Serious terrorism sentence for adults aged under 21: England and Wales

Part of Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 30th June 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:45 pm, 30th June 2020

The hon. Lady is entirely correct. We must, first and foremost, protect the public. We need to understand that we may never be able to rehabilitate some young people, and they may be a problem to society for the rest of their lives. However, there will also be young people in the system who have done some horrible, terrible and tragic things but who can be rehabilitated and recognise that they got it wrong. They should be given the opportunity to live their life to its full extent.

When those young people are released from prison, they are pinioned into a box and told, “You are a terrorist”. They might go into approved accommodation for a while, but they will have difficulty with housing, family relationships, forming new relationships and getting a job. We need to be able to rehabilitate young people to the point where they are employable, so that we can talk to organisations that are prepared to take on former criminals to give them a better chance in life.

I spent a large part of my career in the gas industry. I am a journalist by profession, so I am no lawyer. When I worked in the gas industry, an amazing scheme was operated by what was originally British Gas but had become the Lattice Group, which had the Transco organisation within its group. It had an amazing scheme and worked with Reading prison. It took offenders from the prison into the community—this was during their sentence—and trained them to do real jobs. When they left prison, the organisations were even providing employment for them, providing bridges and real rehabilitation, so I do not think that anybody, particularly young people, should be written off. We can reform and rehabilitate, but it is a choice for us to do so.

Instead, the sentencing framework for young adults is the same as that for other adults, in that beyond the age of 18 the same guidelines and principle apply irrespective of age. This might pander to some public opinion, rather than focus on what works and what is best for the individuals concerned and for the wider society. It is worth noting that the MOJ’s own impact assessment of the Bill recognises that

“Longer periods in custody could disrupt family relationships”—

I talked about that earlier—

“which are often critical to reducing the risk of reoffending. This would be more severe for young offenders and children convicted of terrorist offences.”

The way in which the Bill is currently framed throws the key away and lets them suffer in that particular way. The Government’s assessment goes on:

“There will be a need to provide offender management in custody to adults for longer, which may require an adjustment to the resources required in custody.”

I am sure we will come to resources later.

As a consequence of not focusing on what would work best for them with an appropriate pre-sentence report taken into consideration, young adults have to rely on the extent to which they can persuade a sentencer that their age and/or immaturity is a mitigating factor. Should we not recognise the fact that these are not often hardened adult offenders, but young, often immature adults who have made a mistake, albeit a very, very serious one? There is no doubt that serious offences must result in serious sentences, but surely not all young offenders should be written off by the state.

Chronological age has long been accepted as a mitigating factor in sentencing for both the very young and the very old. More recently, the concept of lack of maturity has been introduced into formal sentencing guidance as a mitigating factor. The most obvious way for the maturity of a person facing sentence to be assessed is by the person preparing a pre-sentence report for the court. Section 156 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 gives courts the power, and indeed the obligation, to order a pre-sentence report prior to sentencing an offender to a custodial or community sentence.

Jonathan Hall, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, has said:

“The requirement of a minimum mandatory sentence for all adult offenders, however young, puts in doubt whether judges can properly reflect the fact that an adult of 18 years and one month may not be any more mature than a child of 17 years and 11 months (for whom these sentences are not available). Age may or may not result in ‘exceptional circumstances’ being found, which is the only basis on which the 14-year minimum can be avoided.”

It is also the case that a minimum term of 14 years will have a disproportionate impact on young adults, representing a much larger proportion of the total years lived by a young person than it would for an older adult. We on the Labour Benches want to recognise the differences between adults over the age of 21, those between 19 and 21, and those who are under 18, all at very different stages in their lives. The evidence points towards there being different approaches to deal with such offenders. Evidence on desistance shows that young adults are more susceptible to change and more capable of desistance from crime than older adults. The research that exists on deradicalisation programmes suggests that approaches focused on education and training can be effective with young people in particular.

I hope the Minister agrees that where we can save the future of a young offender and direct them towards a life free of crime, we should do that. But we cannot do that if we condemn them to remain in prison and then effectively on licence until they are past middle age. I do not kid myself—as I said in answer to the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford earlier—that there may be some young people for whom such a sentence is necessary. This amendment does nothing at all to prevent a judge from imposing such a sentence. However, by requiring the pre-sentencing report to look at the specific items listed in the amendment and for the court to consider it before sentencing, we will provide the courts with the opportunity of recognising exceptional circumstances and acting in an appropriate and fair manner.

This is about a young person’s future life. They may well have done the most horrible and tragic things, but even those people deserve an opportunity to prove that they can do better. This amendment would help to achieve that.