Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill - Committee (1st Day)

– in the House of Lords at 1:52 pm on 26th January 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Clause 1: Offences aggravated by terrorist connection

Debate on whether Clause 1 should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, in opening this debate, on the first day of Committee on this Bill, it might be sensible for me to outline our approach. This is particularly so, because I was not able to be present for the Second Reading debate on 21 September—for which I apologise but I was involved in a court hearing.

All on these Benches—and, I believe, all across the House—regard terrorist offences as particularly serious and deserving of the highest condemnation. This Bill was a response to two appalling terrorist attacks. The first was the attack in and outside Fishmongers’ Hall in November 2019, when Usman Khan, who had been released on licence after serving half of a 16-year sentence for terrorist offences the previous December, stabbed five people, killing two of them, after attending a prisoner rehabilitation programme, before being shot dead by police. The second was the attack on Streatham High Road in February last year, when Sudesh Amman, a terrorist who was under surveillance and had been released a month or so previously from a three year and four month prison sentence for disseminating terrorist material, stabbed and injured two people before being shot dead by police. As the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, rightly pointed out at Second Reading, both of those attacks were carried out by offenders who had been released half way through their sentences. The central feature of Part 1 of this responsive Bill is to make the sentencing regime tougher, both for offences that are considered by their nature to be terrorist offences and for offences deemed to have a terrorist connection.

Our concern, in considering this Bill at Committee stage, is to ensure that damage is not done, by the perceived requirement to respond severely to terrorist offences, to consistent and long-held principles of our criminal law. Clause 1, broadly, extends the range of offences that can be deemed to have a terrorist connection to include any offence, committed after the Act comes into force, that is punishable with imprisonment for more than two years. The terrorist connection need not be determined by the judge in the case of a number of specific terrorist offences listed in Schedule A1, effectively because it is presumed. Otherwise, it is for the judge to determine and state in open court that an offence has such a connection. A finding that an offence does have a terrorist connection, requires a sentencing judge to treat that terrorist connection as an aggravating factor when imposing sentence by reason of Section 69 of the Sentencing Code. For the purpose of that section, an offence has a terrorist connection if the offence

“is, or takes place in the course of, an act of terrorism; or … is committed for the purposes of terrorism.”

I note in passing that the code does not require that the offender was a knowing party to the planning, objectives or implementation of the act of terrorism, actual or intended, that was in fact committed. Furthermore—and this is our central point on Clause 1 —the decision that the offence has a terrorist connection is to be taken by the court at the sentencing stage, even though such a decision inevitably fundamentally changes the nature of the offence for which the offender has been convicted. The decision that is then made involves a factual determination of great significance to the criminality of the defendant and of the offence, yet it is taken by the judge alone without the involvement of a jury. Because the category of offences that may give rise to such a finding is so wide—that is, any offence that carries a maximum prison sentence of more than two years—the offences include a very wide range, such as causing criminal damage over £5,000, assault occasioning actual bodily harm, theft and many others, some of which would often be quite minor if committed without a terrorist connection.

Terrorism as an aggravating factor in sentencing was introduced by the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. By Section 30 of that Act, where a person was found guilty of an offence listed in Schedule 2 to that Act and the court found that the offence had a terrorist connection, the judge was bound to treat the terrorist connection as an aggravating factor. The mechanism was the same as is proposed under this legislation, but the Schedule 2 offences under the 2008 Act were of the utmost severity. They included murder, kidnapping, Section 18 wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, a number of serious explosives offences, hijacking, biological weapons offences, hostage taking and serious aviation offences.

A determination that an offence has terrorist connections has implications beyond sentencing, as it also triggers a number of forfeiture provisions and the terrorism notification requirements that apply. Under the Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Act 2020—the emergency legislation we passed last year to prevent terrorist offenders being released after serving half their sentences—any offender whose offence came under the prescribed list of serious offences, and had been determined by a judge to have a terrorist connection, was subject to the rules in that legislation against release at the halfway point but, again, that Act involved a list of serious prescribed offences.

The reason we are concerned by Clause 1, and its radical extension of the offences for which a terrorist connection is an aggravating factor in sentencing, is that its real effect is to introduce an entirely new and very wide range of aggravated offences. I cite as an example what is to be a new aggravated offence: assault occasioning actual bodily harm for the purposes of terrorism. Yet the defendant is not to be tried for the aggravated offence as he would be if charged, for example, with aggravated burglary—broadly, burglary while in possession of an offensive weapon. In an aggravated burglary case, the defendant would be charged with that offence and tried for it on indictment, on the evidence relating to the aggravated feature of carrying an offensive weapon, as well as on the evidence of the basic offence. If he were convicted by a jury or pleaded guilty to the aggravated offence, he would be sentenced by the judge for that aggravated offence: but not so, here.

The legislation is complex, and I often wish that we would legislate less by cross-referencing and more by clearly stating the effect of what we do. Our point in opposing this clause stand part question is simple: in the rush to introduce tougher sentences for offences with a terrorist connection, the Bill proposes effectively to deny defendants a right to a trial for the offences of which they are accused. In each such case, the real offence of which the defendant stands accused is the aggravated offence of committing the basic offence in the course of an act of terrorism or for the purposes of terrorism. Applying fundamental principles of English criminal justice, that defendant should be charged with that offence, tried for it on the evidence—including the evidence of the aggravating terrorist connection—by a jury of his peers and, if convicted, or on a plea of guilty, sentenced accordingly. He should not be tried, as the Bill proposes, and convicted for the basic offence only, and only then be tried effectively by a judge alone for the aggravated offence.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative 2:00 pm, 26th January 2021

My Lords, I have a very different view from the opponent of the clause standing part. The UK Government, regardless of who is in power, obviously recognise at this point in time that the fundamental dimensions of this Bill are about the safety of the United Kingdom against terrorism. Our problem is that we are still a very open nation.

Whether it is in Afghanistan, the Middle East or Asia, in all those parts of the world we take an active role in promoting democracy. We see it occasionally with refugees who come to this country. Genuine refugees are welcome, but hidden within the alleged genuine refugees are, too often, terrorists or quasi-terrorists. It is against that background that my noble friend on the Front Bench is rightly introducing this Bill in Committee. If people think I am exaggerating, I have had personal death threats from the IRA. I happened to represent Northampton South, which had an IRA cell in the early 70s. Colleagues may know that I have been deeply involved in Sri Lanka for 50 years, and I am sorry to report that some number of illegal entrants to our country were active members of the LTTE Tamil Tigers. So the challenge is there, and we need to recognise it.

I praise those in our party who have decided the time has come to look again at the sentencing of terrorism. The problem is made worse by the misunderstanding—whether it be genuine or otherwise—of the difference between human rights and the original European Convention on Human Rights, which, of course, was the basis of our Human Rights Act. That is fine, but it should not cover elements where a war took place. Again, I cite Sri Lanka, because that was a ghastly war between a democratically elected Government and a terrorist movement, proscribed by the United Kingdom Government in in its last few months in 2001. The law that looks after the rights in that context is international humanitarian law.

It may surprise colleagues to know that under the generosity of previous Governments, we in the UK allowed the number two man running the Tamil Tigers to have an office in Camden. Okay, he was a British citizen, but he was in charge throughout the period when I was involved, and his wife—an Australian lady, now, obviously, with joint British citizenship—was involved in recruiting child soldiers. We had these people living in our midst. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench: well done in bringing the Bill forward. Clause 1, to me, is absolutely fundamental to it, and I wish it a safe and swift passage.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, it is a privilege, as always, to follow the noble Lord. I respect his point of view and the experiences he has had. I am sure he will appreciate we are concerned with the rule of law and preserving the reputation this country has for justice done in the proper way.

Terrorist activity is an aggravating factor in sentencing. Section 30 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 enables courts to increase the sentence if it is established that the offence has a terrorist element. But the 2008 Act limited the use of this provision to the specific offences in Schedule 2, which were those most commonly connected with terrorist attacks or ancillary to them. The primary offences listed involved murder, manslaughter, violence to the person and explosives, nuclear, biological material and hijacking offences. The proposal in Clause 1 extends the offences that can be aggravated by a terrorist element to include any offence in the whole criminal calendar punishable with imprisonment for more than two years. This is an enormous widening of the provisions of the 2008 Act. The main feature of these provisions is that the issue of whether there is a terrorist element in an offence is not determined by a jury, notwithstanding the fact that these cases will inevitably be heard on indictment in the Crown Court.

The decision that there is a terrorist connection becomes part of the sentencing process, to be determined by the trial judge alone after conviction. Could the Minister explain the process the Government envisage? Would it be the equivalent of a Newton hearing, with a separate trial of the issue in which evidence is called and arguments heard on which the judge’s decision is based, or would the judge be entitled to come to a conclusion based on the evidence he has heard in the trial before the jury? It is an important decision. It is not just that his finding will add years of imprisonment to the individual defendant but, as my noble friend Lord Marks said a moment ago, it will trigger the terrorism notification requirements and the restrictions on early release contained in the Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Act 2020.

Surely, in the traditions of the criminal law of this country, a suspect believed to be involved in terrorist offences should be charged with those offences. It should be for the jury to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to sustain such charges. It cannot be right to charge the suspect with lesser offences and allow the judge to add the icing to the cake. There is no way in which this clause can be satisfactorily amended; consequently, the only thing to do is throw it out.

Let me give a pertinent example which everybody will understand after the events of last year. Suppose a jury finds a Whitehall protestor guilty of occasioning actual bodily harm to a rival protestor outside the gates of Downing Street, by punching him on the nose and stealing his flag. Under this clause, the judge could find proved, after the jury’s verdict, that the use of force to influence the UK Government and intimidate the public was for the purpose of advancing an ideological cause and therefore well within the definition of terrorism in the pursuit of, shall we say, exiting the European Union. Does the Minister—whom I welcome to his seat in the House of Lords—agree?

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Attorney General

I join noble Lords in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, to his place in the House of Lords. I am sure he will make an enormous series of contributions to our debates on justice issues—not just criminal justice, but civil justice. He is very welcome.

This is a very important Bill. I think everyone in the House, certainly on this side, is very keen that the Government be given legitimate tools to fight terrorism as hard as possible. One legitimate tool must be the use of greater sentences, where appropriate, for people who commit terrorist offences. In principle, we on this side are not against the idea of expanding the circumstances in which an offence can be regarded as aggravated because of a terrorist connection, which is what Clause 1 does.

Also, in principle, I do not think it necessarily wrong for the judge to be given very substantial powers to make judgments on what the appropriate sentence may be. The most obvious example of this relates to murder, where the judge in effect has the power to determine whether the offender should be given a whole life sentence, which will obviously have huge ramifications for what happens to that defendant. Indeed, such a decision had to be made quite recently on the conspirator convicted in relation to the Manchester Arena bombings —he was given a whole-life sentence by Mr Justice Baker. That was a very significant occasion.

I am very keen to discover precisely what process the Government have in mind for how a decision will be made on what are more or less serious offences than the normal ones. What process is envisaged in which a judge can decide whether an offence is aggravated by terrorism in the sense envisaged by Clause 1? In principle, I think a fair process can be envisaged and it may not be wrong for the judge to decide that rather than the jury. However, I am very interested to hear what the Government have to say about it.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 2:15 pm, 26th January 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, for reminding the Committee of the two terrorist offences at Fishmongers’ Hall and at Streatham, which formed the backdrop to this Bill. They were rightly mentioned at Second Reading; it is correct that we have them in our minds as we embark on Committee today.

Clause 1 addresses a limitation in the existing legislation to ensure that no terrorist-related offenders fall through the cracks. As the noble Lord, Lord Marks, set out, at present the courts are expressly required to consider whether there is a terrorist connection at the point of sentencing only in relation to a defined list of non-terrorism offences set out in Schedule 1 to the Sentencing Code for England and Wales and Schedule 2 to the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 for Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Clause 1 removes this defined list of non-terrorism offences from Schedule 1 to the Sentencing Code and Schedule 2 to the 2008 Act. This is an important step, though not quite as radical as the noble Lord, Lord Marks, suggests. It will expressly require the courts, in cases where it appears that any non-terrorism offence with a maximum penalty of more than two years was committed in the course of an act of terrorism or for the purposes of terrorism, actively to consider whether the offence was committed with a terrorist connection and should be aggravated as such. Closing this loophole provides a necessary flexibility in the legislation, reflecting the fact that terrorist offending takes a wide variety of forms.

On Second Reading we noted that, sadly, the terrorist threat is constantly evolving; offenders prove themselves rather inventive, alas, and it is right that the legislation keeps pace. I am glad for my noble friend Lord Naseby’s support, who sadly spoke with personal experience. I also welcome the support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for this important step in expanding the list of offences.

This clause also ensures that the consequences of a terrorist connection are applied consistently to all offenders. The identification of a terrorist connection by the courts has a wide-ranging impact. First, it must be treated as an aggravating factor when sentencing. This will help ensure that terrorist offenders receive punishment befitting the severity of their offending and the risk they pose to public safety. Secondly, the change will also result in the offenders being subject to the registered terrorist offender notification requirements following their release from prison, meaning that they are required to notify specified information to the police. That information supports the police to manage an offender’s risk on release much more effectively. Thirdly, once the Bill receives Royal Assent—as we hope it will—offenders convicted with a terrorist connection will be subject to a minimum of 12 months on licence following their release and will be eligible to have certain licence conditions imposed on them to assist in the effective management of their risk, for instance polygraph testing.

It might help the Committee if I offer a hypothetical example to demonstrate how this change will work in practice, as noble Lords asked for. Today, someone convicted of possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life would not be guaranteed to have their sentence aggravated, even where the court has identified a terrorist connection. They would also not be subject to the restriction on early release provisions or the registered terrorist offender notification requirements upon release. That is because this offence is not listed in Schedule 1 to the Sentencing Code or Schedule 2 to the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. Clause 1 will address this inconsistency in the current legislation by requiring the court to consider whether there is a terrorist connection and treat it as an aggravating factor if such a finding is made. It will also ensure that appropriate risk management tools, such as the notification requirements, apply following the offender’s release from prison.

I emphasise that, as is the case currently, courts will be required to apply the criminal standard of proof—that is, beyond reasonable doubt—when determining a terrorist connection at the point of sentencing. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, asked about this. Judges routinely have to consider whether offences which they are sentencing have been committed with aggravating factors and, in doing so, they apply the criminal standard of proof and must be satisfied that they are made out beyond reasonable doubt. I hope that addresses the question that he and others raised about the process.

It is also important that the Committee notes what the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation said in public about the Bill and these provisions, including during the oral evidence that he provided to the Public Bill Committee in another place. Asked by my honourable friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales which provision in the Bill, in his professional view, would have the biggest effect on making our citizens safer, he said that it was this one:

“That is a really welcome change, which makes people safer.”—[Official Report, Commons, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill Committee, 25/6/20; col. 16.]

The Bill contains a comprehensive package of measures, of which this change is an important part. It will help to establish confidence in the sentencing framework by ensuring that those who commit terrorist-related crimes receive punishments commensurate with those crimes, spend longer in custody and are subject to appropriate risk management processes following their release.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, I should have opened my earlier speech by welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, to his position and to the House. He has been extremely helpful to me in relation to the Domestic Abuse Bill and its provisions and I have seen him virtually on a number of occasions, so I have not completely appreciated that this is the first time that we have been together on a Bill. I also thank all noble Lords who have spoken and in particular the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, for his response.

I listened carefully to all that the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, said. Of course we all, throughout the House, deplore terrorism and agree that it is crucial that we make our country safe from terrorism and treat terrorist offences with extreme severity. The point that I made, echoed by my noble friend Lord Thomas and, to a certain extent, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, is that, in the effort to set up that severe framework, we must not abandon important principles of English criminal justice.

The noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, has not answered the point made by me and by my noble friend Lord Thomas and, to a lesser extent, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that the fact-finding process by which the aggravation of an offence carrying a sentence of more than two years’ imprisonment is to be proved has not been defined in the Bill, is taken out of the hands of the jury by the Bill and put into the hands of the judge, and does not satisfy the basic requirement of English law that the findings of fact about an offence are for the jury, and the sentencing is for the judge.

Of course I take the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that the judge has discretion in many cases—including the offence of murder, which the noble and learned Lord mentioned—to increase or reduce a sentence in accordance with his view of the evidence. However, that does not answer the central point that what we have here is the creation of a raft of new aggravated offences, and the position that it is for the judge alone to decide whether he is dealing with an aggravated offence or a basic offence; and the basic offence can be quite a minor offence in general terms.

The noble Lord, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, has not answered the question from my noble friend Lord Thomas as to whether there would or would not be a Newton hearing. He has not answered the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, about how the judge makes a determination that the offence is to be treated as aggravated. I invite the noble Lord to go back and discuss with his colleagues in government how this point can be dealt with so as to ensure that the aggravated offence is either charged, tried and convicted in accordance with our principles of law by the jury, or how it is to be determined on proper evidence, if not by the jury then by the judge.

The clause as it stands is unacceptable. For that reason, I maintain the questions that I have about it.

Clause 1 agreed.

Schedule 1 agreed.

Clause 2 agreed.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Deputy Chairman of Committees

We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 1. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister’s reply should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in the debate.

Schedule 2: Serious Terrorism Offences: England and Wales