Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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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
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020 View all Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020 Debates Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 3 March 2020 - large print version - (3 Mar 2020)
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)
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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
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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)
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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.

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Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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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)
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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
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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)
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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)?

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Bambos Charalambous Portrait Bambos Charalambous (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)
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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
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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)
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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
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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]

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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.