Alberto Costa: My constituents are dismayed by the proposal to free a man who raped and murdered two schoolgirls

25 Jun

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.

Alberto Costa: There are too many barriers to Britishness. Post-Brexit, it’s time for a more welcoming citizenship policy.

10 Dec

Alberto Costa is the MP for for South Leicestershire.

Citizenship, being British, plays a foundational role in our society. It is a shared bond between us. Yet successive Labour and Conservative governments have neglected citizenship policy to such an extent that it’s been hard to tell if its aim has been to encourage people to become citizens or to try to deter them. We are now presented with an ideal moment to put that right.

With Britain having left the EU and with a new, points-based immigration system in place, our Prime Minister has an opportunity, as part of his Global Britain agenda, to be banging the drum for Britishness and a more positive, welcoming approach to citizenship for those who wish to settle and contribute to the UK.

The independent inquiry into citizenship policy, which I chaired for the respected think tank British Future, publishes its report today, setting out practical proposals for reform. Discussing these issues with the inquiry panel – which included fellow Conservative MP Steve Double and Fraser Nelson, Editor of The Spectator, as well as Andrew Gwynne MP from the Labour benches and voices from civil society – has strengthened my belief that we can galvanise a broad consensus for a positive citizenship agenda.

Research for the inquiry found two thirds of the British public agreeing that if someone decides to live in Britain long-term, it is a good thing if they have an opportunity to become British by taking citizenship. So it makes sense that UK citizenship policy should welcome those who want to make this commitment to our country and who pass the various tests of eligibility: speaking good English, being of good character, and knowing about the UK’s customs and culture.

Just as the new points-based immigration system draws on the experience of Australia and Canada, we could learn much from their approaches to citizenship too. The Canadian handbook for new citizens opens with a warm message of welcome from the Queen. However, Her Majesty does not appear in our Life in the UK handbook until page 121. It is a symbolic point – but we could very simply and easily emulate that welcoming, positive tone towards those who are seeking to become British.

If we agree that becoming British is to be welcomed (and I would hope all Conservatives would welcome full integration of those contributing to our country), citizenship should not be placed beyond the financial reach of, for instance, many social care or NHS staff and their families, nor be so complicated that most people can’t apply without a lawyer. If we believe that it can aid integration, we should make it easier, not harder, for children born here to become citizens.

British citizenship is special – but we do not make it special by setting unnecessary barriers. ConservativeHome readers may be shocked to learn that the cost of citizenship in the UK is the highest in the western world. Indeed, the combined cost of applying for citizenship in Australia, Canada, the USA and France still does not add up to the cost of a single application in Britain. The fee of £1,330 is almost four times the cost to the Home Office of processing an application.

As part of the latest Global Britain agenda, as Conservatives we are now seeking to attract the brightest and the best through our new points-based immigration system. A positive citizenship agenda would encourage those whom we are now seeking to attract and who have chosen our country as the place to contribute, settle, raise a family and pay their taxes, to take that extra step and consider citizenship. It should review citizenship policy – covering eligibility, processes and costs – to secure the benefits that citizenship can bring for shared identity and integration.

And at the end of the process when people do eventually become British citizens, we should welcome them and celebrate their becoming British – not hide the events away in some gloomy council building. New, high-profile citizenship ceremonies – held in iconic British locations such as the Palace of Westminster, Edinburgh Castle or Old Trafford – would send a clear message that this is something of which we can all be proud.

Our report goes on to propose an annual, high-profile ceremony where Her Majesty the Queen and the Prime Minister award honorary citizenship to a select number of people who have been outstandingly brave or made a great contribution to life in the UK, either as an individual or because they represent a particular group whose contribution is valued, such as NHS staff or those who helped develop the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine.

Debates about migration, and who can come to the UK, have now been largely settled. It is time to focus on the people who have made their lives here, and on ensuring that a Global Britain embraces those who want to contribute to our shared society. So it is my hope that the Prime Minister, and indeed all of us as Conservatives, will seize this opportunity to take a new, pro-Britishness approach to citizenship, welcoming those who have made this country their home.