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Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:57 pm on 11th February 2020.

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Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:57 pm, 11th February 2020

It is a pleasure to follow 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.