Last week, I was fortunate enough to do work experience in parliament, with my local MP, Gareth Johnson. Through doing this, I was able to sit in the House of Commons and watch debates on new bills. The one that was of focus and was the most interesting to me was the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill, or Helen’s Law. As a result of this, I have decided to dedicate this week towards this new bill which saw it’s second reading on the 11th of February.
This new bill came about after a petition was signed by half a million people. This petition began because of a woman named Marie McCourt. Marie’s daughter, Helen, was a victim of Ian Simms. On the 9th of February 1988, Helen McCourt, a 22 year old British insurance clerk, got off the bus in Billinge Village, St Helen’s North. Two days previously, she got into an argument with a woman and Ian Simms who worked in the George and Dragon pub, a place where McCourt worked a year prior. When Helen did not return that night, all leads led to Ian Simms. From cleaning the pub floor with bleach, to Helen’s earring in his car, to bloody clothing found 15 miles away that linked to the pub and Helen, everything proved him to have murdered her. In addition, there was a motive. It was thought that Helen had been gossiping about him having an affair. Once confronted, he beat and strangled her in the pub before putting her body in the boot of his car. To this day, the whereabouts of her body is unknown. Ian Simms was convicted of her murder and given a life sentence with a minimum of 16 years. Whilst he wasn’t released after 16 years, he was actually released on the 4th of February this year.
Another case that inspired this bill was that of Vanessa George. She was convicted in 2009 to serve a minimum of 7 years. This was for abusing children at a nursery in Plymouth. The 49 year old took photos of herself abusing children in her care and shared them on the internet. She was guilty of seven sexual assaults on children and making 124 indecent images of children. However, she was released at the end of last year due to no longer posing “a significant risk”. She is banned from returning to Devon and Cornwall and has been put on the sex offenders register for the rest of her life.
In both of these cases, the information about the victims were withheld. In the case of Ian Simms, he did not reveal the whereabouts of Helen’s body. In the case of Vanessa George, she did not reveal what children she abused in the nursery. In both cases, the offenders have been released from prison.
The Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill ensures that the Parole Board takes into account the offender’s choice to withhold information about their victims, before allowing automatic or early release. This is because by withholding information, it can be seen that they still pose a risk to the public. This is the case for those who do not reveal the locations of the bodies of their victims. Furthermore, it involves those who have abused children but fail to reveal their identities.
In the case of Ian Simms, by not revealing the location of Helen’s body, the family have never been able to say a final goodbye. It is almost as if Simms still holds control over the Helen’s family. Until the body is found, if it is ever found, the family of Helen McCourt will never be able to completely grieve. In fact, Marie McCourt was in the House of Commons as this bill was being discussed. She got very emotional by the discussions, even 32 years later, which shows how she has never been able to grieve due to not knowing the location of Helen’s body and not being able to put her to rest. Although this bill will not be able to bring justice to her, as Ian is now released, it is able to bring justice to other families when it is implemented.
In the case of Vanessa George, by not revealing the victims, the families of the children can never know if their child was abused. Those who were in nursery 11 years ago are still not developed adults. This emphasise the little amount of time that George spent in prison for her crime. Those who were abused will never know if they were, simply because they won’t remember or would not have understood that what she done was wrong. It simply does not bring justice to the victims and their families.
Within the House of Commons last Tuesday, there was overwhelming support for this bill to become a law. Whilst it does not stop early release of offenders, it will make it a legal requirement to consider the withheld information before releasing offenders back into the public. This is because if they are willing to withhold information, then they should still be considered a threat to the public.
The only disagreements with this bill is potential circumstances where an offender may forget information about their victims. This could be due to mental health issues or simply forgetting. Perhaps, they have been wrongly convicted and do not know. What then?
That is why this new bill does not block early release but rather, urges the Parole Board to consider this information before releasing them. It gives a healthy balance. It ensures justice to the families of victims and to the offenders themselves. Therefore, I hope that it is successfully turned into a law. Especially after seeing the emotional reaction of Helen’s mother, who has had to endure the release of her daughter’s murderer without knowing the location of Helen’s body.