Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Bambos Charalambous Excerpts
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 View all Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020 Debates 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)
Kieran Mullan Portrait Dr Kieran Mullan (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
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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)
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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.

--- Later in debate ---
Bambos Charalambous Portrait Bambos Charalambous
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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.