Minimum term order for serious terrorism offenders: England and Wales

Part of Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 2nd July 2020.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice) 11:30 am, 2nd July 2020

I beg to move amendment 39, in clause 11, page 12, line 42, at end insert—

“(7) Before this section comes into force, the Government must publish an analysis of the impact of the introduction of minimum term orders for terrorism offenders on sentencing for other offences.

(8) A copy of the analysis must be laid before both Houses of Parliament.”

This amendment requires the Government to publish an analysis of the impact of the minimum terms on sentencing for related offences.

It is good to see you in the Chair again, Mr McCabe. The Labour party is not in principle against a minimum 14-year sentence for those convicted of serious terrorist offences. We are aware that it is a particularly small cohort who have been found guilty of some absolutely heinous crimes in order to find themselves in this category of offender. Indeed, the Ministry of Justice’s own impact assessment sets out that as few as 50 offenders could fall into this category, although, as I have said time and again, the Ministry of Justice can provide no evidence to back up that figure. None the less, as I have said throughout our discussions, the changes to legislation that this House makes must be underpinned by supporting evidence, and the amendment would do just that.

The amendment would require the Government to publish an analysis of the impact of the introduction of minimum term orders for terrorism offenders on sentencing for other offences, and to lay a copy of the analysis before Parliament prior to this section coming into force. The impact assessment estimates that the potential impact of measures increasing minimum terms for terrorist offenders given life sentences

“may result in fewer than 50 additional prisoners…annually”.

I am not entirely convinced by that assessment and ask that the Government conduct an analysis of the measures on wider sentencing practice.

In Tuesday’s sitting, the Minister was at pains to stress the figure of 50 additional prisoners caught up by his new proposals, with only a handful of them being under the age of 21, and said he would provide the rationale behind the numbers. Nothing arrived in my inbox yesterday, so I assume it is still a work in progress for the Minister. I would have thought it perfectly easy for him to support his numbers with evidence before now, but perhaps he will provide that full explanation in his response.

I have outlined in previous sittings my concern about the impact of the creation of new offences with a terrorist connection. We all need to be satisfied that the Government have got the numbers right, because if they have not the ramifications will be considerable.

As I have said throughout our discussions, the changes to legislation that this House makes must be underpinned by supporting evidence. We need to know whether minimum terms are working effectively. Have they made our country safer? Are they really a valuable tool in working with offenders? As I have spoken about at length, our justice system does not treat everyone fairly, even if it is our intention to do so. Given that it does not treat everyone fairly, we must consider the impact of our decisions on all groups, particularly those with protected characteristics. We as lawmakers need to obtain and understand evidence that increasing the length of time that individuals spend in custody leads to significant gains in public protection beyond delaying the possibility of an offence being committed.

In its written evidence, the Prison Reform Trust stated that increasing the length of the custodial period could undermine public protection by eroding protective factors. A key example is family contact associated with a reduced risk of reoffending on release. Perhaps the Minister can answer that challenge from the Prison Reform Trust. It is of course only right that the Minister talks about the number of offenders who will be caught up in his proposed new laws, because it is important to understand how many will be subject to additional impediments to their attempts to live anywhere near a normal life when they are released on a licence of up to 25 years.

The Government’s own impact assessment specifically sets out that the MOJ is aware that separating offenders, especially younger ones, from their families will negatively impact on their rehabilitation. We need answers from the Minister on that point. Yet we face a situation where the MOJ does not know the total number of offenders who will be caught up in this cohort. In addition, the MOJ does not know how many of those offenders will be young adults or under-18s, and it cannot provide any evidence-based reason for introducing the minimum sentence. The only thing that the MOJ seems sure of is that removing protective factors can impact on rehabilitation. It is important that the Minister gets those numbers right, because they have a major impact on how offenders are managed within the system and on whether or not the system will be properly equipped to deal with them.

I believe that the Government have said that the cost of these new measures will be around £60 million a year, but how has that figure been arrived at? The Minister holds tight to his figure of £50 million a year, but even if he is right, that is £50 million every single year and the number will build up to around 700 terrorist offenders in the prison system, all of them needing particular management in an already stretched service, which so many people tell us is under-resourced, lacks the expertise it needs and has rehabilitation programmes for terrorist offenders that, at best, need considerable improvement.

The need for analysis is probably even more important for us to understand the effects on young people and the potential impact of the determinate sentences. When he spoke on Tuesday against our amendment to have specific pre-sentencing reports that take age into consideration, the Minister made much of the fact that only a very small number of young people will be caught by his new measures. I do not want to repeat myself too often, but we still await an explanation as to where the Minister gets his estimates from, even if it is a very small number of people who will be affected.

For the sake of argument, let us say that the Minister is right, and for the sake of illustration, let us assume that it is eight young people a year who will be affected. Before a young person sentenced under the Minister’s new law is released, there are likely to be more than 100 people in the prison system who have been convicted of an offence with a terrorist connection. We really need to understand what that means for the offenders, for the Prison Service and for society.