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Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:26 pm on 11th February 2020.

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Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 2:26 pm, 11th February 2020

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 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.