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Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:49 pm on 11th February 2020.

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Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Minister of State (London) 3:49 pm, 11th February 2020

We are standing here today because of two incredibly tragic cases: the tragic murder of a wonderful young women, Helen McCourt, 32 years ago at the age of just 22, in the prime of her life with everything to look forward to; and the terrible abuse committed by a nursery teacher, Vanessa George, who abused the trust that was placed in her by parents of tiny children. Yet from these tragic cases, today’s debate shows some good can come. I pay particular tribute to Marie McCourt, who I believe is in the House today, for her tireless and very brave campaigning. I can only imagine the grief and anguish she must have experienced every day that she has campaigned on this case, bringing back, as it must have done, the terrible memory of what happened to Helen. Yet she has persisted and she has persevered, because she has been determined that others will not suffer the terrible grief and anguish that she has. There can be few sacrifices for a parent more poignant than to go through this sort of experience, reliving terrible events, simply to help others avoid the same experience. As a parent myself, I thank her and pay tribute to her for the enormous sacrifice she has shown by campaigning in this way over so very many years. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I would also like to thank Conor McGinn, her constituency Member of Parliament, who has campaigned with energy, vigour and, I must say, a great deal of charm in making sure that this issue has not been forgotten, despite the political upheaval of the past few years. There may have been general elections, referendums, Dissolutions and Prorogations, but thanks to his hard work, persistence and perseverance this issue has not been forgotten. The Second Reading of the Bill today is testament to his hard work on this topic.

I might say the same thing about Luke Pollard, who has campaigned for his constituents; parents who, for reasons he explained, have not wanted to come forward into the public gaze, not wanting to expose their children to the publicity that would have accompanied them stepping into the limelight. He has spoken for them: he has spoken for those parents and for those children. He has made sure that the Bill encompasses those particular circumstances as well. I thank him and pay tribute to him for the fantastic work he has done in making sure that those children are not forgotten by this House.

As hon. Members have said, the Bill is a testament to the House of Commons and our system at its best. We have worked together. We have co-operated. We have overcome obstacles where we have encountered them. I think everybody who has been involved in this process can be extremely proud of the part they have played in it. I thank the shadow Minister for the support he has shown today in backing the Bill.

I would like to pick up on one or two of the points raised by hon. Members in the debate. My hon. Friend Lucy Allan reminded us that victims should be at the heart of the process. I entirely agree. The victims Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Wendy Morton, is on the Front Bench listening to the debate, together with the Lord Chancellor. It was only last September that the Government put more money into independent sexual violence advisers, who are there to help victims of sexual violence, and into rape centres. I very much hope there is more the Government can do in the weeks and months ahead.

My hon. Friend the Member for Telford also mentioned the fact that there is still an element of Parole Board discretion, as there has to be, for the reasons the Lord Chancellor clearly outlined in his opening speech. We are very mindful that the operation of the Parole Board does need careful consideration. A number of Members have made reference to that this afternoon. In addition to the review already under way, we will be conducting a root and branch review of the way the Parole Board operates to make sure the points raised by hon. Members are fully taken into account. That follows a relatively recent change whereby the Lord Chancellor can ask the Parole Board to reconsider a decision if he believes that the decision was not right the first time. That was introduced following the John Worboys case. I know that he has used that power a number of times and that it has, on some occasions, been successful. I take on board entirely the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Telford made.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport asked some questions, one of which was: if there is a number of offences that somebody is serving a prison sentence for and only one of the sentences qualifies under clause 2, would the provisions still apply? The answer is that they would still apply, if the qualifying offence is one of a number of qualifying offences. He mentioned such things as video links for parents or families of victims to give evidence at Parole Board hearings, as well as contact details and opt-out, rather than opt-in communications, and those points were extremely well made. I hope that the root-and-branch review will look at them and I thank him for raising them.

The hon. Gentleman asked about recall. The provisions that we are debating apply to the first release that may occur. If a prisoner is released and then recalled, the statutory provisions that we are enacting will not apply, but the Parole Board guidance will, requiring it to take into account the non-disclosure—so the statutory provisions will not apply, but the Parole Board, under its guidelines, will have to account for those matters.

I turn to the questions that were raised by my hon. Friend Laura Trott, who I can see is showing an interest in these topics. Where there is a standard determinate sentence, the provisions of the Bill do not apply because there is no Parole Board decision—release is automatic. Whether a sentence is a standard determinate sentence is a matter for the trial judge at the point of sentencing and it depends on whether the trial judge decides that the offender is dangerous. Clearly, for murder cases, for example, a life sentence with a tariff is mandatory, but with some of the indecent image offences in clause 2, it is conceivable that if a judge did not find that the offender was dangerous, they might hand down a standard determinate sentence. However, that was not the case with Vanessa George—it was an extended determinate sentence—and the expectation is clearly that any serious offender who is dangerous will receive an extended determinate sentence, and therefore, the Bill’s provisions would apply to those offenders.

On standard determinate sentences and releases more generally, the House rightly passed a statutory instrument a week or two ago moving back the automatic release point from half-way to two thirds for longer sentences, of seven years and over. We intend to go further in the sentencing review and Bill later this year to make sure that the most serious offenders serve more of their sentence in prison, respecting the expectation of victims, which so many Members have spoken about this afternoon.

This law places on a statutory footing the fact that the non-disclosure of a victim’s whereabouts or the identity of child victims of indecent imagery must be considered by the Parole Board. That means that there is no discretion for the Parole Board to disregard these considerations—it has to take them into account—and there is no way that anybody, other than this House, can ever change this provision in future. This is a significant step forward for victims. It will make sure that non-disclosure is properly and fully considered by the Parole Board in all circumstances, and it sends a clear message to any prisoner who is currently serving one of these sentences that this House finds it unacceptable that they fail to disclose the whereabouts of a victim’s body or the identity of victims.

My hon. Friend Stephen Metcalfe talked about his constituent, Linda Jones, and her daughter, Danielle Jones, who was murdered by Stuart Campbell, who is currently serving a prison sentence. The message that Stuart Campbell and others like him should hear loud and clear, on this day, from this House, is that their failure to disclose is unacceptable and abhorrent and that they should make that disclosure straightaway. We are striking a blow today for the rights of victims and their families, who deserve to be able to move on with their lives following crimes of the most appalling kind. I pay tribute again to the bravery of Marie McCourt in bringing this matter forward over so many years. The Bill is a testament to her bravery and to her daughter, and it is right that we shall know it as Helen’s law.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.