuse for him to get a day out from time to time, and maybe he realised that he was never going to be released. I have never been convinced that he actually knew where the bodies were. I may well be wrong, and I am certainly not suggesting that he should ever have been released, but it is possible for people to completely blank out things in their lives.

I also have a slight reservation about the child abuse provisions. Is it possible that people could name the wrong children? I think it is, particularly if the crime was some time ago. The offender is presented with a list of children who may have been in that nursery. He then thinks, “Well, if I name some, it will help me to get out, but I can’t really remember whether it was X or Y. I think it was X, so I’ll name X”—but if they are wrong, that also has a very severe impact on the child who is wrongly named. I do not have the solution, but I think the question needs looking at.

My final point is that there is a need for the Parole Board to see some psychiatric evidence and to have some independent people before it. I am certainly not advocating a legal aid bonanza of prisoners being able to hire QCs and have full hearings, but I think provision should be made for the Parole Board to call independent expert witnesses, particularly in areas such as mind blanking and the like, to advise it. We probably need also to look at the membership of the Parole Board and the degree of secrecy within which it is able to work.

Can the Minister say when it is envisaged that this law will come into force? I note that the decision is left to the department. Does he have any idea when the department will aim to bring it in?

15:46
Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis (Lab)
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My Lords, we all share the distress of the victims of the appalling crimes which have given rise to this Bill, and I associate myself with all the remarks that have been made in that regard. However, the key speech of this debate was made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, about how much the approach taken in the Bill changes things in practice. As he rightly said, all the Bill does is impose a statutory duty in place of the current requirement on the Parole Board to consider these matters in any event.

That being the case, will the Advocate-General tell us what difference in practice the Bill will make to the operation of the system? The noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, made the point very well that, given the public importance of these issues and the huge emotive and personal importance to the relatives of the victims, having a process in open court and creating a new statutory offence seems a more logical and justifiable way forward.

Perhaps I could ask a related question. Since it appears that this Bill does not change the way the Parole Board operates, might it be possible for relatives of the victims in question to address the Parole Board? Given that in the Bill Parliament is seeking to highlight one particular factor among others which the Parole Board must consider when deciding on release and the significance of that factor, might victims be allowed to address the Parole Board directly? Can the Minister say whether that was considered by the Government—and, if it was considered, why it has not been allowed?

15:48
Baroness Finn Portrait Baroness Finn (Con)
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My Lords, I wholeheartedly support this important Bill and pay tribute to those who have worked so hard to bring it to Parliament. Justice delayed is justice denied. Since Helen McCourt was tragically murdered in 1988, her mother Marie has been searching for justice and peace, and while Helen’s law will at least help bring justice to others, this Bill must be only the start of putting victims’ views at the heart of the criminal justice system.

This Bill is a critical step in the right direction, yet if we stop here our criminal justice system will continue to let down the victims of crime. I believe passionately in the rehabilitation of offenders and declare my interest as a member of the development committee of the superb charity Clean Break. But victims of serious crime should always be on our list of priorities. I welcome the fact that the Bill puts victims first by placing a statutory duty on the Parole Board to ensure that there is proper consideration of whether there has been a failure to disclose the location of the victim’s remains in the case of murder or the identity of a child when it comes to taking or making indecent images of children. This is a positive and welcome move and it is hard to understand how any convicted criminal can claim to be rehabilitated if they continue to withhold such information. Failure to do so shows a lack of understanding, remorse and compassion. It shows that they are not willing to do what it takes to redress wrongs and accept responsibility for what they have done.

However, we should also consider what else we can do to support victims. Justice is not a single moment in time; it is a process of rehabilitation that victims too have to go through before they can come to terms with what has happened to them and take back control of their lives. My concern is that this Bill will not fundamentally change current practice and that families in such cases will continue to have to rely on the discretion of the Parole Board. There are too many concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability in the Parole Board’s processes, and some serious question marks hang over its duties in relation to responsibilities towards victims.

Never has there been a more courageous, compassionate and passionate advocate for victims’ rights than my noble friend—I am very proud to call her a friend—Lady Newlove. Not only did she and her young family have to come to terms with the most base and horrific of crimes, but she has lent her voice to support others. However, even she has been let down by the system. Unbeknown to her and her family, the perpetrators of the crime that left her a widow and her daughters without their father have variously been recommended for parole, early release and a place in open prisons with home visitation privileges at the weekend. Why was she not told? Does she not have an inalienable right to feel safe and secure?

Noble Lords might be aware of the victim contact scheme. This is supposed to allow for a victim whose offender is sentenced to 12 months or more to be kept informed of the progression of the sentence and any associated parole. However, victims have told of being contacted by the scheme only to be informed of Parole Board decisions that have already been made. One victim even discovered a decision on Twitter before being informed by the scheme.

Let us take the case of John Worboys, the black cab rapist, recommended for early release from his life sentence by the Parole Board. More victims of Worboys’s heinous crimes had to bravely come forward for the Parole Board to reverse its decision. Why were the victims not part of the Parole Board hearing in the first place, or at least fully aware of it? Instead, they were forced to come forward by fear itself to stop what was nothing less than the undermining of the justice that they thought had already been done.

That tells us that, for the victims of crime, sentencing and conviction are just the beginning of justice. If sentences are altered or shortened, or the terms and conditions of release are changed, victims have a right to know and a right to their say. It is not okay that my noble friend Lady Newlove and her family were not told that the subjects of their own personal nightmares could be walking the streets of their home town without their knowledge.

My noble friend has called for a victims’ advocate unit to level the playing field. Her point is that, once a victim’s impact statement has been read, victims cease to exist as the process of justice continues to wind its course. Victims should be given training and legal aid so that they too can continue to hold the courts and the Parole Board to account, continue to advocate for their needs as victims, and get access to any information they need about the terms of parole or release or the location of offenders.

Alongside a victims’ advocate unit, we also need comprehensive reform of the Parole Board. This is the same Parole Board that released John Worboys, even though he remained a danger to society, released Garry Newlove’s killers without telling his family when and where, and released Helen’s killer, even though he had it in his gift to bring peace to the victim’s family but declined to do so. It is time to embed the rights of victims alongside those of offenders, recognising that the Parole Board’s decisions impact both.

Everyone deserves a second chance, and so too do victims of crime—a chance to rebuild their shattered lives, to restore confidence, self-esteem and self-worth, and to try again to live the life that was taken away from them. Justice needs to focus far more on the rights, wishes and needs of the victims. For that reason, and notwithstanding some serious concerns about the Parole Board’s decisions, I support and welcome the Bill and commend it to the House.

15:53
Lord Mann Portrait Lord Mann (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I am regularly nervous when legislation on criminal justice emerges from the Home Office via politicians. Much of it over the last 20 years that I have participated in through debate and discussion, and have voted on, has struggled to pass the test: does it do what it is meant to do? I will not repeat the very eloquent argument put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, but the question of whether something that goes in the right direction and is done in the right spirit does what it is meant to do is fundamental; otherwise, in several years’ time we will find that a piece of legislation is not fit for purpose, and has no purpose other than to placate a general and valid viewpoint and a demand from individuals and society.

I hope that the Minister can persuade me, and other noble Lords, that this Bill will do what it says on the tin. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, raised the question of Ian Brady. However, Brady was in Broadmoor: would this legislation have applied to him? That case scarred the whole of the north of England. In some ways, it still does to this day, particularly regarding Keith Bennett, so horrifically unfound and his mother unable to be reunited with her son before her death. The case captured the anger of whole segments of society that the law was not doing what it should. Will those determined by the law to be unfit for prison and put in special hospitals —I live just a few miles from another one, Rampton, which has had equally notorious cases—be covered?

The question of whether the law goes far enough in the right direction is also very important. I have had the honour—but not the pleasure—of being involved in detail with the independent child abuse inquiry. I have been a witness and will be again in the near future. I spent four weeks representing people in the Nottinghamshire strand of the inquiry. I sat, both inside and outside sessions, with those who had survived the most horrific abuse, often as small children. I tried to work through what it was that they actually wanted. Of course they wanted a conviction, if they could get one, but what else were they after? What was the key thing, above all else? I was able to dissect the cases of the 30 individuals I was representing. We had some successes: one case got reopened and someone got 19 years in prison; we had a celebratory party to see him off. Criminal justice and the sanction of prison was important, but at the heart of what those victims of child abuse wanted was the truth. The conclusion I drew was that the fundamental motive and critical thing to look for is power relations. Is the law sufficiently well framed in these cases? I would accept an argument from the Minister that currently it is not.

How do we deal with the misuse of power relations? In the Brady case, and in others that have been cited, it seems clear that the misuse and retention of power, by refusing to give information that victims require, is part of the criminality involved. When it comes to the images of child abuse that have led to a rather modest inclusion in the Bill, again, the fundamental question that has to be asked every time is: what is the power relation—the misuse of power? It seems to me that this opens up a healthy area for consideration, whether through amendments to this Bill or other legislation. Be it the murderer, the rapist or the child abuser, of whatever kind, misuse of power is the fundamental question, which the current law does not adequately address. It addresses acts, which can be properly adjudicated on, but the concept of power and how it is misused is much more difficult—as is, therefore, the question of silence and the refusal to give information. I hope that the Minister will give some consideration as to whether this Bill can be extended.

16:01
Lord Naseby Portrait Lord Naseby (Con)
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My Lords, I live in Bedfordshire and represented Northampton for the best part of a quarter of a century. The prison serving that community is Bedford prison, which has difficulties made worse by the overcrowding that it has always had. Ironically, the situation we find ourselves in today with coronavirus has brought this issue into my focus; it is a heavily overcrowded prison. The argument and discussion that took place during the short debate last Thursday, in which I took part, concerned which prisoners should be put on temporary release and how many. The question was debated fully and, I think, successfully.

This Bill deals with the same subject of prisons. I have read it. A comment was made that it is only a short Bill, with three clauses. I remember chairing the Maastricht Bill, which was one clause longer at four clauses. It took 25 days to reach Committee stage, so the length of a Bill is not necessarily a determinant of its importance. I have a few questions, as a layman and someone who takes a public interest. The first question, which arises from the debate last Thursday, was raised by my noble friend Lord Balfe behind me. I note that the Bill applies only to England and Wales. Is there any difference between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in what takes place currently, and is it the intention that those other two important parts of the United Kingdom are to follow suit?

Secondly, I have listened in particular to my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier and it is not entirely clear to me why the Government have so far rejected the concept of “no body, no release”. Is it based on the evidence that has arisen from Australia, or on mental health concerns in that area? I hope that the Minister who spoke in the other place—I have read the whole of that debate—was correct to say that

“there is a danger that if we proceed too far along that path”

—of no body, no release—

“we could inadvertently create an artificial incentive for people to mislead the authorities and to feign co-operation or remorse.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/20; col. 747.]

I would have thought that part of the skill of life for those who work in interrogation is to pull out an answer from whoever they are interrogating. However, the Minister may be right; personally, I have my doubts, but I hope he is correct.

My third question concerns the Parole Board. From listening to my noble friends and other noble Lords, one realises that the assessment as to why an offender is withholding information is, in essence, subjective. Again, it ends up as an assessment of risk. I am used to risk—I have been in the commercial world for the best part of 50 years. Some risks are relatively low; some relate to areas in which, by definition, the risks are quite high. We know that ourselves today, in dealing with the coronavirus. Murder, manslaughter and the other area we have discussed this afternoon are high-risk areas and I wonder whether such cases can be left to the interpretation of a body such as the current Parole Board.

I understand that there is to be a review of the Parole Board. Obviously, if that is the case, then somebody, somewhere, is uncomfortable with the current situation. The inference is that, somehow or other, the Parole Board has to be made more accountable and transparent. Certainly, transparency is vital in today’s society, as the public really do take an interest. Unless we have that transparency, the public will turn against us as the legislators.

My fourth question concerns the case of Vanessa George. I have read only the evidence and the discussions from the other place. Coming to it fresh, for the first time, I have to ask the Minister: does he really think that, for one reason or another, the wrong decision was made regarding her release?

I come to my fifth question—it is my last, although I also have one comment to make. Is the review still likely to take place, bearing in mind the challenge we are currently facing with coronavirus and the huge challenge of Brexit, which has to be dealt with in less than 12 months?

Lastly, I turn to an area which I am perhaps more comfortable in, namely the future of the word incentivisation. From reading the reports and the discussions from the other place, this does not seem to be part of people’s judgment. I have worked in the commercial world. I have lived in India and Sri Lanka; much of the law of those countries is determined by a combination of Buddhism and Hinduism. In the 50 years that I have worked in the commercial world, I have always taken a keen interest in incentives. Based on that experience, it seems that if incentives are correctly targeted, they can achieve a major positive response, which is sometimes way beyond what was expected or forecast. I simply ask my noble friend on the Front Bench: what are the incentives for the convicted person to provide the key information that they are withholding? Or, to put it another way, what other incentives, other than those that are there already, could we think about using, to try to find an answer to this very challenging area of the law?

16:09
Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker (LD)
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My Lords, on behalf of my colleagues on these Benches, I welcome this Bill. I was due to speak on it before the Recess, as was the Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie. In the intervening period, I had the opportunity to talk to Helen McCourt’s mother, Marie McCourt. She is an amazing woman. One cannot but be moved by her tenacious diligence in pursuing this matter over 32 years and, I would say, doing so without personal malice, which is really remarkable in the circumstances.

I will perhaps strike a slightly different note from other noble Lords. I believe that the Parole Board’s work is very necessary and very difficult and that it is one of those public bodies that tends to come in for undue criticism, as the reasons for the decisions it makes, and indeed some of the limitations under which it works, are not always fully understood. While much of the criticism of it is legitimate, it can also sometimes find itself on the end of concerted campaigns.

That said, this Bill has some merit—although I quite understand the questions that have come from around the Chamber about how much of a difference it will make. I believe it is right that we do not adopt a no body, no release rule. I do so for two reasons. First, there are people who will perhaps lack mental capacity and be unable to give the information that at some point they may well have known. Secondly, there are miscarriages of justice and we cannot therefore bring in an absolute rule.

I listened carefully to the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Mann. My family lives on the edge of the Pennines. I remember as vividly as yesterday 1987, the appalling effect that had on the people of the area and the terrible effect it had on Keith Bennett’s family. We do not want to put the wrong sort of incentives in place.

I understand the Bill, the two different sets of offences to which it applies and the approach the Government have taken in strengthening the obligation on the Parole Board to take matters into account. I want to reflect on a point made in another place. I understand that, at the point of sentencing, a court would have to have taken into account the fact that the person had not disclosed. Having said that, I bow to the superior knowledge of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, and I would like to reconsider some of the points he made. I think we will get to a point at which we discover that this Bill is not tough enough, and at that point we might well wish to follow his proposals.

One of the questions I have for the Minister is: given that there will be a slightly stronger obligation on the Parole Board to take these matters into account, how will the effect of this Bill be monitored? How will we know whether it is working? I have a great deal of sympathy with victims’ families who make the point that this is usually only one indicator of a more general lack of participation in the rehabilitative programmes that exist in prison.

For example, Ian Simms, who has been mentioned—the killer of Helen McCourt—has never taken part in any kind of rehabilitative classes. He has never attended a Parole Board hearing at which Helen’s family have been present. They are therefore left to wonder on what basis the Parole Board has come to a conclusion that he is safe to be let out. That is another question I have to put to the Minister. How confident are the Government that this law will strengthen the Parole Board’s overall remit to determine that somebody has given absolutely no indication of rehabilitation and therefore that they still pose a serious risk on release?

We have focused today on the two cases that have directly given rise to this law, but there are others. I wonder if the Minister, in summing up, could say just how many people in the criminal justice system he thinks this is likely to apply to.

My final question to the Minister is this. When this law reaches the statute book—I sincerely hope that, with cross-party support, it does—will it be open to victims’ families to apply for judicial review of decisions to release that have already been made, or will it not?

It is fair to say that we all wish that this law could be made a great deal stronger. I am not sure that it is possible, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, to incentivise people for whom the withholding of information is an act of powerful callousness that some of us may find hard to credit. All we can do is give as many different tools as possible to those who seek to erode the ability of such people to go on meting out continuing punishment to the families of their victims. I hope that this Bill is passed.

16:17
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, this is a short Bill, with just three clauses, but it should not be underestimated because of its length. Unsurprisingly, today’s debate has been much more wide-ranging than the scope of the Bill itself. The Bill is the result of a campaign led on behalf of Helen McCourt; I was pleased and touched to hear about the engagement of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, with Mrs McCourt. It is a variant of the Bill originally introduced in 2016 as a 10-minute rule Bill by my honourable friend Conor McGinn.

As we all know, Helen was murdered. She disappeared in 1988. The location of her body has never been disclosed by her murderer, who has now been released from custody. The purpose of this Bill is to put into statute the already-established Parole Board guidance when making release decisions about serious offenders. I believe that it is right to take into account the refusal of a serious offender to disclose the whereabouts of the victim’s body. Offenders who refuse to disclose this information pose an ongoing risk to the public. Indeed, it is a form of ongoing control and abuse by the perpetrator of the victim’s family and friends.

Supported by a number of noble Lords from across the House, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, suggested a way to go further in addressing this method of control, if I can put it that way. His idea was interesting. My question for the Minister concerns the level of monitoring that there will be on the impact of this Bill to see whether it will be possible to take further steps along the lines of what the noble and learned Lord outlined.

The Bill also puts into statute two requirements on the Parole Board when making release decisions. The first, as we have heard, is for offenders who are convicted of murder or manslaughter, where the Parole Board must take into account whether the offender has refused to reveal details of the location of the victim’s body. As we have heard, this is a subjective decision for the Parole Board because it must take into account whether this non-disclosure is the result of a psychiatric disorder or a deliberate decision to withhold information; a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, made this point. An interesting point was also made about perverse incentives if one were to go too far down the road of requiring identities to be revealed or requiring a no body, no release-type measure. There is an interesting balance to be struck, which has been addressed in both this House and the other place. Ultimately, it will be for the Parole Board to make that judgment.

My noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley asked a number of questions about transparency and keeping victims up to date with decisions on prisoner release. She made a good point about video conferencing in our courts, which we are seeing evolve as we speak. That is developing on a number of fronts. Can the Minister say whether the Parole Board is investigating its use, either for parole hearings or for incorporating victims into the process of the parole hearing? This is a fast-moving area and people should be open-minded about the new technologies which are being used so much at present.

Other questions were on the status of any future victims Bill and how that might lead to greater transparency, properly taking into account people with psychiatric problems, and on reviewing the operation of the Parole Board. On the latter, I understand that various papers have been written, but can the Minister tell us more about the Government’s ambitions for properly reviewing the work of the Parole Board?

We have all lost people who are dear to us and many of us will know victims of crime, but the circumstances of Helen McCourt’s death put the suffering of her family at a different level. Other families have experienced similar tragedies. I hope that this Bill will at least show that people have listened to Marie McCourt. Local MPs have taken up these matters; hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition to support this Bill; all political parties have supported its objectives, and the Government and now Parliament have listened. I hope that the outcome of the Bill will be to strengthen the role of the Parole Board and to give better explanations and outcomes for victims’ families.

16:23
Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords for what has been a worthwhile debate on this important Bill. I hope that families and victims affected by the sort of circumstances referred to will have taken some comfort from the fact that the Bill has made this much progress and has received support from around the House, albeit some noble Lords may feel that it does not go far enough and some may feel that it should look to issues other than those addressed.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, whom I welcome to his place on the Front Bench, used the word “balance”, which is an important term in the present context. There has to be a balance of the number of issues and interests. I shall seek to address the points raised by noble Lords in as straightforward and clear a way as possible in the time allowed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, referred to the guidance to the Parole Board. Certain guidance exists at present, but we ensure that that guidance can never move away from the issue addressed by this Bill by enshrining it in statute. There is a question about the status of victims and their views in the context of the Parole Board hearings, and the whole question of how technology may be brought to bear to improve these hearings. The processes of the Parole Board are the subject of review at present, and no doubt these issues will be taken into account.

A number of noble Lords asked about the timescale for that review. In the present circumstances, I can go no further than to say that it will be brought forward in the course of time. I know that that is not terribly helpful in itself. However, I hope that noble Lords will appreciate that we are concerned to ensure that the review is brought forward as soon as reasonably possible, but that there are other pressures on government at present.

On the observations of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, again, I concur with her observation that to move from a discretion in guidance to a statutory obligation is itself important. It ensures that there is a clear consideration mechanism to be brought in these cases. We are confident that the provisions of the Bill are sufficient and effective to apply in the contexts of non-disclosure, psychiatric conditions and mental illness. Again, the noble Baroness raised the question of review by the Parole Board, which I have sought to address.

My noble and learned friend Lord Garnier suggested that the Bill does not go far enough. I am reminded of the reference made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, to balance. I will make two observations. We agree that Parole Board decision-making should be transparent and as open as possible, particularly for victims and their families. However, there are good reasons why parole hearings are held in private. Deeply personal and sensitive issues are discussed regarding the offender, the nature of the offence, the victim and the arrangements for the possible release of an offender, including, for example, where they might or might not live, and the licence conditions that apply. Therefore, the parties must be able to speak candidly, and the prospect of information being made public that could compromise the integrity of evidence has to be borne in mind.

We have taken steps to improve the transparency of the parole process. In May 2018 we amended the rules to allow the board to provide summaries of its decisions, in order to provide victims with an indication of what the position had been. That has improved transparency. In July 2019, the new Parole Board rules were introduced. This created a reconsideration mechanism that can be employed by the Secretary of State, and which has been in one of the cases referred to here.

The second issue that my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier raised was a new offence of non-disclosure. We have to remind ourselves that in sentencing, one is concerned with two elements, punishment and prevention, and the Parole Board’s consideration is of course prevention. Where an offender’s main offence is murder, for which a life sentence is imposed, any additional sentence for a separate offence—for example, of non-disclosure—would have to be served concurrently to the life sentence, because it would be a sentence of immediate custody and could not be deferred to commence at the point the judge sets as the minimum tariff for the murder. Therefore, if a separate concurrent sentence were imposed at or shortly after the time of sentencing for the main offence, it would in all likelihood be completed well before the minimum tariff for the original sentence had been completed. In fact, there is no need for a statutory offence, because courts may consider the common law offence of preventing the lawful burial of a body, which is itself punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Therefore, provisions do exist, but in reality it is more reasonable for the sentencing judge to take account of the non-disclosure when deciding on the length of the tariff, and to increase the tariff accordingly when non-disclosure is seen as an aggravating feature of the crime. We can therefore accommodate this under current sentencing policy, and I do not consider it necessary to introduce a new statutory offence. However, clearly, we will keep the application of the Bill under review—a number of noble Lords raised that point. It would be usual for the implications of the legislation, once it has commenced, to be considered after a period of three years. That gives time for implementation by the Parole Board, for the results to be identified and for improvements, if any, to be contemplated; that will take place in this case as well. On the commencement of the Bill, it is certainly the intention that it should be brought into force as soon as reasonably possible after it receives Royal Assent, which would normally be a minimum of two months after Royal Assent. I do not anticipate that being deferred for any material period, and I am not aware of any reason why it would be, so we would hope to see the Bill in force reasonably swiftly.

I turn to the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, who asked about a short determinate sentence in the case of manslaughter. There, the person would never come before the Parole Board and the Bill, when it becomes an Act, would therefore not apply to them—so I seek to give him that reassurance.

There was also the question of when somebody maintains that they are not guilty, a point raised by other noble Lords as well. That matter clearly comes before the Parole Board. It has to make a judgment about the circumstances and come to a view about whether such conduct is deliberate. It may be a psychological problem or a mental health issue. That is why we cannot have an absolute rule of, “no body, no parole”, as has been suggested on some occasions. Quite apart from anything else such a rule, while it would not take account of somebody who is suffering a mental illness or who simply has a psychological commitment to denial at all costs, would also potentially be in breach of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That allows for punishment and preventive elements in a sentence but would not allow for a non-co-operation element. So there are very real concerns that an absolute rule would be subject to successful legal challenge, which is one thing we do not want in this context. Indeed, if there were to be such a challenge it would merely heap further uncertainty on families and victims of crime in circumstances where we can, if we look forward, avoid that.

The noble Lord, Lord Hastings, raised a number of points on sentencing policy. I am not going to address sentencing as it is not the purpose of the Bill, so it is not appropriate to go there. He also raised release from prison during the Covid emergency and referred to the provision for releasing up to 4,000 prisoners—I stress “up to”—who would be due for release within two months. There have certainly been only limited releases under that provision. However, the whole purpose of that policy was to provide head room within the prison population; that is, to allow for capacity demands to be met within it. They have in part been met because, due to the closedown resulting from the Covid pandemic, courts have not been sitting, trials have not been taking place and people have not been committed to prison as a result of sentences. That has reduced the head room within the prison estate by about 2,500. So it is a question of balancing these issues. We must of course have the means to reduce the prison population if that is urgently required, but we are not going to do it as a matter of course. We do not seek to release 4,000 prisoners just because that figure was the upper limit set in the provisions that were referred to. It is there as head room and will be used if required. If it is not required, it will not be used.

Reference was made to the unfortunate administrative error that led to the release of six prisoners who should not have been released. I commend the prisoners in question, who all returned as soon as the administrative error had been identified. One was then re-released, as it were; the other five were not. But to that extent they co-operated.

The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, asked me a series of about 20 questions. I will seek to address some of them. He asked why we need guidance for the Parole Board. It is appropriate that the Parole Board, like any body of that kind, should work within the boundaries of guidance. It is not that we do not trust it or rely on it but, like any such body, it would like to have a rulebook so that it knows the boundaries within which it operates. As I say, we will bring forward the review when we can.

Will the provisions extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland? I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, also raised this point. These are devolved issues and it is not for us to legislate for Scotland or Northern Ireland in these areas. However, my understanding is that both those legislatures are addressing this issue and they may in turn bring forward their own legislation in these areas. I would add only this: if somebody was convicted in Scotland but then transferred into the English prison establishment and became subject to the Parole Board in England, the provisions of the Act would apply to them. That is the only exception. Otherwise, we would leave it to the devolved Administrations to discharge their provisions as they think fit.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, referred to the observations of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier. I hope that I have addressed those to some extent. Clearly, there is the issue of the interests of victims being considered, and I anticipate that that will form part of the ongoing review into the operations of the Parole Board. I take the point that was made by a number of noble Lords about the introduction of technology to improve that whole process. As we see it accelerating in the courts, why should we not see it accelerating with other bodies? Those developments that just a few months ago people thought would take five to 50 years, are taking five to 50 days to implement, which shows what can be done when it is demanded.

The noble Baroness, Lady Finn, talked about a lack of transparency at the Parole Board; I hope I have addressed that to some extent. There is also the question of the Victim Contact Scheme. No doubt experience indicates that that can be improved, and we may have to look at whether it is an opt-in scheme or an opt-out scheme and how it can best be developed with modern technology to ensure that victims and their families are aware—not after the event but before the event—of these processes. I acknowledge the concern expressed on that point.

The noble Lord, Lord Mann, asked what happens when someone is committed to Broadmoor, for example. Their release would be determined under the provisions of the Mental Health Act and would go before the First-tier Tribunal for determination. If they were then referred back into the prison system, ultimately they would become subject to the parole process and to the Act; otherwise, their release from Broadmoor, or from another institution of that kind, would be under the Mental Health Act and not these provisions.

The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, raised a number of points that I hope I have addressed to some extent. In particular, he asked why we rejected the “no body, no release” point. I have sought to reassure him as to why it is appropriate that we should not accept that particular way forward. There is the question of incentivisation, and one of the purposes of the Bill is to make it very clear, not only to the Parole Board but to prisoners, that this is an issue they will have to face when they reach the preventive stage of their sentence and are seeking to be released into the community. But let us remember that there are evil and manipulative people out there, and they will not cease necessarily to be evil and they will not cease to be manipulative, no matter what legislation we seek to pass. We have to be realistic about that. It is unfortunate, but it is true.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, who I acknowledge took helpful and appropriate steps to engage with the McCourts after this Second Reading was deferred, raised the question of “no body, no release” as well, and I concur with the point that she made. She also asked how we would monitor the Bill. As I indicated, it is usual after a period of three years for us to look to review the workings of the Act once it is in force to ensure that it is achieving its necessary objectives.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked a number of questions. On a victims Bill, I cannot express a view as to how and when such a provision will come forward. On the operation of the Parole Board, we know that it will be the subject of further review, but I cannot fix a date for when that review will be available.

As I indicated at the outset, this is a short but fundamentally important Bill and I hope that I have dealt as far as I can with the specific questions raised by noble Lords, which can of course be taken forward for discussion in Committee.

Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker
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Will the Minister please write to me about whether this legislation once passed can be used by the families of victims to consider judicial review of decisions to release that have already been made?

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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I can answer that now. The Bill will be retrospective to the extent that it will apply to all those currently serving a sentence of imprisonment who are due to come before the Parole Board. If in those cases the Parole Board were to make an error of law by not applying the provisions of the Bill, that would leave it susceptible to administrative action by way of judicial review. But it will not allow families or victims to come forward and seek to judicially review a decision already implemented by the Parole Board for the release of an individual. I hope that makes clear the point the noble Baroness raised. I commend this Bill to the House.

Bill read a second time.
House adjourned at 4.41 pm.

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Wednesday 20th May 2020

(4 years ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 102-I Marshalled list for Virtual Committee - (15 May 2020)
Virtual Committee
14:31
The proceedings were conducted in a Virtual Committee via video call.
Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord McNicol of West Kilbride) (Lab)
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My Lords, this Virtual Committee will now begin. I remind Members that these proceedings are subject to parliamentary privilege, and that what we say is available to the public both in Hansard and to those listening and watching.

I shall begin by setting out how these proceedings will work. The Virtual Committee will operate as far as possible like a Grand Committee. A participants’ list for today’s proceedings has been published and is in my brief, which Members should have received. The brief also lists Members who have put their names to the amendments, or expressed an interest in speaking, on each group. I will call Members to speak in the order that they are listed. Members’ microphones will be muted by the broadcasters except when I call a Member to speak and whenever a Question is put, so interventions during speeches are not possible and uncalled speakers will not be heard.

During the debate on each group I will invite Members to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister. I will call Members to speak in order of request and will call the Minister to reply each time. Debate will take place on the lead amendment in each group only; the groupings are binding and it will not be possible to degroup an amendment for separate debate. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. Whenever I put the Question, all Members’ microphones will be opened until I give the result. Members should be aware that any sound made at that point may be broadcast. If a Member intends to press an amendment or to say “Not content”, it will greatly assist the Chair if they make this clear when speaking on the group. As in Grand Committee, it takes unanimity to amend the Bill, so if a single voice says “Not content”, an amendment is negatived, and if a single voice says “Content”, a clause stands part.

We now start with the group beginning with Amendment 1. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if anyone intending to say “Not content” if the Question is put made that clear in debate. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill in this Committee; this Committee cannot divide.

Clause 1: Murder, manslaughter or indecent images: prisoner’s non-disclosure

Amendment 1

Moved by
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 11, leave out “the Parole Board believes” and insert “the prisoner has been certified by two registered medical practitioners as not suffering from irreversible memory loss; and
(d) the Parole Board reasonably suspects”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment and the next in the name of Lord Blencathra would make it mandatory for the Parole Board to reject parole applications where a prisoner refuses to say where and how they disposed of a body, and the prisoner has been medically certified as not having irreversible memory loss.
Lord Blencathra Portrait Lord Blencathra (Con)
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My Lords, these little amendments are straightforward—at least, in my view. If passed, they would make it mandatory for the Parole Board not to release any prisoners who refused to divulge where and how they have disposed of the bodies of their victims. I have built in an exception for the minority who may have genuine and irreversible memory loss and are therefore unable to state that.

The reason for the amendments s quite simple. We all know that even when there is no criminality but a person is killed and no body is found, or someone is lost at sea, relatives find it very difficult to get closure. But where someone has been murdered, we have all seen the terrible distress of the parents—for example, of the Moors murders victims or of those murdered by the IRA—when the perpetrators will not reveal what they did with the bodies. It is, we are all told, one of the most difficult things for relatives to contend with. Can one imagine the anguish and the sheer injustice of it if a convict refuses to reveal what they have done with the victims, they continue to thumb their nose at the relatives of the victims and the Parole Board, but they can still be considered for early release?

My noble and learned friend and other noble and learned friends may say, “Well, don’t worry, in those circumstances the Parole Board would be highly unlikely to release that convict”, but why should it be at the discretion of the Parole Board based on its “belief” as to a person’s honesty and integrity?

If a convict, in full possession of their faculties and their memory, refuses to divulge what they did with the bodies of their victims, why should the Parole Board be put in the invidious position of having to come to a subjective judgment based on psychologists’ reports. Parliament should say that, in such circumstances, no one will be considered—I stress “considered”—for early release until they say what they have done with the bodies. If a convict refuses to admit that they have done anything wrong in killing someone, would they be considered for release? I believe not. Thus, if they will not talk about the disposal of their victims, they should automatically be excluded from any consideration of early release.

It is not as if the Parole Board has a great track record of coming to the right judgments, as we have seen in the Worboys cabbie rapist case. He should never have been considered for early release and is rightly still behind bars.

Only last week, Mr Justin Russell, the Chief Inspector of Probation, released a report stating that the number of murders by offenders released on probation rose from 70 in 2015 to 114 in 2018, an incredible increase and a fifth of all homicides in England and Wales. Of these, two-thirds had been assessed as “low or medium” risk on release, which meant that there was a lesser level of supervision and checks by probation officers and police.

This is not the time or place for me to set out my views on the naivety of many on the Parole Board, who swallow any old guff that the psychologists put in front of them: that a convict has seen the error of their ways and is now safe to release. Indeed, I do not have to make that observation, since the statistics that I have just cited speak for themselves.

Sociopaths, psychopaths, serial killers and rapists such as Ian Brady, Worboys and Joseph McCann are incredibly devious and calculating. If they can qualify for consideration for early release by keeping quiet about what they did with the bodies, why on earth should they own up? By doing so, they might trigger a further investigation which could lead to a further charge for another murder. Also, there might be such revulsion at how they disposed of the bodies that no Parole Board would ever dare consider them for early release. Therefore, there is an incentive for them to keep quiet and let everyone think that they killed their victims nicely and gave them a Christian burial.

We should use the certainty of no consideration for early release as the only weapon we have to get those people to talk. The Parole Board cannot do that, since the Bill allows them to consider their application and come to a belief judgment. If we remove that possibility, there is a chance of getting them to talk about what they did to the bodies. For the sake of grieving relatives and for the sake of justice, I beg to move.

Lord Blunkett Portrait Lord Blunkett (Lab)
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My Lords, I support the amendments because of the change that took place when the challenge to the right of the Home Secretary went through the judicial system and the safeguard that existed was therefore withdrawn. I do not share the view that the Parole Board is full of naive people. It has an incredibly difficult job and needs all the support and guidance it can get. I have my own disagreements with it, including on the case of David McCauliffe, who has been in prison for 32 years and did not commit murder or rape, although he did commit some totally heinous crimes.

I speak to this amendment because, like other Home Secretaries, I had to deal with Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. When Keith Bennett’s aunt, on behalf of the family, made her appeals to me to see if we could get an identification of where the little boy, Keith, was buried, my heart went out to the family. It was one of those distressing moments that Home Secretaries and now Justice Secretaries have to deal with in cases of murder, particularly where the body has not been identified and there is not therefore the opportunity to grieve properly or to lay the remains to rest. Winnie Johnson, Keith’s mother, died in 2012 without ever knowing where he was. No parent should have to put up with that.

As I have spoken about already, like my predecessors I was able to block the release of the Moors murderers because the power then existed with the Home Secretary. For reasons relating to human rights—it was not to do with the incorporation of the ECHR into the Human Rights Act but with the appeal that went through the judicial system—that power was taken away and, as described, now rests with the Parole Board.

In the circumstances, we are asking the impossible of the Parole Board: to make a judgment on a situation in which somebody has knowingly refused to identify the place in which they put the body of the individual they murdered. For the parents of a child, that is so horrendous as to require a much more rigid approach than we would normally take in giving judges and the Parole Board, quite rightly, the discretion they need to deal with cases. That is why I am in support.

Lord Garnier Portrait Lord Garnier (Con)
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My Lords, my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s Amendment 1 and the amendments in the next group to be moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and spoken to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, are concerned with the prisoner’s state of mind or mental capacity at the time of his application to the Parole Board for release on licence. The amendments may start from different places but end up in more or less the same place. The difference between them is where the assessment of the prisoner’s state of mind begins.

In short, if one agrees with my noble friend Lord Blencathra, it is essentially for the prisoner to persuade two doctors that he is not pulling the wool over the eyes of the Parole Board about not being able to remember where the victim’s remains are. If I correctly anticipate the argument of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, it is for the Parole Board to be satisfied that the prisoner’s state of mind or mental capacity is of such a quality that he is able to disclose, but has not disclosed, their whereabouts.

14:45
With the greatest respect to my noble friend and the noble and learned Lord, I am not entirely sure that there is much of substance that separates them. In reality, they are doing nothing more than accentuating the need for greater certainty at the Parole Board hearing about the true state of mind and knowledge of the prisoner seeking release. It could be said that my noble friend wants a dispassionately independent or objective assessment of the prisoner’s state of mind from two medical professionals to inform and bind the Parole Board panel, fettering its discretion, whereas the noble and learned Lord is prepared to leave it to the Parole Board panel to reach its own conclusion on the matter without expressing a view on how it obtains the information necessary to reach its conclusion, so long as it takes into account the prisoner’s state of mind or mental capacity to make the requisite disclosure.
It will be recalled that my noble and learned friend the Advocate-General said at Second Reading that
“the Parole Board must particularly take account of what, in its view, are the reasons for this non-disclosure. This subjective approach will enable the board to differentiate between circumstances such as when, for example, the non-disclosure is due to a prisoner’s mental illness, and cases when a prisoner makes a deliberate decision not to say where a victim’s remains are located. Subjectivity is fundamental to the proper functioning of the Bill. It is for the Parole Board, as an independent, court-like 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 the community. The Bill reflects the established practice of the Parole Board but goes a step further and puts a legal duty on the board to take the non-disclosure into account.”—[Official Report, 28/4/20; col. 195.]
The amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Blencathra brings with it an emphasis familiar to those of us who have had the privilege of listening to his speeches on criminal justice policy in your Lordships’ House and previously in the other place, where he served as a Home Office Minister and a knowledgeable Back-Bencher. He was always listened to with great respect and I often agreed with him.
On this occasion, however, I am not persuaded that what he has proposed adds anything to what my noble and learned friend the Advocate-General said at Second Reading. His amendment is, of course, characteristically clear and forthright. It leaves no room for doubt about he wants and intends to happen. I accept that prisoners convicted of murder or manslaughter should expect justice but not sympathy when asking the Parole Board to order their release after 20 or 30 years of a life sentence if they have not disclosed what they have done with their victim’s remains, particularly when they could have disclosed that information at or before conviction or sentence, when they must have known, or were more likely to have known—even with a trial some time after the event—precisely where the victim’s body was to be found.
The Bill as currently drafted does not preclude the Parole Board but commands it to take the prisoner’s non-disclosure into account, and, as my noble and learned friend said at Second Reading, the Parole Board is a “court-like body”. Knowing, as I do, a fair number of judges who have taken part in Parole Board hearings and been members of it, I have no doubt that its hearings will be conducted in a court-like way and that Clause 1(2) and Clause 1(3) in murder and manslaughter cases, and their equivalent provisions in cases of indecent photographs of children, will be resolutely and fairly applied.
All this is fine as far as it goes within the terms of the Bill itself. However, as I said at Second Reading, although Members of Parliament, Members of your Lordships’ House and others outside Parliament and politics have campaigned for the Bill with the best of motives, it is, in my judgment, a Bill that will disappoint. I listened with care to what was said at Second Reading in your Lordships’ House, having read the debates in the other place. I do not wish to be offensive, but mostly I heard and read enthusiastic applause. What Marie McCourt and the public at large need is a law that is clear, that deters and that bites. Such a law can be based only in a specific criminal offence of non-disclosure, tried not by a court-like body, but in public, by a judge, in an actual court, with suitable sentencing powers. Until we get to that point, while appreciating what the supporters of these amendments are getting at, I suggest that we let this Bill, imperfect as it is, pass unamended.
Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis (Lab)
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My Lords, there is clearly great public concern underlying this Bill. However, as he did in a very persuasive speech at Second Reading, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, has just asked whether it will make any difference whatever. The more speeches one hears, the less convinced one becomes that this is in fact going to change anything. What it does is put the discretion that currently exists, and the facts that currently have to be taken account of by the Parole Board, on a statutory footing. However, it has not been made clear at any stage why putting these on a statutory footing will make any difference to the current arrangement, where it is required to take account of these factors anyway.

In his persuasive speech at Second Reading, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, argued that non-disclosure of a body should itself be an offence which could lengthen a sentence. However, the response from the noble and learned Lord the Advocate-General raised as many questions as it answered. He said that the sentencing judge will

“take account of the non-disclosure when deciding on the length of the tariff”.—[Official Report, 28/4/20; col. 214.]

Therefore, it is a factor at the moment, but it is also a factor in respect of the Parole Board. To a lay observer such as me, that leaves us in the somewhat confusing position of not knowing where the penalty lies. Does it lie at both ends? Is a longer sentence imposed because of non-disclosure, and because it is a factor in respect of the Parole Board, or not? I would be grateful if the Minister could address that further.

Underlying all this, completely understandably, is massive public concern, which focuses particularly on especially gruesome cases. My noble friend Lord Blunkett said that, in the past, decisions on such cases have been made by the Home Secretary, reflecting—to be direct about it—public sentiment, which tended to go with those crimes that got the most media coverage at the time they were committed. Now, this discretion lies with the Parole Board, but the big problem is that the Parole Board is not really accountable to anyone at all. I welcome the Minister’s point about the role of the courts themselves, because the judge is formally required to consider factors when imposing a sentence. As we explore how we give effect to the real intention of the Bill, I wonder whether there might be some role for the courts—a judge—to take the final decision on whether a prisoner should be released in these circumstances.

Baroness Sanderson of Welton Portrait Baroness Sanderson of Welton (Con)
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My Lords, having not been able to take part in Second Reading, I welcome the chance to take part in today’s debate. I appreciate that we are now in Committee and therefore I will keep my comments brief.

I hope that the Bill will not disappoint, for I think it achieves something of immeasurable value. To all who have lost a loved one and who wait, day by day, if not hour by hour, to be reunited with them, it says that their son, daughter, mother or brother has not been, and will not be, forgotten. It gives victims dignity and it reassures their families that they are not alone in their quest to lay their loved one to rest. This might seem small comfort, but, in the circumstances, it is an important message to relay.

The families’ needs are paramount, and I fear that, despite the best of intentions, Amendment 1 could end up causing further distress. Irrespective of the fact that a “no body, no parole” rule does not allow for potential miscarriages of justice, should it be open to legal challenge, families may find that their suffering is in fact made worse over time. Given that they have already suffered in ways we cannot possibly imagine, I know that this is something we would all wish to avoid.

More generally, I hope noble Lords will not mind if I take this opportunity to welcome the inclusion in the Bill of the statutory obligation for the Parole Board to consider the non-disclosure of information about the identity of children featured in the taking and/or making of indecent images. I declare my interests as set out in the register as someone who works with the victims of child sexual abuse as part of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. I work on the Truth Project, which runs parallel to the inquiry and was set up so that victims could come forward and tell their stories—so that after years, very often decades, of not being listened to, they could finally be heard. While their experiences are, of course, different, the effects of abuse are all too often the same: lack of self-worth, guilt that this was somehow their fault, lives gone unfulfilled and people’s futures fundamentally changed through no fault of their own.

I would argue that, as a society, we are still coming to terms with the reality of child sexual abuse, so I welcome that the Bill acknowledges the very real harm that these indecent images can do. That is a big step forward and another way in which the Bill offers crucial support for victims and their families. I thank noble Lords for allowing me to make these extra comments. I hope that we will pass the Bill unamended.

Lord Mann Portrait Lord Mann (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, we heard at Second Reading the case of Helen McCourt. I have looked at how many more cases there have been in England since then of murder convictions where there is no body. There have been quite a number, with victims including Sarah Wellgreen, Jenny Nicholl and Danielle Jones. The interesting but predictable correlation is that the victims are all children and women. The last male victim was Mark Tildesley, aged seven—like Keith Bennett, a child murdered by an older man. I refer noble Lords back to terms that I used at Second Reading: power games and the misuse of power. It is no coincidence that it is young children—young boys and girls—and women who are the victims of crimes where there is no body and yet a murder has taken place.

This is more than a moral crusade, more than an ethical issue. It is more than trying to shape public demand—although I am sure that public demand is huge on this. I recall the heckling outside the Old Bailey many years ago, when a man was about to be convicted of murder and the call went out, “Hand him over to the women of Bermondsey.” Then, and now, we could get a significant majority in the country to acclaim that as a concept. That is not the way we do justice—but if we do justice using legislation through the parliamentary system, where there are weaknesses we need to address them. The fact that young children and women are the victims demonstrates the power game continuing behind bars. It is a misuse of power—the understanding that the murderer retains power over the family and friends grieving the lost one. The murder is motivated in these cases by that power. Therefore, the law needs to address how we deal with that. It is a double anguish, a double punishment that the families receive. It would not be a double punishment if this amendment were passed.

Therefore, to echo what others have said about the case that above all others dominated my early years, the Moors murderers, and Winnie Johnson’s public anguish, which we saw over many decades in our media, while there are many more anguished families who are less vocal and choose other ways to grieve, I do not think that we have the system right. I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra.

15:00
Lord Mackay of Clashfern Portrait Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Con)
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My Lords, my noble friend who proposed these amendments has been well known to me as a very clear, well-informed campaigner for many years in a number of different situations. I am also very conscious of the tremendous pain that is felt by a family who have lost a loved one in circumstances where they are unable to come to closure because they do not have the body of their loved one. However, we have to look at this carefully and that is what I suggest we do.

These amendments deal with a situation in which the prosecuting authority did not have access to the victim’s body in a murder or manslaughter case. In former times, it was difficult to secure a conviction in such a case, but prosecutors’ powers and the means of investigation at their disposal has enabled success in such cases to be easier now. Where a prisoner has pled not guilty and persistently proclaimed his innocence, it will not be consistent with his position to give such information. The circumstances in which such information might not be available are many. It might be impossible for him to know what happened to the body, for example if he was not a principal in the case, but an accessory who gave the lethal weapon to the perpetrator at some distance from the scene, or he was not the person who took charge of the body after the crime and had no knowledge of what was done with it. These are just some of the circumstances in which what happened to the body might not have been known to the prisoner and where the Parole Board cannot know or have a reasonable suspicion that he did. Yet, in each of these circumstances, the family’s pain is the same as if he did know. The result is that it is not always possible to find a just retribution for that pain.

The fact that the prisoner would not disclose the fate of the body would be known and would be a consideration at the time of the sentence. Co-operation with the police in their inquiries is a relevant factor in the determination of a sentence. This would be an important element in that aspect of the sentencing decision. The extent of the prisoner’s involvement would be much more freshly known at the time of the Parole Board hearing.

The Parole Board’s function in making its decision is to consider whether it is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the prosecution of further protection of the public that the prisoner should be confined. In my submission, it would be utterly contrary to that duty to refuse release, as proposed in the amendment, without any discretion to the Parole Board. I therefore object to the amendment and oppose it. To require the board to consider this matter, thus to commit it to the board’s discretion, is a wise and just way to recognise the severe pain inflicted on the family of the victim in the circumstances disclosed. The prisoner will know that this is to be considered and that this situation is unlikely to be a factor in his favour, so he might be encouraged to disclose what he knows.

In my view there are serious difficulties in making this matter a separate legal offence, as was proposed by my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier, for whom, as a lawyer and otherwise, I have the greatest respect. This is a matter that would be difficult to disentangle from the jury’s verdict on the murder—and the last thing we want is two different verdicts on the same case by different juries. However, I do not need to elaborate on that today, because that is not what is proposed. I conclude by emphasising the fact that I do not consider this a just way of dealing with a very painful problem.

Lord Naseby Portrait Lord Naseby (Con)
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My Lords, I shall be brief, because a great deal has been covered already, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Mann; he spoke on Second Reading, as I did myself, and we explored some of this then. The Committee should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. As was said on Second Reading, the Parole Board seems far from ideal in the present circumstances, and to have the safeguard of two registered medical practitioners is the least we can do, particularly in a high-risk situation. We are talking about men and women who have carried out terrible crimes. Bearing in mind the risk that they potentially pose to society, the safeguards in the amendment would be very helpful.

Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker (LD)
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My Lords, I welcome the debate, and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, has tabled the amendment, because it is right that we should subject the Government to scrutiny. In drafting it, the noble Lord has gone some way down the road towards matters that were discussed in another place, such as whether we should have a rule of no disclosure and no release at all. He has not gone quite that far; he is just seeking to stop early release. Members of your Lordships’ House should go back and read the debates in another place on that matter. If anything, the Commons was inclined to go down a more severe road than that suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, but in the end it decided not to. We should pay attention to its reasons for that—particularly in the light of the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who, as ever, dispensed wisdom to those of us who are non-lawyers, which I greatly appreciated.

May I ask the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, what difference his amendment would make in practice? My understanding is that its main thrust would be to require two medical opinions, which the Parole Board would have to follow; it would take away the board’s discretion. Does he have evidence of the Parole Board making decisions, particularly in cases involving such high-profile serious offenders, either without taking account of medical opinion or disregarding it completely? That seems to be what his amendments suggest may happen, and I am not sure whether there is evidence for that.

The Parole Board has the most difficult of tasks. It is always likely to disappoint one person, or one side of an argument, or another. It frequently finds itself having to depend publicly the judgments it has made, so I would be surprised if it was routinely dismissing or not paying attention to medical assessments. Indeed, it would have to have a medical assessment made by a medical practitioner to determine somebody’s mental capacity. I simply wish to know from the noble Lord what deficiency in the proceedings of the Parole Board he seeks to address and on what basis.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, I am winding up for the Opposition on this short but very interesting debate. I want to open by addressing the point made by my noble friend Lord Blunkett. He concluded in his support for this amendment that we are asking the impossible of the Parole Board. Although I recognise his immense experience, I question whether that basic assumption is true, and I take up the point just made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that we entrust the Parole Board with these extremely difficult decisions. All the members of the board who I have ever met are extremely responsible people. My understanding of this amendment is that it would require two medical opinions, after which the Parole Board would make its decision, and it is right that the Parole Board should have that responsibility.

My main objection to the amendment is that by making it inevitable in some way that people will find it impossible to get out of prison, they could be tempted to knowingly give wrong information and to do so as a form of torture, if you like, because they know that it will cause more distress to the parents involved. We should not give them that power. We should retain the responsibility and the subjective judgment of the Parole Board in making these difficult decisions.

I also listened to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, and the response to his points by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. They are both extremely experienced lawyers. I must admit that I was initially attracted to the solution proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, but I listened with interest to the objections of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and his method of solving the conundrum before us.

This amendment is not appropriate for the Bill, and I think we should pass the Bill as amended. While I acknowledge the point made by my noble friend Lord Adonis questioning whether the Bill is necessary, I think it is right that the practice of the Parole Board is put into statute, otherwise there may be other legal mechanisms of challenging the Parole Board’s decisions if it is adopting this practice but is not supported by proper legislation being in place. On that basis I would reject this amendment. We will consider the other amendments in due course, but largely speaking the Bill should pass unamended.

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Keen of Elie) (Con)
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I thank noble Lords and noble and learned Lords for their contributions to the debate in Committee —[Inaudible.]

Lord Faulkner of Worcester Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Faulkner of Worcester)
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Could the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, please lean a little closer to the microphone?

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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Yes, of course, although I do not think I could get much closer. Can you hear me?

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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Despite Amendments 1 and 3 having—[Inaudible.]

Lord Faulkner of Worcester Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees
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Sorry, we are still not hearing you.

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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I am not sure what I can do about that. Can you hear me now?

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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I believe the host has stopped the video. I will continue, if I may. Amendment 1, as indicated, would require certification by two—[Inaudible] —the application of the release provisions to the prisoner. Of course if the result of the assessment is that the prisoner is found to be suffering from irreversible memory loss, the Bill’s provisions would not apply to that prisoner. The amendment creates a requirement for medical certification in all cases where the board considered the provisions might apply before such provisions—[Inaudible]—as part of the release assessment. That of course contrasts with the Bill’s current approach, which is to allow the Parole Board as an independent—[Inaudible]—prisoner has not disclosed. So the amendment alters the subjective test that requires the board to— [Inaudible]—which they had not disclosed to, I think I quote, “reasonably suspect” that the prisoner has such information. Again, the replacement of “believe” with “reasonably suspect” would lower the threshold—[Inaudible.]

Lord Faulkner of Worcester Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees
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I am so sorry to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, and I apologise to all noble Lords. We have to adjourn for 10 minutes while we try to sort out this technical problem. We will resume shortly after 3.25 pm.

15:19
Virtual Proceeding suspended.
15:26
Lord Faulkner of Worcester Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees
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My Lords, we will now resume the Committee stage of the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill, and I hope that we will hear from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie. Perhaps I may suggest that he starts his remarks from the top.

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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I thank the Deputy Chairman of Committees and apologise to noble Lords for any inconvenience that has been caused. It is not clear what the problem was. [Inaudible.]

I was turning to look at Amendments 1 and 3, which, despite having separate effects on the Bill’s provisions, when taken together have the cumulative effect of preventing the Parole Board considering the release of any prisoner who has failed to disclose the relevant information, unless they have been certified as suffering from “irreversible memory loss”. [Inaudible.]

Lord Faulkner of Worcester Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees
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I apologise to the Minister but we cannot hear him properly. We will adjourn for five minutes in the hope that he will be able to dial in to speak in the debate. The Committee is adjourned until 3.34 pm.

15:27
Virtual Proceeding suspended.
15:32
Lord Faulkner of Worcester Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees
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My Lords, welcome back. We are on Amendment 1 of the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill. I hope we will now hear from the Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie.

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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I thank noble Lords for their patience. I now turn to consider Amendments 1 and 3, tabled by my noble friend Lord Blencathra. Although they have separate effects on the Bill’s provisions, when taken together, the two amendments have the cumulative effect of preventing the Parole Board considering the release of any prisoner who has failed to disclose the relevant information, unless they have been certified as suffering from “irreversible memory loss”.

Amendment 1 creates a requirement for medical certification in all cases in which the board considers that the provisions might apply to a prisoner, before such provisions would apply as part of the release assessment. This contrasts with the Bill’s current approach which is to allow the Parole Board, as an independent expert body, to form its own belief as to whether a prisoner has the necessary information regarding a victim’s remains, which that prisoner has not disclosed.

In addition, the amendment alters the subjective test that requires the board to believe that a prisoner has information regarding a victim’s remains which they have not disclosed to a test that it “reasonably suspects” that the prisoner has such information. That would lower the threshold of the evidential standard required by the board to satisfy itself.

Of course, mental impairment, including irreversible memory loss, may well be a reason for such non-disclosure, and I fully expect the Parole Board to consider these issues after consultation with medical and other experts, as it does now. In these circumstances, I see no need for a prior medical assessment to take place, which may be unnecessary and which would unjustifiably fetter the board’s subsequent handling of such cases.

Furthermore, the reference to reasonableness here is, I suggest, unnecessary. As a public authority, the board is already obliged to act reasonably, and to prescribe this in the Bill may undermine these existing general law principles. I do not consider that to be the appropriate approach in this instance.

Turning briefly to Amendment 3, which would deny release to any prisoner who failed to disclose the information under consideration in this Bill, unless they were suffering from irretrievable memory loss, as set out in the preceding amendment, it raises very real difficulties. Parole Board consideration of the case would cease until the prisoner disclosed the relevant information or the medical evidence changed. Precluding release on such grounds may very well give rise to a challenge under Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as once a prisoner has served their minimum tariff, and is found no longer to pose a risk to the public, continuing detention would be regarded as arbitrary for the purposes of Article 5. I will come back to elaborate upon that in a moment.

In addition, as was touched upon by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a failure to disclose relevant information may not be solely due to memory loss but, alternatively, may be due to mental impairment or mental ill-health, or could be a consequence of genuine changes, for example in geography, which meant the location of a body could no longer be identified. Furthermore, creating a blanket ban on release may even create an incentive for offenders to lie about the location of a body. In these circumstances, I encourage noble Lords to consider very carefully what the Bill currently enables the Board to do, which is to investigate these issues and to come to a subjective view in this context.

I will now touch upon a number of points raised. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, alluded to the question of the Home Secretary’s former power to block release. I just note that the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary does have the power now to review a decision of the Parole Board, and has exercised that power.

With regards to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, in the context of the sentences that we are looking at—that is, life sentences and certain extended sentences—there are two elements to the sentence: the punitive element and the preventive element. The punitive element is essentially the tariff which is set by the court at the time of sentencing, or the minimum period within the life sentence that the accused or convicted person is going to have to spend in custody. That will have regard to a number of factors including, for example, the non-disclosure of the whereabouts of a victim.

The preventive element is addressed by the Parole Board, and not by the court. As my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern observed, the test there is whether it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the prisoner should be detained. An element for consideration at that point is whether a failure to disclose the whereabouts of a victim or victims would indicate a continuing threat to the public in that context. To have an absolute bar on the prisoner being released, on the grounds of non-disclosure, would not fit with the appropriate test which has to be applied by the Parole Board at the preventive stage. I reiterate that this would take us into territory where the whole process could potentially be challenged under Article 5 of the convention. It would be extremely unwise for us to legislate on such an issue in circumstances where we left that legislation open to future challenge from the court. That is hardly going to bring any comfort to the families of victims and others.

In these circumstances, I do not consider that it would be appropriate to go down the road suggested by my noble friend Lord Blencathra. I would add only that I concur with the observations made by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay on the matter of a further criminal offence of non-disclosure. As I indicated before, there is a common law offence of not disclosing the whereabouts of a body, but even if one was to be convicted of that, in the context of a life sentence having already been imposed, there would be another concurrent sentence and that could only lead to a degree of confusion. That is putting aside for the moment the very real difficulty that was identified by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of two juries coming to quite different conclusions on the evidence in related trials.

In all of these circumstances, I would invite my noble friend to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees
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I have had notification that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, wishes to speak after the Minister.

Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis
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No, I simply wished to observe that we could not hear a word that the Minister was saying the first time around, but he was extremely clear the second time and I thought he gave a very effective response.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees
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In that case, I call the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, to reply to the debate.

Lord Blencathra Portrait Lord Blencathra
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My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for his response and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed. I shall try to comment briefly on all the points raised. I cannot say that I am disappointed with my noble and learned friend’s reply, since I had no expectation that our Ministry of Justice would countenance the radical proposal that some convicts not deserving of leniency should stay locked up.

Consideration for early release is not a fundamental right; it should be earned by a whole range of factors. Some of these may be subjective and judgmental, such as reports on the convict’s behaviour in prison, his attempts at learning a skill or trade, anger management and so on. Others, I believe, should be a simple statutory bar that removes any discretion from the Parole Board. One would be that a convict who admits that he killed a person but refuses to admit that it was wrong should not be considered for release until he is willing to make that admission. The other case, in my opinion, is the one before us today: no one should be considered for release if he has not given details of how and where he disposed of the bodies of his victims, with the exception for the minority who have genuine memory loss.

My noble and learned friend said that if a prisoner lies about the location of the body and it turns out to be false, he forfeits his right to consideration for early release. I am not suggesting that we take the prisoner at his word; we would not be so naive as to say, “Okay, you’ll get early release; you’ve told us where the body is”, and then a few weeks later discover that he has lied about it—of course not. Nor do I accept that a bar on early release would necessarily be in contravention of Article 5 of the treaty. My noble and learned friend said that it could—I think these were his words—“potentially put us in that territory”. That is far from certain.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who spoke with considerable authority on this matter. If my arguments are not convincing, I hope that the House will in due course listen to him. I was also moved by what the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said. He, too, had experience of the pain of the families of the Moors murder victims, who were deprived of closure because the killers kept that power. He stressed the word “power”, which is a very good term. If a prisoner can still be eligible for parole and not divulge information about the bodies, he retains that power over the relatives, the victims and the Parole Board.

I am grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier for his kind and typically overgenerous comments and, as usual, his very thoughtful and learned contribution. I hope that the Government will explore his idea of a proper court hearing to decide on disclosure, despite what my noble and learned friends the Advocate-General and Lord Mackay of Clashfern said. I take the point that my two doctors suggestion is another attempt to get some certainty when a prisoner may not be able to recall. I accept that getting certainty may be difficult for a wide variety of reasons, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern highlighted. However, I hope that he would agree with me that, where a prisoner considered to have memory recall simply refuses to divulge information, parole should not be considered in any circumstance. That is a quite different matter from a prisoner who is unable to recall, however that is determined.

15:45
In all my time in government, especially in the Home Office, I always found it impossible to get any legal changes through if my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern was opposed to them, because he could always find the legal loopholes in our proposals. In all honesty, our final Bills were all the better for his exacting analysis. He makes the point that a prisoner who refuses to disclose will have that taken into account in sentencing. That is true, but here we are considering whether that prisoner should qualify for early release based on their behaviour in prison. No matter how many extra years the sentencing judge may have added, that is a separate matter from consideration of early release, which depends on what someone has done in prison, not before.
I must say to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that I do not think that any of us knows about the internal workings of the Parole Board and how it considers evidence about a prisoner. My amendment is not a criticism of the Parole Board or a suspicion about how it operates in this regard; it is to remove the need for it to come to a subjective belief. I take the view that some things, such as a refusal to disclose where bodies are or how victims were killed, should automatically debar consideration of early release for thsose prisoners who do not have memory loss.
I am also grateful for the contributions of my noble friend Lady Sanderson, the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Ponsonby, and my noble friend Lord Naseby. While I do not accept my noble and learned friend’s arguments, this is not the place to persist with my amendment, so I beg leave to withdraw it.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Lord Faulkner of Worcester Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees
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We now start the group beginning with Amendment 2. I remind noble Lords that if they wish to speak after the Minister, they should email the clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if any noble Lord intending to say “Not content” when the question is put could make that clear in the debate. It takes unanimity to amend a Bill in this Committee. The Committee cannot divide.

Amendment 2

Moved by
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 14, after “prisoner” insert “is able to but”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment seeks to ensure that account is taken of the prisoner’s state of mind in determining whether they can make a disclosure.
Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull (CB)
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My Lords, it has long been recognised that the withholding of information about the location of victims’ remains can have a devastating impact on the lives and mental health of their families. This Bill enshrines in law what is already the practice in parole boards, which is fully to consider the failure by a prisoner to disclose this information or, indeed, to disclose the identity of child victims of indecent imagery. By removing any discretion to disregard non-disclosure, the Bill will play an important role in helping families come to terms with what for most of us is unimaginable grief. It is for these reasons that I supported the Bill at Second Reading. In doing so again today, I repeat my tributes to Marie McCourt and to those people who have campaigned tirelessly over several decades to see legislation of this sort brought before the House.

Amendments 2 and 4 in Clause 1 and Amendments 7, 8, 10, 11, 13, 14, 16 and 17 in Clause 2 make two connected points. The first is that parole boards must take account of the prisoner’s state of mind when determining whether they can in fact make a disclosure, and the second is that the prisoner’s mental capacity within the meaning of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 to make the disclosure, is taken into account. Out of necessity, the amendments are repeated at relevant places in the Bill, so I am essentially speaking to two amendments, and these two amendments stand together.

My amendments address the concern I raised at Second Reading that, as drafted, the Bill fails to provide adequate protection for prisoners with mental health issues, and therefore seeks to balance the imperative for justice with the appropriate regard for human rights. Since that occasion, I have discussed these concerns with colleagues working in mental health and with others working in mental health charities, including the charity Rethink. I am grateful to them and to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for their expert advice, and it is with their support that I have tabled these brief amendments.

In response to my questions at Second Reading, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, said:

“We are confident that the provisions of the Bill are sufficient and effective to apply in the contexts of non-disclosure, psychiatric conditions and mental illness.”—[Official Report, 28/4/20; col 214.]


Speaking in the other place, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, further clarified the Government’s acceptance by saying:

“This subjective approach is fundamental to the proper functioning of the Bill.”—[Official Report, Commons, 11/2/20; col. 748.]


In other words, the Government accept that the approach has to take into account the circumstances of the particular prisoner. This acceptance is important because the consequences of deliberate non-disclosure will, in most cases, give rise to a longer period of imprisonment. The Government rightly accept that these consequences should not flow on a strict liability basis, but only where in effect the non-disclosure is culpable and where there is, as conventional principles dictate, the combination of a relevant act carried out with the requisite degree of either intentionality or recklessness.

This approach has to be correct; any other approach would come dangerously close to suggesting that the mere fact that there is missing information means that the prisoner should be held responsible for withholding it. While the Government’s acceptance of this key point is welcome, the Bill does not at present specifically direct the Parole Board’s attention to the consideration of whether, first, the prisoner has the mental capacity to decide whether or not to disclose the information, and/or, secondly, whether for some reason—for instance, because of the presence of mental disorder—they cannot form the requisite intention to withhold the information.

It is difficult to know how extensive a problem this might present, as it has always been challenging accurately to estimate the number of prisoners with mental health problems in England and Wales. The 2017 report from the Public Accounts Select Committee showed that people in prison are more likely to suffer mental health problems than those in the community, and successive reports from the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, the National Audit Office and others have all highlighted that it is unknown precisely how many prisoners have mental illnesses. Figures from NHS England in March 2017 showed that nearly 8,000 prisoners, 10% of the prison population, were receiving treatment for mental illness in prison. It is estimated that 37% of NHS expenditure on adult healthcare in prisons is on mental health, which is more than twice the proportion within the NHS budget as a whole. The Public Accounts Committee also found that imprisonment can exacerbate mental illness, due to what it describes as,

“a deteriorating prison estate, long-standing lack of prison staff and the increased prevalence of drugs in prison.”

This is highly relevant to the Bill, given that parole hearings are likely to take place some considerable time after sentencing.

The World Health Organization points to several factors that have negative effects on the mental health of prisoners, including exposure to violence, enforced solitude or, conversely, lack of privacy, absence of meaningful activity, insecurity about the future and inadequate mental health services. Prisoners with mental health issues are often subject to bullying and extortion; they may even have their medication stolen. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has expressed concerns that its members are unable to deliver adequate mental health services in prisons.

These points bear repeating here because they demonstrate both the scale of mental health problems in the prison population and the potential for mental health to deteriorate during imprisonment. By extension, mental capacity may also change during imprisonment, given that, as defined within the Mental Capacity Act 2005, lack of capacity may be related to mental health, learning disabilities and neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia. The charity Rethink and other experts believe that these particular conditions are likely to be overrepresented in the prison system. Capacity is also specific to a given decision, rather than universal, meaning that a person who lacks capacity for some kinds of decisions may well be able to make others. The Mental Capacity Act code of practice is clear that a person can have capacity to make decisions in certain areas—for example, deciding what activities to undertake—while lacking it in others, such as a decision to disclose information. The potential for capacity to change over time, particularly with mental health conditions such as dementia, is especially relevant here, as the Government are rightly focused in the Bill on the present position. This makes it all the more important that parole boards are directed to take into account the current capacity of an offender to disclose information about a victim, the presence of mental illness at the time of the hearing, the place of the offender in their mental health recovery and their compliance with any treatment for mental health conditions.

As the Bill is presented, it would indeed be possible for the Parole Board to take these matters into account in the very broad discretion provided by each of the relevant clauses. This could also be amplified in any guidance provided to the Parole Board, but I contend that the Parole Board is not directed with sufficient precision to consideration of whether refusal to provide the relevant information is deliberate, and hence culpable. As the consequences of deliberate nondisclosure are, and are intended to be, serious, the test to be applied by the Parole Board should explicitly reflect this.

To conclude, my amendments would ensure, first, that specific focus is placed in that broad discretion on whether the refusal to disclose information is deliberate and therefore culpable, hence also relevant to consideration of the likely risk that the prisoner will pose; and secondly, that when considering questions of the prisoner’s capacity to make the decision to refuse to disclose the information, the Parole Board is doing so by express reference to the provisions of the Mental Capacity Act 2005. This is of no little importance, given the time-specific nature of the test for capacity in the Act. The focus of the Parole Board’s attention should be on whether the prisoner currently has the capacity to make the decision, rather than the position historically. This will be of particular relevance where the prisoner has a progressive condition such as dementia.

The Parole Board’s broader discussion to take account of all other relevant factors remains unfettered by the amendments. I urge the noble and learned Lord to consider these amendments and the attempt behind them seriously. I believe that they in no way undermine this important Bill; rather, they strengthen it by directing the Parole Board explicitly to determine whether prisoners’ withholding of information is deliberate, conscious and therefore culpable, and not unimportantly a potentially legitimate signifier of continued risk. I beg to move.

Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead (CB)
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My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 2 and 4, to which I have added my name. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, for her introduction to the group. I too completely understand the policy reasons that have given rise to the Bill. I have the deepest sympathy for those who feel that they can have no closure until they are given the information that the Bill refers to.

A tragic headline in the Scotsman only three weeks ago read:

“We cannot say goodbye until Suzanne is found.”


This was a reference to the case of Suzanne Pilley, of whose murder her former lover, David Gilroy, was convicted in 2012. It is now 10 years since she went missing, and her body has still not been found. Her family believe that he is the only person who knows where it is. The problem is that Gilroy has maintained throughout, despite his conviction, that he is innocent. He says that he cannot reveal where the body is and that it had nothing whatever to do with him. There seems to be no way out of this impasse, but the family’s distress is very real and very deep. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said, sadly, it is not always possible to find a just solution to their pain.

However, we need to be very careful about exactly what it is that the Bill is trying to achieve—or, to be more precise, about the test that the Parole Board is being asked to apply when it takes non-disclosure into account. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, was quite right in his understanding that our amendments seek to leave it with the Parole Board to make the judgment. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, said at Second Reading in the Chamber in April, this is not a “no body, no release” Bill, although that is what some campaigners would have preferred. We need to be clear: is the Bill about simply delaying release as a punishment, or securing the release of information? Surely, it is only by securing the release of the information that the board will be able to give closure to those most affected. I hope the Minister will be able to confirm that it is the latter and that the point of the Bill is to strengthen the power of the Parole Board to encourage disclosure. “Encourage” is perhaps too mild a word because of course, we have to face the fact that disclosure must have been asked for repeatedly, time and again, ever since the prisoner was first interviewed by the police. Nevertheless, one can only hope that, however this is done, the board will be able to achieve that objective.

16:00
It is worth bearing in mind, too—I hope that the Minister can confirm this—that we are contemplating a conversation between the board and the prisoner which may take place many years after the date when the crime was committed. That is because the board cannot begin to consider the prisoner’s case for release until their case has been referred to it by the Secretary of State. That, at least, was the system I worked with when I was the Lord Justice General in Scotland. As I understand it, this system continues to be used for public protection decisions under the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, which this Bill seeks to amend. A case cannot be referred until the tariff component of the life sentence has been served, which nowadays for murder is normally not less than about 15 years. The timing is important, because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, pointed out, imprisonment is likely to exacerbate poor mental health. The longer the period in prison, the greater its effect will be, so these will not be easy cases.
I greatly respect the work that is done by the Parole Board. I attended a number of its meetings in Scotland when I was Lord Justice General, as I needed to know how it went about its work in connection with some of the duties that I had to perform in that capacity. I found that great effort is put into gathering information about the prisoner, including their mental state, from a variety of sources, so that when it comes to consider making a public protection decision it does not start with a clean sheet of paper. It will almost certainly have a very large bundle in front of it to work through and study. It will also have to bear in mind that it may need to give reasons for its decision, especially when issues about non-disclosure come up. That is why I suggest that, in fairness to the board as well as to the prisoner, absolute clarity is needed as to exactly what the board is expected to look for when dealing with these very sensitive cases. It needs to be understood as well that this issue will become critical only when everything else in the prisoner’s history and conduct points to release.
At Second Reading, the Minister said that the subjective test that the Bill lays down will enable the board to distinguish between cases where, for example, the non-disclosure is the result of a psychiatric disorder or where it is a deliberate decision not to disclose. As I understand it, “subjective” means nothing more than that it is for the board to form its own view when making the public protection decision. That is as it should be, and our amendment would not disturb that in the slightest.
This still begs the question as to what precisely the board should look for when it comes to a non-disclosure decision where a reason as to whether to delay a release that would otherwise be appropriate may need to be given. With great respect, I think that the Minister was right to distinguish between a psychiatric disorder on the one hand and a deliberate decision on the other. The implication of what he said is that, if it is the former, the non-disclosure should not count against the prisoner when considering their case for release—for it to do so would be to adopt the unacceptable “no body, no release” approach. However, if it was deliberate, it should indeed count against them, with the further implication that they would probably not be released until they made a disclosure. As I understand it, if that is what the Bill seeks to do, the fact that the non-disclosure must be regarded as deliberate if it is to be taken into account needs to be stated clearly and unequivocally in it.
I support the noble Baroness’s amendments because this degree of clarity is missing in the Bill. The clarity that I suggest we need can be addressed in one or other, or both, of two ways. The first is simply, as Amendment 2 proposes, to insert “is able to but” in new Section 28A(1)(c) before “not disclosed” This would make it absolutely clear that the Parole Board should look for a decision that could be regarded as deliberate because the prisoner was able to disclose the information and their refusal may hopefully be changed by the threat of delayed release, so that the families could obtain closure. If the non-disclosure is not deliberate—for example, if the prisoner cannot help it due to mental disorder and is not able to address the point at all—delayed release until disclosure, which could never happen because of their state of mind, would be wholly unfair and unjust.
The second way, as Amendment 4 proposes, is to make express reference to the prisoner’s mental capacity as a factor that must be taken into account. The two amendments would give clarity to these provisions without in any way undermining the overall purpose of the Bill and the discretion of the Parole Board. They would, however, help the Parole Board in the performance of this new statutory duty.
I hope that the Minister will feel able to look very closely at these proposals. The board needs to know, with as much precision as can be achieved, what this measure expects it to look for when taking non-disclosure into account as grounds for delaying release when making the public protection decision. That is what subjecting it to a statutory duty requires.
Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker
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My Lords, I will address the same amendments in this group as were listed by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. Amendments 5, 6, 9, 12 and 15 will be addressed by my noble friends Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord German. I declare an interest as a member of an advisory board at the charity Rethink Mental Illness.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, I want to draw attention to the decisions being taken about a prisoner’s state of mind and their mental capacity to answer questions relating to the release of information about bodies. I was a member of the scrutiny committee in your Lordships’ House that did the pre-legislative scrutiny on the Mental Capacity Bill. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, I took part in the passage of that Bill through Parliament. I was part of the body that reviewed it and have subsequently been one of the Peers who participated in the Mental Capacity (Amendment) Bill.

When the post-legislative scrutiny of the Mental Capacity Act took place, it became very apparent that while it is widely regarded as being a very necessary and very innovative law, it is a law which is largely misunderstood and often ignored in practice. Some professionals, particularly in the world of health and social care, are very adept at understanding the concepts behind the Mental Capacity Act and are deploying them in their everyday work, but they are few and far between. Noble Lords who have listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, may have picked up on the fact that even within the medical profession, many practitioners simply do not understand what mental capacity and the tests of it are under this legislation.

During the review of the Mental Capacity Act, we spent virtually no time looking at the questions of how the Act is used within the criminal justice system, and I suspect that that was because it is not widely understood. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, made clear, the Mental Capacity Act rests upon the capacity of a person to make a particular decision at a particular time. It is not lawful to make a read-across from a person’s incapacity to make one decision to an assumption that they cannot make another. Therefore, in every case, it is for the Parole Board to decide at that point whether the prisoner has the capacity to withhold information, and that may vary over time.

It is right that we should discuss this, and we should look at putting these provisions in the Bill for three reasons. First, there are some conditions under which mental capacity can fluctuate. As mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, some mental health conditions—the effects of drug and alcohol or degenerative diseases, the onset of dementia—may mean that over time the capacity of a prisoner to release this information diminishes.

The second is that there needs to be training and good practice for all practitioners throughout the criminal justice system in determining mental capacity. That includes members of the Parole Board. I wonder whether, in his summing up on this amendment, the Minister might say what training members of the Parole Board have and what guidance is available to them in making determinations under the Mental Capacity Act. Do they call on Mental Capacity Act practitioners, as people in social services do when they come to determine the capacity of an individual to make any decision?

In saying all this, I am acutely aware that, in some of these cases, the crimes happened a very long time ago. I understand that Helen McCourt’s case was one of the first in which DNA evidence was used. Some prisoners who have been in prison for a very long time could be victims of a miscarriage of justice. It is extremely important when we look at their refusal to impart information about the whereabouts of a body that we do so with great care and make sure that we are not misjudging a lack of mental capacity.

Lord Thomas of Gresford Portrait Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD)
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My Lords, I am addressing Amendment 5 and the subsequent amendments to the same effect in relation to similar subsections in the Bill. I did not have the opportunity of speaking at Second Reading, so perhaps I can make one or two observations before I come to my amendments.

First, it is my experience that prosecutions where there is no body are comparatively rare. They do happen, but I recall only three or four cases in my own career where such things took place. If the Minister has information on this, I would be interested to know how many people subject to the provisions of the Bill are currently incarcerated in prison.

The noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Mann, referred to the Moors murders case. I was present in court at the Chester Assizes during that case as a pupil in support of the late Lord Hooson, who appeared on behalf of Brady. I can testify to the distress and huge impact that that case had on the families of victims— but not only them. It had an impact on the counsel who appeared in the case and indeed, I believe, on the judge.

Brady subsequently attempted, many years later, to take the police to places where he said he had buried bodies—to no effect. We cannot know whether this was a genuine attempt on his behalf to uncover the remains or whether he was simply, as has been put earlier in this debate, grinding the knife into the victims’ families. It is a terrible indication of what can happen to families in these circumstances.

My other point relates to the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. He relied on medical evidence, almost putting it in the place of the Parole Board. I prosecuted a double murder from mid-Wales which gave me a particular view. It was not a case where the bodies of the two victims were not available, but the defence was diminished responsibility. On the side of the defence in the original trial were no fewer than five psychologists and psychiatrists, giving evidence about the mental capacity of the defendant. On the prosecution side, there were four such expert views. After the conviction of the defendant, having observed their cross-examination in the witness box, one of the witnesses on behalf of the prosecution decided that the defendant really did suffer from mental incapacity. An appeal was launched on that basis. It was successful and there was a retrial in which there were then six experts for the defence and three for the prosecution. The defendant was still convicted of murder at the second trial by a majority of 11 to one.

What impacted on me was that members of the medical profession are accustomed to taking a history from patients, which they accept. There is no questioning of what they are told to any great degree. Therefore, to put the decision on the release of a prisoner undergoing life imprisonment in the hands of medical people is, to my mind, wrong. There should be a proper judicial process. I do not agree for a moment with the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, that the Parole Board will swallow any guff put before it—that is simply not what experience tells us.

16:15
Turning to my amendments, I was much impressed by the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, at Second Reading, in which he made points that he has repeated today. It occurred to me that his problem was, as the Minister described it, that giving a sentence for a separate offence of failing to disclose the whereabouts of remains would be ineffective because it would have to take place immediately and concurrently and could not be brought into effect at some indeterminate time in the future.
My mind turned to the Newton hearings, which are commonplace in court and in which a judge will determine, without a jury, when an issue is in dispute. It seems to me that a proper way of dealing with these cases would be that, if there was a dispute and the judge could ascertain that, then there should be a trial on that issue before sentencing. For example, the judge could announce after a jury’s verdict or after a plea of guilty that he would sentence on the basis that there had been a culpable and deliberate concealment of the remains.
If issue were taken by the defendant with that indication from the judge, a trial could be held on Newton principles, whereby at the time of trial—very much closer to the events with which the court was concerned—it could be determined whether the defendant had mental capacity and to what degree he was culpable. Prior to sentencing, the judge could come to a conclusion. In his sentencing remarks, he would make quite clear the degree to which the tariff was being extended by reason of a finding of culpability, and that would be built into the system so that the Parole Board would not consider the matter until the tariff had been completed. That would seem sensible, and the victim’s family would know from the very beginning that there had been a finding of culpability that had affected the sentence.
The problem at the moment is that the Parole Board comes to conclusions on issues that might be 15 or 20 years old, relying on medical and any other evidence before it. However, if a Newton hearing had taken place, the Parole Board would be very much strengthened in the view that it took.
I appreciate that with many prisoners currently serving life sentences or sentences of extended degree there will never have been a Newton hearing. However, if the provision that I suggest in my amendment were adopted, it would encourage judges, who could be given directions by the senior judiciary to follow that course, first, to say that they would deal with the defendant on the basis that he was culpable and, secondly, to hold a Newton hearing. In future, this might be a much more satisfactory way of dealing with matters than the current situation, in which the Parole Board looks at the matter with a lower standard of proof many, many years later.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, I support Amendment 2 and the other amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. I contributed to the Second Reading debate on the Bill a few weeks ago in the Chamber, where the noble Baroness made a powerful speech. Like other noble Lords, I welcome the Bill and pay tribute to the campaigners who have got us to this point.

The amendments before us allow us to have a debate on the detail of the issue in question. The balance that has to be stuck here is between justice and the denial of a funeral to a victim’s family, which brings further pain and distress to a family denied the ability to grieve properly, a prisoner with mental health issues and respect for human rights. These are extremely difficult issues that have to be approached with thoroughness. Decisions being made clearly and victims being listened to are an important part of the work that we expect the Parole Board to do.

The Parole Board has to take account of several factors in making its decisions. I have never met a member of the Parole Board, unlike my noble friends Lord Blunkett and Lord Ponsonby, but the Parole Board deserves our support in the difficult job that it is asked to do. I do not doubt that it undertakes its responsibilities with the utmost seriousness, making difficult and important judgments independently, and I wholeheartedly endorse the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, in that respect.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, has posed a number of points for the Minister to address about the state of mind of the prisoner at a particular time as well as the prisoner’s mental capacity. I very much see the point that the noble Baroness is making: that these issues should be taken into account at the time of the hearing. I look forward to the Minister’s reply on these points and on other points made by noble Lords.

Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Portrait Baroness Watkins of Tavistock (CB)
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My Lords, I support the amendments in the second group in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, particularly in relation to Amendments 2 and 4, which are reiterated in subsequent amendments. I reinforce my full support for the Bill and congratulate the Government on bringing it forward.

I support the concept of removing any discretion to disregard non-disclosure by prisoners when Parole Boards are reviewing their cases. This is because there is a very small minority of people who may have severe mental health problems but who are also well able to give the impression that they have complete amnesia. I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said earlier about healthcare professionals believing what they are told by people with mental health problems. I actually worked in Broadmoor and introducing as part of the concept as a trainer that you should not read a patient’s records until you had got to know the patient a bit. That is sometimes quite shocking because you trust people but then find that significant things they have told you are in fact extremely inaccurate. So we must be clear that medics are not on the whole easily fooled by the very small minority of people who are able to display very significant selective amnesia.

Of much more interest to me at the moment in relation to this Act is that the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and its subsequent amendments, as referred to by other noble Lords, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, indicate that we have a growing population with significant acquired brain injury, severe psychosis and, of course, a range of neurodegenerative progressive disorders, known largely as the dementias, which mean that prisoners who have been in prison for 15 to 30 years may well have developed cognitive difficulty during the period of their imprisonment. When they then apply to the Parole Board, it is right that they have full access to a medical assessment in line with their human rights. I believe there will be a proportion of people who apply in this way who do not have sufficient cognitive ability at the time when they come to the Parole Board that they will be able coherently to remember the kind of issues that we have raised during this debate.

In summary, I support the approach of the charity Rethink Mental Illness that these amendments would provide an explicit reference to mental capacity, meaning that there would be consistency adopted by Parole Boards when reviewing individual cases. I would like to see the amendments supported, but I am also very aware that, in the review of the Mental Capacity Act, we were able to deal with some things by ensuring that they would be put into guidance for practitioners. That may be something to consider in relation to the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady Bull.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
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I wish to speak in favour of this group of amendments, particularly those tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.

Where a Newton hearing has taken place in respect to the relevant facts of an offence, it makes sense that those findings must be taken into account by the Parole Board when making a decision affected by the Bill. In effect, a rigorous “mini-trial” has been carried out, and a judgment given, so this information should quite obviously be used by the Parole Board.

In some circumstances, this might go in favour of the prisoner; in others, it might go against them. Either way, justice will be served by using the proceeds of Newton hearings. Without doing so, the Parole Board is at risk of ignoring or contradicting the findings of the Newton hearing which set the grounds for the prisoner’s sentence in the first place. That would not make sense and would create ripe grounds for judicial review of the Parole Board’s decision. It is almost inevitable, I would have thought, that a judicial review would conclude that it must be taken into account by the Parole Board. In the interests of clear legislation, and for the clarity of prisoners and victims, the Government really have to accept these amendments.

Lord Naseby Portrait Lord Naseby
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My Lords, I do not wish to contribute at this point, but I will listen to the Minister’s response.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Portrait Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd (CB)
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My Lords, I wish to speak briefly to the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady Bull, and to support them, but before turning to that, I will make two points.

I entirely agree with and support the purposes of the Bill because, as has been shown on so many occasions, closure is impossible to achieve to any degree without knowledge of what has happened to the body of the deceased. However, there is another observation which it is important to make. If there is to be a proper review and recasting of the Parole Board system, which is long overdue, it is not sensible to make piecemeal amendments at this stage. Therefore, I urge that this Bill be passed without significant amendment.

The only amendment which I support, and I do so warmly, is that tabled by my noble friend Lady Bull. My reason for doing so is very straightforward. It is my experience that, when hearing evidence, trying to determine whether someone has had memory loss and whether that loss is genuine is an extremely difficult exercise. Medical opinion may well vary on either side of the argument. Therefore, it is very important that, if there is a case in which mental capacity or the mental state of the convicted person is to be examined, it is done very carefully before the board. It seems self-evident that if, after a long time in prison, a person is to be considered unsuitable for release because disclosure of the whereabouts of the body or other matters has not been made, the judgment should take into account, if the question arises, whether the prisoner has the mental capacity to recall the events, whether his mental health permits him to do so or whether this is all phony. That is a difficult determination and it should be done by the board.

16:30
I do not suggest that the Committee should adopt the other amendments. I will say one thing to try to clarify what has been said in relation to findings of fact made by the trial judge. As Schedule 21 requires a court to have regard to concealment of the body, it is my experience that invariably a judge has made findings, either set out in his sentencing remarks after clarifying matters if the plea is one of guilty, or after hearing evidence and reaching his own determination of the matter. In my experience also, a person who has not disclosed the whereabouts of the body, even for a relatively short period of time, is normally considered for a longer sentence because of that fact.
It is important for this Bill and for the Parole Board to bear in mind that the judge will have made findings many years before, and it cannot be right that someone is punished again if he has already been punished for non-disclosure of the whereabouts of the body. However, it seems to me right in principle that the suitability for release, which is a different consideration, is something to which the Parole Board can have regard, particularly taking into account the mental capacity and mental health of the prisoner, and a very careful distinction has to be made.
As the process of time at which the second assessment has to be made is very different to the original assessment by the trial judge, for which the prisoner will have been punished, it seems that this is pre-eminently a matter for the Parole Board having regard to all the factors that were before the judge, and all the evidence and other factors that are before it. In reviewing decisions of the Parole Board, my experience has been generally that it sets about matters of this kind with great care and takes into account all the evidence. I would leave the discretion to the Parole Board, subject to making it very clear what is put forward in the proposed amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. I do not think that any further amendments to the Bill are required.
Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis
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I have nothing to add on this group.

Lord Woolf Portrait Lord Woolf (CB)
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I have listened to what has been said in the debate so far with considerable interest. I am afraid that I was unable to attend Second Reading, but I have read the transcript of it with particular interest, and I am bound to say that what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, had to say then was particularly important. I have been helped in my consideration by what has been said in the debate today.

We start off with the fact that anybody who knows victims who have been put in the position of those who were the sponsors of the legislation which we are now considering knows that what they had to go through because they were not able to find out what happened to their deceased relative causes the greatest anguish. They certainly deserve to be protected from suffering any more anguish than is absolutely necessary. The question before us is: what is the best way to achieve the redress to which they are entitled, bearing in mind the practicalities of our criminal justice system?

I was also very impressed by what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, and his reference to a Newton hearing. That deserves important attention, because it is a way of achieving the best possible result when this sort of problem has to be considered. The prisoner should know that if he is voluntarily failing to disclose information that he has, there is a risk that he will suffer a substantial increase in the period for which he is detained. That is the most likely thing to produce the result that anyone must hope for. And if that be so, the question is: what is the best way to achieve this in a just manner? It has to be done in a just manner, because if it is not, there is a danger of making the prisoner, quite undeservedly, the subject of some concern and sympathy.

That brings me to the Newton hearing, because I believe this is best left in the hands of the trial judge. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said the same thing—indeed, so did the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. The judge has been listening to the trial and he knows the facts of the trial, so for him to deal with it is ideal. Otherwise there can be difficulty. What the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said about the sort of problem that could arise indicates why it could be important for the judge to deal with it. If he told the defendant that he was going to deal with it, there could be a Newton hearing in public, in which the victims would see that the matter had been investigated properly, and have the judge’s knowing response to what was causing them concern.

If at the end of the trial there were any reason for a prisoner to say, “I can’t recall”, or “I can’t give you information because I didn’t deal with what happened at that stage”, people would hear it, and hear the prisoner being questioned and cross-examined about it. The relatives of the deceased, too, would hear that process being conducted, so they would know that it had been fully investigated. If, as I believe would happen in most circumstances, the judge came to the conclusion that the defendant was erecting a smokescreen to try to hide what he was doing, which was so malicious, the judge would find the matter, and in due course it would, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, pointed out, be taken into account by the Parole Board.

It has been suggested that that should be done much nearer the time of the questioning being considered by the Parole Board—but I suggest that a better time would be not later in the day, when all sorts of other matters can arise to muddy the water, but immediately after the trial. The record on Newton hearings is very good; they have resolved problems where facts have needed to be resolved, and that is a process which can be conducted fairly.

It is also important that the situation should be one where justice has been done. If it is done in the way that would be carried out at a Newton hearing, that would be achieved. Although the amendments put forward so far may not satisfactorily deal with the situation, I suggest that there is plenty of time before the Bill becomes law to achieve what is suggested in the amendment I am addressing, as put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. I suggest that is the sensible thing. One of the advantages of a Newton hearing is that the procedure which takes place is short and curtailed at the end of the trial.

Lord German Portrait Lord German (LD)
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My Lords, I too was precluded from taking part at Second Reading, but I have read the transcripts in Hansard. There are two substantive issues in this group of amendments, and neither of the two sets takes away the required subjectivity of which the Minister has spoken.

The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and my noble friend Lady Barker, seek to ensure that the prisoner has the mental capacity to provide the disclosure information required. The Mental Capacity Act 2005 defines mental capacity by saying that

“a person lacks capacity in relation to a matter if at the material time he is unable to make a decision for himself in relation to the matter because of an impairment of, or a disturbance in the functioning of, the mind or brain.”

It follows that the Parole Board would need to have received the appropriate professional advice that this test of capacity would not apply. If the advice was that the prisoner lacked the mental capacity under this definition, that would be a material fact for the Parole Board to take into account.

It is presumed that the prisoner could therefore not be expected to provide an answer to the disclosure question if the test was not passed. This test is also a relevant issue in the decision to be taken by the Parole Board on grounds of public safety, which of course is the pre-eminent thing that it has to do. Many noble Lords have outlined in debating these amendments that the Parole Board’s task is to determine whether failure to disclose is both deliberate and culpable. These amendments provide more precision for the board to make its decision.

I now move on to the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Thomas. They have the intention of providing the Parole Board with an increased level of relevant information on disclosure by including the issues raised by Newton hearings. A Newton hearing may be held where a defendant has been found guilty at trial or has entered a plea of guilty but the issues in dispute which could affect sentencing were not resolved by the verdict of a jury. In the course of a Newton hearing, the prosecution will call evidence and test defence evidence in the usual manner: in front of a judge. This includes that it can call witnesses to give evidence if required. If the issue is within the exclusive knowledge of the defendant, as is the case with the situations defined in the Bill, they should be prepared to give evidence as well. Where they fail to do so without good reason, the judge may draw such inferences as they think fit. This increased level of information would become available to the Parole Board when taking into account the issue of disclosure in considering parole if these amendments were in place.

At Second Reading in the House, and in Committee today, as mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, noble Lords have pressed the Government to make non-disclosure an offence at the time of a first trial. My noble friend’s proposal seeks to take the intention of the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, and put them into an established legal framework. Newton hearings may be a fairly recent legal procedure, but in the matters relating to the purposes of the Bill such a hearing could have a profound effect on the outcome for the victims. Justice is not just a point in time for them; it can last a long time, and for some a lifetime. For victims, coming to terms with their grief, anguish and hurt can last forever. That is why the justice system has to do everything in its power to make this coming-to-terms period as short as possible.

The amendments to this tightly drawn Bill do not determine that there shall be a Newton hearing but simply that, if one has taken place, the Parole Board shall take note of its proceedings, which will provide it with internal and external information—for which I am sure it would be grateful—and will determine whether there was remorse and whether the perpetrator had knowledge of his or her victims that he or she had chosen not to disclose. It may be easier to achieve this disclosure, and hopefully provide solace to the victims, at this early stage.

While these amendments do not require that there are Newton hearings, their inclusion in the Bill would send a powerful message to the judiciary of the significance of such a hearing, particularly its impact on victims, and therefore they might become a regular feature in future—but they are not part of the Bill. I commend these amendments to the Minister and look forward to a positive response to these proposals.

16:45
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
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My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord German, has just said, there are essentially two groups within this single group of amendments. The first was introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, on mental capacity and making sure that the Mental Capacity Act 2005 is properly taken into account in the Parole Board proceedings. I was persuaded by the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that while we should not do piecemeal reforms of the Parole Board system—I anticipate that the Minister will say there will be a larger-scale review of the Parole Board system—this aspect of the mental capacity of the offenders who come before the board should nevertheless be taken into account.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, was very persuasive in her speech. She alluded to my noble friend Lord Bradley’s report, in which he pointed out that it is unknown how many people in our prisons have mental disorders. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, said, it should be no surprise that quite a lot of prisoners’ mental capacity deteriorates because of their time in prison, for the reasons she gave in her speech. The other point she made was about dementia. We are often dealing with people on very long prison sentences, and dementia is becoming an ever more real issue. For those reasons, I support the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull.

The amendments in the second part of this group were introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, who spoke about Newton hearings as a possible way of resolving this conundrum. I have some experience of Newton hearings in a much lower capacity in magistrates’ courts. I regularly have Newton hearings, trying to resolve whatever the issue of the day is. My experience is that, in practice, it is quite difficult to narrow the issues and look just at the issue in dispute in a Newton hearing. It is very often the case that the wider events surrounding the events as a whole are brought into the case, even when one is trying to narrow the issue.

While I understand the suggestion and think it interesting, I am also mindful of the points made by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Thomas, that the sentencing judge will have heard the whole case in any event and can explain their view on the reason the offender has not disclosed the location of the body and make it quite explicit whether there is an uplift to the tariff because of the way the offender has behaved. I am open-minded on that point; I have just raised some questions that arise from my own experience in the lower courts.

Nevertheless, these amendments are interesting and constructive. I hope that, when he comes to reply, the Minister will treat them in that way.

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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I thank noble Lords and noble and learned Lords for their contribution to the debate prompted by these amendments. I begin with a number of general remarks which may well be familiar to noble and learned Lords, but perhaps not to everyone.

I believe there was a reference at one stage of the proceedings to early release, and I emphasise that we are not dealing here with any issue of early release. As I mentioned in response to observations from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, we are generally dealing with a life sentence or extended sentence, and when we come to look at that, we can identify two elements—in what I shall refer to as a life sentence. There is the punitive element, which is the tariff fixed by the court, and a preventive element, which is the issue addressed by the Parole Board in the context of public protection. The Parole Board’s role comes into play only at the end of the tariff—the punitive element of the sentence—at which point the Parole Board has to determine whether there should be a continuation of custody or a release under licence, having regard to the public protection test.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, was quite right in observing that in most, if not all, of these cases, the judge will have made findings in fact that will address, among other things, whether there has been disclosure of a victim’s whereabouts. If that becomes an issue, there is scope for what is termed a Newton hearing. But generally, the trial judge—whether after plea or after trial—will be in a position to make findings in fact on that issue, and to then reflect those findings in fact in the tariff he imposes upon the individual in question when applying the punitive element of the sentence. I emphasise that because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, made the point that there should not be punishment again. That is quite right: it is not the role of the Parole Board to punish. The role of the Parole Board is to determine, by reference to the public protection test, whether at the expiry of the tariff it is appropriate for an individual to be released from custody, albeit under licence.

That takes me to an observation of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, who asked whether the object of this legislation is to delay release as a punishment. The answer is clearly no. The issue being addressed is in the context of public protection, and whether the failure to disclose indicates to the Parole Board that there is a very real and material question about public protection, and whether someone should be retained in custody. Indeed, if the object of this legislation was to punish, it would potentially be in breach of both Article 5 and Article 7 of the European convention. I stress that this is not the object of this legislation at all.

I turn specifically to the amendments tabled—first, to those in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, which really have two limbs. The first is covered by Amendments 2, 7, 10, 13 and 16, and the second by Amendment 4 and subsequent amendments. The first limb would ensure that the Bill’s provisions apply only to prisoners who are “able” to disclose relevant information about the location of a victim’s remains but had not done so. The second limb would particularise a prisoner’s mental capacity as one of the possible reasons for non-disclosure.

The Bill in its current form affords the Parole Board a wide scope to subjectively consider the circumstances of a prisoner’s non-disclosure. The test is broadly drafted to give the Parole Board, an independent judicial body with experience of assessing risk and evidence, sufficient flexibility to take all circumstances into account when making a determination about non-disclosure, including the ability, whether mental or physical, of an offender to disclose.

The amendments as drafted would confine the operation of the provisions to prisoners deemed able to make such a disclosure but who had not done so. However, there may be cases where an offender has had ample opportunity to co-operate with the police or the authorities over many years to reveal a victim’s whereabouts but has refused to do so. If such an offender later became unable to disclose—by reason of age or mental illness, for example—the provision of these amendments would not apply to that offender and the board would be unable to consider a previous refusal to co-operate in its assessment of that prisoner’s risk, yet these previous persistent refusals may well be considered as reflecting quite materially on the risk that the prisoner posed to the public in the event of release on licence.

The current Bill avoids such difficulties by allowing the Parole Board to consider all possible reasons in its view to explain non-disclosure, including considering historical refusals. That flexible approach is underlined by Clause 1(3), which makes clear that the imposition of the statutory duty does not in any way limit other matters that the board must or may take into account when conducting such an assessment.

The existence of mental health difficulties or a lack of mental health capacity would doubtless be a relevant circumstance to be taken into account, but there would also be other relevant circumstances. By not specifically referring to particulars in the Bill, we are not giving some more significance than others; we are instead allowing the Parole Board to use its expertise in how it approaches such cases. It is therefore for the board itself to take a subjective view of what the reasons might be, and then it is for the board to decide what bearing that information may have on the subsequent assessment of suitability for release, which is the relevant test that the Parole Board has to address.

We have deliberately avoided any delineation in the Bill of what the reasons for non-disclosure may be, to preserve this flexible and subjective approach. Noble Lords have correctly identified that a prisoner’s mental state is likely to be a significant factor in assessing reasons for non-disclosure but there may also be other reasons, such as, as I mentioned, geographical change, mental impairment or issues of mental capacity that may not have occurred at an earlier point but will still be relevant to a current assessment. In these circumstances, I will be inviting the noble Baroness to withdraw this amendment.

I move on to the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, which specify that where a Newton hearing has been carried out to ascertain certain disputed facts—generally where there has been a guilty plea, but it may take place after a trial—that should be considered by the Parole Board. The short point that I would make is that these are matters that it will be within the competence of the Parole Board to consider, and the board can call for all material pertaining to sentencing, including the terms of any Newton hearing that may have taken place. I apprehend that what the noble Lord may have in mind is perhaps to encourage judicial activity when sentencing in these cases to ensure that they address the non-disclosure of the whereabouts of a victim. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, observed, that is something that will invariably be taken into account by a trial judge in fixing a tariff for the sentence that he is going to impose.

17:00
If there is a dispute of fact that is material to the issue, there may be a Newton hearing, albeit my understanding is that they are not that common. I note the observation of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that, in his experience, they can in fact be quite difficult hearings to determine. I emphasise that they clearly are a relevant basis for consideration by the Parole Board and, therefore, the Parole Board already has the means to call upon such material if it wishes to do so.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, raised the question of the Parole Board’s competence to address issues of mental health. I would observe that, where such issues arise, the Parole Board is in a position to ensure that there is a suitable psychologist or psychiatrist board member of the panel who would be available when required. That expertise is available to the Parole Board when it comes to consider these cases.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, asked a very particular question about how many offenders at present in prison will be subject to the provisions of the Bill. I cannot answer that question immediately, but I will take steps to see if that information can be ascertained. If it can be easily and reasonably ascertained, I undertake to write to him and place a copy of the letter in the Library.
I again thank noble Lords and noble and learned Lords for their contribution to this debate. It appears to me that we ultimately have a common objective so far as this Bill is concerned but, at this stage, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall) (Lab)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, have indicated that they wish to speak after the Minister. I call the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.

Lord Thomas of Gresford Portrait Lord Thomas of Gresford
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My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for his reply, but I think it is necessary to distinguish where there has been a plea of guilty and where there has been a plea of not guilty in a trial. Very often, when a person pleads guilty, he will, with the assistance of his legal team, put together a basis of plea, which is handed to the prosecution for consideration. If it accepts the basis of plea, there is no problem but, if there is an issue, a Newton hearing will be held to determine whether the prosecution which refuses to accept the basis of plea is correct or whether the defendant who is pleading guilty is correct. The judge will sentence accordingly.

That is one situation. Another is after a trial, when there has been a finding of guilt. Let us take a circumstance where a group of people have attacked an individual and one of the group says, “I didn’t take part”—indeed, I remember a case where precisely that happened; the defence was, “I was trying to discourage them so they’d go away”—but, at the end of the trial, the defendant is found guilty. At that point, the judge says, “I will sentence you on the basis that you are withholding information as to where the body was buried.” The defendant could then say, “I’ve been found guilty, but the others took the body away and I want to be heard on that, because I don’t know where they went and where the body was ultimately buried. You cannot sentence me on the basis of the facts the jury has found—that I was a party to a killing—when I don’t know where the body went.” That situation does not involve mental incapacity at all and such a situation should be investigated at the time and not 15 or 20 years later by the Parole Board doing its best, unassisted by medical evidence because it would not arise. It seems to me that issues of that nature should be determined prior to sentencing for the actual offence, whether there is a plea of guilty or a finding of guilt. That should involve a hearing of the sort that I have proposed.

Obviously, my amendment does not require the Parole Board to order a hearing. As the Minister anticipated, my purpose is to encourage the holding of Newton hearings where necessary. I do not believe that they are quite as rare or unusual as he suggests. In this particular instance, with proper directions being given generally to judges to hold Newton hearings where appropriate, they would be useful and helpful to the board’s ultimate determination. They would be of great significance concerning culpability.

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has observed. In cases of this kind, the judge will wish to take into account the disclosure or non-disclosure of the whereabouts of a victim and the circumstances in which the offender can or cannot make that disclosure. There may be circumstances in which that might necessitate a Newton hearing, and so be it. That would be done contemporaneously with the determination of the tariff in the sentence. When later on we get to the preventive element after the tariff has been served, the Parole Board will be able to call for all that material, whether it be a Newton hearing or otherwise.

I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has to say about the importance of determining these issues at the time of trial and sentence; I do not disagree with him at all. It may be that some element of encouragement will be given if it is required, although I take from the observations of the former Lord Chief Justice—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas—that there may be little requirement to encourage in a matter that is dealt with in this way day in and day out.

Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead
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My Lords, I refer the Minister to his remarks about historic refusals. Reading proposed new subsection (1)(c), I do not get the impression that it is talking about historic refusals and I do not think that anything in the noble Baroness’s amendments would cut the ability of the board to look at them. What the opening words of the subsection are talking about is a situation where the board

“believes that the prisoner has information”—

talking about it in the present tense so that the board can consider it in a situation where it thinks that the prisoner is able to do something. That is where the words suggested by the noble Baroness would fit in very well.

Would the Minister like to reflect carefully on exactly what subsection (1)(c) is talking about and reconsider his point as to whether these amendments would cut out historic refusals, which would be highly undesirable, of course?

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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It does appear that the amendment has that effect even it was unintended. I will give the matter further consideration, as invited to by the noble and learned Lord.

Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, for his comments and I have listened carefully to his response. I also express my gratitude to all noble and noble and learned Lords who have spoken in support of my amendments. Aside from generously sharing his considerable expertise with me in advance of today’s debate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, helpfully extended my arguments to include the possibility that the convicted prisoner is not in fact able to disclose the information because, despite the findings of the court at trial, they are innocent. One hopes that this is rarely the case, but of course history shows that it can indeed be so.

I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, who sounded a useful warning about the general understanding of the Mental Capacity Act and concerns about the extent to which it is drawn on and applied within the prison environment. She raised an important question about training for practitioners in the criminal justice system, including members of the Parole Board, in applying the provisions of the Act. The Minister responded to a point about competence, but I am not sure that he responded to the point about training more broadly to enhance understanding of the Act within the criminal justice system. Perhaps he would write to us on that point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, spoke from her position of vast experience, including in Broadmoor, and reminded us that medical personnel are usually well able to distinguish between genuine mental disorders and what was referred to earlier as “guff”. Her views of course bear considerable weight here.

I am grateful to the Minister for addressing the two limbs of my amendments in so much detail. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, I was confused by his point about previous refusals not being taken into account. I am grateful to him for agreeing to reflect further on that, in response to the noble and learned Lord’s further comments. He argued that state of mind and/or mental capacity are just one of several reasons why disclosure might not be possible. However, given what we have heard today from the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, about understanding the Mental Capacity Act as it is applied within the criminal justice system, and the potential for the infringement of human rights, I contend that there is justification for expressly including this reason in the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, set out very clearly the difficult balance between the rights of a grieving family, who have been by extension the victims of a heinous act, and the rights of a prisoner, convicted of that crime but who suffers a mental health disorder or who, for whatever reason, lacks the mental capacity at the time of the Parole Board hearing to disclose the information requested of him. I know that every noble Lord who has spoken today is acutely aware of this tension and of the importance of this Bill, not just in putting the needs of victims at the centre of the justice system and helping grieving families to achieve closure but as part of a wider and necessary process to increase the efficiency, transparency and accountability of the parole system.

My amendments do not seek to alter the intention of the Bill in any way. As the noble Lord, Lord German, pointed out, neither of the amendments takes away the subjective capacity of parole boards. They simply seek to add clarity through the insertion of the words “is able to, but”, and an explicit reference to consideration of mental capacity. I continue to believe that these simple amendments would support the Parole Board in the fulfilment of the new statutory duty that the Bill places on it by enshrining in law what government has already accepted: that parole boards need to take state of mind and mental capacity into account. This would empower them to do so with confidence and consistency.

I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord for considering the amendments. I am disappointed that he has not been persuaded by my arguments and those of other noble, and noble and learned, Lords. However, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendments 3 to 6 not moved.
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2: Manslaughter or indecent images: prisoner’s non-disclosure
Amendments 7 to 18 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, due to the necessity of a few short adjournments earlier this afternoon, I suggest that we continue without any further adjournments this evening.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees
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My Lords, we now move on to the group consisting of Amendment 19. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. It would be helpful if anyone intending to say “Not content” if the question is put could make that clear in the debate. It takes unanimity to amend the Bill in this Committee. The Committee cannot divide.

17:15
Amendment 19
Moved by
19: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Provision of information to victims’ families
(1) Where the Parole Board makes a decision for which it is required to take into account a prisoner’s non-disclosure under section 1 or 2, the Parole Board must inform the relevant persons of—(a) the timings of hearings where the prisoner’s release from prison is being considered;(b) the relevant persons’ rights in relation to requesting a judicial review of the Parole Board’s decision;(c) the length of the sentence that will have been served by the prisoner at the time of the hearing; and(d) any other rights that the relevant persons have relating to the provision of information.(2) The Parole Board must take reasonable steps to contact the relevant persons to ensure they have access to the information in subsection (1).(3) The Parole Board must provide the relevant persons with the information in subsection (1) unless they declare to the Parole Board that they do not wish to receive such information.(4) In this section, the relevant persons are—(a) where the prisoner’s sentence has been imposed for murder or manslaughter, the victim’s parents or guardians, children and siblings; or(b) where the prisoner’s sentence has been imposed for an offence relating to indecent images as defined by section 28B of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 (as inserted by section 1)—(i) the victim or suspected victim (if the victim’s identity is not known for certain) if the victim or suspected victim is over the age of 18; or(ii) the victim or suspected victim’s parents or guardians if the victim or suspected victim is under the age of 18.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require the Parole Board to provide the victim, suspected victim, or their family with information relating to the prisoner’s hearing.
Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker
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My Lords, I was inspired to table Amendment 19, which stands in my name, by three experiences. The first was that, prior to the Bill’s Second Reading, I spent a considerable amount of time talking to Helen McCourt’s mother. She stressed to me the importance of families being informed fully and involved in hearings about release.

My second experience happened very many years ago. I knew Iris Bentley, and I watched her in her latter years as she came to the end of her decades-long campaign to obtain a pardon for her brother Derek Bentley. She was a woman of immense fortitude, diligence and grace. They are very different cases, but in both, the amount of time and effort it took for those women to seek and obtain justice from a system that largely ignored them was remarkable. They were two very strong, determined women who refused to be ignored. Not everyone is so resilient, and nor should they need to be. They should automatically be involved and included by the criminal justice system.

My third experience is that I lived for many years in a Pennine town. Anyone who did at that time could not be unaware of or unsympathetic to the suffering of the families of the Moors murder victims—and that suffering continues today.

From talking to Marie McCourt, I understand that there are at most 100 prisoners to whom this legislation would apply. There are not that many, but the families of their victims suffer perhaps more than anybody else in the criminal justice system. For them, not to be told that a release hearing will take place, nor where and when it will take place, is a trauma. These hearings might happen many years after there has been a conviction, but their importance to victims and victims’ families never diminishes. One needs only to look at what happened to the victims of John Worboys to know about the importance of making sure that people are informed and included.

By the time a release hearing is reached, relatives who are desperate to know what has happened to their loved one are running out of time and the means to compel the prisoner in question to tell them what has happened. It is wrong not only to ignore them but not to advise them that they might not be involved in something that they might see as their last hope of achieving a resolution.

My amendment would place in the Bill that it is the right of relatives to receive information about the timing and location of a release hearing and about their rights, particularly in relation to judicial review. In putting this in the Bill, my intention is that the Parole Board will know right from the moment that the sentence is passed that it is under an obligation to maintain contact with victims’ families and that the onus is on the board, not the families, to maintain contact. It is not unusual for families to be told that they have not been contacted because they have moved or their details have changed, and the Parole Board has simply failed to keep their details up to date.

Release hearings and the prospect of release are a time of heightened anxiety for victims’ families. It can be a grave disappointment that there is no further prospect of the prisoner disclosing information about the victim, but for some there is also the knowledge that the perpetrator will be released into the community and might well know or discover where their victim’s family lives. I know that victims are very fearful of that. At that time, the onus should be on the Parole Board to keep victims’ families fully informed. It is the very least that they should expect. This might be a seemingly simple procedural matter, but it is of immense importance to people who are victims of these prisoners. Therefore, it is in that vein that I beg to move.

Baroness Kennedy of Cradley Portrait Baroness Kennedy of Cradley (Lab)
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My Lords, I support the amendment. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that much more needs to be done to support victims in the parole process. The amendment would provide information rights for victims and their families, which are desperately needed. As I noted at Second Reading, many parents involved in the George case sadly found out about her release on Facebook or via the local newspaper. That is completely unacceptable. I am sure that every effort was made to contact the parents in that case, but the system places the onus on the victim or their families, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, eloquently set out. It is made their responsibility to opt in and keep in touch with victim liaison officers; it has to be the other way around. The Parole Board should have a duty to ensure that accurate information is given to victims and their families in an appropriate timeframe. The amendment would give them that reassurance.

I particularly welcome proposed new subsection (3). Rather than there being an opt-in approach, victims and their families should automatically be included in the scheme for information unless they opt out. In a meeting a few months ago, the Victims Commissioner and the chair of the Parole Board acknowledged that not all victims opted into the victim contact scheme. They noted that this caused distress to those who failed to opt in and who later discovered through third parties that the offender had been released. They agreed that the current requirement for victims to opt into the scheme was a concern. The amendment addresses that concern. In addition, technology should be developed to modernise information flow to victims and their families so that they can keep their contact details up to date and keep up to date with the details of the case.

The type of additional support outlined in the amendment will not only help victims and their families but help to build public confidence in the system. I hope that the Minister will highlight his support for the principles raised in the amendment, commit to improving the victim experience of the parole process and give assurances that the needs and experiences of victims and their families will be central to the pending review of the parole system. Will he indicate whether he is willing to discuss the amendment further before Report?

Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill Portrait Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill (Lab)
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My Lords, I welcome the Bill and am sorry that I was unable to speak at Second Reading. I pay tribute to the ground-breaking work done by my colleague in the other place, Conor McGinn, following the campaign by Marie McCourt, the mother of Helen, who was tragically murdered and whose remains have never been found or their location revealed by her murderer, now released.

It is right that the refusal by serious offenders to disclose information about their victims—including the whereabouts of a murdered victim and the identities of child victims in the case of offenders who take or make indecent images—is always taken into account by the Parole Board when making decisions about their possible release, and will now be a statutory requirement.

I support Amendment 19 in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Lord, Lord German, and believe the effectiveness of the Bill will be proved only if we can assure victims that their concerns are a priority in the justice system. Victims cannot be an afterthought; there have been too many occasions in the past when painful interviews with the bereaved, still suffering terrible grief, are broadcast in which they say that no one had told them in advance that those who had done terrible things to their loved ones had been released.

The Victims Commissioner reported recently that victims are less satisfied than ever that their views are taken into consideration. Can the Government assure the House that victim involvement in Parole Board decisions will improve with the passing of this Bill? I hope that the amendment will therefore be accepted. I know that the Government will point to a future, wider root-and-branch review of the operation of the Parole Board as a way of increasing transparency, but they have an immediate opportunity to do so by accepting Amendment 19.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees
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Lord Naseby. No? I am not getting a response from the noble Lord, Lord Naseby. If I do not hear any more, I shall move on to the noble Lord, Lord German.

Lord German Portrait Lord German (LD)
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My Lords, this amendment, tabled by my noble friend Lady Barker, puts victims right at the centre of the parole functions. The amendment has two major functions: to ensure that victims are contacted, and to provide victims with information about the Parole Board’s hearing of the case of the prisoner’s parole. Much more needs to be done to support victims. The issue of strengthening the victims contact scheme as a whole is important and, while associated with the Bill, is beyond the scope of it. I look forward to the Minister telling us when his root-and-branch review of the Parole Board will take place. “In the fullness of time” was the response we got at Second Reading, and I think we ought to know when full time will be up.

However, there are matters in the Bill that relate to the Parole Board’s functions and to the work it has to do for victims. There are considerations that affect the way the board should engage with victims. First, cannot the system be modernised so that victims’ views can be taken by video link, rather than having to travel in person to the prison where the perpetrator is located? This process can in itself add to the anguish felt by victims who have struggled to come to terms with the grief they have suffered. Sentencing and conviction is just the start of justice for victims. The parole process can easily add to a victim’s pain, and it is essential that everything be done to minimise the trauma this can cause, amplified by the heinous crimes committed, which are the subject of the Bill.

The amendment requires that victims should be contacted as of right. Too often we have heard cases where victims have just not known what is going to happen, and suddenly they find that the perpetrator is released into the community, they have no idea what the conditions were, and they have simply to face up to the fright and misery of that happening. It has to be at their choice that they actually receive the information about the Parole Board’s operations; they have to be given the option to do that. That means we must have an opting out of receiving information: in other words, it is the duty of the Parole Board to give information to victims—to do everything it possibly can to give them that information—and it is the victims’ choice whether they receive that information. Of course, that means that, over time, we would expect some people to say, right at the beginning, “I do not want to hear any more; I do not want to have any more information”. But at this particular point, at the point of possible release into the community, there has to be that option, and contact has to be made as of right.

We know of too many examples of victims finding out the result of the parole process only from media reports, as the noble Baroness just said, from social media or, worst of all—can you imagine?—from reporters calling victims to ask for their comments on the release of the perpetrator. Thus far the service has adopted much more of an opting-in approach to receiving information than an opting-out approach, which I think is crucial in making sure that victims have their rights upheld. For example, I am sure Members will recall the case of Worboys being debated in your Lordships’ House last year, when this matter came to a very important head. Within the narrow scope of the Bill, which leads to only a relatively small number of cases being considered, I do not think this obligation on the Parole Board will place a large administrative burden on its workings. But these Parole Board cases are of great significance to victims, and victims have a right to know what is happening and to have their say should they desire to. They need a consistent infrastructure for exercising these rights. This amendment enables victims to opt out of knowing about and participating in the parole process, but the default position is that they will always be given that opportunity.

With modern technology, keeping in contact with victims is so much easier. Tracing victims if they change their address, telephone number or email will be much simpler and quicker. Governments have databases which can make it much easier to locate people whose contact details have been mislaid. There should be an obligation, therefore, on the Parole Board to maintain the contact details of victims, so that when this time comes, as in the Bill it will do, it is obliged to make sure that the victims understand and know their rights, and that they have a right not to hear anything and to opt out of the information if they so desire. That is what this important amendment would do: give rights to victims that are recorded as being consistent, and which are so important to people who are suffering such misery.

17:30
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
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My Lords, all noble Lords who have spoken on the amendment have supported it with some passion. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, who moved it, spoke forcefully about relatives’ right to hear about release hearings and about putting the onus on the Parole Board to inform victims’ families, rather than victims’ families having to use their own initiative to remain in contact with the Parole Board. As she rightly said, this is very important for families. There should be automatic membership of the victims contact scheme. People should not have to opt in, although they should, of course, have the option of opting out.

My noble friend Lady Healy had it absolutely right when she said that of course we understand that there is to be a wholesale review of all aspects of the Parole Board, but that here we have an opportunity right now to do something about this, something that has received cross-party support and is very much in the spirit of supporting victims through this often very protracted process. It is a difficult process, but we can do something about it right now.

In his summing up, the noble Lord, Lord German, made the same points about putting victims at the centre of the Parole Board’s functions. He alluded to the benefits of modern technology. I have to say, again with my magistrate’s hat on—although I do not speak for the magistracy in any way—that even with the best modern technology, it is sometimes quite difficult to locate people, particularly if they do not want to be located. However, that is not a reason for not putting the onus on the Parole Board, and I very much support the amendments.

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait Lord Keen of Elie
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My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their contributions to the debate on the amendment, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for her submissions on it. In the context of the Bill, we are dealing with particularly disturbing forms of crime and particularly disturbing consequences. However, we must have regard to all victims of crime, not just of these crimes, in determining the appropriate step to take in order properly to take account of their views, interests and concerns.

Processes are already in place, by virtue of the Parole Board rules, the victims’ code and the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004, that address the issues referred to in the amendment. Both the National Probation Service and the Parole Board communicate information to victims, and where a family member is affected by an offender’s action, they too, of course, will be victims and will be contacted. Where a victim wishes to receive information, this will be provided by their victim liaison officer. Victims can receive information regarding the date of a parole hearing and the outcome of a review. Indeed, they may request a summary of a Parole Board decision and can also provide a victim personal statement to the Parole Board to explain the impact of the crime upon them. They have the right to request that certain tailored licence conditions be applied.

Victims are also informed of the avenues for making a request for reconsideration of a decision. Such reconsideration will be carried out by the Secretary of State. Following a request for reconsideration, they will receive reasons why their request was or was not successful. Thereafter, a victim liaison officer will provide information regarding judicial review, if that is requested.

In recent times—I note the reference to the Worboys case—the National Probation Service has improved the way in which it communicates with victims, such as using email or telephone as opposed to letters, while being mindful of the victim’s preferred method of contact. We have also tightened processes to ensure that victims are informed of developments, such as being notified of the date of oral hearings, in a timely manner. We have expanded the criteria for victims who are eligible for contact under the National Probation Service Victim Contact Scheme. We are trialling a new process whereby all eligible victims are referred directly to probation to reduce the risk that they are not offered use of the victim contact scheme directly. Therefore, we have taken steps to improve the system. However, the Parole Board is an independent body and it requires a degree of flexibility in how it operates. To impose these statutory obligations on the Parole Board, and the Parole Board alone, would, I suggest, be going too far.

I hear what is said about the idea of an opt-out rather than an opt-in scheme for victims and what is said about the need to improve the involvement of victims, particularly those in the present category. I will be happy to discuss that at a meeting, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, before the next stage of the Bill. However, I also note that there is a proposal for a review of the Parole Board. I cannot give a precise date for that review but, again, I will be happy to take that up in discussions with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy. At this stage, however, I invite the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees
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My Lords, no noble Lords have indicated a wish to speak after the Minister, so I now call the noble Baroness, Lady Barker.

Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker
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I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate on this amendment. It would have been easy to dismiss this as a minor procedural matter, but I have long held the view that when people have frustrations about the criminal justice system or indeed the workings of the Home Office, as many of those arise from the way in which the system works and the procedures that are adopted as from the decisions of substance that are made. Our criminal justice system can be extremely difficult to work with at a basic administrative level.

I particularly welcomed the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, for our proposal that there should be an opt-out rather than an opt-in scheme. It is high time that we moved to that, and I do not think that it would necessarily put any undue obligations or administrative burdens on the probation service or the Parole Board. My noble friend Lord German spoke about the increased use of technology, which will be life in the new world for everybody. I think that it can be done in ways that minimise trauma to victims, maximise inclusion and make life administratively easier for those who are responsible for implementing it.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, recognised that there is cross-party support. I, too, think that it is a matter that could be looked at in the near future. I do not think that it has to wait for the full, wider review of the Parole Board. I very much welcome the Minister’s offer of a meeting. I hope that he might consider including in that some of the victims’ representatives, for whom this is not theoretical but a crucially important matter in their lives. We all wish to see this Bill make the statute book. Therefore, at this point, as the Minister predicted, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 19 withdrawn.
Clause 3 agreed.
Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees
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My Lords, I am getting a little background disturbance. I am not sure whether it is intended to get my attention, but I shall proceed on the basis that it is not. That concludes the Virtual Committee’s proceedings on the Bill. The Virtual Proceeding will now adjourn until a convenient point after 6.30 pm.

17:41
Virtual Proceeding suspended.

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Report stage & Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Wednesday 1st July 2020

(3 years, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 102-R-I Marshalled list for Report - (26 Jun 2020)
Report
13:47
Clause 1: Murder, manslaughter or indecent images: prisoner’s non-disclosure
Amendment 1
Moved by
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 14, after “prisoner” insert “is or was able to but”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment seeks to ensure that account is taken of the prisoner’s state of mind in determining whether they can make a disclosure.
Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull (CB)
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My Lords, Amendments 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 14 and 15, in my name, are in substance the amendments I introduced in Committee. Now as then, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for supporting them. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, who cannot be here today but has great experience in these matters and has written to express his support.

I will speak to the first two amendments, which are repeated, out of necessity, at relevant places in the Bill. The two stand together and make connected points. First, the Parole Board must consider the prisoner’s state of mind and whether for some reason, such as the presence of mental disorder, they cannot form the requisite intention to withhold the information. Secondly, the board must be satisfied that the prisoner has the mental capacity, within the meaning in the Mental Capacity Act 2005, to decide whether to disclose. In moving these amendments, I put on record yet again my support for the principle of this Bill and my admiration for Marie McCourt. I acknowledge the Bill’s importance to grieving families in achieving closure in the most terrible circumstances.

In Committee, the Minister expressed two objections to my amendments. I am very grateful to him for taking time to discuss them in advance of today. His first objection was that my amendments would prevent the Parole Board taking into account any previous occasions on which the offender had had the opportunity to co-operate with the authorities and reveal a victim’s whereabouts, but had refused to do so. He argued that if this offender later became unable to make a disclosure for reasons of deteriorating mental health, for example, my amendment would leave the board unable to consider any prior refusal to co-operate in assessing the risk the prisoner posed to the public in the event of release on licence. The amendments tabled today meet this objection by including the potential for historical consideration.

His second concern is more fundamental and goes to the heart of what I see as the underlying problem with the Bill. Throughout its progress, he has repeated the Government’s view that the board’s discretion to consider all possible reasons for non-disclosure must be unfettered. He contends that my amendments give undue prominence to one factor among the many the board will take into account when making a public protection decision.

But this in effect exactly what the Bill does. It turns consideration of non-disclosure—already a standard practice in parole panels—into a statutory duty. But it fails to create a parallel statutory duty of what must be a fundamental responsibility of the board in coming to its view: to consider whether the prisoner is able, for reasons of mental capacity or disorder, to disclose that information. The Bill therefore comes dangerously close to collapsing together the question of whether there is missing information with that of whether the prisoner should be held responsible for it.

Even if the Bill is not, in law, creating a new criminal offence of non-disclosure, the effect of deliberate non-disclosure is inexorably going to lead to the conclusion that the prisoner poses a risk and, as a result, requires to be kept in prison. Therefore, the Bill is in effect creating a statutory hurdle to release in those cases where deliberate non-disclosure is established. Given this, it should be explicit that that statutory hurdle can exist only where the prisoner can be held responsible for their own actions—that is to say that they are not suffering from a mental disorder or otherwise from impairment of mind or brain that should be seen as alleviating that responsibility.

The noble and learned Lord the Minister has been consistent in arguing that the Parole Board must be allowed to take into account a wide range of factors in making its decisions. But in relation to the Bill, which is so tightly focused on non-disclosure, there are really only three possible scenarios a board would face. The first concerns those cases where disclosure is not possible because the prisoner, for whatever reason, was not party to the disposal of remains and so genuinely does not know where the body is. Of course, there will also be cases where prisoners continue to protest their innocence. This is a problem for the board, but it is not what the Bill is about.

The second scenario concerns the non-disclosure cases where the verdict is not disputed and the facts of the case leave no room for it to be argued that the prisoner does not know where the victim’s body is located. In both those scenarios it is simple. There is either an inability to disclose or there is deliberate non-disclosure, which is culpable. The prisoner who persists in this wilful refusal, amplifying again the distress already visited on the family of the victim, must take the consequences, and in its efforts to address this particular issue, the Bill has my full support.

But it is the third scenario that my amendments address—a scenario on which the Bill is silent. It is the scenario in which the prisoner, for reasons of mental disorder, cannot form the requisite intention to withhold information, or lacks the mental capacity to take the decision to do so. By failing to mention any possibility of the contrary, the Bill assumes that the prisoner has the ability to disclose, thus making any non-disclosure culpable. Prolonged detention for non-disclosure in such cases would be unfair, unjust and a potential infringement of human rights.

By elevating non-disclosure to statutory status, the Bill already departs from the Government’s stated policy of leaving to the Parole Board decisions as to what weight, if any, it gives to the many factors it must consider. The Government have accepted, at the Dispatch Box here and in the other place, that the board should take state of mind and mental capacity into account. But the Bill provides the board with no guidance as to how its statutory duty is to be performed with regard to this. By extension, it fails to guide victims’ families as to what they should expect of the Parole Board in cases of this kind. My amendments would address this discrepancy by elevating in parallel the related imperative to take the ability to disclose into account.

If the Minister is not willing and able to accept these amendments, as I fear he is not, and this guidance is to be dealt with outside the statute, can he at least provide clarity as to what this guidance to the Parole Board is to be, where it is to be found and how its use will be monitored? I would be grateful if he could confirm definitively what training members of the Parole Board receive to support them specifically in making determinations under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. If the board’s responsibility to take mental disorder and mental capacity into account is not to be a statutory duty, it will be vital that its members are fully conversant with the Act and its use within the criminal justice system. I beg to move.

Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, for her introduction to this group of amendments, to which I have added my name. I entirely support her careful analysis of the problem they seek to address.

There is no doubt that the Bill has been drafted with the best of intentions, and, as I said when we discussed them in Committee, I completely understand the policy reasons that lie behind it. I have the deepest sympathy for those it seeks to help. We have tended to focus on cases where the failure to disclose has been in murder or manslaughter cases, where the question is where the victim’s remains were disposed of. But cases about the identity of children who are the subject of indecent images are just as distressing to the victims and their families. Our amendments, which are not intended in any way to undermine the Bill’s intentions, extend to both of them. That is because the Bill, as drafted, gives rise to the same problem in both cases. I recall the noble and learned Lord the Minister agreeing with us, in the virtual meeting to which he very kindly invited us, that what matters for the purposes of our discussion is the substance of the issue our amendments raise, not their precise wording. The same cannot be said of the Bill; its precise wording does indeed matter.

It is the wording of the new Sections 28A(1)(c) and 29(1)(c) that create the difficulty. I entirely understand the noble and leaned Lord’s point, which he made in Committee and repeated to us in our meeting, that subsections (2) and (3) of those sections do not limit the matters which the Parole Board must or may take into account, and that he does not want to limit the scope that this leaves to the board. The problem lies in the meaning that is to be given to the words “has information” and “has not disclosed” in subsection (1), which sets the context for the whole exercise. There is a gap here, which the Bill leaves open. Cases of deliberate refusal where the prisoner has the information, is able to disclose it and fails to do so are covered by these words. These are the obvious cases that are so distressing. They can be seen as cases where the prisoner is deliberately prolonging the agony being suffered by the victim’s families and, in the children’s case, by the victims too. Their predicament is horrifying, and it is right that everything should be done to address it. The word “non-disclosure” is absolutely right for use in these cases. It carries with it the notion of intention, as the noble Baroness made very clear. For very good reasons, it was these cases that were in mind when the Bill was being drafted to give statutory force to “Helen’s Law”.

But what about those whom the board believes have or had the information because of the way the crime was committed but, for the reasons given by the noble Baroness, are simply not able to disclose it to the Parole Board because they lack the intention? That is the gap that the Bill leaves open and our amendments seek to fill. It may be said that, as matters stand today, cases of that kind can be dealt with by the Parole Board perfectly well, with all the understanding that they deserve. The Bill assumes that what the board does now must be transformed into a requirement—a statutory duty—and all that this entails. It is designed to change something, not leave things as they are. One can see, by looking at Amendment 17, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, what this may lead to. The context for any judicial review will be set by the terms of the statute. The board needs clarity on this matter.

14:00
Are the cases described by the noble Baroness within the scope of these new clauses at all? Our Amendment 1 would make it clear at the outset that they are not, because they are not non-disclosure cases in the proper meaning of that word—they lack the intention. As an alternative, our Amendment 2 would make it clear that, without in any way limiting the scope of the matters that the board can take into account, the prisoner’s mental capacity to disclose the information is indeed one of them. It would provide the assurance that those prisoners need, and the Parole Board needs too, that a decision made on that ground would stand up to scrutiny.
I hope very much that, when he comes to reply, the noble and learned Lord will set out as clearly as he can what guidance has been given to the Parole Board about how it should deal with these cases under the statute, and will answer the various questions the noble Baroness has put to him. I hope, too, that his mind is not entirely closed to the possibility of addressing this difficult issue by an amendment at Third Reading if it seems, on further reflection, that this would be a better way to proceed.
Lord Thomas of Gresford Portrait Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD) [V]
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My Lords, first, I wish to associate myself with the expressions of support and sympathy of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, for those who have campaigned so strongly and so well for the Bill to be brought before the House. It is a very important Bill.

Secondly, I support these amendments because the ability of a prisoner to recall what has happened is, of course, paramount and of considerable importance when the Parole Board is considering its decision. I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I keep my further observations for the second group of amendments, which I will be speaking to in a moment.

Lord Garnier Portrait Lord Garnier (Con) [V]
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My Lords, we have discussed the arguments behind these amendments in Committee and, to some extent, at Second Reading. I am not sure that much has changed since. For my part, while I entirely accept the motives and intentions of those behind the Bill itself, as well as the amendments in this first group, I remain sceptical about the utility of the Bill as an addition to the criminal law. That said, I have every sympathy—who would not?—for the living victims of the abhorrent criminals covered by the Bill, and know why they, and those who support the Bill so enthusiastically, want it enacted. I am sure it will be very soon.

Both the Minister and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern were not favourably impressed with my suggestion of a discrete criminal offence. From memory, only the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was prepared to agree with me about the value of the Bill in its current form. My suggestions have now sunk below the waves and can be forgotten. However, I urge the House, despite the experience and wisdom of those supporting these amendments relating to the offender’s state of mind—either through the greater emphasis demanded of the Parole Board in Amendment 1 of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, or through a Newton hearing under Amendment 3 in the next group, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford—not to curtail the Parole Board’s independence and discretion.

As I indicated in our earlier debates, I would like the Parole Board’s work to be more accessible to the public. Despite the powerful analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, I agree with the Minister’s argument in Committee—which he seems to have repeated in his meeting with the noble Lords—that the Bill in its unamended form enables the Parole Board to fully consider the offender’s state of mind and their reasons for not disclosing the requisite information.

As was pointed out in our earlier debates, when considering the public safety implications of permitting a long-sentenced offender to return to the community, the Parole Board is looking at information and coming to a decision many years after the offence and the trial. A finding made by the trial judge shortly after the verdict about the offender’s failure to disclose the site of the victim’s body or—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, properly reminded us—the identities of children in criminal images is valuable, and will surely be brought to the Parole Board’s attention, as will be the effect of that finding on the judge’s sentence. However, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, pointed out in Committee, we need to be careful not to confuse punishment for the original crime and the public safety implications of the prisoner’s much later release.

It must seem to many noble Lords that, not for the first time, I have got to the church by way of the moon. However, in short, let us leave the Bill as it is. It will be no more effective if amended.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Portrait Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier: the Bill is best left as it is. Although it is a limited purpose Bill and to be welcomed, there is plainly a need for a proper review of the Parole Board in due course. That is the occasion on which we should look at matters in the round.

In my experience, the Parole Board approaches the exercise of its discretion with the greatest possible care and, in cases where there are issues of mental capacity, takes infinite care to ensure that it has available all the necessary information, including reports from the prisoner. Occasionally, mistakes are made. However, there is always the remedy of judicial review, and it seems to me that it would be much better to leave the Bill as it is, allowing any errors on matters as obvious as mental capacity or findings of the trial judge to be taken into account. The Bill should be left alone; we should not amend it.

Earlier this week, we considered the state into which the law of sentencing has got by a piecemeal approach. It is not something we should do in criminal justice. Although I shall have something to say in detail about Amendment 3, I accept entirely the analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. However, my acceptance of their analysis of the proper approach does not persuade me that it is necessary to amend the Bill. The issues can be safely left to the discretion of the Parole Board, and there is a remedy if it fails to do that.

Lord Balfe Portrait Lord Balfe (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I spoke in Committee and, subsequent to that, I had an exchange of correspondence with Marie McCourt. I would not like anything said today, and I do not think that any noble Lord would mean it, to take away from the need to right the hurt that she, and those dear to her, have felt.

I said on the last occasion that the Parole Board itself needed a thorough overhaul and the Minister, if I remember correctly, agreed with me. My concern here, as it is in many places, is that any law brought in to right a specific wrong can often be wrong itself—you need a much more generalist approach.

None the less, I welcome the Bill. My point is that, when you deal with mental capacity, you also have to remember human frailty. The fact of the matter is that people can just forget. There is at least an element of possibility that someone could just forget what they had done. It is also possible that they could just forget who photographs were of. I know that that may not be a popular thing to say but, going back many years to when I was in the Territorial Army, we used to have exercises where we dropped people and they then had to find their way to places. I was always amazed at how people could not recognise things. There is a genuine defence that someone has just forgotten.

Secondly, I hope that the Minister can assure us that we are not passing a law that will go to Strasbourg to be interpreted. When I look at this, I wonder whether it will pretty quickly end up in the European Court of Human Rights, where it will not be us doing the legislating but the judges in Strasbourg. I welcome the Minister’s assurance that he really does think that it is proof against even a reasonable prospect of a challenge in the court.

Finally, I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, that wording matters. It can matter quite strongly in the case of a Bill such as this one.

Lord Carlile of Berriew Portrait Lord Carlile of Berriew (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I share the sympathy that has been expressed for the families of the victims who are behind the motivation for the Bill.

I looked carefully at the background to this issue to see what effect—[Inaudible]—stage had on the Bill to see if there is a necessity for the amendments that are proposed today. I examined paragraphs 32 and 33 of the Explanatory Notes, which say, among other things:

“The proposed change is to put Parole Board practice on a statutory footing … the Bill will not result in any change to current Parole Board practice and it is not anticipated that there will be any impact on the prison population”.


I also listened carefully to the Minister, who, in effect, repeated that analysis in relation to today’s proceedings.

I share the view of the noble and learned Lords, Lord Garnier and Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, that we should not interfere with sound parole practice if Parole Board practice is—[Inaudible]—the Parole Board would be much more transparent—[Inaudible]—subject to closed hearings, national security and certain views of—[Inaudible]—confidentiality could be heard in public. What have the Government done to obtain the views, on both this Bill and the amendments that were passed earlier, of the current deputy chair of the Parole Board, His Honour Peter Rook QC—a very experienced and admired judge—and his predecessor, the former High Court judge, Sir John Saunders? I have a suspicion that, if consulted, they would say, “Well, first of all, we would prefer Parole Board procedure to be kept flexible and not to be circumscribed in any way by this Bill”, which—[Inaudible]—any changes to Parole Board practice.

Secondly, I would expect them to say that attitudes to cases change over the years, and that the Parole Board must be a living instrument, dealing with applications—[Inaudible]—released from prison, often many years after the event. I think that I once prosecuted a defendant who was sentenced to a whole-life tariff, remains in prison on that tariff and has taken his case to the European Court of Human Rights at least once. He happens to be the person who—[Inaudible]—which was just mischief-making. That is another example of the flexibility that the Parole Board needs in order to take account of the activities and attitudes of people who have committed dreadful offences such as these.

My main point is that the Parole Board should retain its flexibility to deal with all these issues as part of the larger picture in each case. On balance, I feel that the Bill in its original form does that more successfully than the Bill would do with the amendments added.

14:15
Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for the clear way in which they introduced the Bill and for signalling their intention not to push this amendment to a vote.

When we discussed this matter at an earlier stage of the proceedings, I explained that I am one of a number of Peers who has taken part every time we have discussed mental capacity legislation since its pre-legislative state in 2004. I remain concerned that mental capacity legislation is not widely understood or implemented in a variety of professions—even in the medical profession, where one might think that it would be. Given the incidence of mental illness in the prison population, one would think that such legislation is widely understood by practitioners. When we carried out the review of the Mental Capacity Act, that turned out not to be so.

I do not doubt that the Parole Board should be as free as possible to exercise judgment. It is not for those of us outside who do not have access to all the facts of a particular case to second-guess it. My questions during earlier stages of the Bill were about the training of professionals in the criminal justice system, particularly the Parole Board, and the reliance on Mental Capacity Act advisers, Mental Health Act advisers and so on. I have not had answers to those questions; therefore, like the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, I remain concerned that there is a gap in the legislation.

Like others who have spoken to Mrs McCourt, I really want this legislation to work and I do not wish to see gaps through which people who have the capacity and have information but are withholding it can slip. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, made a valid point. I understand that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, will resist putting these words in the Bill, but can he tell us what regulations and guidance will arise as a result of our discussion?

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, very much for moving her amendment. In Committee, I supported the amendments. I also echo the support of the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, who contacted me personally to say that he very much wishes he could have been here to support the noble Baroness’s amendment.

It must be said that a number of extremely eminent lawyers have, in essence, spoken against the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. My response to those eminent contributions was best articulated by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. My experience is that many different parts of the criminal justice system do not understand mental capacity legislation properly and that, even if they do, it is often not used to its full extent. That is because such a large proportion of the people we deal with in the criminal justice system as a whole have mental capacity issues.

I support in principle what the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, has said; I understand that she will not press her amendments to a vote. I hope that the Minister will say something more constructive about addressing the perceived gap in the legislation regarding further review by the Parole Board and the practicality of a possible remedy through judicial review. These are all active issues which have been explored in our debate. The Minister should acknowledge that the concerns raised are real and explain to the House why it would not be necessary to meet them in the Bill.

Lord Keen of Elie Portrait The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Keen of Elie) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and other noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. Perhaps I may reiterate the position of the Government, which is that we consider that the amendments would unnecessarily fetter the discretion of the Parole Board. I do not accept that there is a gap in the legislation, as suggested by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead.

I shall initially address Amendment 1 and related Amendments 5, 8, 11 and 14, which would ensure that the Bill’s provisions applied only to prisoners who are, or have previously been, “able” to disclose relevant information but have not chosen not to do so.

The Bill affords the Parole Board wide scope subjectively to consider the circumstances of a prisoner’s non-disclosure. The test is broadly drafted to give the Parole Board, which is after all an independent judicial body with experience in assessing risk and evidence, sufficient flexibility to take all relevant circumstances into account when making a release assessment.

The board must be satisfied that the offender no longer poses a risk to the public, and this high bar can be met only after it considers all elements of an offender’s case. This already includes an offender’s current and past “ability”, whether mental or physical, to disclose such information. The Parole Board may already consider all possible reasons, in its own view, for any non-disclosure, including historic refusals.

There is some uncertainty as to the meaning of the term “able” in these circumstances, and it would be unclear what criteria the board would use to make their determination. In many cases, there are varying degrees of ability, or varying degrees of information, that the prisoner can disclose, and the interpretations of ability in each case will differ—a point made by a number of noble Lords. The Parole Board in its current practice uses a flexible approach to take into account all elements of a non-disclosure. To use “able” in a determinative and inflexible way would cause unnecessary confusion and potential inconsistencies in its application. That has the potential unfairly to prevent the board when applying the Bill’s provisions from considering a non-disclosure by an offender in many circumstances; for example, the case of an offender who had rendered themselves “unable” to disclose due to illicit drug use in prison. There are clearly other examples of how that difficulty could arise.

By specifically avoiding reference to particulars in the Bill, we are deliberately not limiting the board’s ability to use its expertise in how it approaches such cases. I say in response to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, that the Parole Board is possessed of considerable expertise in these areas, including that of mental health.

That leads me on to Amendments 2, 6, 9, 12 and 15, which would explicitly direct the Parole Board to take into account one possible reason for non-disclosure; namely, whether the prisoner has or had the mental capacity to disclose information. The Bill places a broad statutory duty on the Parole Board to take into account non-disclosure on the part of a prisoner and, in doing so, it must consider all the reasons for such non-disclosure. It is therefore for the board itself, as now, to take a subjective view of what those reasons might be, and then it is for the board to decide what bearing this information may have on its subsequent assessment of suitability for release. I remind noble Lords of what is provided for in Clause 1(2)(b), which states:

“When making the public protection decision about the life prisoner, the Parole Board must take into account … the reasons, in the Parole Board’s view, for the prisoner’s nondisclosure.”


That wide remit clearly would embrace all the issues that have been touched on in the debate.

The noble Baroness correctly identified that a prisoner’s mental state is likely to be a significant factor in assessing reasons for non-disclosure. However, we do not believe that there is any material benefit in referring to this as a possible reason for non-disclosure in the Bill, as the Parole Board will take all relevant factors into account when assessing a prisoner’s suitability for release. If one factor were to be explicitly stated, it could be asked why other reasons for non-disclosure are not also placed on a statutory footing, such as a geographical change that prevents the location of a victim’s remains being identified or circumstances where mental impairment does not amount to “mental capacity”. As one noble Lord observed, there may be cases where people have simply forgotten or decided to blank matters out of their mind over a period of many years. Clearly, the noble Baroness does not wish to preclude any other relevant factors, but any delineation of what the reasons for non-disclosure may be in order to preserve a flexible approach takes away from the subjective approach that we invite the Parole Board to take. This approach is expressed in Clause 1(3), which states:

“This section does not limit the matters which the Parole Board must or may take into account when making a public protection decision.”


It is for the board to take these matters into account when conducting its assessment.

There are significant practical difficulties in attempting to give examples on the face of the statute, which could lead to unnecessary confusion. That is why a decision as to mental capacity is one of many that would have to be considered. However, the board is bound by public law principles to act reasonably in respect of all decisions it makes. A decision where a relevant mental capacity issue was not taken into account would clearly be amenable to challenge by judicial review. That is why we believe that the more sensible approach is to leave these matters to the considerable expertise and experience of the Parole Board and not to attempt to take one or two factors out of context and place them in the Bill.

I say in response to one or two points raised in debate that the Parole Board already has expertise available to it in dealing with matters of mental capacity. We are not moving away from the current guidelines; we are essentially expressing in statutory form that which can be found there already. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, asked whether the matter would go to Strasbourg. I simply draw his attention to the certificate given by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice pursuant to Section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998 that, in his view, the provisions of the Bill are compatible with convention rights.

I acknowledge the concern expressed about mental capacity. I reiterate our view that that is well embraced by the broad terms of the Bill. I therefore invite the noble Baroness not to press her amendments.

14:30
Baroness Bull Portrait Baroness Bull
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My Lords, I am grateful to the many noble and noble and learned Lords who have spoken in support of my amendments, and I am particularly grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for adding their names to them. All noble Lords who spoke supported the aims of this Bill, but several shared concerns that the wording creates difficulties. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, noted, the words “has information” and “has not disclosed” leave a gap in which the third scenario I outlined, where the prisoner is not able to disclose for reasons of mental disorder or mental capacity, is not covered. It does not provide the clarity that the board requires. I echo what I fear is the futile hope of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that the Minister might be persuaded to reflect further following today’s debate and consider a government amendment at Third Reading.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, spoke with great experience and authority about the widespread lack of understanding of the Mental Capacity Act and its application within the criminal justice system. For reasons of time today, I did not repeat the observations I made in Committee about the extent to which issues of mental health might be a problem. The paucity of knowledge about the scale of the mental health challenge in our prison population, along with the potential for and the reasons behind mental health decline during incarceration, are there in Hansard. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, I consider that they remain real concerns in the light of this report of poverty of understanding of the Mental Capacity Act.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response and, as I said earlier, for taking the time to discuss between Committee and today’s debate, and I am only sorry that he has felt unable to take on the concerns that we have collectively expressed. However, I appreciate his confirmation that any decision that does not take mental capacity into account could be subject to judicial review. I wonder whether he could clarify his response to my earlier question, along with that put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, as to where guidance on this could be found, how it would be applied and how it be monitored if it is not to be a statutory duty. Where is the guidance on application or consideration of mental capacity and mental impairment?

Finally, could the noble and learned Lord specifically address the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, in Committee and again today, and in writing on 19 May by the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, as to what training in the Mental Capacity Act and its application is mandated for members of the Parole Board. I understand that they possess expertise in mental health matters, but that is not exactly the question that was asked.