Vanessa George: Early Release from Prison — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 3:59 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water) 4:00 pm, 23rd July 2019

That this House
has considered the early release of Vanessa George from prison.

It is good to see you in the Chair for such an important debate, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to hon. Members from both sides of the House who are here to stand in solidarity with the parents and children affected by this case. I am here to speak on behalf of the children who attended Little Ted’s nursery in Plymouth, their parents and their families. I hope to give a voice to their fears, anger, pain, horror and genuine concern about the early release of serial convicted child abuser Vanessa George.

Vanessa George was sentenced in December 2009 and charged with seven offences—two of sexual assault by penetration and two of sexual assault by touching. She was also charged with making, possessing and distributing indecent images of children. She was given an indeterminate sentence for reasons of public protection, and was to serve a minimum of seven years for her crimes against toddlers and babies.

The judge—Mr Justice Royce—said to Vanessa George on sentencing:

“I cannot emphasise too strongly that this is not a seven-year sentence. It is emphatically not. It is, in effect, a life sentence. Many, and I suspect everyone so deeply affected by your dreadful deeds, will say that would not be a day too long.”

The parents were let down twice: first, by the lack of a robust system to protect their children, whom they entrusted to Vanessa George and Little Ted’s nursery; and secondly, as they have told me—some through tears—as the woman who abused so many children will be released early. I will return to this in a moment, but it is worth noting that most of the parents I have spoken to found out about the early release through the media, not from the Parole Board or the authorities. As soon as I heard about the release, I wrote to the Secretary of State asking him to intervene, and personally and urgently to review the decision to release Vanessa George. The more details that emerge, such as the fact that she still refuses to name all the children she abused, the more I am sure it is still too early for that woman to be released.

We are here today because I—we—believe that Vanessa George should not be released early. I believe that the decision should be reviewed urgently, and that every step should be taken to keep her behind bars. I believe that she should be in prison for the entire childhood of the children she abused. I believe that she should not be released or considered for release until she has named all the children she abused. I believe the police should reopen investigations into cases not on the original charge sheet but for which she is the sole or principal suspect. I believe that any criminal justice system that carries such a low bar for remorse that she is not required to name her victims to be eligible for early release is a system that is not working properly in the public interest. I believe that there needs to be a greater role for victims in early releases.

I believe all that because I want every child that George filmed and photographed being sexually assaulted to live for the rest of their childhood in safety. I want their parents to know that the woman who committed those unspeakable acts is locked away and out of reach of their kids until they become adults themselves. She robbed those children of their childhood, and we should protect what remains of it. She has refused to confirm the extent of her actions and the total number of her victims. That leaves every parent who sent their child to Little Ted’s nursery living with a life sentence of not knowing whether their child was one she abused and whether images of their child being abused still exist in some rotten corner of the dark web or on a pervert’s hard drive somewhere. She should not be released until she has named every single one of the babies and toddlers she abused.

I have been made aware of legal precedent whereby additional charges have been investigated, and further charges put to gain justice for those crimes, which would have the effect of keeping that woman behind bars. I want the police to reopen investigations into these crimes, so that George can be kept behind bars if she is guilty of them in addition to the offences of which she was convicted.

Furthermore, the victims need to be given more information and the reports that they are currently denied. They should receive more appreciation for their brave and courageous advocacy—especially the parents who gave evidence and submitted testimony to the Parole Board. The Parole Board acts under the direction of the Secretary of State and Parliament. This debate is necessary and timely in helping to update that direction.

I feel so strongly about this because over the past few weeks I have taken the time to listen to the parents of the children Vanessa George abused. These are some of their comments.

“How can I tell my child that I don't know whether she was abused or not?” said one. Another said:

“I do not know what I will say to her if she were to ask me about the offender.”

Another told me:

“She will be out soon, but it doesn’t end for us.”

Another said:

“I told them what releasing her early would mean and they ignored it.”

Another said:

“I gave the police my email address and phone number as I wanted updates about her! I’ve had no email or phone call from them whatsoever!”

Another said:

“It seems to me she is saying the words but if she had real remorse then she would have shared more information to help the families”.

Perhaps most simply and brutally, one said:

“I found out on Facebook that the woman who abused my child was being let out. We were supposed to be told, but we weren’t.”

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case, albeit one that is difficult to hear. One of the challenges is that we do not know the true extent of this individual’s offending, and therefore the true number of victims. Does he think that changes ought to be made so that people can be attached as people of interest to the case, so they are not missed out and do not find out through Facebook, which is abysmal?

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water)

I do. There is a difficulty in this case in the difference in the definition of a statutory victim and a discretionary victim. My hon. Friend’s suggestion is a good one, because regardless of the official tick-box definition of the victims, the people connected with the case must be kept informed, especially about the release of the offender.

I am grateful to the Minister for the time he spent with me ahead of this debate and for his professional, non-partisan and sincere support for the victims in this case. On behalf of the parents, I have a number of questions. Will the Minister review the Parole Board’s decision to release Vanessa George early? Will the powers that the Government have taken following the case of serial rapist John Worboys apply in the case of Vanessa George? The Minister has told me those powers have not yet commenced. Will he tell me whether that is true, and whether Vanessa George’s legal team argued for consideration of her case ahead of those powers commencing? Did she try to get out early, knowing that she would not be able to if she left it any longer?

The serious case review into Vanessa George found:

“Although she was not senior in her position, other factors such as her age, personality and length of service could have created an illusion of position of power and encouraged a sense of trust...It is also the case that George is of the ability to behave in a highly manipulative manner and hence gain high levels of trust in others”.

May I ask the Minister for the strongest possible assurances that the manipulative nature of Vanessa George has been properly assessed by the Parole Board?

Furthermore, I have been made aware of legal precedents from similar cases that may provide a chance, no matter how slim, to keep Vanessa George off our streets. It would ensure that there is an investigation of additional crimes that were not on the original charge sheet but for which she was the sole and primary suspect.

On how many counts was George originally charged? How many of those remain on file with her as the principal suspect? I understand that she was charged with just seven, but that scores more remain on file. Is the Minister aware of any recent cases when it was brought to the Parole Board’s attention that the main suspect due for release was the main suspect in many other cases that were not on the charge sheet? Was that considered in this case? Did the police make representations to the Parole Board where cases in which George was suspected were not proceeded with? I realise that the police and the CPS do not always send the full charge list to the courts for fear that juries may be confused, trials may be too long and other charges may be put at risk. Are there cases where George was the sole or primary suspect in which charges have not been laid but could be?

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Labour, Newport West

I take the opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning in this area. He has shown himself to be a passionate champion of the people of Plymouth, and he has my full support.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The fact that my constituency neighbour, Sir Gary Streeter, and I are both here demonstrates that we have cross-party support and is testimony to the fact that all of Plymouth stands in revulsion at what has happened and in support of the families.

I turn to the broader issue of how parents were informed about the early release of Vanessa George. The vast majority of the parents I have spoken to told me that they found out from Facebook and local media. I know that in cases where the identity of victims is uncertain it is hard to identify statutory victims for ongoing communication, and informing everyone can be hard, but more effort should have been made in this case to tell victims ahead of Vanessa George’s release that that would be happening. Will the Minister therefore ask the Parole Board to look again at how it communicates with victims, both statutory and discretionary, in particular in cases of extreme child abuse?

That is not just relevant to this case: the all-party parliamentary group on adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse found that most survivors were not informed of their abuser’s release. That poses a particular risk where the abuser is settled in a town or city close to the survivor. In this case, I believe restrictions will be in place so that Vanessa George cannot settle in Devon or Cornwall, but victims should be told in a timely and respectful manner of the release of an offender. Surely, that is even more important in cases of extreme child abuse.

Will the Minister join me in extending an invitation to the new Victims’ Commissioner to come to Plymouth and meet the parents in order to feed into a stronger and more robust victims code, which I know the Minister’s Department is currently consulting on? If the victims code is to be better understood and supported, cases such as that of Vanessa George must inform how the Parole Board better communicates with and informs, listens to and engages with victims; otherwise, the Minister’s ambition for the victims code to be a living statement of rights will not be achieved.

Finally, will the Minister look at what constitutes adequate remorse for parole in extreme child abuse cases such as this one? All offenders released early must show remorse for their crimes. They have to take steps to show that they understand the severity of the crimes they were convicted of and their impact on the victims, and to show genuine contrition. I cannot reconcile that with Vanessa George’s continued refusal to name which babies and toddlers she abused and which she did not.

That we do not know who was abused denies those children tailored help for the consequences of that abuse and leaves each parent with a life sentence from which there is no early release. Not knowing whether their child was one of the babies Vanessa George penetrated and filmed must eat away at them every waking moment, and being forced to live with that trauma is unimaginably devastating. Will the Minister set out what guidance is provided to the Parole Board and whether he believes the terms around remorse are sufficiently robust? Currently, I do not think they are. Vanessa George should not be released until she has named every one of her victims.

In conclusion, I want to say something directly to the children who attended Little Ted’s nursery in Laira in Plymouth and their parents. Most of the children who were abused still do not know about it, but that does not mean they do not carry scars from the assaults. The accounts I have heard from parents of how children lived with the consequences of assaults on their tiny bodies will haunt me for a long time, and I can only imagine the weight of that on the families who deal with it on a daily basis. The system let those children down once. We must not let them down a second time.

The parents have shown so much bravery and courage throughout all this. News of the early release has reopened old wounds and brought back horrors that no parent should experience. I am in awe of their tenacity. Plymouth is very proud of them. I have heard parents explain the emotional torment of deciding whether to tell their child that they may have been abused but they are not sure whether they are a victim. Parents have told me that this early release came out of the blue and they were not told by the Parole Board. That took them back to the horror and shock of hearing about the abuse for the first time back in 2009.

Parents, especially single parents, have told me they feel so alone, but I say this to them: “You are not alone. You are believed. And whatever happens with this release, you have my commitment, and I imagine the commitment of all Members present, to stand with you to demand better for your child and for every child in this country.” I can only consider the news of Vanessa George’s early release to be a kick in the teeth, not just for those babies and toddlers she abused but for their families and friends, for the whole of Plymouth and for all those impacted by the ripple effects of her actions across the country. I hope the Minister will be able to give some hope to the people I am here to represent.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon 4:15 pm, 23rd July 2019

I commend Luke Pollard for raising this issue and for the commitment and passion he showed on behalf of his constituents, which does him credit. He made a very powerful speech, and I thank him for graciously allowing me to speak for a couple of moments before, importantly, the Minister responds.

I endorse all the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Although the appalling crimes committed by Vanessa George took place in his constituency, the shockwaves caused by that atrocity impacted the whole of our city and the country as a whole. I remember it only too well; it is probably the worst, most traumatic event in my 27 years in this place. Along with my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer, who is currently at the Invictus trials in Sheffield supporting injured servicemen, I have supported parents caught up in this scandal for many years. Of course, it is not going to be resolved in just a few years.

I am deeply disappointed by the decision of the Parole Board to release Vanessa George on licence. I have had reasons to doubt its robustness several times during my years as a Member of Parliament. Of course, in the case of John Worboys, which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport mentioned, the Parole Board misread the public interest and the courts had to intervene. The Parole Board does not always get the balance right between the interests of the perpetrator, and the impact on victims and the public interest. In this case, it has fallen well short. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that the way some of the victims found out about this early release is appalling.

Nine years is not enough of a punishment for the trauma that this woman inflicted on many lives and families in Plymouth, the true depth of which will not be known for some years yet. In my opinion, she should serve at least another 10 years in custody before being released on licence. I join the hon. Gentleman in asking the Minister to ask the Parole Board to think again.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 4:17 pm, 23rd July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I add my thanks to Luke Pollard for securing the debate. I am grateful to him for his remarks. He has approached this issue very constructively, because he seeks a higher degree of justice for the constituents he represents. That is absolutely right and proper.

I am also grateful to my hon. Friend Sir Gary Streeter for his contribution. He rightly reminded us that, although my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer is not with us today, they have worked with people affected by what were heinous and wicked crimes.

I well remember the commission of these offences because my children were of that age at that time. I think there are very few of us, either in the House or outside it, who do not remember our revulsion and shock when we heard about these appalling acts. It was a shocking abuse of trust. It was a series of offences that left us all shocked. The remarks of Mr Justice Royce, the trial judge, summed it up very well. I have read the transcript of his remarks and obtained at least one version of the indictment to understand fully the offences to which this offender pleaded guilty. There were 11 in all: five counts of sexual assault, one count of making 124 indecent images, and five counts of distributing a range of indecent images of children, not alone but with others. That brought home to me the dangers of the internet for the first time and how this level of abuse can be magnified by people who stop at nothing to satisfy either their own dreadful compulsions or the lusts of others. It is a particularly horrible case.

Vanessa George was sentenced in December 2009 and received what was then still available to the court: a sentence of imprisonment for public protection—an IPP, as we call it—with a minimum term of imprisonment at seven years. The judge calculated the seriousness of the offending to mean this: had George contested the trial, she would have received a determinate term of 21 years. The judge, as the law requires, had to give her credit for a guilty plea of one third, so she would have received a determinate term of 14 years if she had pleaded guilty. The calculation of the seven-year term was in accordance with the law as it then stood.

It is important to understand that, because from my reading of the judge’s remarks and my understanding of the indictment, it seems to me that the full extent of the criminality was reflected in the indictment. There do not seem to be any other offences that were left to lie on the file. I have conducted a preliminary investigation, which I will conclude, and if there is any change in that position, I will write to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport.

That is an important distinction between this case and the John Worboys case. Hon. Members will recollect that Worboys had been made subject to a similar IPP sentence and the Parole Board had directed that he was to be released on licence in January 2018, but in March the High Court quashed the decision and ordered the Parole Board to take a fresh one. It did that and concluded that the public could be protected only by keeping Worboys in closed prison conditions. As a result of that important case, the Government introduced a number of new safeguards to ensure that the mistakes made then should not be repeated. We need to view the Parole Board’s decision to direct the release of George in the light of those safeguards and, indeed, the more robust system now in place as a result of the action taken by the Government.

I will answer as best I can the hon. Gentleman’s questions. The new regime came into force on Monday of this week—22 July—just after he and I spoke about the case. That does not have a retrospective effect, but it will affect cases from now on. I also assure him that, from what I am told, there was no attempt by the legal team to try to expedite the hearing to avoid the new rules.

An oral hearing in the George case took place over two days. The first date was 21 May. On 2 July, another day was set aside for the Parole Board to hear statements from the victims who had been identified and to take fully on board their concerns and position. After that two-day hearing, a decision was made. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first question about the review is that because it predates the change, the only course of conduct open to me or the Department is a judicial review, and I have to say that on my examination so far of the procedure, I do not see the sort of flaw that would justify a court giving permission for judicial review.

I think the hon. Gentleman knows what I am talking about when it comes to the test that has to be applied for judicial review. In reaching any release decision, the parole board must follow a detailed process. It must comply with the statutory rules in place, which include the panel considering a dossier of evidence sent by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. New checks were introduced by the Government on that procedure after it was discovered that, in the case of Worboys, the dossier had not included the important sentencing remarks to which I referred, because that will tell the Parole Board, as it did in this case, what the judge took into account in terms of the sentence. In the case of Vanessa George, the judge rightly took into account her refusal then to reveal the full identities of the children she had abused. He made specific and important acknowledgement of that. Just as he took into account her guilty pleas, he tempered that with what was obviously an aggravating factor at the time. I confirm that those remarks were very much in the dossier in this case.

There were also deficiencies in the Worboys case to do with the reports themselves, which did not deal in sufficient depth with the considerable evidence of wider offending, even though Worboys had not been prosecuted for all the offences he was alleged to have committed. It was then that HMPPS issued guidance to report writers on how such evidence should be addressed. Indeed, as I have said, it seems that, on my reading of the indictment, there is not evidence of wider offending in this case.

We know that an oral hearing was held, and I confirm that at that hearing a representative of the Secretary of State was present. Unlike in the Worboys case, in the George case all the report writers recommended release.

I have spoken about the victim contact scheme. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there was a problem there, in that because of the lack of identification, we did not have a statutory basis on which to operate. However, the National Probation Service did offer the victim contact service on a discretionary basis to the 18 parents who responded to the initial contact in 2009 and said that they wished to be kept informed of developments. Eight victims responded to further contact, of whom six submitted a victim personal statement. Representations were also made about licence conditions, which would be imposed should George be released, including an exclusion zone for the entirety of Devon and Cornwall, which has been agreed to. Further, the panel has left it open to any other victims to make representations regarding licence conditions should they wish to do so in future. I invite the hon. Gentleman to ensure that that happens—we have spoken about it already—and I will do everything I can to facilitate the process. I absolutely understand the widespread concern about the decision, but as I have explained, on the information that I have been given, it seems that there are not the grounds for me to make a legal challenge.

Before the hon. Gentleman comes back, let me say a little more about how the offender will be managed in the community. George is barred for life from working with children. She is on the sex offenders register for an indefinite period. She will be supervised by the National Probation Service, working with the police via the multi-agency protection arrangements, and there is an extensive set of licence conditions. If she fails to comply in any way, and in such a way as to indicate a heightened risk, she will be recalled; that means further incarceration behind bars.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me about the position with regard to the victims code. I readily agree to the suggestion, and I am sure that the new victims’ commissioner, Dame Vera Baird—I know her well—will be interested to speak to him and to victims to feed into the important process on strengthening the code.

The question of remorse is a subjective one. That, in my view, is not really where the Parole Board should direct its attention; it should look to the question of acknowledgment and whether it can be satisfied on what it hears that the offender has really started to acknowledge, or has acknowledged, the gravity and impact of her offending. Remorse, frankly, is a subjective matter, and I would be very concerned if that became the only or major criterion by which a Parole Board assessed the risk of an offender. It has to be about risk rather than mere words that can be said in a hearing.

With those assurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman has received at least some answers to his important questions.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I have finished.

Question put and agreed to.