Even if the Bill is not, in law, creating a new criminal offence of non-disclosure, the effect of deliberate non-disclosure is inexorably going to lead to the conclusion that the prisoner poses a risk and, as a result, requires to be kept in prison.
First, the Parole Board must consider the prisoner’s state of mind and whether for some reason, such as the presence of mental disorder, they cannot form the requisite intention to withhold the information. Secondly, the board must be satisfied that the prisoner has the mental capacity, within the meaning in the Mental Capacity Act 2005, to decide whether to disclose. In moving these amendments, I put on record yet again my support for the principle of this Bill and my admiration for Marie McCourt. I acknowledge the Bill’s importance to grieving families in achieving closure in the most terrible circumstances.
In Committee, the Minister expressed two objections to my amendments. I am very grateful to him for taking time to discuss them in advance of today. His first objection was that my amendments would prevent the Parole Board taking into account any previous occasions on which the offender had had the opportunity to co-operate with the authorities and reveal a victim’s whereabouts, but had refused to do so. He argued that if this offender later became unable to make a disclosure for reasons of deteriorating mental health, for example, my amendment would leave the board unable to consider any prior refusal to co-operate in assessing the risk the prisoner posed to the public in the event of release on licence. The amendments tabled today meet this objection by including the potential for historical consideration.
His second concern is more fundamental and goes to the heart of what I see as the underlying problem with the Bill. Throughout its progress, he has repeated the Government’s view that the board’s discretion to consider all possible reasons for non-disclosure must be unfettered. He contends that my amendments give undue prominence to one factor among the many the board will take into account when making a public protection decision.
But this in effect exactly what the Bill does. It turns consideration of non-disclosure—already a standard practice in parole panels—into a statutory duty. But it fails to create a parallel statutory duty of what must be a fundamental responsibility of the board in coming to its view: to consider whether the prisoner is able, for reasons of mental capacity or disorder, to disclose that information. The Bill therefore comes dangerously close to collapsing together the question of whether there is missing information with that of whether the prisoner should be held responsible for it.
Even if the Bill is not, in law, creating a new criminal offence of non-disclosure, the effect of deliberate non-disclosure is inexorably going to lead to the conclusion that the prisoner poses a risk and, as a result, requires to be kept in prison. Therefore, the Bill is in effect creating a statutory hurdle to release in those cases where deliberate non-disclosure is established. Given this, it should be explicit that that statutory hurdle can exist only where the prisoner can be held responsible for their own actions—that is to say that they are not suffering from a mental disorder or otherwise from impairment of mind or brain that should be seen as alleviating that responsibility.