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

I thank my hon. Friend for his words. He is absolutely right that a review of child sentencing is required, because we are really talking about demonstrating that our society and this country recognise that the most vulnerable require the most protection.

I am very pleased to say that in July Tony received a award, and I was very honoured to carry it to him. The Prime Minister himself asked me to present a Points of Light award to Tony. Only a few weeks later—completely by chance, I am sure—the Prime Minister visited Tony’s school, the fantastic Discovery School in Kings Hill. I know the Prime Minister will be listening to this debate, and I am sure he remembers the conversation, because Tony was not exactly shy about putting his case. As anybody who knows him will attest, he has an amazing sense of life and passion and no lack of confidence. He would make a fantastic Member of Parliament one day. Tony has not forgotten meeting the Prime Minister, and I know that the photos take pride of place.

For those of us who have had the honour of knowing Tony for many years, and who share his drive, determination and commitment to the nation through his fundraising challenge, it is only right that we as parliamentarians show the support that the nation has already shown by introducing this law in his name.

I should like to focus much of this debate on how we can enshrine Tony’s law in our legislation, having been unable to progress the Child Cruelty (Sentences) Bill in the last Parliament. That Bill sought to amend the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004 and the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 by extending the term of the relevant sentences. They are small amendments that would go a long way to ensuring adequate sentencing for the most extraordinary cases, such as Tony’s.

Let us be clear: Tony’s case is both unusual and extraordinary, and Tony’s law only seeks to address sentencing of the most extreme cases. Figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that for offences of cruelty to and neglect of children from 2014 to 2018 only 114 offenders received an immediate custodial sentence for those crimes. Each of these 114 cases is one too many and horrific for not only the victims but the whole community. The purpose of Tony’s law is simply to increase to life imprisonment the maximum sentence possible for judges to resort to in the most serious cases. Not all those 114 offenders received the maximum sentence, and when a judge decides to give a more lenient sentence because of circumstances brought out in the trial, this legislation would make no difference; it would not change that.

In Tony’s case, which is included in these figures, the judge was extremely clear when he sentenced Tony’s birth parents. Indeed, at the sentencing hearing in February 2018 at Maidstone Crown court—a court I know well, having been put in the visitors’ box as a form of childcare when my father was sitting as a Crown court judge—Judge Philip Statman painted a vivid description of the case. Understandably, he could not comment on the maximum sentence being 10 years—that is a matter for Parliament and the sentencing authorities—but he could say the following:

“I cannot envisage a worse case than the one I have had to deal with over the course of the last two weeks.”

That is quite something for a judge who has dealt with so many serious offences in his career. Following the two-week trial, the jury took less than an hour to return a unanimous verdict. Anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of our Crown court system will recognise that not much of a debate was needed on this case.

The courts are rightly separate, and sentencing is up to the judge, but it is up to us, as a Parliament, to reflect the views of our society and to legislate to ensure that judges are able to give sentences that reflect the crimes committed and the abhorrence that our society feels towards them. We can do our bit to support Tony’s family by ensuring that the maximum sentence is appropriate for the crime. Under current law, the maximum sentence for this crime is 10 years, which is what Tony’s biological parents received. However, if Tony were an adult, the perpetrators would most likely have been charged with grievous bodily harm with intent, which carries a maximum sentence of life. How is it right that our law treats the most serious abuse of children differently from the abuse of adults?

A child’s life, as any parent will know, is the greatest responsibility that anyone can be trusted with. Children are, of course, particularly vulnerable. They are under the care of others, and unlike most groups in society, they do have not have the ability to influence not just policy and law but the space around them. We have a duty to protect children where the system or those responsible for their care fail them. We have a moral obligation to ensure that the law, in no uncertain terms, spells out that a child’s life matters just as much as that of an adult. To do this we need to empower the courts to give sentences to those who commit offences against children that match those for offences against adults. Whether it is an offence of child cruelty or grievous bodily harm with intent, sentences must be consistent, and we need to give judges the option of handing out longer sentences when needed, as Judge Statman could have done in Tony’s case.

I understand the Government’s argument. I have been told that the maximum sentence is capped because, in cases like this, it is impossible to be certain who committed the harm, because of the impossibility of such a young child bearing testimony. Of course I understand that that usually makes sense. There should be a limit on the sentences applicable when we cannot be certain and the charge is shared, but this is very different. This is not just about the violence committed against the child but about the very betrayal that the parents committed. This is a violation of the foundation of our society, the basics of family and the essence of community. It is not just a crime of violence.