I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to increase the maximum custodial sentence for the offences of child cruelty and causing or allowing a child or vulnerable adult to die or suffer serious physical harm to imprisonment for life;
and for connected purposes.
I very much thank all Members of this House who have come here today in support of this Bill. The purpose of this Bill—Tony’s law—is to ensure that individuals who commit the most serious acts of cruelty against children face appropriate punishment when convicted of this crime. At the moment, the maximum sentence stands at 10 years. I would like to see this raised to life imprisonment.
I would like to pay tribute to Tony Hudgell, who is the inspiration for this Bill and is in the Gallery today, accompanied by his mother, Paula, and others from his real family—the family who love and care for him. This House has had the pleasure of their company before—in January, when I presented their petition of 12,000 signatures calling on the Government to reconsider the maximum sentence for child cruelty. This Bill continues their campaign and I am proud to put it before the House today.
Shortly after Tony Hudgell was born, he was attacked by his biological parents. They broke his fingers and his toes. They tore the ligaments in his legs. They caused such terrible damage that both his legs had to be amputated and Tony is now wheelchair-bound. Tony was only admitted to hospital 10 days after these injuries were inflicted. We can only imagine how much pain he suffered in the first weeks of his life. It is Tony’s enormous good fortune that he was fostered and then adopted by Paula, her husband Mark and their children, who have loved and looked after him ever since.
Tony’s case is extreme, but sadly it is not unique. Last December, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said that almost 17,000 cases of child cruelty or neglect were reported to the police in the past five years—an average of over 3,000 cases each year, double the number reported in the previous five years. Sadly, too few result in a conviction. Paula had to take Tony’s case back to the courts after the Crown Prosecution Service initially failed to bring a successful charge against his biological parents. I am pursuing the possible reasons behind this with the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend Rory Stewart, with whom I had a fruitful meeting last week. I am grateful to see him in his place. I thank him for the time he has taken in considering this matter and look forward to further discussions with him on it.
I realise that child cruelty is a difficult crime to take through the courts, and those figures reflect this fact. That is, not least, because it is so often conducted in secret behind closed doors, with only the victim, a child, as the witness. I understand that proving the intent to harm is therefore extremely hard. I realise that this means that prosecutions for grievous bodily harm, with the harsher punishments that would then be available, are not easy to bring. But should that really mean that the sentence is lighter than that which would have been available? Carers and parents who harm the children they are responsible for are betraying a trust and undermining our society. It is a wrong that we all know cries out for justice. That is why I welcome the legal reform that was introduced a number of years ago that enabled us to bring child cruelty charges in the first place.
However, should the difficulty really lead to a more lenient sentence? Why does an individual who commits grievous bodily harm face a maximum sentence of life or, more often, 16 years in prison, while those who commit child cruelty or neglect have a maximum of 10 years? As the judge said, in this exceptional circumstance he would have given more had it been available. In exceptional circumstances such as Tony’s, when the only two people in the house were jointly responsible for the harm done to an innocent baby, the difficulty of proving intent should not allow a lighter punishment. In cases like Tony’s, where the abuse is better described as torture, how can child cruelty attract a maximum sentence that is so much shorter when the young victims of such cruelty may live with the consequences for their whole lives?
To address this discrepancy, and to give judges more discretion, I propose amending two Acts—the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 and the Children and Young Persons Act 1933—by extending the term of the relevant sentences. These amendments are not intended to be used often. Indeed, I pray, as I am sure we all do, that they are never used at all. But they would, only in exceptional circumstances where judges think that they are more appropriate, allow longer sentences, in line with crimes against adults—crimes that are more public, more visible and are not hidden behind closed doors, but have similarly life-changing consequences.
I seek to do this not only on behalf of Tony Hudgell but for all those innocent children who have been, or are, at risk of falling victims to the most awful of crimes. I commend this Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Tom Tugendhat accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday