Examination of Witnesses

Part of Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 25th June 2020.

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Les Allamby:

Apologies for my technological illiteracy. Yes, Conor, we have real concerns in relation to human rights in three areas among others. The first is the retrospective nature of many of the provisions in terms of both sentencing and release. As the Committee will know, some apply to individuals who have committed offences and not yet been sentenced, but some in particular apply to those who are already sentenced and are serving a term of imprisonment. Particularly for Northern Ireland, the change of the automatic release point of relevant terrorism sentences to two thirds and then referral to the Parole Board is being extended to Northern Ireland—it has already happened elsewhere—and the addition of polygraph testing conditions to the licence of a person who has committed a relevant terrorist offence are two of the retrospective measures for those who have been sentenced.

The second area is the extension of a number of provisions to those who are under 18, in terms of both sentencing and licensing arrangements. We have some experience, both historical and contemporary, in Northern Ireland of the impact that adults have on children and young people. It has been mentioned by the UN Committee against Torture and our own paramilitarism commission has looked at this. It is very clear that the evidence is, frankly, that 15, 16 and 17-year-olds are not leading grown men in paramilitary activity or the control of communities in Northern Ireland; it is the reverse that is true. Therefore—I will return to the rehabilitation aspects that Peter Dawson touched on—while these are serious offences that apply to under-18s and there is a very limited discretion in terms of mandatory approaches, we think that applying these provisions to children and young people raises human rights issues, particularly in terms of the UN convention on the rights of the child and a number of provisions in general comments made by the convention committee.

Our third concern is about polygraph testing. I am a great believer in evidence-based policy making. As far as I can see, there is a paucity of evidence about just how accurate polygraph testing is. Although I recognise that polygraph testing will be used only in very specific circumstances, and not for new offences and coming before the courts, and although it has been used in the case of sex offenders before, it still seems to me that, as the Independent Reviewer of Terror Legislation has suggested, there needs to be at least piloting and some evidence of its veracity.

Otherwise, it seems to me that there are two implications. Either someone who is innocent is presumed to be guilty of something without requiring any other salient evidence, which risks a miscarriage of justice and a sense of grievance, or the reverse: someone who is a danger passes the test and we fall into the risk of complacency setting in. Somebody’s licence can be revoked as a result of a polygraph test, and they could therefore be returned to prison. Also, as far as I can see—again, this was noted by Jonathan Hall—there is the possibility in the Bill of a terrorism prevention and investigation measure being applied as a result of a polygraph test. There are some significant outcomes to that. Again, applying that retrospectively also comes into play.

Finally, the purpose of the Bill is clearly laudable: to protect the public and to curtail terror. However, the Prison Reform Trust’s recent research noted the significant increase in the number of people serving very long sentences in prison, not just for offences related to terror. When you take into account the reduction in the opportunities for rehabilitation as a result of the provisions in the Bill—particularly the incentives for rehabilitation—it seems to me that that could lead to a greater risk both inside prison, in terms of overcrowding, mental health issues, suicide risks and radicalisation opportunities, as well as outside prison.

Keeping people in for longer with less prospect of rehabilitation really seems to me to be a blunt instrument to protect the public. We would do better to try offer and recognise rehabilitation pathways, alongside discerning those who are determined not to change their outlook on life and dealing with those individuals accordingly. Those are our concerns. We would be happy to put in a written submission on some of the wider issues around TPIMs, and so on.