Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:27 pm on 11th February 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Conservative, South Cambridgeshire 3:27 pm, 11th February 2020

It is an honour and a pleasure to follow so many thoughtful and compassionate speeches, and to see such cross-party consensus. I pay tribute to Conor McGinn for his campaign, and to the Home Secretary and fellow Ministers for bringing the Bill to the House.

On 10 September 2001, I was in New York and had lunch with my wife at the World Trade Centre. The next morning, I saw the twin towers collapse. I was a journalist at The Observer at the time, so while others were fleeing ground zero, I went down there and saw the world’s worst terrorist incident close up. The reason I mention this is that the biggest impact of that terrible tragedy on me was the response of the relatives of victims. From Tuesday lunchtime—a few hours after the attacks—pictures of people started popping up around Manhattan, stuck to lamp posts and railings, with messages asking, “Have you seen this person?” By the evening, whole areas in New York, such as Union Square, were covered with pictures of faces of people who were missing, put up by relatives who were desperately searching for them.

I spoke to many relatives of the missing, as they went from hospital to hospital, visited known favoured places, went to work and called friends to see if they could find their missing husband, wife, brother, sister, son or daughter. There were literally thousands of people, all looking—looking even when, really, there was no longer any hope. The relentless energy they put into it was astonishing. The one thing that they could not do was what they were told to do, which was to stay at home and wait for a phone call. There were thousands of people with missing loved ones, and all their reactions were fundamentally the same. As the hours turned to days and the days turned to weeks, it remained all-consuming: the need to know; the need for some form of closure.

When reading the case of Helen McCourt, this is what I was reminded of. The circumstances are different from what we are discussing today, but this most powerful and natural human reaction—this psychological imperative in response to loss—is what motivates the legislation that is Helen’s law.

As we have heard, on 9 February 1988, Helen McCourt, a 22-year-old insurance clerk, went home after work and got off a bus just 500 yards from her house in Merseyside. She was never seen again. Her body has never been found. She had worked as a barmaid in the local pub, the George and Dragon, which was next to her house and where she was also a regular. The publican, Ian Simms, was convicted of a murder on overwhelming evidence. Her blood and fingerprints were found in his flat above the pub. Part of her earring was found in the boot of his car. He was imprisoned, but has always refused to say where her body is. He has just been released from prison, but is still refusing to say where the body is.

Helen’s mother, Marie McCourt, has campaigned relentlessly since her daughter’s murder. I want to join the tributes that we have already heard to Marie McCourt and to that campaign, without which this legislation would not be here today. Without the body of her daughter, Marie McCourt cannot bury her. She cannot have full closure with a funeral. She cannot visit her daughter’s grave to lay down flowers and to remember her daughter. She cannot properly grieve.

Not knowing the location of the body does not just mean that the victim’s family suffer even more than they already are. For the murderer, not revealing the location of the body means that he retains some control over his victim’s family. Those involved have talked about how it can give the murderer gratification. It certainly shows that the murderer has not properly taken responsibility for his crime or felt remorse. If the murderer is released without revealing the location of the body, it compounds the family’s suffering. The family do not know where their loved one’s body is, and the one person who does know is walking around freely and refusing to say. It is unconscionable. But this is what has now just happened.

Ian Simms may insist that he is innocent, but that is simply not the case: the evidence was utterly conclusive. He is still refusing to let Marie McCourt have a proper funeral for her daughter. That is why I support Helen’s law and why over half a million people signed a petition to for it to be made law. That is why I support this Bill. I regret, as some said earlier, that the Bill did not come in time to stop Ian Simms being released from prison.

The number of cases that the Bill affects may be small, but the injustice it corrects is huge. The issue of murder without a body has a long and difficult history. Courts used to be very reluctant to convict someone of murder when there was no body. But more recently, forensic science has become far more sophisticated, and, as with the case of Helen, courts are now more willing to pass convictions for murder even when there are no bodies. Cases like this are bound to become more frequent.

This Bill does not go as far as some campaigners have called for: an automatic ban on release from prison for murderers who do not reveal where the bodies are. But it does impose a legal requirement on parole boards to take into account the fact that a murderer has not revealed the location of their victim’s body. That sends a very clear message to parole boards of what society and Parliament expect of them. Putting that into law will ensure a more consistent and fairer approach.

I agree with the Government that we cannot automatically impose a ban on the release of murderers who refuse to reveal the location of the body. What happens in cases where the murderer would be willing to reveal the location of body but genuinely does not know where it is? What if the murderer cannot remember, perhaps because of dementia? The variety of cases means that parole boards have to have some discretion, and I think this Bill gets the balance right.

I have always believed that justice needs to focus far more on the rights, wishes and needs of victims, and for that reason I commend this Bill to the House.