Serious terrorism sentence for adults aged 21 or over: England and Wales

Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice) 3:30 pm, 30th June 2020

I beg to move amendment 38, in clause 5, page 7, line 35, after “25 years.”, insert—

“(5) Where—

(a) a prisoner is subject to a licence for an extension period under this section, and

(b) the qualifying period has expired, the Secretary of State shall, if directed to do so by the National Probation Service, order that the licence is to cease to have effect.

(6) Where—

(a) the prisoner has been released on licence for an extension period under this section;

(b) the qualifying period has expired; and

(c) if the prisoner has made a previous application under this subsection, a period of at least twelve months has expired since the disposal of that application, the prisoner may make an application to the National Probation Service under this subsection.

(7) Where an application is made under subsection (6) above, the National Probation Service—

(a) shall, if it is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the licence should remain in force, direct the Secretary of State to make an order that the licence is to cease to have effect;

(b) shall otherwise dismiss the application.

(8) In this section, ‘the qualifying period’, in relation to a prisoner who has been released on licence, means the period of ten years beginning with the date of his release.”

The main area of concern that has led to the amendment relates to the maximum 25 years on licence specified by the Bill. We of course accept that we cannot have a cliff-edge situation whereby someone leaves prison without any further monitoring, particularly offenders in this cohort. There must be a licence period once the offender leaves prison. The issue is whether a licence period of up to 25 years is reasonable and whether it is a proportionate way of addressing the problem. There is also the concern over the lack of any review mechanism.

A licence for 25 years is equivalent to a licence for life. As well as severely curtailing the human rights of the offender after they have already completed their full custodial sentence, a licence for life also fundamentally constrains their ability to play an active part in society. For example, it would be a constant barrier to employment and—who knows?—perhaps new relationships. We would essentially be telling people that there is no point in them rehabilitating or contributing to society, because they will always be under suspicion—always under the careful watch and restriction of the state. A life on licence reduces individuals’ capability to reform and take positive action. It can have a detrimental impact on the joys of life that can keep an individual on the straight and narrow.

There is also the issue of the administrative burden on an already overworked National Probation Service, which has a financial cost, and which requires additional trained probation officers to deal with those released on licence. I would be interested to know where the idea for a term of 25 years on licence comes from. Is the Government’s intention simply that anyone convicted and sentenced to a determinate sentence of 14 years, with 25 years on licence, should have a life sentence, with the state constantly on their case and without any prospect of being released from it? If so, the Minister should say so. Can he confirm that there is logic in the period that he has decided on? Has he looked at the costs and at whether 20-year licenses, which would naturally be less expensive for the state, might be just as effective?

As I have said, the main area of concern that these amendments address is the maximum 25 years on licence specified by the Bill, which is effectively a licence for life under an indeterminate sentence for public protection. However, unlike the licence for life, the Bill does not allow for the licence to be terminated in certain circumstances. That creates an issue of unfairness, as well as a huge administrative burden, at a cost to the public purse.

I agree with the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Jonathan Hall, who said:

“determining whether a 7-year, 15-year or 25-year licence is appropriate at the point of sentencing for dangerous individuals who have committed the most serious offences may be asking courts to engage in guesswork.”

I personally would not feel confident in making such a decision. Would the Minister?

As I said earlier, there is a concern about existing case law and guidance available for sentencers on identifying terrorism connections when sentencing. We cannot expect sentencers to feel truly comfortable and informed if the frame of what licence they can impose is so broad. It is worth reiterating that a 25-year licence period is not so different from a licence for life. However, whereas licences for life imposed on imprisonment for public protection prisoners could be terminated in appropriate cases, that does not apply to serious terrorism sentences. It feels like the principle of rehabilitation is again being somewhat missed.

I spoke earlier this afternoon about young people. Is it the Minister’s intention that they are effectively to remain on licence until within a few years of the state retirement age? A 14-year term for a 20-year-old means that they will be 59 before they are free of the licence. Will the Minister clarify the merits of 25-year licensing and address young people in particular?

I am a strong believer in people doing their time for violent offences, but with a strong focus on rehabilitation. Our amendment would give them some hope that their good behaviour has paid off after time. Perhaps we need to give people sight of a future where they would live their lives in a very different way—an honest and crime-free way. What, if anything, can the Minister offer those people—particularly younger ones?

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

The shadow Minister posed a question: why a maximum of 25 years? Therein lies the answer.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Maybe I misunderstood, but I thought the 25 years was mandatory.

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

No, it is a maximum. The licence period is between seven and 25 years; within that, the judge has discretion to choose the most appropriate length of time. The point that I was about to make is that it is up to judicial discretion to decide the appropriate length of time. We ask the judge to make that determination, as we do when setting any licence condition. That is the way the licence system works at the moment. The judge sets the licence period at the point of sentence.

The shadow Minister, quoting the independent reviewer, asked, “How can the judge know in advance what a suitable length of time may be, looking potentially as far as 25 years into the future?” The answer to that question is that although the licence period cannot and in my view should not be varied by the Probation Service acting administratively—that is for the judge to decide—the Probation Service can, and frequently does, vary the terms of the licence conditions; as an offender behaves better over time and matures, or as their radical or criminal behaviour more generally changes as they get older, the licensing conditions can be and are relaxed. The Probation Service does that as a matter of routine, and I would expect and hope for that to happen as time passes.

Were we to give the Probation Service the ability to change the length of licence period, it would be overriding a judicial decision, which is wrong in principle and would possibly infringe article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which says that the Government should not be allowed to interfere with or alter a sentence handed down by the court.

The shadow Minister mentioned the arrangements for terminating licence conditions for indeterminate sentences—that is, the old imprisonment for public protection I referred to previously. As the name implies, those IPPs are indeterminate and indefinite. A judge has not imposed a time limit, so they could go on for the duration of somebody’s life. Some termination mechanism is needed.

Where a judge has made a decision—and it is up to the judge to choose, at their discretion, somewhere between seven and 25 years—it is right that licence condition is applied for that length of time. However, to reassure the Committee and the shadow Minister, I should say that the Probation Service can, as appropriate, relax and change those licence conditions as time passes. That is the right way of handling the issue.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I accept the Minister’s explanation and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

We have covered many of the operative provisions. They are rather similar to the ones we debated in clause 4, in relation to people under the age of 21.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.