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

Tue 3rd March 2020
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill
Commons Chamber

3rd reading
3rd reading: House of Commons
Committee: 1st sitting
Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons
Committee stage
3rd reading
Home Office
9 interactions (182 words)
Tue 11th February 2020
3 interactions (837 words)

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

(3rd reading)
Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Tuesday 3rd March 2020

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Home Office
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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3 Mar 2020, 2:19 p.m.

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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3 Mar 2020, 2:20 p.m.

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—

--- Later in debate ---
Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Lab)
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3 Mar 2020, 2:57 p.m.

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
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3 Mar 2020, 2:58 p.m.

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn
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3 Mar 2020, 2:58 p.m.

I will, of course.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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3 Mar 2020, 2:58 p.m.

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
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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: House of Commons)
Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Tuesday 11th February 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Ministry of Justice
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.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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11 Feb 2020, 2:52 p.m.

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.

Conor McGinn Portrait Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Lab)
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11 Feb 2020, 2:57 p.m.

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.