Increase in extension period for serious terrorism offenders aged under 18: England and Wales

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

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice) 11:45 am, 2nd July 2020

I beg to move amendment 40, in clause 16, page 16, line 29, at end insert—

“(4) Section 255 of the Sentencing Code is amended as follows.

(5) After subsection (2) insert—

“(3) The pre-sentence report must in the case of a serious terrorism offence under section 256(4)(b)(iii)—

(a) take account of the offender’s age;

(b) consider whether options other than an extension period of eight to ten years might be more effective at—

(i) reducing the risk of serious harm to members of the public, or

(ii) rehabilitating the offender.

(4) The court must take account of any points made by the pre-sentence report in relation to the matters in subsection (3).”

(6) The Secretary of State must at least once a year conduct and lay before Parliament a review of the effectiveness of the provisions of this section and their impact upon offenders.

(7) The report of the first review must be laid before Parliament within one year of this Act being passed.”.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 41, in clause 17, page 17, line 4, at end insert—

“(4) Section 267 of the Sentencing Code is amended as follows.

(5) After subsection (2) insert—

“(2A) The pre-sentence report must in the case of a serious terrorism offence under section 268(4)(b)(iii)—

(a) take account of the offender’s age;

(b) consider whether options other than an extension period of eight to ten years might be more effective at—

(i) reducing the risk of serious harm to members of the public, or

(ii) rehabilitating the offender.

(2B) The court must take account of any points made by the pre-sentence report in relation to the matters in subsection (2A).”

(6) The Secretary of State must at least once a year conduct and lay before Parliament a review of the effectiveness of the provisions of this section and their impact upon offenders.

(7) The report of the first review must be laid before Parliament within one year of this Act being passed.”.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Amendments 40 and 41 serve a similar purpose to amendments 37, 45 and 46, which we debated earlier. Hon. Members will recollect that, such was our strength of feeling on the need for the age of young people to be taken into consideration in the pre-sentencing report, and then by the judge in deciding what type of sentence to impose, we put clause 37 to a vote. The decision to do so was strengthened by the Minister’s failure to justify his estimates of the numbers that would be caught by the new offences and, therefore, sentences. We talked about that earlier. He dismissed our earlier amendments by claiming that there would be only a handful of young people caught by the measures. However, as hon. Members will have heard, I addressed our concerns about the lack of evidence of the numbers when I spoke to amendment 39—though I think there is more evidence to come from the Minister on that topic.

It is worth reminding the Minister that his measures create more scope for more offences to be considered to have a terrorist link—and, contrary to what he said in the previous session, over time we will end up with many more young people in the system. I would like to quote the evidence given by Professor Acheson to the Committee the other day. He, too, had concerns about this matter and said:

“I do not want to repeat myself—I think the system is far too fractured at the moment. We are only talking about 220-odd offenders at the moment, with the Government making what I think is the fairly optimistic estimate of an extra 50 as a result of the new legislation. It will increase because of the police and security services’ ability to spot people further and further upstream from actual terrorist incidents.”––[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Public Bill Committee, 30 June 2020; c. 77, Q162.]

I accept that we need to clarify whether the figure is 50 a year or 50 in total impact on the system. We need to understand that, but we also need to understand the impact of people being released to serve a term on licence, which we know can be up to 25 years. Through amendments 40 and 41 we again seek to have a pre-sentence report that must take account of the offender’s age—and for that element of the report to be an essential consideration by the judge in coming to his or her sentencing decision. There are other wider considerations, too. We should consider whether options other than a serious terrorism sentence might be more effective at reducing the risk of serious harm to members of the public, or rehabilitating the offender.

When Mr Fairhurst gave his evidence, we talked very specifically about young people. I asked him whether he had any thoughts on that with regards to rehabilitation and the future of these young people. He said:

“This is another issue. If you look at people under the age of 18 and at female offenders, do we have the capability to house them in a secure environment, or are we going to throw them into the adult estate?”—[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Public Bill Committee, 30 June 2020; c. 71, Q149.]

I mentioned that in my contributions earlier today. Throwing a young person into an adult estate due to the nature of their offence could have an adverse effect. We need to come up with programmes for young offenders who commit terrorist crimes. I do not think that we have that capability at the moment. Rehabilitation of a young person has more chance of success than rehabilitation of someone who is seasoned and radicalised. We have a big opportunity to make a difference in that field.

In my previous remarks I made a challenge to the Minister to make a statement about specific provision for young people. He has not addressed that concern, so I hope that he will do so in his response to this point. I do not wish to repeat any more of the points I made earlier on the differences in maturity and development between young adults and those over 21. However, the points remain valid, and we should take into account such evidence and testimonies when creating legislation that might adversely affect one group over another.

The amendment also calls for the Secretary of State to commission and lay before Parliament—at least once a year—a report on the effectiveness of the provisions of this section and their impact upon offenders. Again, we are trying to be helpful to the Minister. He should not be averse to having reports commissioned to prove that his legislation is fit for purpose. Or perhaps he fears that that will not be so—and, in any case, when the chickens come home to roost, he will have moved on, maybe even to the shadow Cabinet after the 2024 General Election. There is a long history of Governments avoiding this kind of scrutiny and refusing to commit to keeping Parliament properly informed about the success or otherwise of their policies and decisions.

By way of further helping the Minister, I will give him an illustration of one set of decisions which demonstrated huge failure on the part of a Minister who believed his own numbers, refused to explain how he settled on them, fought off amendments seeking reports and found himself with egg on his face. I sat on the Bill Committee alongside my good friend, the former Member for North West Durham, Pat Glass, for the Childcare Act 2016. In fact, Mr McCabe, you may have sat on that Committee yourself. That was developed to pave the way to secure an additional entitlement of childcare support for working parents. The Act extends the entitlement to 30 hours of free childcare over 38 weeks of the year for three- and four-year-olds in families where all parents are working. Like the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, we supported the Childcare Act 2016, but we knew that, like this Bill, it needed to be improved.

The then Minister, then Member for East Surrey, who abandoned the Tory party to take the Liberal Democrat whip and failed to be re-elected, claimed to be certain of his number, as the Minister does now. Existing providers of childcare places would invest in even more, and new providers would ensure we have sufficient places to meet the demand. That is what the former Minister believed, just as the Minister here perhaps believes we will get the investment we need in the estate to cope with this new range of prisoners.

Sadly, the former Minister got his sums wrong; no matter, he had moved on and, in time, out of the door of this place. I do not want the current Minister to fall into the same trap of believing his figures are so solid that he need not have a care in the world. If he has no care, he should subject himself to the outcome of proper analysis of the measures in today’s Bill. I suspect the Minister here is well at the back of the queue of Tory MPs contemplating a move to the Liberal Democrats, but he must stand by the decisions he is now making and subject himself to scrutiny, or his fate could be even worse.

To conclude, where we can end the cycle of crime committed by an individual through early intervention, we should do so. We should not write off young people, even those who commit the most terrible of crimes, but provide them with a small window of hope for a better life, if they recognise the gravity of their offences and change.

All we are asking is that a pre-sentencing report is conducted and made available for consideration by a judge. The report adds colour to an otherwise black-and-white situation, which can then be interpreted by our world-leading independent judiciary, which has vast experience. Is it not better for members of that judiciary to be able to come to a conclusion as to whether an extension is the right choice for an individual offender than to have the Bill dictate that that must be so, irrespective of individual circumstances?

Not all offenders are the same and extension is necessary for some; for others it could have a negative impact. I hope the Minister will accept my point that we need to respond appropriately to the individual circumstances of a young offender and seek the just way through, not just the easy way.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 12:00 pm, 2nd July 2020

I must say, the shadow Minister has painted for me a truly horrifying picture, namely membership of the Liberal Democrats followed by crushing defeat at a general election. Let that be a lesson to anyone who, like my former hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey, considers anything so foolish as a move to the Liberal Democrats. Looking around this Committee, that is something we can all agree on.

The first question raised by these amendments is whether there is an option for an extension period other than eight to 10 years. I am looking at amendment 40 to clause 16(3)(b). The way the legislation is currently drafted allows the judge the discretion to choose the extension period—the licence period—of anything between one and 10 years. All that these clauses do is increase the maximum from eight years—as it is now—to 10 years, but that is not mandatory; the judge can choose to have an extension period as low as one year. The choice for judicial discretion that the shadow Minister is calling for already exists without the amendment. Instead of the choice being between one and eight years, as it is now, the choice will become between one and 10 years, as we propose, but judicial discretion will still exist.

The pre-sentence report that the amendment calls for will exist already. There is always a pre-sentence report for offences of this nature. In deciding what length of extension period is appropriate, the judge will already have due regard to that pre-sentence report. They will also have due regard to that pre-sentence report in making their finding, or otherwise, of dangerousness.

On the question of a review of how things are going, I certainly do not fear any sort of review after the event. We have a standing procedure that legislation should be reviewed after—I think, typically—three years, to see how it is functioning. I would expect this legislation, as other legislation, to be subject to that same scrutiny process. I am sure that no one in the House would be shy to propose changes if, in due course, anything appeared to be amiss.

On that basis, in particular the first two points—

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I realised that the Minister was getting to the point at which he would sit down, but I asked specifically for him to address the issue of how young people who have committed this type of offence will be accommodated on the estate. Can the fears expressed by many individuals be properly addressed?

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

Such young people will not move on to the adult prison estate until they turn 21, so that immediately provides some reassurance, I hope. The more general point that the shadow Minister makes, and has made before—and our witnesses made—is on the importance of rehabilitation. They are points well made. We should not simply lock people up and throw away the key; even with such serious offenders, who will rightly spend a great deal of time in prison, we should work on rehabilitation.

Part of the additional resources announced in the September 2019 spending review and this year’s March Budget will go to Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. I have spoken to the Prisons and Probation Minister about young people, an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury has also raised with me, and it is an area where effort, focus and attention are being paid, and will be further in future. That point about rehabilitation is well made, but it is being addressed. I am sure it is a topic that Members will return to. I have forgotten whether this is an intervention or a speech, but on that basis, I politely and respectfully ask the shadow Minister to withdraw the amendments.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

It is lovely to have a guarantee from the Minister that no young person will end up in the adult estate—

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

The Minister qualifies that by saying “under the age of 21”. I appreciate that, and I assume that the word “guarantee” can be applied in this particular circumstance, despite the fact that some of our witnesses were concerned that we do not have sufficient facilities within the system to house 18 to 21-year-olds and some even younger than that.

In an earlier debate, I believe on Tuesday, the Minister appeared to accept that the pre-sentence report regime could be improved. In fact, he made a commitment to speak to his colleagues in the Home Office, to see whether they might find ways to ensure that the pre-sentence report covers some of the issues that I raised in Committee. We have not heard from the Minister about that, but perhaps in a later speech we will.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

On that point, does the hon. Gentleman accept that standard practice in all pre-sentence reports is for the judge to consider not only the physical, chronological age, but maturity, so some of those concerns should, as a matter of course, be addressed?

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

The hon. Gentleman has greater experience of this area than I do, and I bow to his superior knowledge, but the important thing is that we look carefully at the reports, in particular in relation to that cohort of young people, to ensure that every single opportunity is presented to the judge so that the judge gets the right answer. With that, although we will return to the issue of young people at a later stage, 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

As we have discussed, the clause extends the maximum possible licence period for serious terrorist offenders aged under 18 when given an extended sentence of detention. It gives the courts the option to increase the maximum—I say maximum—extended licence period from eight to 10 years.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 16 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.