Removal of early release for dangerous terrorist prisoners: England and Wales

Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 2nd July 2020.

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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

It is a great pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. The clause is the first clause in part 2 of the Bill, and is one of the most important sections. It removes the prospect of early release for the most dangerous terrorist offenders in England and Wales. The provision is central to the core aims of the Bill—namely, ensuring that the most dangerous offenders serve their full sentence, to reflect the serious nature of their crimes and to protect the public from them. Some of the recent terrible terrorist atrocities have powerfully demonstrated the awful consequences that can follow the early release of a terrorist offender who goes on to reoffend, sometimes with tragic and fatal effect.

The clause amends section 247A of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, under which relevant terrorist offenders are currently referred to the Parole Board at the two-thirds point of their custodial term, to be considered for discretionary early release. The clause would exclude a particular class of the most dangerous offenders from discretionary early release if they receive an extended determinate sentence; if that sentence is for a terrorist or terrorist-related offence; and if that offence carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Only if those three conditions apply is the prospect of discretionary early released removed, and those offenders instead serve their full custodial terms.

This is an important measure to protect the public. The only way to be certain that someone will not reoffend is if they are in prison. Of course, after release, offenders who have served their full custodial term under the provisions of the clause will then be subject to the extended licence period that we discussed this morning, which can now be as long as 10 years. During the extended licence period, work on rehabilitation can continue and public protection can be maintained. It is not as if offenders are simply let out and we forget about them; the licence conditions and monitoring will be extremely important. On that basis, I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

As the Minister said, the Bill brings a new facet to criminal justice by creating the serious terrorism sentence in an earlier clause but removing early release for those who prove to the Parole Board that they have been rehabilitated to the extent that they could be released from a custodial sentence.

As my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy and other hon. Friends said on Second Reading, we do not oppose the changes, because they apply to the most serious offenders who pose the greatest risk to the public. However, as we heard from a number witnesses, the changes carry risks of which we should be cognisant following the adoption and implementation of the Bill. We all have experience of judicial processes and policies that have changed because of various Bills, and there has been regret because the unintended consequences were not considered fully at the time. I also have concerns that the clause applies to under-18s. That raises further issues, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North has already covered, about the vulnerability of young offenders and also their ability to reform.

I draw the Committee’s attention to the note on the Bill that was published by Jonathan Hall, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. He also referred to this in his evidence to the Committee last week. His note stated:

“Firstly, to the extent that the possibility of early release acted as a spur to good behaviour and reform for offenders who are going to spend the longest time in custody, that has now gone…Secondly, the opportunity to understand current and future risk at Parole Board hearings has also been removed.”

I am not clear what has replaced it, notwithstanding that early release has been removed. What is the full process to replace the Parole Board to understand current and future risk? Jonathan Hall was also concerned that

“child terrorist offenders, whose risk may be considered most susceptible to change as they mature into adults, have lost the opportunity for early release.”

Of course, they will be in their 30s by the time they are released from custody.

Peter Dawson of the Prison Reform Trust told us that the Parole Board could release early, and he pointed out that more often than not the Parole Board does not release people early. He confirmed that it is an important part of identifying terrorist risk.

Jonathan Hall also said:

“The role of the Parole Board is quite an important part of identifying terrorist risk, and if you don’t have that role then you lose that insight.”––[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Public Bill Committee, 25 June 2020; c. 12, Q20.]

We have also had evidence from witnesses saying that the opportunity for someone to prove that they have reformed—this is particularly true for young offenders—is removed by the changes made by the Bill.

I do not know how many Members have had a chance to look at their emails in the past couple of hours, but two and a half hours ago we received evidence from the Bar Council, which says that this clause needs to be scrutinised with particular care. It does not address many clauses, but it says that clause 27 “stands out”. It says:

“We would question how Clause 27 fits with the obligation placed on the court to have regard to the reform and rehabilitation of offenders when sentencing (s.57(2) of the Sentencing Code). This provision would not appear to be the subject of an exception to the s.57(2) obligation, in contrast with the express carve out from s.57(2) relating to the imposition of life sentences for specific terrorist offences (Clause 11).”

I return to Peter Dawson of the Prison Reform Trust, who said:

“The problem with denying all hope of release on a conditional basis by a judgment about whether the person can be released safely or not is that it denies hope and affects the whole of the prison sentence…The possibility of parole is essential to the process that reduces risk.”––[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Public Bill Committee, 25 June 2020; c. 32, Q72.]

In its evidence, the Prison Officers Association described graphically what the loss of hope means for prison management and for the risk of violence against prison officers.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

Does the hon. Lady accept what Mr Fairhurst from the Prison Officers Association said in response to a question from me about the rehabilitation and deradicalisation programmes for terrorist offenders? He said that there needs to be a full review of those programmes, and they are exactly what one would hope would turn people around if they were to be released early. The clear sign at the moment is that they are not good enough to enable early release, so prisoners need to serve the full term in custody.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

What the hon. Gentleman says would be fine if we had that review of the Prevent programme and the programmes in prison. As several of my colleagues have said, the Bill does not provide for a review of those processes, so we have one side without the other, and that is a cause of concern for me and some of the witnesses.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Further to the matter that the hon. Member for Aylesbury just raised, do we have a commitment from the Government to undertake a full review of the methods that he described?

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

That is what I was going to say. I think there needs to be a review of this, as and when it is implemented.

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney

The hon. Lady is quoting from the Bar Council. I want to make the Committee aware, in reference to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, that I am a member of the Bar and have practised at the Bar of England and Wales.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

The Bar Council is a very authoritative body that needs to be listened to when we are introducing legislation that affects issues such as sentencing.

On the POA point, Peter Dawson pointed out clearly, in relation to violence against prison officers, that when hope is lost and the atmosphere and the management of prisoners gets much more difficult, we have nowhere to move terrorist prisoners who are already in specialist separation centres. He said that removing hope of early release increases that risk. I would like the Government to commit to a review if the proposal is implemented in this way. Obviously, we support the motivation behind it.

I have one more question for the Minister. Might the option for this sentence, with the loss of early release, lead to unintended consequences in charging and sentencing? Would sentencers avoid it and impose a lesser sentence? I am sure that the Government do not intend that.

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

Let me briefly respond to one or two of the points that the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth made. She referred to the fact that if the sentence is served in full, there obviously will not be a Parole Board assessment prior to release. She asked about the risk assessment that would take place. I asked Mr Fairhurst from the Prison Officers Association about that in our evidence session on Tuesday morning. Even where there is no Parole Board involvement because release is automatic, there are a whole load of other review and evaluation mechanisms that can be used—for example, multi-agency public protection arrangements, careful monitoring by the prison staff and prison governor, and involvement by the National Probation Service in preparation for the release point. With the example of the Streatham offender, those kinds of risk-assessment measures led to a security services team monitoring him, which obviously had the result that it did. That is an example, as Mr Fairhurst said in evidence, of the risk assessment process working very effectively. That is what we would expect to happen in cases in which release is automatic.

The hon. Lady also asked: what happens when hope is lost? What if a prisoner is in prison and there is no prospect of early release? Does that not mean that it will be hard to get them to behave well? I want to make some points in response. First, the vast majority of prisoners, who have committed a range of offences, way beyond terrorist ones, are serving standard determinate sentences and are released automatically—typically at the halfway point—without any Parole Board intervention. The vast majority are subject to automatic release at a particular point. The second risk, particularly in relation to terrorist offenders, is that of false compliance, if they think that by pretending to comply with the deradicalisation programme, they might get released early. That is not necessarily an entirely healthy incentive and we should be mindful of that possibility.

The third point, however, is the most important one. The hon. Lady remarked on prisoners potentially losing hope, although there is a point, of course, at which they will be released. Against that point about hope, however, we need to balance public protection. This is a cohort of very serious offenders, as I defined earlier, and it includes people who have received the serious terrorist sentence that we discussed in earlier sittings.

We are talking about this very small cohort of the most serious offenders, and as a Committee and as Members of Parliament we must weigh very carefully the consideration of public protection. In these circumstances, we feel—rightly—that public protection is overwhelmingly served by the full sentence being served in custody.

On the hon. Lady’s final point about a review, as I have said to the shadow Minister in the past, there will be a review three years hence. It is general practice for legislation to be reviewed at that point. There is also the Prevent review, which we will talk about when we discuss a later clause. Reviewing is important; she is quite right about that. We need to be thoughtful about laws after we pass them, to make sure that they are operating in the manner that was intended, and that there are not any nasty surprises of the kind that the shadow Minister mentioned earlier—a very nasty surprise, in the case of the former hon. Member for East Surrey.

We need to be mindful and to review legislation after it is passed. We have regular mechanisms for doing that, and I have mentioned the review of the Bill three years after it has happened and the Prevent review, which will happen. I hope that that adequately addresses the hon. Lady’s concerns.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 27 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 9 agreed to.