Helen's Law may offer families and victims 'some closure'

Conor McGinn, MP for St Helens North accompanied Marie McCourt and her family to Downing Street in 2016, where he helped deliver the petition to introduce Helen's Law which has been signed by over 320,000 people.
Conor McGinn, MP for St Helens North accompanied Marie McCourt and her family to Downing Street in 2016, where he helped deliver the petition to introduce Helen's Law which has been signed by over 320,000 people.

Proposed legislation known as "Helen's Law", which takes into account a prisoner's failure to disclose vital information as part of their risk assessment before release, may offer families and victims "some closure", Justice Secretary Robert Buckland has said.

Mr Buckland told MPs he believed the issue of non-disclosure of vital information was of "such importance and of such distress to families and victims that it must be addressed in statute".

Speaking at the start of the Commons second reading debate of the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill, he said: "This is a narrow Bill, but it has wide implications.

"It ensures that a failure or refusal to disclose specific information on the whereabouts of a victim's body or the identity of child victims of indecent images is always taken account of by the Parole Board.

"A murder like Helen McCourt's and the depraved crimes of Vanessa George are not things that people can easily move on from, but the opportunity to lay a loved one to rest or to find out for certain whether or not they were abused, may offer the families and young victims themselves an opportunity to find at least some closure and to address the long lasting effects of such horrific crimes.

"I very much hope that this Bill will attract support from all sides of the House and can enter the statute book as soon as possible. The acute distress that these cases cause cannot and should not be overlooked."

He said that Helen's mother, Marie McCourt, had long campaigned for this change to the law as he paid tribute to her "bravery, her determination and her tenacity".

Helen McCourt disappeared in 1988, the following year Ian Simms was convicted of her murder, but never revealed the location of his victim's body, "thus compounding the misery and the grief of the McCourt family", Mr Buckland said.

He said: "Their dignity in the face of such unimaginable distress is something quite astonishing. All they want is the opportunity to lay their dear daughter to rest."

Mr Buckland also referred to the release of convicted nursery worker Vanessa George, adding: "All the families involved have been left in a truly terrible limbo not knowing whether their child has been a victim or not."

Tory chair of the Justice Committee Sir Bob Neill said the Bill was "morally necessary and the right thing to do".

Addressing suggestions, the Government should have gone further and introduced a rule of no body, no release, Mr Buckland said there was a "danger" of inadvertently creating an artificial incentive for people to mislead the authorities or feign cooperation or remorse.

Tory MP Lucy Allan (Telford) said "we do not want a parole board with no duty to victims".

She said: "We must always continue to ensure that the victims rights are equal to the rights of the offenders."

Referring to paedophile nursery worker George being released from prison without naming the children she abused, Labour's Luke Pollard (Plymouth Sutton and Devonport) said: "In respect of Vanessa George, I think the parole board had no choice in releasing her and that is why this change in law is so essential in doing that."

Mr Pollard urged George to "name those children, name the kids, and let's give those families the peace that they deserve".

Labour MP Conor McGinn (St Helens North) paid tribute to the mother of Helen McCourt, Marie McCourt, in pursuing the campaign.

"It is bittersweet because, as many in the House will know, just last week Helen McCourt's murderer was released from prison," said Mr McGinn.

"I think the dignity, the tenacity and frankly the sacrifice shown by Marie in continuing to pursue this campaign through the frustrations of having it fall because the House was prorogued, then Parliament dissolved, but the fact that she has stuck with it because she knows that it will help other families is again testament to her and her character."

Conservative MP Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) expressed sorrow that the legislation could not have been introduced sooner.

"It is right, it is proper, indeed it is decent that the Parole Board should be required to take into account the failure of a prisoner to disclose the whereabouts of a victims' body, or the identity of a child victim in indecent images," said Mr Metcalfe.