I beg to move,
That this House
has considered sentencing for people convicted of murdering a child.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. The subject of this debate is a difficult one—a dark one. It is a subject that no one would rush to talk about, but I hope that I speak today for the families of children who have been murdered, and for future victims and their families, in calling for changes to our justice system, so that it actually delivers justice.
In my view, along with protecting the public, delivering justice should be the absolute focus of our justice system. Yes, of course we should seek to divert people from offending, particularly those guilty of less serious crimes, but delivering justice is in and of itself a moral good.
Child murder is one of the most horrific crimes and it must create unimaginable pain for the families who are left behind. I do not have children, but I am lucky enough to have a niece and a nephew, and they are the most precious members of my whole family. Millions of families across the whole country would join me in saying that protecting their children—keeping them safe—is the most important thing in the world, which we would give up anything, or do anything, to achieve.
It is fair to say that the pain that must come when someone destroys a family by breaking through that wall of protection is something that people never really get over. Just imagine how you would feel if it happened to your family. Along with the loss of innocent life, there is the loss of a future, not just for the child but for their family. The imagined achievements: watching them grow and go on to live their own life, and their own family—all of that is gone; in fact, it is stolen. That haunts people forever.
One such person is Elsie Urry. David McGreavy killed Elsie Urry’s children—Paul Ralph, who was four, Dawn, who was two, and nine-month-old Samantha—in 1973, at their Worcester home. Forgive the graphic nature of the details that I am about to give, but they need to be given—McGreavy strangled Paul Ralph, cut Dawn’s throat and fractured Samantha’s skull. The bodies of all three children were left on railings.
Campaigning on this issue has given me the privilege of speaking to Elsie and learning how what happened has affected her. I spoke to her again yesterday, ahead of this debate, and she explained that she feels that she has been left with a lifelong sentence herself. It should come as no surprise that she was horrified that McGreavy was released from prison in 2019. She said that at the time he was sentenced she was left with the impression that he would never get out of prison and that was the sole source of comfort for her.
It is likely to be the view of the overwhelming majority of the public that if someone brutally murders a child, they should spend the rest of their life in prison. There is sometimes a narrative that forgiveness and moving on are the answer. I welcome that narrative for people who feel that way, and I hope it gives them peace. However, I —and I think many other people—would get more solace from justice being done.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. As he rightly suggests, a child’s murder hurts every one of us in our heart and we feel for their parent. As a dad of three and a grandfather of six, I understand exactly what he means.
The Criminal Justice Act 2003 states that the only murder charge against a child that warrants life imprisonment is the murder of a child following abduction, or a murder involving sexual or sadistic motivation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there needs to be greater emphasis on life imprisonment for child murders that take place within the household and that abduction, while a contributing factor, should not be the only reason for life imprisonment? Any child murderer should be in jail; that should be the only criterion. When the Minister responds to this debate, she should say very clearly that we need to have that in law, because that is what every parent wants—indeed, every non-parent also wants it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I wholeheartedly agree with him; indeed, I will go on to explain how we have made a tiny step in that direction but are still falling far short of what he says should happen.
I return to the issue of how people feel when they or their family have been a victim of serious crime. After the murder of Sarah Everard—who, of course, was not a child at the time she was murdered, but obviously never stopped being a child to her loving parents—her family released the following statement:
“We are very pleased that Wayne Couzens has received a full life sentence and will spend the rest of his life in jail. Nothing can make things better, nothing can bring Sarah back, but knowing he will be imprisoned forever brings some relief.”
That is exactly how I would feel if any member of my family were murdered, not least if it was my niece or nephew. However, what is known as a whole-life order, rather than just a life sentence, is extremely rare in our justice system, whether the victim is a child or otherwise. Such a sentence was given to Couzens because the judge said that his use of his status as a police officer was of extreme seriousness.
Across our entire prison population, only around 60 people who are currently in custody are there for the rest of their life, under a whole-life order. That is the suggested sentence when someone is convicted of the murder of two or more persons involving a substantial degree of premeditation, abduction of the victims, or sexual or sadistic conduct; the murder of a child that involves the abduction of a child, or sexual or sadistic motivation, as Jim Shannon mentioned; the murder of a police or prison officer; a murder carried out for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause; or when there is a murder by an offender previously convicted of murder. I cannot know, but I suspect that Sarah’s family would have felt exactly the same about wanting to see her killer spend the rest of his life in prison regardless of whether or not he was a police officer and was viewed by the judge as meeting that threshold.
We frequently hear that a murderer has received a life sentence. That is often reported as their being “jailed for life”, but that is not what actually happens; in my view, that term is misleading. As I have said, to support the public understanding and media reporting of sentencing, we need to think about calling those sentences something other than a life sentence, because in reality, a life sentence means that someone is subject to recall to prison for life—that in theory, they could be in prison for life if they are never thought to be safe for release. The minimum term is actually the guaranteed sentence: in reality, people given a life sentence for murder serve an average of just 16 and a half years, which is very far from anyone’s definition of “life”. The idea that being on parole for life is in any way equivalent to being in prison is insulting to victims and their families.
During the time I have been campaigning on tougher sentencing, I have picked up on what I will describe as an intellectual snobbery towards people who think that longer sentences serve justice—that it is small-minded thinking; that to think it, a person must somehow be unable to realise the moral and intellectual heights that can be reached through forgiveness; that it is obviously the wrong approach because it does not allow for rehabilitation, as if by default, no matter the crime, victims and their families should care more about that than they do about justice. That is misguided thinking. A society in which people who follow the law see those who do not punished is a noble and valid society. Making sure that victims of crime experience life with some relief, no matter how small, should be our priority.
Those listening to my speech might be wondering what the point of today’s debate is. They might be aware that the point I am making—that child murderers should spend the rest of their lives in prison—is a deserving call that has already been responded to by the Government. The recently passed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 brought in a whole-life tariff for the offence of child murder, removing the requirement for child abduction or sexual or sadistic motivation. That measure should have been what would save people like Elsie from experiencing the heartache she has suffered watching her children’s murderer walk free.
However, I am afraid that as welcome as that measure is, looking at the detail of it makes clear that it falls far short and will rarely do so, because it can be used only when a murder involves significant premeditation. That is why I have called for today’s debate: I am deeply unhappy that that decision undermines what would otherwise be a positive step forward in ensuring justice for victims and their families. Worse than not addressing an issue is giving the impression that we have done so, when in fact we have not. I am entirely unclear why the decision was taken to restrict the measure in that way. I would be grateful if in her response, the Minister would explain the Government’s thinking, because it only takes a casual observer to realise that that restriction is going to leave the public wondering whether in reality we have done what we pledged in our manifesto to do.
Elsie tells me that her recollection of the case is that the murder of her children was a spontaneous act, without premeditation. More recently, I am sure the Minister and others will remember the horrific murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes at the hands of Emma Tustin, tragically with the help of Arthur’s father, Thomas Hughes. Arthur suffered 130 injuries in the lead-up to his death at the age of six. He was poisoned with salt, emaciated, and forced to sleep on a hard floor and stand all day in a hallway. The amount of violence used on him produced forces on his body equivalent to a high-speed road traffic collision. Tustin was convicted of murdering Arthur in December last year, and was given a life sentence with a minimum term of 29 years, before our measure kicked in. Every person I have spoken to and everyone who contacted me about the case wanted to see her locked up for the rest of her life. However, in his sentencing remarks, the judge was clear: there was no premeditation in the case.
I am sorry, but according to the Clerk, you cannot talk about sentencing. You can talk about the details of the case, Dr Mullan, but not the sentencing.
Okay—I had finished anyway. We know that if that crime were to be repeated tomorrow, the new measure we have passed would not apply, despite it being exactly the type of cruel, callous murder that the public would expect to be impacted.
Significant premeditation, not just premeditation, is a very high burden to reach. I have reviewed some recent cases where, in sentencing remarks, premeditation was raised. Mohamed Jama was found guilty of murder with an element of premeditation because he armed himself with a knife and actively sought out his victim as part of a plot to avenge the robbery of his brother. Jason Cooper was found guilty of murder with an element of premeditation because he killed his former partner after telling people he would do exactly that, encountering her at a pub and returning home to get a knife with which to attack her. Thomas Dunkley was found guilty of murder with an element of premeditation because he was found to have searched, before the murder took place, for terms such as:
“What is the fastest way for a human to bleed to death?” and:
“How long does it take to bleed to death from a stab wound?”, alongside looking at things he could buy with the money he stole from the deceased. I hope those examples make clear what a significant hurdle premeditation is, let alone significant premeditation.
Did Parliament, when passing the legislation, really mean to rule out cases such as Arthur’s? Did it mean that unless a murderer has a very clear plan to kill a child, we should be content to see them walk from prison? I am not content with that, and I do not believe that, had it been considered more closely, Parliament would be satisfied with it. Will the Minister say whether the Government remain happy with that position?
I became aware of the issue as the Bill that became the Act passed through the House, and I raised it with Ministers, although I recognised that such a complex Bill, to which much had been added, was not suited to yet further amendments. However, I am determined that we should fix the issue now. Quite rightly, the public will ask us to explain ourselves when—heaven forbid that it should happen, but sadly it is likely—another poor child is murdered and justice, as most of us would see it, does not prevail.
A cynic might conclude that an established view of the extremely high thresholds for the use of whole-life tariffs meant that, in reality, the caveat was introduced to continue the extreme restriction of its use while apparently satisfying a ministerial policy intention. I would not suggest that, of course, but others might. The impact assessment states that the Government estimated that, on average, some 10 adults per year commit the murder of a child. I am not clear whether that figure, or the policy development linked to it, took the caveat into account. It certainly does not seem to, and there is no mention of it in the impact assessment. If it seems that the Department was satisfied with the policy without the need for the “significant premeditation” caveat, it should not be such a burden to get it removed at the necessary legislative opportunity. Otherwise, we will have to answer difficult questions when the next case arises and angers public sentiment in a similar way.
The issue reflects, for me, a need for a wholesale recalibration of our sentencing through the courts and the guidelines we set. What length of time in prison represents justice for different crimes is entirely subjective; no one can give a right or wrong answer. However, I believe the justice system is there to serve the public and our sense of what merits justice. That is the grand bargain that we make when we say we will follow the rule of law and not take matters into our own hands. Of course, the white heat of pure anger and vengeance should not be our guide or starting point, but reasonable, moral, decent people feel continually let down by what we offer them as justice when they and their families are victims.
The Government can be proud of their overall record, in many ways, such as increasing Labour’s appalling halfway early release to two thirds for serious offenders. Again, I think most people would want that for all offenders, but it was progress none the less. We also introduced GPS tagging for some repeat offenders and brought in tougher sentencing options for child cruelty and dangerous driving. However, acting properly on child murder would have been a step forward that I thought was long overdue and welcome; my support for it was as strong, sadly, as my disappointment in how we ended up doing it.
We can and must do better. That is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do for past victims and their families, to honour and recognise their suffering, and so that, when children are murdered, we can at the very least ensure that they and their families get justice.
I very sincerely thank my hon. Friend Dr Mullan for securing the debate—our first of the parliamentary term—and it is a real pleasure to be here to answer him and to see my friend Jim Shannon in his accustomed place. As a former special constable, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich is well placed to campaign and speak out on these issues, based on his personal experience as well as his experience as an excellent constituency MP. He represents his constituents extremely well.
I commend my hon. Friend for his work to stand up for victims, to bring such issues to the attention of parliamentarians and to campaign for tougher sentences. I completely agree that sentencing fitting the crime is vital for public confidence in the justice system. I know that, as an active and engaged member of the Justice Committee, he will have a lot to say on that in the future. I very much look forward to working with him as well.
All murders are terrible acts, but those where the victim is a child are particularly so. The murder of those most vulnerable in our society causes extreme grief and devastation for loved ones left behind. As a parent, it is devastating to listen to the cases set out by my hon. Friend. I know society feels it is necessary to ensure that those responsible for those terrible crimes are properly punished.
It may be helpful if I set out how the sentencing framework in England and Wales responds to the murder of children. Sir Charles, I hope I can abide by your guidance but would welcome your intervention if I fail to do so. I will start by saying that all murder convictions must result in a life sentence. When that life sentence is imposed, the court must determine the minimum period to be served in custody for the purposes of punishment and deterrence. Only when that period has been served in full may the offender be considered for release by the Parole Board. The board will release a prisoner only if it satisfied that it is safe to do so—I will come later to how we have toughened up the Parole Board. The judge will calculate the minimum term by selecting the appropriate starting point as set out in legislation, namely schedule 21 of the Sentencing Act 2020.
When sentencing adult offenders, the starting points are 15, 25 or 30 years or a whole-life order. Whole life orders are the most severe penalty available in our justice system and someone sentenced to one will spend the rest of their life in prison without the prospect of release. Judges must then consider relevant aggravating and mitigating factors and adjust the minimum term accordingly.
Of course, offenders serving a life sentence may remain in prison beyond the minimum term set by the court, and some may never be released if the Parole Board does not think it is safe to do so. If and when the offender is released, he or she will remain on licence for the rest of their life and will be subject to recall to prison at any time if they breach the conditions of their life sentence. A life sentence, therefore, remains in force for the whole of the offender’s life and it is an indeterminate sentence under which the offender could spend their life in prison.
Coming on to sentencing for the murder of children, which my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich spoke about, the framework rightly regards the murder of children as particularly serious. Schedule 21 sets out a number of circumstances where a whole-life order is the starting point when considering what minimum term should be imposed by the court. The legislation provides that the murder of a child should have such a starting point if it involves sexual or sadistic motivation, or the abduction of the child.
My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that the PCSC Act strengthens schedule 21 by expanding the range of circumstances in which a whole-life order is a starting point when the court is determining how long an offender convicted of murder should spend in prison. That means that the premeditated murder of a child now has a whole-life order as its staring point. Some instances of child murder might also fall within the other circumstances that apply to victims of all ages where a whole-life order is a starting point, for example, terrorist murders or murder committed by someone already convicted of murder.
Judges still have discretion to depart from those points and to impose a life sentence with a minimum term if they consider that to be the most appropriate sentence, having considered all the circumstances. However, it is right that they must first consider a whole-life order when making that decision. Alternatively, it is possible for the court to regard any offending as exceptionally serious and to impose a whole-life order in a case in which the circumstances are not listed as those where such a punishment would usually be the starting point.
Where a murder of a child does not meet the circumstances listed in the schedule for which there is a whole-life order as a starting point, the minimum term will be set according to the remaining starting points, depending on the facts of the case. There are aggravating factors applicable to all murders that could result in an increase to the minimum term due to the victim being a child. They include the vulnerability of the victim due to age, and where the murderer abused a position of trust.
It is important to note that through the PCSC Act, we have ensured that the courts have the fullest range of sentencing powers available to deal appropriately with those who commit other offences against children. It is worth Members noting and remembering that we brought forward Tony’s law, which was named in reference to young Tony Hudgell, who as a baby was abused to such an extent by his birth parents that he is severely disabled. I have had the great privilege of meeting his foster parents, and they are an incredibly inspirational and brave family. I pay tribute to them for all the work they have done.
The 2022 Act increased the maximum penalty for the offences of cruelty to a person under 16 and of causing or allowing a child or vulnerable adult to suffer serious physical harm from 10 to 14 years of imprisonment. It increased the maximum penalty for causing or allowing a child or vulnerable adult to die from 14 years to life imprisonment.
I fully recognise that my hon. Friend has kindly noted the progress made by the Government, but I recognise too that he would like a lot of these measures to go a lot further.
I do not wish to stray and will follow the strictures of the Chair, but may I make a point about judicial independence? My hon. Friend mentioned the case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. My understanding is that the judge ruled that those vile acts, although horrific, as my hon. Friend described, were not committed with intent to murder and that there was no premeditation. In our system, judicial independence is a cornerstone of our parliamentary democracy, and we, as politicians, cannot and should not pre-empt sentencing.
Let me refer to the case of David McGreavy, which my hon. Friend also mentioned. It is highly likely that McGreavy would now be given a whole-life order because he murdered three children with the sadistic motivation that was a feature of the case. If a judge determined that an offender was dangerous and the circumstances of the offence were sufficiently serious, a life sentence for that offence would be mandatory.
It is important that we turn for a few moments to the role of the Parole Board, which determines the end of an offender’s term in prison. The Government published a root and branch review of the parole system in March, setting out a number of reforms to the parole release process. It was felt that that process needed to be improved, that it should be tougher and that we should look to see where we could improve the system. The reforms will establish a top-tier cohort of offenders who have committed the worst offences, including murder and causing or allowing the death of a child. The top-tier cohort will be subject to increased ministerial scrutiny at the point of release, with new powers to prevent release if Ministers are not satisfied that the new and stricter release test has been met. That means that in future all prisoners who have committed the murder of a child or who have received a parole-eligible sentence for causing or allowing the death of a child will be subject to additional scrutiny at the point of release. We have committed to legislate for those reforms as soon as parliamentary time allows. Those reforms will be broadly welcomed by the public because they will be seen to improve confidence in the system.
Cases of child murder are rightly punished severely by the courts, and those who are convicted face long prison sentences, possibly with no prospect of release. That is the right thing to do. The Government have increased the powers available to the courts by raising the maximum penalties for acts of cruelty and extending the list of circumstances in which a whole-life order is a starting point to ensure that courts are able to impose severe penalties.
I thank the Minister for her response to the debate, and I think that the general public across the United Kingdom, particularly people in England and Wales, will welcome what she is saying. Following on from the contribution made by Dr Mullan, if someone beats a child over time and he or she does not die, but then one day that person beats the child and it does die, surely that should be taken as murder even though the intention at the beginning was not to murder, because it was certainly murder at the end. I am following the Minister’s line of argument here, and I am looking for clarification, please.
The hon. Gentleman has gone to the heart of the issue of premeditation, which is relatively new with respect to the PCSC Act and how we have framed the law around sentencing. If I may, I will write to him on the issue in detail. I hope he is sympathetic that I have not been in this ministerial role for a long time, and I do not want to mislead anybody. I want to give the hon. Gentleman the precise facts and the legal position.
It is vital, and right, that we have increased the powers available to the courts in raising the maximum penalties for acts of cruelty and extending the list of circumstances in which a whole-life order is the starting point to ensure that courts can impose severe penalties for such serious offending. It has been a pleasure to speak about this important topic and to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, as well as my friend the hon. Member for Strangford. I look forward to continuing to work with my hon. Friend to do whatever we can to increase public confidence in sentencing and the criminal justice system.
Question put and agreed to.