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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

My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, like me, has much experience in the criminal justice system. He will know that deciding whether remorse is real or feigned is sometimes a difficult judgment for a court to make. He makes his point very well.

I think it is right for me to deal at this stage with the concept of whether we should have gone further and introduced a rule of “no body, no release”. Tempting though that might be—and I listened carefully to the arguments—there is a danger that if we proceed too far along that path, we could inadvertently create an artificial incentive for people to mislead the authorities and to feign co-operation or remorse. Of course, in another context, we see the dangers that are inherent in what I have described as superficial compliance with the authorities. There is a fine balance to be maintained, but I think that the Bill as presented maintains it in a way that is clear, that increases public confidence in the system and that makes it abundantly plain to those who are charged with the responsibility of assessing risk that, in the view of this House, this issue is of particular public interest and public importance when it comes to the assessment that is to be made.

I was dealing with the essence of the non-disclosure, and I would add that the Parole Board must in particular take account of what, in its view, are the reasons for the non-disclosure. This subjective approach will allow the board to differentiate between circumstances in which, for example, the non-disclosure is due to a prisoner’s mental illness, and cases in which a prisoner makes a deliberate decision not to say where a victim’s remains are located. This subjective approach is fundamental to the proper functioning of the Bill. It ensures that the non-disclosure and the reasons for it—in other words, the failure by the prisoner to say what they did with the victim’s remains—are fully taken into account by the board when it comes to decision making. It is then for the Parole Board, as 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. It reflects the established practice of the Parole Board, as included in its guidance to panel members in 2017, but it goes a step further in placing a legal duty to take a non-disclosure into account. This, as I have already mentioned, is part of our intention to provide a greater degree of reassurance to victims’ families by formally setting out the guidance in law.

I turn now to the second part of the Bill, which deals with the non-disclosure of different types of information by offenders. This has been prompted by the horrific case of Vanessa George. I am glad to see Luke Pollard in his place. Vanessa George was recently released by the Parole Board after serving 10 years in prison, following conviction for multiple counts of sexual abuse against children at the Plymouth nursery where she worked. She also photographed the abuse of those children in her care and sent the images to other paedophiles. This was a horrific case, which those of us who had young children at the time, me included, remember all too graphically. Vanessa George’s crimes have caused widespread revulsion. Her abuse of the trust placed in her by the families of the children she was meant to care for and protect is shocking. Their pain has been compounded by the fact that the children she photographed cannot be identified from the images, and that she has refused to disclose their identities to the authorities. All the families involved have been left in a truly terrible limbo, not knowing whether their child has been a victim.

Again, we are seeking to respond by stipulating in law that such appalling circumstances must be fully taken into account by the Parole Board when making any decisions on the release of such an offender. Clause 2 of the Bill will amend the release provisions that apply to an extended determinate sentence that has been imposed for the offence of taking or making indecent photographs of children and, as in clause 1, we will place a statutory obligation on the Parole Board to consider the non-disclosure of information about the identity of a child or children featured in such images when the board makes a public protection decision, including one to release the prisoner. The provision will apply when the Parole Board does not know the identity of the child or children in such an image but believes that the prisoner is in a position to disclose it and has chosen not to do so. It is this non-disclosure and the reasons for it, in the view of the Parole Board, that must be taken into account before any release decision is made.