Examination of Witness

Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:54 am on 30th June 2020.

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Andrew Silke gave evidence.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury 10:25 am, 30th June 2020

Good morning, Professor Silke. Will you introduce yourself and your organisation, please?

Professor Silke:

I am Professor Andrew Silke, professor of terrorism, risk and resilience at Cranfield University.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

We have until 10.55 for this session. The Minister will start.

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

Q Professor Silke, thank you for taking the time to give evidence to the Committee this morning. Based on your experience from around the world, could you tell the Committee your views on the most effective ways of managing and ideally deradicalising prisoners within a prison environment?

Professor Silke:

That is a crucial question. Probably one of the starting points—this has been touched on by some of the others who gave evidence—is how the UK sits in terms of the international approach to dealing with terrorism among violent extremist offenders. Overall, you would probably argue that the UK’s approach is seen as one of the better available approaches and enjoys what is seen internationally as a good success rate. I know that that is difficult to consider in the context of the attacks that took place in Streatham and London Bridge, but overall the UK’s system for dealing with terrorist prisoners is seen as one of the more effective ones available internationally.

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

Q Which elements are particularly effective, and do you see any opportunities to improve them further?

Professor Silke:

The approach has transformed a lot in the past 10 years. There has been a variety of ways in which it has changed. I am particularly looking at the approach in England and Wales here. First is the development of specialised risk assessment tools and frameworks for dealing with terrorist prisoners. There was recognition in the 2000s that the existing risk assessment tools did not work well with terrorist prisoners and that they needed something that was more specialised to more reliably assess risk with them. This led to the development of the extremism risk guidance 22+—the ERG—which is a bespoke risk assessment tool now used in England and Wales. In my view it has genuinely enhanced and transformed risk assessment for these prisoners, making it much more viable compared with what it had been prior to the introduction of this programme.

Tied into the development of the ERG has been the development of a number of interventions. The healthy identity intervention has already been mentioned, and desistance and disengagement has been flagged as well. The healthy identity intervention draws on the ERG, so the two of them are linked to some degree. HII has come in for criticism, but it is actually a much better intervention than perhaps it gets credit for. It tackles a lot of the issues that we are concerned about in terms of offender radicalisation. I have had the opportunity of being able to interview prisoners before and after they have gone on this programme, and certainly in many cases I have seen a transformational change in prisoners.

The other factor—this has also been raised in other testimony before the Committee—relates to post-release behaviour by prisoners. We have an extremely low reoffending rate for terrorist prisoners in the UK, which we should not dismiss out of hand. If we could get similarly low levels of reoffending for other types of offenders, we would be extremely happy.

Failures with interventions—such as a prisoner taking an intervention, being released and then reoffending—does not mean that the intervention itself is useless or ineffective in the majority of cases for people who use it. We should reflect that all the interventions used in the prison system, for a whole range of offences, have their failures. This does not mean that we should stop using them or abandon them or view them as unhelpful in the majority of cases.

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

Q Thank you. Would you agree that the historical involvement of the Parole Board in offering the possibility of early release does not really have any meaningful impact on prisoner rehabilitation or behaviour? Or to the extent that it does, that it may simply stimulate false compliance—pretending to comply with deradicalisation programmes in the hope of securing early release?

Professor Silke:

It is a complicated question. In general, I agree with Mark Fairhurst’s point that the potential for early release is an important incentive for behaviour in custody. If we lose the potential for early release, we are losing a tool from the toolbox, and we need to question whether that is sensible, or whether there are advantages in keeping it in some shape or form.

Does false compliance happen? Yes, it certainly does, but if we look at reoffending stats, compliance seems to be genuine in most cases. Nobody has a 100% effective intervention for dealing with these types of prisoner or any other type of prisoner, so we should never expect an intervention to be 100% accurate. However, the stats suggest that what is happening in prison with most terrorist prisoners is currently effective, and so if we are making changes to the regime and to the interventions, we need to have a careful think about what the knock-on consequences might be.

Personally, I prefer still to have the potential for early release at some stage as a tool in the toolbox for these serious offenders. I think it can make a difference in some cases. From my perspective, the Parole Board usually brings a serious and considered assessment of the available evidence in a particular case, which is often very welcome. Again, by removing that from the equation, are we losing something that has value?

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q Good morning, Professor Silke. Are the current deradicalisation programmes in prisons fit for purpose? If not, what needs to happen?

Professor Silke:

The problems are relatively new. My view is that they work far better than most members of the general public want to think. Again, the proof is in the very low reconviction rates that we see after people have been released. If it is working in the vast majority of cases, that is an encouraging sign. If there are failures, we need to look into that. One thing that the Bill does not do in its current format is try to identify what is different about the failures compared with the rest of the prisoners who are being released—what went wrong in their cases compared to the others? I am not sure that we are getting at that at the moment.

The evidence base around both risk assessment and interventions for terrorist prisoners is in development. It is massively better today than 10 years ago, and I think it will continue to improve. I know that the Ministry of Justice is involved in a range of programmes to improve the evidence base around ERG and healthy identity intervention, which I strongly welcome. Many Governments are involved in similar efforts overseas.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q You talked about the potential for early release and how important that can be. I do not think any of us here are advocating that the more senior offenders should not serve the full 14 years, but do you think that the Bill has the right approach to terrorist offenders under 21?

Professor Silke:

That is a very good point. There are differences between very young offenders and the older, more established offenders, and I am not sure that that necessarily comes across strongly in the Bill. That is probably an area where our understanding is more limited than it should be. It needs more attention and research.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Q The Bill does not recognise that they are any different, in the way it is formatted at the moment. How could we improve it?

Professor Silke:

One of the things we will need to do is refine it, in terms both of risk assessment and intervention, to tailor it more for younger offenders. At the moment, there is a question mark over whether what is currently available has young offenders firmly enough in its sights.

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

Q Professor Silke, I do not know whether you are aware, but in Scotland there is a sentence called the order for lifelong restriction, which is indeterminate but allows for release or indeed for detention to continue. Given your views on the benefit of some sort of early release being available for those who show remorse or rehabilitation—indeed, the avoidance of people being released at the end of their determinate sentence because they have served it—do you think that an order for lifelong restriction may be a more appropriate sentence for some terrorists in Scotland?

Professor Silke:

Honestly, I do not know enough about how it works to make an informed assessment of it. I am always cagey about anything indeterminate, which might imply indefinite detention. The advantage of having a fixed term, rather than something quite open-ended, is that at least you know exactly what you have to work with.

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

Q Scotland does not have a polygraph regime, if we can call it that. Can you give me some information about how uniform it is across Europe, for example?

Professor Silke:

Polygraph testing is controversial—I think you have already had evidence on that—because it is not 100% accurate; there are errors in it. However, as I have already flagged, just because something is not 100% accurate, that does not mean that we should not use it.

Polygraph testing has a potential role to play in these cases. As an extra link in risk assessment and risk management, it could play a useful role. There has already been a commitment not to recall prisoners purely on the basis of a poor polygraph result. There would need to be additional information in order to justify that, and I think that is entirely sensible. There are potential benefits to using polygraphs within an enhanced framework, recognising that they do have their limits. I support the calls that are being made, if polygraphs are being introduced, for running a pilot programme first before implementing them across the estate.

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines Conservative, Derbyshire Dales

Q Professor Silke, in relation to polygraphs, I see that you have extensive work experience in the USA with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. The Americans value the polygraph as a tool, not to determine exactly what has happened, but to assist in knowing whether somebody is disguising their compliance. That is right, isn’t it? The Americans think it is useful, and you, too, think it has its purposes, don’t you?

Professor Silke:

Yes, it is certainly more used in America than elsewhere. I am not intrinsically opposed to the use of the polygraph in these cases. I think there is a potential role that it can play. Obviously, it will need resourcing and appropriately trained and qualified people to run it. As I said, it can add an extra element to the risk assessment and risk management process, which can be useful.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

Q Professor, you made the point, as have others this morning, that only about 10% of terrorist prisoners reoffend, versus a rate of perhaps 50% across the piece more generally. Do you accept that that 10% who reoffend can cause horrendous atrocities with mass murder? Surely we need to be protected from them as much as possible. The Bill will help achieve that with longer periods in custody.

Professor Silke:

It stands even lower than 10%. For England and Wales, it is down to 3%. Really, when we talk about very low levels of reoffending for released terrorist prisoners, it is incredibly low. The vast majority of released terrorist prisoners will not re-engage in terrorism and will not be convicted for any future terrorist offences.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

Q But we have seen two very recent examples. Do we not need to minimise the potential of any examples?

Professor Silke:

The point there is that if we are going to be concerned about the potential risk of reoffending for any prisoner, we would then end up in a scenario where we release no prisoners. Risk for any prisoner being released for any type of offence is never zero.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

Q But here we are talking specifically about terrorist offenders who, by dint of one single act, can cause mass murder and atrocity. Do they not merit a special type of sentence, as is proposed in the Bill?

Professor Silke:

Sentences for terrorism can be long and, again, I am not opposed to that at all. One of the challenges we have is that we are imposing blanket long sentences across the board, when we know that the high-risk prisoners are a tiny minority of that group. One of the concerns I have with the Bill is that it does not distinguish; it is across the board. It would be nice if we could be more targeted and focused in terms of how we are identifying and managing the high-risk terrorist prisoners, as opposed to the entire group.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Professor Silke, I have just one question. It is about reviewing the Bill through the prism of Isis and radicalisation from Muslim extremists, and also the far right. Where do you see the threat of terrorism in the future coming from?Q

Professor Silke:

Far-right and Islamist-inspired terrorism remain the two dominant threats in England and Wales, but many will be aware that the most active group in the UK continues to be dissident republican terrorists in Northern Ireland. Looking ahead, what are we likely to see? That will tie into a whole range of different factors. One of the concerns many people have is what are the implications of dealing with the pandemic for terrorism trends going forward. There are concerns about increased radicalisation in certain quarters, but also pressures on criminal justice and other agencies in terms of budgets going forward and what potential impact that might have over the next four to five years.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

We have time for maybe one or two more questions, if anybody would like to ask one.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

Q Professor Silke, we have covered the issue of prisoners, but what impact do you think the changes to the TPIM regime will have on public safety?

Professor Silke:

I am not a fan of TPIM. The main saving grace of the approach has been that they have been used sparingly, and that has been consistently the case from control orders onwards. That probably is their main saving grace: they are only used in a handful of cases. The problem is that it is punishment without conviction, which is always problematic in a system of justice such as the one we have. The changes proposed are similar to some that have existed in the past. I would encourage the Government in general to look at alternatives to TPIM. If we are in a case where we are talking about five or six individuals who are under those measures, are there not alternative arrangements that could be used to monitor or otherwise manage the risk associated with those individuals, apart from a TPIM approach?

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

If there are no more questions, Professor Silke, thank you very much for your evidence. It has been very useful.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. (Tom Pursglove.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.