Barry Gardiner

Working Hard for Brent North

Barry on Helen's Law

On 9th February 1988, Helen McCourt (aged 22) disappeared in Billinge, Lancashire (now Merseyside). Ian Simms was convicted of her murder on the strength of forensic evidence. He is serving a life sentence. However, Helen McCourt's body has never been found and Mr Simms has not revealed the whereabouts of Miss McCourt's body. Former pub landlord Simms maintains he is innocent of the killing. 

Ms McCourt's mother, Marie, is campaigning for a change in the law to ensure killers are not released without disclosing where bodies are buried. Mrs McCourt has stated she wants to see the civil offences of preventing a lawful Christian burial and obstructing a coroner used in cases like this. Mrs McCourt has stated: 'To be denied their funeral causes unimaginable suffering.' Barry sets out his position below:

As you may be aware, Ian Simms was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Helen McCourt in 1988. Mr Simms was convicted on the basis of forensic evidence but has repeatedly claimed his innocence and Miss McCourt's body has never been found. 

I appreciate that the impact of a murder to the family and friends of the victim is devastating and even more so when the murderer refuses to allow the victim a dignified final resting place. I sympathise profoundly with Miss McCourt's mother, Marie, and others who have not only lost their loved ones in the worst of circumstances, but have been unable to hold a funeral for them. I am aware Mrs McCourt has been leading the Helen's Law campaign and that a related petition has received over 340,000 signatures. This shows the strength of feeling on this issue and I pay tribute to Mrs McCourt for her tireless campaigning.

In February 2016, the Parole Board recommended Ian Simms may be transferred to an open prison and I understand the Ministry of Justice has now approved this decision. However, the Prison Service has stated that moving to an open prison would not automatically lead to Ian Simms' release. They assert that transfers to open conditions can only be made after a thorough, expert, risk assessment carried out by the independent Parole Board and have made it clear a transfer to open prison does not guarantee eventual release in any form. 

The Ministry of Justice has also said that the independent Parole Board will take into account an offender's co-operation on identifying the location of a victim when deciding whether that person is fit for release. It is also the case that courts treat the concealment of a body as an aggravating factor when passing sentence for such an offence.

As I am sure you are aware, my colleague Conor McGinn, who is Mrs McCourt's MP, has written to the Secretary of State to ask him to review the decision to recommend Ian Simms be transferred to an open prison. The Government has also requested that the Parole Board review its guidelines about releasing convicted murderers who refuse to detail the whereabouts of victims' bodies. I hope the Government will listen carefully and respond to the issues raised by Mrs McCourt's MP and the Helen's Law campaign.

More widely, I believe victims and communities should be at the heart of the criminal justice system. In February 2015, the Victims Taskforce, set up by the Shadow Frontbench, published a report with a series of recommendations for a new Victim's law. At the general election I stood on a manifesto which included a commitment to introduce such a law. The current Government also included a commitment to a 'new Victim's law' in its manifesto and I hope the Government will soon publish its plans to introduce this law. 

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