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Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:14 pm on 11th February 2020.

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Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:14 pm, 11th February 2020

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I would not wish to sit on a Parole Board for all the money in the world. It must be an incredibly difficult decision to choose whether or not to keep what are in many cases very serious offenders behind bars. As regards Vanessa George, I think the Parole Board had no choice but to release her, and that is why this change of law is so essential. Indeed, initially I called on the Secretary of State to reopen the investigation to ensure that no stone was left unturned, and no charge was missed that could be put against her to try to keep her behind bars. The dedication and professionalism of Devon and Cornwall police in reopening the file and ensuring that nothing was left in it showed that the system had done as much as it could do, which is why a change in the law is absolutely necessary in ensuring that we can keep someone like Vanessa George behind bars.

I would be grateful if the Minister could address my concerns about how the law will be implemented. Thankfully, there are very few cases like that of Vanessa George and very few cases in which there has been child abuse on this scale where, when it has come to light, the names have been withheld. But there are many more cases in which a charge of taking an indecent image of a child sits alongside other more serious charges, and reading the Bill I am unsure how these provisions will work alongside additional charges when the primary charge is more severe. If the conviction is spent on the first charge, does the ability to withhold information on a subsequent charge of taking indecent images mean that the whole sentence could be locked down?

There is a concern, as mentioned by my hon. Friend Bambos Charalambous, who made a professional debut at the Dispatch Box, about what happens to Vanessa George regarding licence conditions. I am grateful to the Parole Board for setting such comprehensive licence conditions that mean that she cannot go back to Plymouth, that she should never bump into or to be seen near any of the children that she abused, and that she should never be able to access the internet. We can now buy internet-enabled fridges, so there is a real difficulty in enforcing some of the minor points of those conditions. May I ask the Minister whether, if a licence condition is now triggered and she is called to jail, the provisions in the Bill would apply? Or would they fall away, and would these provisions apply only to new offences?

Very briefly, as I am grateful for the time the House has given me to speak, the operation of the experience around Vanessa George has shown that it is not only the deficiency in the words of the law that needs to be looked at but the whole journey for victims, particularly those brave and courageous parents who gave evidence at the parole hearings. I would like the Government to look into introducing a system of video links through which victims—or, in this case, the parents—could give evidence. Going into a jail where the perpetrator of such heinous crimes against their children is being held—especially when that jail is far away from where they live—is a really harrowing experience for parents. The ability to give evidence via video link from the local court is common in the rest of the criminal justice system, but not in Parole Board hearings.

There is also a point about communications. Many of the parents who were involved in the Vanessa George case found out about her release on Facebook or via our local paper. That is not because of a lack of willingness from the authorities to keep those parents’ details. It is that there have been 10 years of changing email addresses and addresses. For some parents, the stress of the abuse even broke the relationship and couples went their separate ways, meaning that the communication point was held by just one person. The process needs to be looked at again. I encourage the Secretary of State to look at the principle that was adopted with the new organ donation law: an opt-out system. This would mean that everyone, especially for these most severe cases, would be automatically included in the system, unless—for very good reasons that I think we can all understand—those people choose to opt out of getting regular updates. Implementing such a system would make a substantial difference.

There is a real opportunity to take some of the lessons learnt from the Vanessa George case and not only to make better law, but to ensure better operation of the Parole Board’s processes. I believe that many of the children she abused still do not know what has happened to them. Many will not know how they feel or that they are feeling the way they do because of their childhood experiences; they will not know about what is going on. Having spoken to many of the parents, I know that there is a daily worry. They ask themselves, “What happens if my child asks me about her?” or “What happens if they ask, ‘Did I go to that nursery?’” These are live questions for many of the parents.

The parents and children I have spoken about this afternoon have a life sentence ahead of them. There is no escape. Just as my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North mentioned that there is no escape for families who cannot have a body to bury, so there is no escape from the realities of this sentence. Now that Vanessa George has been released, she may be watching these proceedings. To her, I say: name those kids and let us give the families the peace that they deserve.