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

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This law—or rather, the law that I tried to introduce and am now arguing for—would not change the minimum sentence. If there were extenuating circumstances or reasons why the judge said that perhaps domestic abuse meant the situation was not the same for both parties, the judge would have the discretion, but would also have the ability, were it needed, to increase the sentence.

In Tony’s case, it is true that I could not say whether one party or the other inflicted the blows that did the particular damage to baby Tony, but I can say that both failed. I can say for certain that, in not calling an ambulance for 10 days, in watching Tony suffer, they both failed. They both failed in the most egregious and horrific way a parent can, and unless there are mitigating circumstances, as my hon. Friend says, that could easily be reflected and easily come out in a court, the judge would have the discretion to impose a maximum sentence beyond the 10 years available.

I am sorry to say, because I wish it were not so, that this has become more urgent, not less. Coronavirus and the lockdown that we have all been through have increased the dangers faced by vulnerable children, not decreased them. New research by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that Childline has seen a 22% increase in the number of counselling sessions about physical abuse and a 53% increase in contacts from people with concerns about children experiencing physical abuse since lockdown started. While clearly not all these will be criminal, and far fewer worthy of the maximum sentence, the justice system must be able to respond to the most serious offences committed.

The impact of physical abuse on children is not just severe but enduring. Both the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative and the Harvard Center on the Developing Child have published well-respected research showing that experiencing trauma of any kind at a very young age can have a sustained and devastating impact on brain development. This impacts the ability to form and maintain relationships, results in lower educational and employment outcomes and increases the chances of being victims once again. It can create extremely severe and long-term issues. Increasing the maximum sentence will not solve that, but parents must have a good understanding of developmental harm to children, and our court system must be able to set sentences to reflect that. Our judicial system already has the ability to determine which crimes should be classed as having aggravating circumstances, and it is essential that the legal maximum sentences address the impact of any crime on the victim and on our whole society.

Back in 2019, after the introduction of Child Cruelty (Sentences) Bill, I met the Minister responsible, the right hon. Rory Stewart, who presented me with Ministry of Justice data showing how few cases of this nature and gravity occur per year. That is something that I personally welcome, as I know does everyone in the House. However, we also need to accept the need to ensure that those few who are victims of these crimes are given justice that reflects the severity of crimes committed. We cannot have a justice system that fails to amend the necessary legislation on the basis simply that only a few children will be impacted.

I consequently wrote to and met the Crown Prosecution Service on 4 July last year, and I am pleased to note that the Director of Public Prosecutions raised my concerns with the senior judge who chairs the Sentencing Council. Indeed, I have a letter from the director of legal services at the Crown Prosecution Service, dated 19 July 2019, which states that they

“still stand by to assist with any further work” in relation to extending the statutory maximums for offences involving child cruelty. It is my firm belief following these meetings that, should this Government be willing to introduce Tony’s law, the Sentencing Council would be able to update its guidance appropriately and the CPS would be able to lend its support to this.

As I mentioned at the start of this debate, in Tony’s case we –I must emphasise that I played only a small part, because Paula and Mark are absolutely the heroes here and they led the way, with help from Kent police and the police and crime commissioner, Matthew Scott—were able to help persuade the CPS to re-evaluate its original decision on pushing charges against Tony’s biological parents for the crimes which they had committed. It shows that much work yet remains to be done. Not all children have a Paula and Mark in their lives, and it falls on us in this House to ensure that those children are heard too. The introduction of Tony’s law would be the best way to make this happen. I am not particularly bothered if the Government seek to amend either of the two Acts I mentioned earlier or find an alternative route to bring in legislation—that is a matter for them and for the Clerks. It really does not matter how it is done, so long as the aims contained in Tony’s law can be implemented. What does matter is that those who have committed the most horrific crimes against vulnerable children serve the appropriate sentence.

As a parent, I know there is no guidebook on how to care for or raise a child; it is hard work, and all of us know how many mistakes we have made. But having a child and watching them grow is the greatest privilege I have ever had, and I am sure I speak for many in this House when I say that. Making the abuse of children the ultimate act of betrayal and the ultimate breach of trust is a duty that falls to us all. On average, about 700 people a year are convicted of cruelty to or neglect of children. They are rightly punished by our criminal justice system. This change seeks to focus only on those most serious cases, where the abuse suffered by the victim causes life-changing injuries, and it seeks only to give judges a wider set of tools and the discretion to use them—tools they would have if the victim were an adult.

Tony Hudgell will never be able to walk like me or you, Mr Speaker. Tony’s first steps have been harder than anyone’s. He has proved, not in private but in front of the whole nation, that he has the drive, determination and character to overcome any challenge or hardship placed in his way. He has won the nation’s hearts and is one of the many heroes our country has cherished during this extraordinarily difficult time. He was won the appreciation and recognition of everyone from the Prime Minister to the Duchess of Cambridge and, probably most importantly for Tony, Chelsea football club.

I hope the Government are willing to recognise this extraordinary young man and his achievements, and introduce the law that is rightly in his name. Tony’s law seeks to ensure that individuals who commit the most serious acts of cruelty against children face appropriate punishment when convicted of this crime. It would be a welcome and important step towards ensuring that our policies and our laws reflect the importance we place on our children’s lives and wellbeing. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and hope very much that we will be able to work together in days to come.