Examination of Witness

Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 25th June 2020.

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Peter Dawson gave evidence.

Peter Dawson:

Yes, good afternoon.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Good afternoon. The Minister will put the first question to you.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Q 71 It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Mr McCabe. Mr Dawson, thank you very much for making yourself available to answer questions. I am sure the whole Committee is extremely grateful. I will keep my questions brief to allow other Committee members to come in. Would you agree that when it comes to very serious terrorist offending, the principal concern of Parliament and the entire criminal justice system should be that of public protection?

Peter Dawson:

Thank you very much for the opportunity to give evidence. The answer, of course, is yes, and I will try to explain why I can say yes with such conviction. Three of my colleagues and a number of close personal friends were present at Fishmongers’ Hall. Had I left my office five minutes earlier that afternoon, I would have been present myself. I have seen the devastation that that crime unleashed on some very close friends, so, absolutely, personal protection is the first priority. Our concern with the Bill, which I am sure we will get the chance to explore, is that aspects of it may not be justified by public protection, and indeed some aspects may undermine it.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Q On public protection, which we have agreed is the overriding priority, given how hard it is to rehabilitate some offenders, and that some who are apparently engaging in constructive rehabilitative work may not be, which indeed was the case of the offender at Fishmongers’ Hall—my condolences to your colleagues who were caught up in that—do you agree that keeping the most serious offenders off the street for the duration of their sentence is the only way to be certain that the public are protected?

Peter Dawson:

It is the only way to be certain for that length of time, but it is not always certain when that length of time comes to an end. This is the dilemma that faces the criminal justice system in every case. Of course, it is brought to the public’s attention by events of this sort, and such events excite particularly strong emotions. Terrorism is a very difficult thing to understand, but a lot of criminal motivations are difficult to understand and to predict, so we have systems that seek to balance the difficulty of that prediction with the rights of the person who has been accused and their right to a future life when they have served their punishment.

The problem with denying all hope of release on a conditional basis by a judgment about whether the person can be released safely or not is that it denies hope and affects the whole of the prison sentence. You will be aware that I spent a good part of my career as a prison governor, and the way in which people can be encouraged and assisted to engage in work that may change their behaviour in the future is if there is something in it for them. The parole process is not just about the judgment at the end of the custodial period; it is about the whole of the sentence from the very first day and doing work that may make a difference and may make the public safer when that person eventually leaves prison. It is a dilemma, but I do not think that the public are best served by saying that we will postpone the moment at which risk arrives without taking the opportunity to reduce that risk. The possibility of parole is essential to the process that reduces risk.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Q We are talking about offenders serving determinate sentences, but they do have hope in the sense that the sentence has a fixed length—they are going to be released at the end of their sentence. I was asking about the release point which, under the current system, may come before the end of the sentence or, under these proposals for the most serious of offenders, at the very end of the sentence. We are talking about determinate sentences, so release will come.

You mentioned trying to make people safer upon release. What sort of activity is most effective during the prison sentence, whether release comes early or not? What are the most effective interventions that lower risk when they prisoners are released, whenever that release occurs?

Peter Dawson:

The most important thing about understanding rehabilitation is that it happens in a community. You must always have one eye on what life is going to be like when that person comes out and what it is about life after release to cause them not to commit crime. That is true for terrorist crimes as well as for all other sorts of crime. There is nothing secret about this: people need somewhere to live, a way to earn their living, and a reason to live in a law-abiding way. Very often, that reason comes from family and from exactly the same things that cause all the rest of us to live the way we do. That means having people who care about you and have an interest in your future, and having a feeling yourself that you have a stake in a future that is law abiding.

You cannot coerce people into rehabilitation. There has been lots of discussion about particular programmes and courses that may assist in that, and across the picture of offending behaviour there are some programmes that have some effect, but we clearly need to be realistic about the impact of those programmes, whether in relation to terrorism or anything else.

First, a successful programme must be built on a research base and a theory of change that makes sense, and that research base is relatively small. Secondly, the programme then has to be delivered according to its manual. The third thing is that the environment in which it is delivered and in which the person lives has to support the aims of the course, and programmes should be audited. That third aspect is really important in this. The aims of the course are to give a person a stake in their society to encourage lawful behaviour, so the authority must be legitimate. The people must go into an environment that treats them fairly and which they feel is fair.

The difficulty with providing no incentive or reward for engagement in that change is that that appears to be unfair. If you add to the difficulties, which are real and difficult for the Prison Service to deal with, a bias against people who have committed offences like this, the danger is that someone can go through a programme and appear to have made progress and then go back into a sentence lasting many years, during which they do not feel treated fairly. None of these programmes cure; some of them have some impact on some people.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Order. I have to interrupt there, Mr Dawson, because I am conscious of the time.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Thank you very much, and good afternoon. I want to address the issue of young people—that seems to be my theme of the day. TheQ independent reviewer said that, when it comes to these sentences, age—the only basis on which the 14-year minimum sentence can be avoided—may not result in exceptional circumstances being found. I see that as a cautionary note. Do you have a view on that?

Peter Dawson:

Yes. There is evidence that the Committee may want to look at on this. There has been a movement for about a decade called the Transition to Adulthood Alliance, which has looked very hard at evidence of maturation in young people—the physiological evidence.

There does now seem to be general acceptance that for most young people the process of maturing certainly does not conclude before the mid-20s. There is a consensus, really, that if you are interested in dealing with people according to their maturity, you should look at the age of at least 25. It is even more marked, of course, for children under the age of 18.

Tragically, many of the people who are committing offences of this nature are very young. That does not take away from the fact that they are young and very immature—very susceptible to being led astray and very likely to change dramatically from the moment they commit the offence to their mid-to-late 20s, when that maturation has happened. The risk—

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q Let me interrupt you because we need to crack on. How could the Bill be improved to take into consideration the factors that you have just raised?

Peter Dawson:

The Bill should have a different sentencing framework for children and for young adults. At the moment, the law defines a young adult as someone aged between 18 and 20. It is not for this Bill to do, but at some point that should change to between 18 and 24. At least taking account of the detention in a young offender institution provisions would allow some recognition of the fact that young adults are different from more mature people.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q I am grateful for your written submission to the Committee. You were talking about parole and the Minister mentioned it earlier. What role could there be for parole in the new regime that the Government are proposing?

Peter Dawson:

I would simply leave the extended sentence provision as it is and have a discretionary release element in the sentence of particular concern. We know that parole works well. Of course there are cases where people go on to offend, but that is rare and the Parole Board has a very good record of success in relation to people who do not commit serious crime in future. We have an institution that works. Let us take advantage of it because of the impact it has on the management of the sentence and the likely future behaviour of the person.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q Again, the question has to be about what needs to change in the Bill to take into account the issues that you have raised.

Peter Dawson:

There needs to be a discretionary release element in all extended sentences with no exclusion for terrorist offences and no exclusion for the new sentence. The new sentence needs to be designed in a way that includes a discretionary release element. It is for Parliament to decide where that falls; I would say that the obvious thing to do would be to have the discretionary release at the halfway point and a possible release on licence at the two-thirds point, although I understand that Parliament may want to reflect the perilous nature of the offences with a different division of the sentence.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Thank you, Chair. Could I ask, Mr Dawson, about something you said to the Minister at the beginning of your evidence? You said that some aspects of the Bill may undermine public protection. Can you summarise what you meant by thatQ ?

Peter Dawson:

There are two aspects in particular. One I have spoken about: the absence of a process for some of the people affected. There is probably nothing more to say on that.

The second is probably rather more controversial because it is about the length of sentences. The Government, in explaining the Bill and justifying a 14-year minimum, say that that gives time for work to be done with the offender during the sentence. That is much longer than is needed for that work to be done.  The difficulty with very long sentences, across the board, is that they destroy what is known in the trade as protective factors—they destroy the things that are most likely to help someone out of crime in the future.

Relationships are an obvious example. For somebody who is convicted in their late teens or early 20s and who is not released until their mid to late 30s, the opportunity to build a life that is worth living, in which they can contribute to or play a part in society, has very often been destroyed. All of the things that the rest of us do during that period in our lives have not happened and may not happen once that person is released. It is a disgruntling process. Long sentences are justified for the most serious crime, but the longer we make them, the more harm we do and the more difficult it is for the person to live the rest of their life in the way that we all do.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Q How important is rehabilitating terrorist offenders for the ongoing protection of our constituents and the public at large?

Peter Dawson:

It is essential. We know that there is no evidence of any deterrent effect with long sentences—they are not protecting in that way; they only have a protective impact by taking that particular person off the street for that length of time—but people are going to be released, and that is when the risk arises, so I would say rehabilitation is absolutely essential for public protection. You cannot trade off one against the other. If you remove incentive—if you destroy all the things that keep somebody interested in a life without crime—then you are just delaying risk for when the moment for release comes.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Q To be clear, you have served in the Prison Service as a deputy governor and as a governor. To what extent do you draw on that experience in your evidence today?

Peter Dawson:

Well, I draw on it heavily. Once somebody is in prison, you have this enormous acreage of time to fill. People struggle to adjust to prison. People often have a tremendous sense of grievance in the early years of a long sentence, and very often a sense of grief as well, and very often remorse. There is a sort of teachable moment when someone may change their behaviour, but that [Inaudible] if there is nothing after that moment.

People are completely subject to the authority of the system. They are very sensitive to whether the system plays fair by them. If the system invests in their rehabilitation, but then does not follow through, and all they have ahead of them is time that serves no purpose, which is simply time to fill, then grievance grows. Once somebody has a legitimate grievance in prison, the chance of them engaging with anything more constructive reduces dramatically. In terms of managing difficult people in prison who can be very dangerous, this is a dangerous problem.

The other thing I would say, and I say this as someone who governed prisons and had responsibility for the safety of everybody in the prison—staff, prisoners and visitors—is that crime happens in prisons too. Prisoners without hope and prisoners with a sense of grievance are dangerous to the other prisoners and the staff around them as well. We have seen the homicide rate in prisons rise in recent years and at the same time the number of people serving very long sentences or sentences with no release has also risen.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Order. We are going to move on now, to Mr Butler.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

Thank you, Mr McCabe. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanshipQ .

Mr Dawson, in evidence this morning, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation said that many terrorist offenders often come from a stable family background. Does that not undermine the typical view that we have of rehabilitation—that having a job, a home and a family are necessary to prevent reoffending? In fact, are terrorism and terrorism offences not driven by ideology? The rules are different.

Peter Dawson:

I think I would say the reverse, actually. As a parent, I think stable homes with good parents sometimes have very difficult teenagers and people grow up in a very chaotic way, often—

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

Q But that is exactly the point that he was making, was it not? The argument normally is that when you are released from prison, what will help you not to reoffend is having the stable family, the job and the home, but that is not the case in the case of terrorism.

Peter Dawson:

But I think it is the case. I do not think a stable home protects someone from the ideology, but for someone coming out of prison, particularly after a long sentence, a stable home and relationships with people who have kept faith with you and who have belief in your future are absolutely the things that help someone as a mature person. This goes back to the issue of maturity. For a 35-year-old, those relationships are completely different from the relationships that they would have experienced when they were 18. I just think that that continuity, and the willingness of people to continue to provide hope for a future, is absolutely crucial to rehabilitation. It is not a protection against ideology in a teenager, but it is a protective factor for rehabilitation.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

Q We have heard about your career in the Prison Service as a governor and deputy governor. Were there any terrorist offenders in the prisons that you ran?

Peter Dawson:

Yes, there were. I worked in local prisons and in a female prison. Local prisons of course do hold terrorist offenders. They hold them in the early stages of their sentence, when they are often at their most—well, “disruptive” may not be the word, but when they are coming to terms with what has happened to them.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

Q And from your interactions with those particular prisoners, is there anything in particular that you think we should be aware of on this Bill Committee?

Peter Dawson:

I am not sure that I would seek to draw any conclusions. People often behave differently as prisoners. I do not underestimate at all the difficulty of making a risk assessment based on the way someone has behaved in prison, compared with how they might behave in the community. It is not an easy thing and not a certain science. But what I would say is that if you want people to behave in a civilised, law-abiding way when they leave prison, the way you treat them in prison is absolutely critical. You must provide a model that people can follow and that they see as fair. If we do not do that, the chances of change are radically diminished.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, on my first Bill Committee. Mr Dawson, I want to pick up on the length of sentence. You say, in your submission, that merely increasing the length of time that people spend in custodyQ

“risks further alienating them and giving them grounds for grievance against the authorities”.

You are in effect saying that the Bill should include measures to ensure that effective deradicalisation programmes are provided. What would they look like?

Peter Dawson:

The Prison Service runs two programmes at the moment. I said earlier that the evidence base for those was small, because it is innovative work, but they are clearly worth while. The most valuable work that is done in prisons in terms of changing people’s attitudes and behaviours is the day-to-day example that is set around them—the supporting of their growing up and giving them reasons that make life worth living that are nothing to do with their ideology. It is an incessant process, a slow process and an uncertain process, but it is about the impact of everybody in prison on that individual.

What people whose lives have changed dramatically would say is this—I can think of someone I know who committed two murders and who would tell this story. Very often, a particular individual, in the course of a sentence, makes a connection and is able to help that person to grow up and see a different future for themselves. The faith that that key person shows will often drive change in behaviour more than any particular programme.

I have said it before, but the one thing that I am absolutely clear about is that I have never seen anybody coerced into rehabilitation. The particular theory that academics talk mostly about now is called desistance theory. It is about what causes people to change their route in life. That rests very heavily on the idea that somebody has to be able to see a better life for themselves in the future. The academic work tends to support that but, I think, so does all our experience. So I would say that we should not look to prison for magic solutions; we should look for the extreme skill among staff of all sorts, and volunteers in prisons too, in establishing relationships that slowly change the way that somebody thinks about their future. When prisoners go out, however, those promises have to be met. That is why we are saying that rehabilitation is what happens after prison, as much as what happens during it.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

Q Are there any other measures for the rehabilitation of terrorist offenders that you would like to see in the Bill?

Peter Dawson:

I do not think there is anything that I would like to see in the Bill. The question that I hope the Committee will ask is what we do not yet know about the circumstances of the cases that have prompted the Bill. Both the Fishmongers’ Hall attack and the attack in Streatham have been subject to serious case reviews. I certainly have not seen those reviews published.

In both cases, it seems to me that there are questions to ask about whether the existing framework of law would have been adequate had different decisions been taken. That is not to point a finger of blame but simply to say, if we have an existing structure that was not used to best effect, that we should think hard before changing the structure and changing it in a way that raises some of the problems that I have described.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Let us go to Sarah Dines. I am conscious of time.

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines Conservative, Derbyshire Dales

Thank you, Chair. It is a pleasure to serve on the Committee. Mr Dawson, in your written evidence about clause 26, on the increase in the maximum sentence from 10 to 14 years, you say that there is no evidence that longer sentences protect the public. Do you not ignore the basic supposition that keeping a serious offender off the streets for a couple more years will protect the publicQ from some offenders for whom the chance of rehabilitation is quite low? Secondly, are you not ignoring the deterrent effect of longer sentences? What is the basis for your rejection of that clause?

Peter Dawson:

On the first point, it protects the public for those two years or those four years. It does not protect the public on the day the person comes out. I accept the point you make, but if the risk is raised when the person comes out, that seems to be no consolation for the public; certainly it is no consolation for a member of the public who suffers at the end of those four years but has been protected during them.

On the second point, I just have to reverse it. There is no evidence for a deterrent impact. I have never met any prisoner who committed a serious crime who, at the moment of committing it, made a calculation about whether they would spend five, 10 or 14 years in prison. There is no evidence from anywhere in the world that I have ever seen that says that threatening people with longer sentences deters them from committing crime.

In cases of this sort, where an ideology that all of us struggle to understand is concerned, it seems to me that looking to deterrence as a tool for protecting the public is not rational; there is no evidence to support it. Of course, there is the risk that a punishment that appears—I hesitate to say “excessive”—out of kilter with the punishment for other offences creates a sense of grievance, creates martyrs and acts as a recruiting sergeant for people who might otherwise not think in that way.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

We can squeeze in one last question, if you are quick, Mr Cunningham.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q In your written evidence, you say:

“The expansion of SOPCs and the expansion of the number of offences able to be identified as having a ‘terrorist connection’ will need careful monitoring for their impact on prison security and on people from minority faith and ethnic communities”.

How can we improve the Bill to achieve that careful monitoring?

Peter Dawson:

It may not be something that the Bill can achieve, but I think it is reasonable to ask the Government, after the Bill becomes law, to provide a report on what the impact has been. I entirely take the point that the nature of terrorism at the moment means that certain communities are likely to be more heavily represented, but the point is that all criminal justice agencies need to go beyond that to guard against the unconscious bias that will otherwise creep in.

This is not about Parliament’s intention and it is not about the equality assessment. It is about the behaviour of people on the ground who are not properly aware, when faced with someone from the Muslim faith, that, overwhelmingly, prisoners from the Muslim faith have not committed offences connected with terrorism and would not dream of doing so. Most prisoners see their religion as something that provides structure and help in their life, not something that motivates them to perform criminal acts. None of that is well understood generally, and I am not sure that it is always well understood in prisons. So that unconscious bias—that unwitting prejudice—risks disadvantaging people in all sorts of different ways, from the way complaints are handled to their privilege level in the prison—

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Order. Mr Dawson, I am afraid I will have to call you to a halt as we have run out of time. Thank you very much for your evidence to the Committee.