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I pay tribute to Conor McGinn and his excellent campaign, and echo many of the sentiments that he expressed in the superb speech that he just delivered to the House. I also express my gratitude to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor for all his work and efforts, since his appointment, to focus on victims and to put their rights front and centre. I am also extremely grateful to the Home Secretary for her work that focuses on the rights of victims, which traditionally we perhaps have not put so much at centre stage. The Government do themselves proud by making such a commitment to victims, and the Bill is an example of that desire to put victims front and centre.
I of course welcome the Bill, understand the rationale behind it and support it, but I wish to make some remarks that I should be most grateful if Ministers considered. Those remarks relate to the Parole Board’s role, which the hon. Member for St Helens North alluded to just a short moment ago. The placing of a statutory duty on the Parole Board to ensure that the issue of non-disclosure is properly considered is a positive step and a very welcome gesture, but the Bill will not fundamentally change the Parole Board’s current practice. The families in such cases will still have to rely on the Parole Board’s discretion, and that raises some questions about the Parole Board’s role when it comes to victims’ interests.
We have already heard about concerns relating to the Parole Board’s accountability and transparency, and there are clearly some gaps in its duties relating to responsibilities to victims. In the light of recent high-profile cases—for example, the Worboys case—there has clearly been a loss of public confidence in the Parole Board. There is a real need for the law to be seen to be on the side of victims. Yes, that is exactly what the Bill seeks to achieve, but in relying solely on the Parole Board’s discretion, it does not quite achieve that.
In the Worboys case, the Parole Board decided in January 2018 to release this serial offender early, after only eight years. The then Lord Chancellor was unable to intervene—in fact, he backed the Parole Board’s decision—leaving it to victims to mount a judicial review, which fortunately found that there had been shortcomings in the decision-making process. The courts were therefore able to require the Parole Board to revisit the decision, more information then came to light, and Worboys was sentenced further for additional attacks.
A feature in the Worboys case was the Parole Board’s failure to notify victims of Worboys’s forthcoming release. Another feature was that the Government felt completely powerless to intervene on behalf of victims. The case was not a one-off. The Parole Board is, of course, bound to balance the need to keep the public safe against the human rights law that prevents the arbitrary detention of offenders—that is the Parole Board’s job and its duty, and that is what it does—and the Bill will still allow the Parole Board to release an offender who has failed to disclose the known whereabouts of a victim’s body or failed to disclose the identity of a child victim. The Parole Board is not bound, by this Bill or by any other requirement, to take into consideration the rights of victims. I would very much like Ministers to consider how in future they can look at the Parole Board’s role and augment it to ensure that victims’ rights are up there with the rights of offenders. Clearly, this Bill will still allow a killer, sentenced to life, to be released, even if he has failed to disclose the whereabouts of a victim’s body. Most people would say that such a person may not be properly rehabilitated if he is refusing to co-operate on something as basic as the location of a victim’s remains, or the identity of a child.
The Bill raises issues about the Parole Board that were out there and being discussed, but that were not satisfactorily addressed in the previous Parliament under previous Lord Chancellors. Perhaps, this new Government, with the new approach that has been so much on display with the current Lord Chancellor, could consider how the role of the Parole Board could be looked at in more depth. I know that there was a review of the Parole Board in 2018. One recommendation was that there should be a further, more in-depth review into the Parole Board’s activity to see how legislation might actually make it a more transparent and accountable body. I would very much welcome such a review, especially if we could pursue it in a little more depth. We must continue to ensure that the rights of victims are equal to those of the offenders.
I also wish to touch on another issue around the Parole Board. In Telford, I have been trying to find out whether a serious perpetrator of child sexual exploitation, who was sentenced to a 26-year extended sentence in 2012, has been released. He was eligible for parole seven years later, in December 2019, and I cannot get an answer on whether that has happened. I cannot get an answer, because I do not know his prisoner number. If I am unable to learn whether he has been released, the community I represent is also unable to know. The victims and their families also want to know. We do not want a Parole Board that does not feel that it has any duty to the victims. That is something that this new Government, with their commitment to victims and their families, can do so much about. I know that victims’ families and the wider community would truly appreciate such a step.