Child Cruelty Offences: Sentencing

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:33 pm on 11 September 2020.

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Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 2:33, 11 September 2020

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to you for being in the Chair this afternoon, and I am grateful to be called to speak about what is a very important subject, not just for me in Kent but for many across our country and, as I know from the messages of support I have received, for many around the world.

Lockdown has brought home to many of us the stress of childcare, and we have all learned to respect teachers even more than we already did. Certainly, I know that I am not alone in being delighted that schools have reopened and that our children are able to expend the energy that they accumulate through the day in charging around a playground rather than charging around a sitting room.

We have spoken frequently about the importance of childhood and of protecting the most vulnerable in our society, because we understand that failing to care for children is not just wrong; it is a betrayal of the trust that they should be able to have in our community and in the adults around them. But few betrayals are worse—in fact, no betrayal is worse—than parental abuse. That has long been recognised: 700 years ago, Dante wrote about it, putting the betrayers of family into the lowest circle of hell. He was right to do so, because those who harm their own children are beneath contempt. Our society should reflect that in our laws, and that is why I have secured this debate.

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of getting to know an extraordinary young man whose story has moved much of the nation. Tony Hudgell, from Kings Hill, has become a household name in recent months thanks to his exceptional fundraising efforts in June. This House has had the pleasure of his company before—indeed, were we not under the current regime, I have no doubt that he would be in the Gallery now. I am delighted to say that I am perfectly certain that he is watching from home as we speak. I know that Paula and Mark, Tony’s parents, will be supporting him, and he will be picking out individuals he recognises, because he has followed politics for several years.

Tony’s first visit to this House happened on 8 January 2019, when I presented a petition hand-signed by more than 12,000 people asking for tougher sentences for child cruelty offences. Tony, his parents and his supporters, who have come to be lovingly known as Bear’s Army, spent the summer of 2018 heading across Kent in support of their campaign. It was not possible to travel very far without hearing about their petition, or to go into many shops without seeing it.

Tony made a further visit on 12 February 2019 when I introduced the Child Cruelty (Sentences) Bill to the House. Unfortunately, we were unable to have time for its Second Reading because of the general election that followed last year. The purpose of this debate is to ask the Government whether they will adopt the policies that that Bill aimed to introduce. It sought to increase to imprisonment for life the maximum custodial sentence for the offences of child cruelty, and of causing or allowing a child or vulnerable adult to die or suffer serious physical harm. It is more commonly known as Tony’s law, in honour of that extraordinary young man, Tony Hudgell himself.

It is worth remembering that Tony’s story is pretty extraordinary and, sadly, horrific, but it is not unique. Shortly after Tony was born, he was attacked by his biological parents. His fingers and toes were broken and the ligaments in his legs damaged. Despite extensive surgery, Tony had to have both legs amputated. He was only admitted to hospital 10 days after the injuries were sustained. It is impossible for us to know the pain that Tony must have suffered in his first few weeks of life.

Tony was lucky, however—extraordinary to say after what I have just recounted—because he was adopted by a real and loving family. His real parents, Paula and Mark, who have loved him and cared for him like a real family does and should, have given him an extraordinary home. His brothers, sisters and parents are an inspiration to so many, and certainly to me. They have given Tony the best possible upbringing after the hardest start in life. They are rooted in the community, both in Kings Hill and in the great kingdom of Kent. They are forces to be reckoned with, and their campaigning on this issue has won the appreciation of so many.

For many years, I have worked with Paula and Mark for justice for Tony. We started back in 2016 when the Crown Prosecution Service initially failed to bring charges against Tony’s biological parents. Eventually, charges were pressed, and in 2018 they each got 10 years in prison. Witnessing Tony’s biological parents being charged and sentenced for the crimes that they had committed brought a sense of closure on Tony’s first few difficult weeks alive. Unlike his birth parents, however, Tony got a life sentence.

Tony’s law, as I shall refer to it throughout this debate, is not intended to help Tony. His biological parents got the maximum sentence available at the time, and—thank God—he has now found the home that we all wish he had had to start with. I hope that this law will sit on the statute book and never be used, but it is the very least this House can do to recognise the extraordinary efforts of this inspirational young man. Tony’s law aims to send the message that we cannot and will not tolerate severe offences committed against the most vulnerable among us; that although they are not old enough to vote or stand for Parliament, still their life and safety matter as much as that of an adult.

Tony became a household name for many of us this year. Across the nation, he captured so many hearts. As part of his quest to improve his walking on his prosthetic legs, he set a goal of walking 10 km in 30 days to raise £500 for Evelina London Children’s Hospital—just across the river at St Thomas’—where he was treated and recovered from the horrendous injuries he had sustained. Tony, his family and his friends are hugely grateful to the hospital and I personally offer it my deepest thanks.

Tony, who always seems to achieve the impossible, despite anything put in front of him, has demonstrated that his courage and the love of his family can carry him anywhere. He did not raise £500: he raised £1 million, and more. Not only that but he smashed his target even further, and just last week he started walking into school for the very first time. In this debate, I am asking the Government to do what Tony has been doing for ages: helping those who need it most. I know they are already aware of the remarkable young man that Tony is.