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Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:51 pm on 12th February 2020.

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Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight 3:51 pm, 12th February 2020

For several years now, people in the security world have been privately warning that we face the release of a bulge of extremist prisoners, after the first wave, 10 or 15 years ago, of significant and serious terror attacks in our country. Of those who committed the two recent attacks, one terrorist had a short-term sentence and may not have been part of that group, but one certainly was, and had been through a rehabilitation process.

I wish to raise some issues, and I hope that the Minister will either write to me or respond to them at the end of the debate. I will also refer to recent articles by Ian Acheson, who has pertinent things to say—he has been referred to by a number of Members across the House.

Ian Acheson recently argued that the system for managing extremist prisoners—there are about 220 in our system overall—is still flawed. Indeed, he described it as “broken”, and argued that evidence for that came out at the trial of Mohiussannath Chowdhury, who was recently convicted of preparing acts of terrorism.

Acheson described Chowdhury’s time at Belmarsh as a form of finishing school where he freely associated with other jihadis, including people who were serving a minimum of 30 or 34 years in prison. He said that Chowdhury regarded what he considered to be a crude, de-radicalisation programme as “laughable”, and that within days of his release he was planning new attacks and waiting for others to be released from prison. What reassurance can the Lord Chancellor provide to show that we are moving on from that position?

This issue has been of significant concern to people in the police and other security agencies for some time. Indeed, we know about the remarkable amount of police time that goes into monitoring highly dangerous people when they leave prison, because in the most recent attack that individual was being monitored. Such monitoring is not done just by a single individual; it is done by groups and teams of police officers, and others.

In the past two weeks, I asked the Lord Chancellor—I very much hope he will remain in his job; he is doing a cracking job and he is a superb Lord Chancellor—about separation units. He said that he hoped that although the Government were reviewing the situation, we had got the balance about right. I respectfully ask whether that is still the case, because the separation units we have are not the units that Ian Acheson recommended. He recommended separation units that would take prisoners out of the general prison population to ensure they were completely incapacitated from radicalising others over a significant and sustained period of time, around which individual responses to those individuals would be built. As other Conservative Members have said, the range of psychological conditions of extremists ranges from people who are probably just very mentally ill, to people who are very bad but in absolute, coherent control of their actions and are very good at radicalising and proselytising others. What Acheson describes as a sheep dip approach and generic psycho-social interventions from secular people—people trained in a secular approach to psychology—will not work for people whose universe is extremely different and built on a warped but theological basis.

Acheson said specifically that the Prison Service had unwillingly adopted some of his recommendations. The Lord Chancellor was good enough to say that we were adopting them, but apparently at a lower level there has been some resistance. Out of our three separation units, one was mothballed before it began, one lies or was lying empty, and the third has barely a handful of residents. I would be very grateful if the Lord Chancellor or other Ministers talked to us about the day-to-day life of separation units. Perhaps MPs should visit them. I am visiting one of my prisons next week and I will be talking about the culture in prisons, both in my constituency and more broadly, because this is probably an issue on which we do not spend enough time. Clearly, there are significant problems. If people are coming out of prison and killing our fellow countrymen, we must prioritise this situation and we probably have not been doing so.

Acheson warned of a fear of litigation driving some decision-making. We all have to be mindful of the law, but a fear of the human rights lobby should not be a reason for forcing or allowing people out who then go on to kill and maim their fellow countrymen.

The final point, which I think is valid, relates to the safeguarding of vulnerable prisoners—the vulnerable prisoners being the terrorist prisoners. I sort of get that at a certain level. In the hostage and crisis negotiators course, the police teach that the person trying to kill other people or take hostages is in a state of crisis and in a vulnerable state. Morality aside, that is clearly true. However, in practical and moral terms, treating the person who is sticking a knife to somebody’s throat or walking on to the tube with a bomb as someone in need of safeguarding is, frankly, not as important as treating the people that that person is going to kill. They are the ones in need of safeguarding from that person. When we talk about safeguarding extremist prisoners, I am wary of using that language—I understand why it is being done—because I think it goes down a morally and ethically dangerous route. We are not making a moral distinction between innocence, which is what the term safeguarding should be used for, and people who want to do considerable harm to other people. Indeed, they see it as a perverted and twisted religious duty, as part of a holy jihad, to slaughter other people. As my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis said, that can be a part of the mindset. It is on the spectrum of that mindset.

I know that other Members wish to speak, so I will wrap up on this point. I would very much like to be reassured on some of the questions and issues I have raised, because they are concerns felt by the people who are directly responsible for trying to protect the British public, as well as by Members of this House.