Minimum term order for serious terrorism offenders: England and Wales

Part of Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 2nd July 2020.

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Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 11:45 am, 2nd July 2020

My reading of the term “other offences” in line 3 the hon. Gentleman’s amendment is offences not caught by the scope of the Bill.

Let me turn to the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked and the numbers he raised. We have published an impact assessment and equalities assessment, as we discussed at some length in the previous sitting. He asked where I got the numbers of younger offenders from. I now have some information about the under-18 cohort, which he and other Members are concerned about. Currently, there are only three terrorist offenders in prison under the age of 18. I hope that illustrates the very small numbers involved.

On the question of whether we are unreasonably widening the scope of what constitutes a terrorist offence, my judgment is that most terrorist offences would be caught under the existing list of terrorist offences. It would be relatively unusual for a terrorist act to be committed outside the current list of offences, and for it to be necessary to make the terrorist connection. It could happen, and we are rightly legislating for that, but the existing list of terrorist offences is relatively comprehensive, so I do not think that the scope increase that the hon. Gentleman is referring to will have a dramatic impact on what are already small numbers. It is of course important that we give the judge the opportunity—the power—to make that connection where somebody commits an offence not on the current list; it is logically conceivable that that could happen.

Let me turn to the number—the 50. We can extrapolate how many of those 50 are aged between 18 and 21, as we discussed in the previous sitting. I do not think that number is the annual flow or the number of convictions per year. As I understand it, it is the impact on the total prison population. Given that these sentences are quite long, one would expect that the annual flow into the system affected by these serious terrorism sentence provisions would be somewhat lower than that.

Those numbers illustrate powerfully that we are talking about an extremely small number of people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford said in her well-pitched intervention, we are talking about people who have committed a serious terrorist offence and have been found to be dangerous—in other words, the judge thinks that they pose an ongoing, serious risk to the public. Their actions either caused or were likely to cause multiple deaths, and, in the context of clause 11, the judge views the offence as so serious that a life sentence is appropriate. I hope that gives the Committee a clear sense that these numbers are extremely small and, thankfully, particularly small in relation to young people. We should take this opportunity to pay tribute to the tremendous work that our counter-terror police and the security services do to keep those numbers so very small.

Other remarks were made about funding. That is probably outside the scope of the clause, but I will address it very briefly, if I may have your indulgence for one minute, Mr McCabe. I am sure that if I stretch the bounds of your indulgence, you will call me to order. Counter-terrorism funding rightly increased substantially earlier this year in response to the enhanced level of threat. Spending on Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service of course includes work on rehabilitation, and that also received a significant funding increase in the spending review in September 2019. I am sure that everyone here would welcome that increase in expenditure.

The shadow Minister mentioned a number of outstanding cases in the legal system. I think the number he quoted relates to magistrates courts. Of course we are in the middle of—hopefully coming towards the end of—a serious pandemic, which inhibited the operation of the courts system. Prior to the coronavirus epidemic, waiting times in the magistrates court were about eight weeks. The outstanding case load in the Crown court was certainly a great deal lower than it was in 2010. Obviously, coronavirus has caused an increase in the outstanding case load. We are working hard to address that with the new Nightingale courts. There are, I believe, 10 sites working on extending sitting hours. By the end of July every court in the country will be back up and running, and we are rolling out the cloud video platform, so that hearings can take place by video. I commend to the Committee the court recovery plan that was published two or three days ago. I hope that that demonstrates the herculean national effort currently under way to reduce the outstanding case load that has built up during the coronavirus epidemic.