Alberto Costa is the MP for South Leicestershire.
The announcement just a couple of weeks ago, that the Parole Board for England and Wales had cleared the convicted double child rapist and murderer, Colin Pitchfork, for release rightly caused national outrage. There was scarcely a newspaper headline, social media story, or rolling news bulletin, that did not lead with the black and white mugshot of the man who was convicted of the brutal rapes and murders of two innocent teenage girls in 1983 and 1986, respectively.
As the Member of Parliament who represents the villages of Narborough and Enderby in South Leicestershire where these horrific crimes took place, the impact of Pitchfork’s barbaric crimes is still very real and raw for so many. Almost every week, a constituent will mention that they were school friends or acquaintances of Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth, the two girls whose lives were tragically ended in the most egregious and unthinkable circumstances. They will plead that I do everything in my ability to ensure that Pitchfork is never released from prison because of the nature of his gruesome crimes.
The name of Pitchfork will also be notable to many ConservativeHome readers, not only for his brutal crimes, but also for being the first case in English criminal law where DNA profiling evidence, pioneered by Sir Alec Jeffreys at the University of Leicester, ironically only a few miles from the scenes of Lynda and Dawn’s murders, helped catch and convict the killer. Obtaining DNA evidence for the, then new, technique involved the ‘blooding’ of many thousands of local men who provided blood samples, and the ingenuity of forensic science and the persistence of Leicestershire Police that finally caught the devious killer.
As an example of his deceitfulness, Pitchfork attempted to evade capture through having a co-worker provide a DNA sample in his place; were it not for this colleague being overheard talking about it, Pitchfork may never have been caught and, it was later claimed in court, that more young women would have been in grave danger had he been able to avoid capture.
When Pitchfork’s parole was announced a few weeks ago, my thoughts immediately went to the families of Lynda and Dawn who have lived with unimaginable grief for several decades. In recent days, my inbox has been full with correspondence of concern, shock, and upset, from my constituents and people across our country; aghast at the decision to release this man who, according to the Parole Board, is now apparently reformed and allegedly presents less of a danger to society.
Since first being elected as an MP in 2015, I have campaigned to oppose Pitchfork’s release in countless meetings with successive Lord Chancellors, prison ministers, the Chief Executive of the Parole Board, and others involved in the case. Through one of these meetings with David Gauke, the former Justice Secretary and well-known ConservativeHome contributor, plans were outlined following the John Worboys outrage to make the Parole Board process more transparent to the public and provide greater accountability for its decisions to victims and their families.
In a system where decisions were seemingly reached in secret, this was excellent news and a move I had been actively lobbying for. Alongside the summary of the Parole Board’s decision to release a prisoner being made public, there was also the introduction of ‘Reconsideration Mechanism’ rules, whereby the Parole Board’s decisions could be challenged by the Secretary of State for Justice rather than a third party being forced the costly and stressful route of Judicial Review, as happened in Worboys.
Now, the Secretary of State for Justice has the authority to intervene and challenge a Parole Board decision to release a prisoner. The Secretary of State is not acting in a judicial capacity and nor is he adjudicating the merits of the decision and replacing it with one of his own; he only has the power to ask the Parole Board to “think again”.
Whilst the Parole Board is rightly independent of government, when it gets decisions of such highly sensitive cases so wrong, as it did in Worboys, and, arguably now, in the matter of Pitchfork, it is appropriate and proportionate in a democracy that an elected minister has the opportunity to invite the Parole Board to reconsider its decision.
Accordingly, I have written to Robert Buckland, the Secretary of State for Justice, and requested that he use the Reconsideration Mechanism tool at his disposal to challenge the Parole Board’s flawed decision. I have reminded him to have in mind the profoundly negative impact the Parole Board’s decision in Pitchfork is having on wider society and how it is at risk of damaging and undermining his message that the Ministry of Justice takes very serious action against those who commit violent sexual offences and murders against women.
The decision on whether to attempt to stop the release of a double child rapist and murderer now lies in the hands of an elected Conservative minister known for his recent tough-talking on protecting women from sexual offenders and being firm with those who commit such unspeakable acts against women. The nation awaits his decision on Monday.