Examination of Witness

Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:26 am on 30th June 2020.

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Ian Acheson gave evidence

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury 9:54 am, 30th June 2020

We have until 10.25 am for this session. Professor Acheson, thank you very much for joining us. Would you like to introduce yourself and your organisation briefly, please?

Professor Acheson:

My name is Ian Acheson. I used to be a frontline prison officer, so I would like to be associated with the comments that were made this morning. They are the unsung heroes of our criminal justice system, often overlooked and certainly undervalued. They do an amazing job.

I worked in the Prison Service as an officer and then as a governor. I left it and joined the Home Office via the Youth Justice Board, where I was the senior civil servant responsible for the Contest strategy, our counter-terrorism strategy, among other things in south-west England. After that, I joined the Equality and Human Rights Commission as the chief operating officer and I left public service then. I now work for a variety of organisations, including the Counter Extremism Project, which is an international non-profit organisation that looks at ways of countering violent extremism. I am also a visiting professor at Staffordshire University School of Law, Forensics and Policing.

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

Q Good morning, Professor Acheson. Thank you for taking the time to join us this morning. It is useful for us to hear from experts such as you. You have clearly done lots of work in the area of deradicalisation and counter-terrorism counselling and work. Could you describe to the Committee the techniques that you think are most effective in a prison setting to achieve the objective of deradicalisation?

Professor Acheson:

The Prison Service, as we are all aware, is under a great deal of pressure, certainly in England and Wales. The backdrop is what I would describe as a significant decline in all sorts of metrics of good order, discipline and control across most, but not all, prisons. That provides a backdrop of instability, which is germane to your question. We need to have stable, well-run prisons with suitable and sufficient numbers of staff present to set the tone, to be able to control the environment and certainly to be able to spot and intervene early when they see signs of extremist-related behaviour, whether from prisoners imprisoned under terrorism legislation or others who look like they are being drawn into violent extremism.

One of the problems that I have with the system is that we do not seem to have an assertive and challenging approach to managing terrorist prisoners, or ideologically motivated prisoners, from the start of their sentence to their last day in community supervision. The system is fraught with problems of handovers between the Prison Service, the Parole Board and the probation service. I do not believe that that system of managing a particular set of prisoners with some unique characteristics is the right way of proceeding.

I would like to see a dedicated unit, if you will—I recommended that in my 2016 report; unfortunately it was not one of the recommendations that was taken forward—that manages offenders end to end, from literally the first night in custody to the last night of community sentence, and that has a detailed biographical understanding of a prisoner. That involves specialists, psychiatrists, theologians and various people intervening but managing that prisoner all the way through into the community.

Mark Fairhurst mentioned the importance of reintegration after custody for terrorist offenders. In some respects, integration is the key challenge as well. At the moment, the state has a monopoly on the management of terrorist offenders after custody in terms of MAPPA, where the probation service, the police and the Security Service manage the security aspects. There are no other organisations, apart from some voluntary organisations that are involved in the desistance and disengagement programme. We do not have any community involvement in the resettlement of terrorist offenders and their reintegration in the community. That is a big issue that needs to be addressed.

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

Q You said that the engagement needs to be more assertive and used that word at the beginning of your answer. When you say “assertive”, what do you mean?

Professor Acheson:

In relation to terrorist offenders, for example, the situation feels to me as though, as long as they are not creating any problems, they are largely left alone. When they start to create problems, there are alternatives, which could include segregation, administrative penalties or incentives and earned privileges penalties. In extremis, if they are subversive—this was one of my recommendations that was taken forward, as you might be aware—separation centres exist for them.

We need to make sure that we look at it from the sentencing point. To illustrate it like this: what is really important is that we have got some sort of baseline measurement for a judge, after a conviction, to inform sentencing. We do not have that at the moment. We do have pre-sentence reports, I understand that, but we do not have a sufficient level of granularity or expertise put into that plan, which is the baseline measurement of dangerousness, for any terrorist offenders.

As you are aware, they are a very heterogeneous group. They resist being compartmentalised. We have people who murder people who are losers and we have people who murder people who are university graduates. There is an enormous variety and it resists generic sheep dip-style approaches. I am afraid I would categorise healthy identity intervention as one of those processes that I do not think works. We need to go back to having this baseline measurement at the start, managed by one unit all the way through that is frequently looking at whether dangerousness has increased or decreased, and devising and managing interventions to meet that individual pathology, that individual terrorist profile.

I am aware that Lord King has said in Parliament that you are recruiting some prison imams to take part in ideological interventions. That is very good news—so, theological, psychological, family-related and substance misuse. It is important to look at these people as individuals if you want to reduce their dangerousness. It is important to look at that dangerousness as early as possible, with the right people managing it all the way through.

As I have said before—I do not want to repeat myself—I think the system is far too fractured at the moment. We are only talking about 220-odd offenders at the moment, with the Government making what I think is the fairly optimistic estimate of an extra 50 as a result of the new legislation. It will increase because of the police and security services’ ability to spot people further and further upstream from actual terrorist incidents. That number will increase, but it is still a manageable number and it is still worth while investing significantly.

I am not a great fan of the statistic that is bandied about that says that only 5% to 10% of terrorist offenders reoffend after custody. That is a proven reconviction for a terrorist offence. That is a very lazy proxy for damage. If you apply that to our number of offenders, that means there are another 11 Sudesh Ammans in the system. That is completely intolerable and unacceptable. I do not think we should be comforted by the fact that some research is showing us that recidivism is fairly low. There is research in Europe that says that the period immediately following release of a terrorist offender is the period of most risk. That does not fit the profile of the Westminster bridge attacker, who waited for 11 or 12 months before something mobilised him into murdering two young people. We have to apply a very individualised, very assertive and challenging approach.

You talked about incentives and so on earlier with Mark Fairhurst. I think that might be looking at it in slightly the wrong way. I have a bit of a problem with the philosophical and organisational fitness of the Prison Service, the probation service and the Parole Board to manage these particular offenders. They are ideologically inspired offenders. We must insist they adopt civilised values, not look at it as a thing that needs to be rewarded. That is very difficult. I am not suggesting it is simple.

Just to avoid any misunderstanding, in my specification for separation centres, I specifically designed a regime—and suggested this to the Prison Service—that was not punitive and which was, as I have described it, a humanised approach. We cannot talk to dead terrorists; we can talk to live ones. We can find out an enormous amount. We can influence them an enormous amount with the right skills and the right staffing to be able to have a good sense of how dangerous they are and influence them towards disengagement, or desistance if disengagement is not possible.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

I suspect that your evidence is extremely useful to the Committee, but I have to ask for slightly shorter answers, please.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q Mark Fairhurst suggested that the radicalisation programmes are far from fit for purpose. You have suggested that yourself. You have also talked about the various different issues that a prisoner may be facing. Can you develop a little bit more what needs to happen? You talked about investing significantly, so there must be insufficient resources in the system. What actually needs to happen?

Professor Acheson:

The amount of skill and training required to staff separation units—we know that only one out of three is running at the minute—is significant. If you are putting our frontline prisoner-facing staff, who will have the most influence and impact on individual terrorist offenders, in that sort of environment, it will take a huge amount of training, not only in the skill to deal with those prisoners, but in psychological resilience and so on. We know what seems to work in relation to violent extremism across Europe: it is the development of long-term, high-quality relationships, which are pro-social and expand far beyond the prison gates. That is very expensive, and it takes a lot of support to put that in place and to maintain it.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q We have talked about the fact that the Parole Board will not have a role for prisoners who have a determinate sentence. Would you like to comment on that, because of the level of expertise that they bring to that package you were describing earlier?

Professor Acheson:

This is not a very auspicious time to talk about the Parole Board, but it is very good at managing ordinary offenders, and statistics would bear that out. I have said this earlier, and I do not want to repeat myself, but I do not believe the Parole Board is philosophically or organisationally the best suited to managing that risk. It is very good at managing ordinary offenders, but we have a new cohort coming through of profoundly different, ideologically motivated offenders, either through Islamism or through extreme right-wing philosophies, and we probably need a different, multi-agency approach to managing that risk all the way through the system.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q During these evidence sessions, I have been concentrating on the fact that young people will be treated the self-same way as older prisoners in relation to determinate sentences. Do you have a view on that, particularly as the immaturity of a younger person may lead them to act in a particular way, but their opportunity for rehabilitation is probably greater?

Professor Acheson:

I agree that the potential is greater, but I think sometimes we confuse vulnerability with dangerousness, and we use that in relation to young people and women. We have some very dangerous extremist offenders in either camp—very few of them, but we do have a small number—and we must not conflate the two.

In general terms, and I speak as somebody who worked for the Youth Justice Board, we need, where we can, to ensure that the disposals that are at the judge’s discretion, including detention and training orders and some non-custodial interventions, are still considered heavily before penalising people who, as you have said, may be just immature.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q I watched a film with you in it, where you were talking about the circle of trust and accountability. Would you like to develop that in a quick answer?

Professor Acheson:

The circle of trust and accountability is a system devised by Mennonites, I think, in Canada, where one of their community had been convicted of a high-profile sex offence and was returning to the community. That group of people said, “How can we welcome this person back into our community”—because that was the Christian ethos—“but also keep our kids safe?” They devised a system where there was community involvement in a circle around the individual, which managed to help him to reintegrate properly but protected the community as well.

I am very keen on that idea being replicated for terrorist offenders after release in the community, as a parallel to the state’s responsibility to keep people safe. In other words, there could be a community response like that one, where we are getting members of the community involved in protecting national security. We miss a trick in this country—research backs this up—in that we do not, particularly in relation to Muslim communities, enlist ordinary members of the community who have some standing and some credibility in supporting the reintegration of terrorist offenders.

Those offenders will suffer many of the same challenges that sex offenders do: shame, difficulty in finding somewhere to live and difficulty in finding something to do. All those things would point towards further offending and delay disengagement, so I am very keen on the concept being looked at in relation to released terrorist offenders here.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q We are a long way from anything like that happening in the UK.

Professor Acheson:

I think we probably are. We are outriders in that respect in relation to the rest of Europe, which does heavily involve non-governmental organisations and community groups, for example, in reintegration. We have seen that in the Molenbeek suburb in Belgium, which is responsible for producing quite a number of jihadis, where the community has been involved and works in partnership with, although separate from, the statutory bodies whose first priority is safety and security. That is a necessary but insufficient way of dealing with the problem.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice Team Member)

Q Mr Acheson, you are well sighted on the Scottish system with the Risk Management Authority and the order for lifelong restriction. You talked about good regime designs not being punitive, but the imposition of a significant sentence without the opportunity for early release must appear to be so. Do you think that the order for lifelong restriction is perhaps the better option for many who are convicted by a court, rather than a mandatory sentence?

Professor Acheson:

I am not sure which would work better. I am certainly on record as saying that I support the Government in much longer sentences for terrorist offenders, primarily because it is a unique opportunity to incapacitate an ideologically motivated offender and bring services around that individual. Those services need to be extended through the gate and into the community.

We need to focus on this as a national security issue that we need to deal with in a different way, so lifelong restriction may have its merits. The key thing is that we make sure that support and control exist around offenders who are being released and who may go back into extremist offending, so that in whatever way we apply restrictions on their liberty—including TPIMS, for example—we do it in a proportionate way. There is absolutely an argument that punitive measures increase alienation. I think that might be a trade-off, in some respects, for people with whom we may never be satisfied that they are safe to release. We have to embrace the idea that there will be a few offenders who must be kept in prison indefinitely, because they either cannot or will not recant a hateful ideology, and they have the means to mobilise that into violence in the community.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice Team Member)

Q I have one final question. Scotland does not have a regime operating polygraph tests. In your experience, how do you think Scotland could establish one, regulate it and be able to check against delivery?

Professor Acheson:

I must say I am not a great fan of the polygraph solution. Polygraphs are a very good way to demonstrate a physiological response to nervousness. Most people who take polygraphs are going to be nervous, so it is a very inexact science. I think it is probably slightly better than tossing a coin.

I am much more interested in using technology—wearable technology, in particular—with released terrorist offenders that will give us biodata and geographical data to allow us to spot when somebody is starting to re-engage in terrorist offending in all sorts of ways. It would create a geo-fence that restricts their movements and give real-time information on how that person is. I am not at all suggesting that technology is not useful here. I think we need to have much more investment in that.

The particular issue that I have seen—it has been talked about before—is the issue of disguised compliance, or lying, in layman’s terms. I am very happy to tell the Committee that Staffordshire University hopes to start a piece of research on disguised compliance led by me and Professor James Treadwell. It is mostly in the realm of social work in relation to domestic violence, but we want to see if there are ways to avoid a situation in which somebody like Usman Khan goes through an apparently successful deradicalization programme without apparently recanting any of his extremist principles, which are then put into murderous effect. I think this is a very under-explored area. It touches on polygraphs, but it is much broader than that. It is about how we skill up the people who are making the decisions on questions such as, “Can I trust you? Is your change authentic and credible, or are you trying to pull the wool over our eyes?”

We cannot have a perfect system. A perfect system would destroy our civil liberties, because we would keep terrorist prisoners in jail indefinitely and achieve the very effect that terrorists hope for in creating massive disruption in a liberal democracy. However, I think that we can do a lot more in relation to skilling up people to make decisions about whether and when somebody is safe to release, and under what conditions, and for how long they can be supervised.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

Q Professor, do you agree that until we have better deradicalization and rehabilitation programmes, we need to ensure that terrorists remain behind bars for longer to keep the people of this country safer?

Professor Acheson:

Yes, for the reasons that I have just mentioned. I think that our position in January, where people who were so dangerous that they had to be man-marked by armed police officers had to be released from custody, was absolutely intolerable. We need to be focused on public protection. In relation to terrorist offenders, the Prison Service needs a bit of a change of mindset. There is too much of a reclamation and rehabilitation focus. I am not saying that that is not important, but I am saying that in relation to these prisoners, there has to be a primary public protection focus and a primary national security focus. That is not to say that the regimes in which terrorist prisoners are kept should not be as full and as varied as possible, so that people do not become alienated and further full of grievance.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

Q We have heard a lot about what needs to happen in prison, but this is fundamentally a sentencing Bill. Can you expand on what additional information you think needs to be presented to the sentencing judge in cases such as these, to ensure that the right period in custody is established from the outset?

Professor Acheson:

This speaks to my earlier point about making sure that experts—forensic psychologists and psychiatrists—are specially chosen and trained to produce a baseline threat assessment, after conviction but before sentencing, to allow a judge to make a more informed decision on sentencing length, duration and so on, and to establish the basis against which that person’s progress can be managed and measured through custody.

Again, I think it is exceptionally important—the Government did not accept this, but I will reiterate it, and recent events have thrown it into the light—that we should have one dedicated multi-agency specialist unit that manages terrorist offenders from their conviction until they are deemed no to longer be suitable for supervision in the community. It is the most sensible way to manage this. We have far too many hand-offs in the system at the moment.

We have this morning’s report into Joseph McCann, a manipulative psychopath who managed to disguise his dangerousness because of failures in the probation system— because of under-trained staff who were over-stressed and insufficiently curious. All those things will apply to terrorist offenders as well. Having a dedicated unit that understands in great detail the individual’s biography, their background and the antecedents, and that could help to establish a programme of treatment or intervention that is individualised to that person, seems to me to make sense in managing the risk.

Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Professor Acheson, I really enjoyed your Q Spectator article, and I agreed with a lot of it. I think it is worth the Committee hearing that its opening gambit was that opponents of the Bill were

“the usual well-heeled, left-wheeled liberal rights activists”.

Neither the Chairman nor I could ever be accused of being one of those, and I do not oppose the Bill and the measures in it per se. However, as you have identified, it is important that the Bill receives scrutiny.

I was struck by something that you said about the Government’s approach to the Bill, which was that it was “populist”. Do you think that is at the expense of longer-term strategic thinking that could be contained in the Bill, particularly around things such as the Prevent strategy? The Bill removes the statutory deadline for reviewing that strategy. I suppose what am I asking is this: are the measures in the Bill serious and strategic and will they make a difference, or are they in keeping with a populist approach to these issues, as you have alluded to?

Professor Acheson:

I was being quite flippant in that article, as you have to be if you write for The Spectator. The serious point is that there is no risk-free way to deal with this very dangerous, challenging topic; every way has risk. My small expert team and I sat and looked at separation units, and we argued for weeks about which was better: separation or dispersal of highly subversive, proselytising Islamist extremists. The focus was Islamism. In the end, we came to the view that separation centres would work as the least worst way of managing this phenomenon. The reason I mention this is that we are in a period of continuous evolution, and the law will need to be able to react to that.

They are not distinct, but we have an al-Qaeda generation of terrorists, from 2005 onwards, who are serving time—sometimes extremely long sentences—for organised plots, and we have an IS generation of much more oppositional terrorists, including lots of lone actors who have come along behind. Even looking at Islamist extremism as a group is very difficult. The answer to your question is that we have a good baseline for extending the amount of time that terrorists will serve in prison. We had an intolerable situation before, when it was quite clear that the system of supervision and the sentencing framework were broken; they let people such as Sudesh Amman out of custody. But we have to look at the quality as well as the quantity of what happens. The only way to do that is relentlessly to research what works.

Sometimes I am told by people, “There’s no evidence for what you’re saying.” I sometimes react to that by thinking, “That’s a kind of code for inertia, organisationally, or for timidity.” Sometimes we have to make the evidence. The point is that we have to take some risks. I am not sure whether separation centres will work or will continue to work. Mark Fairhurst eloquently made the point that there is a great deal of reluctance in the Prison Service to use them. There is some organisational resistance to the concept, and it is not simply about not being able to find the right people. A bureaucratic structure was built around selection for separation centres, which has made it all but impossible, frankly, for anybody to get in them.

Regarding separation centres and how the legislation needs to evolve, we need to make sure, as Mark has said, that there is sufficient capability for the extreme right-wing offenders who represent the biggest threat to be removed and completely incapacitated, breaking the psychological link between the “preacher” and his adherent. We will need to be continually alert and continually changing and challenging legislation in order to arrive at the best way of managing the evolving risk.

Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Q I think you have said that although you support stronger sentences, their imposition alone will not resolve this issue. It is about—you have used this phrase—breaking the whole. I have some sympathy with what you said about the appropriateness of the Parole Board dealing with these types of offenders. Do you think that removing any assessment and taking the Parole Board out of the equation leaves a vacuum? You talked about the dedicated unit. It undoubtedly costs a lot of money, but is there a worry that removing a mechanism that is already there, regardless of how appropriate it is, and not replacing it with anything just leaves a gap?

Professor Acheson:

I think there is a danger that we keep doing a Heath Robinson-type response. My critics will say, “Hold on, Ian, the Parole Board has specialist judges who sit on panels that consider terrorist offenders.” My response is: so what? Are they any better than the frontline prison officer who has been with an individual for four years, the psychiatrist who has been attached to that person’s journey, a forensic psychologist, the Security Service or the police? That is why I keep arguing that we need a completely separate way, philosophically and organisationally, of managing the risk. I am disappointed that that is not in the Bill, and that we are talking instead about skilling people up and giving them more training. I worry a little that that will continue to be exploited, given the number of hand-offs in the system.

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines Conservative, Derbyshire Dales

Q Professor, I was interested in what you said about disguised compliance. Before entering Parliament I worked at the Bar and dealt with a lot of sex offenders and domestic abusers, and some of them were experts in disguised compliance. I notice that you fairly flippantly—if I may boldly say so—dismissed the polygraph as being only slightly better than tossing a coin. With your extensive and useful experience as a prison officer, civil servant and consultant, do you accept that you can assist us in this field, but that you would defer to qualified psychiatrists and psychologists in terms of its usefulness, as it is one tool in the box for dealing with dangerous offenders who exhibit disguised compliance?

Professor Acheson:

You are quite right to call me out. I do not discount polygraphs entirely. I think they are perhaps a useful part of a more holistic approach to managing risk, but they are certainly no silver bullet. Again, we need highly skilled people who have been on a journey with these offenders, who understand them intimately, and who have been able to design interventions that speak to their plethora of needs, which I described earlier and are dealt with in a very individualised way. That is the way to crack this nut.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

I am really sorry. This is a very interesting session, but I have no choice but to cut it off at 10.25. Thank you very much for your evidence. Apologies to Members, but I have to do this.