Polygraph licence conditions in terrorism cases: supplementary provision

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice Team Member) 2:45 pm, 2nd July 2020

I beg to move amendment 51, in clause 35, page 33, line 8, after “State” insert

“after consulting with Scottish Ministers and the Department of Justice”.

This amendment requires the Secretary of State to consult with the Scottish Ministers and Northern Ireland Department of Justice when making regulations under clause 35(1).

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 52, in clause 35, page 33, line 12, after “State” insert

“after consulting with Scottish Ministers and the Department of Justice”.

This amendment requires the Secretary of State to consult with the Scottish Ministers and Northern Ireland Department of Justice when making regulations under clause 35(2).

Amendment 53, in clause 35, page 33, line 17, after “qualifications” insert “training”.

This amendment adds “training” to the list of contents in regulations made under clause 35(2).

Amendment 54, in clause 35, page 33, line 19, after “keeping” insert “and confidentiality”.

This amendment ensures that regulations under clause 35(2) include provision for confidentiality of polygraph records.

Amendment 55, in clause 35, page 33, line 43, after “State” insert

“after consulting with Scottish Ministers and the Department of Justice”.

This amendment ensures that approval by the Secretary of State of polygraph equipment under clause 35(7) should take place after consultation with the Scottish Ministers and the Northern Ireland Department of Justice.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice Team Member)

The Minister commented on amendments 51 and 52 in his previous remarks, and we accept the grace with which his assurances have been given. The remaining amendments—53, 54 and 55—again seek some assurances. I will speak from my own experiences in Scotland, not regarding polygraphs because we have never had them, but about something that is akin in some ways: fingerprint testing and the fingerprint service.

Unlike some elements of forensic science such as DNA, it seems to me that polygraphs—as with fingerprints—are not a science, but an art. They are subject to interpretation, and mistakes can be made. During my tenure as Cabinet Secretary for Justice and my service in the Scottish Parliament before that, Scottish justice was turned on its head by a manifest injustice that came about because of an error in fingerprint identification. That error shamed Scottish justice and harmed a former serving police officer. It required us to review our fingerprint service from top to bottom, bringing in an eminent judge from Northern Ireland to address it.

Polygraph is not like a DNA test, which comes back with odds of 3 million to one. People are required to look at it and consider it. It is something relatively new, although it is operating in other jurisdictions. Who trains them? Who regulates them? Who ensures that they are kept up to speed? How do we ensure that those carrying it out are properly qualified, rather than someone seeking a fast buck? Some of this is in the drill-down detail. It may be something that has to be addressed. It is coming in.

I ask the Minister to take on board what I say, in an attempt to be helpful: some things are an art, not a science. Forensic science caused us huge difficulties in Scotland. To ensure that injustices do not arise and the service is as good as possible, we require some check against delivery, a method of regulation, an understanding of who can do it and a way of holding them to account.

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

I thank the hon. Member for East Lothian for his comments. I wholly concur with what he said about the importance of training and carefully managing who conducts these tests and how they conduct them. In evidence, we heard from Professor Grubin in some detail of the critical importance of training. Without the proper training, method and the right questions, the entire process is essentially worthless and could potentially lead to false results. I accept the spirit of the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

To reassure the hon. Gentleman, in clause 35(3)(a) there is a reference to “other matters”. I explicitly assure him that that includes things such as training. The Secretary of State will address those matters in detail in the regulations, as they are addressed in the current regulations made under the existing legislation that applies to sex offenders. Identical or similar measures relating to training will be included in those regulations.

In relation to the question of confidentiality, which I have previously touched on, disclosure of any information obtained by polygraph testing will be shared only with governmental partners, particularly law enforcement agencies. It will not be disseminated or disclosed any more widely. I hope that assures the hon. Gentleman about the detail that the regulations made under clause 35 will go into. They will most certainly address the issues that he is properly raising.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice Team Member)

I am happy to accept the Minister’s reassurances. 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 Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Again, I will be brief. I am aware that an amendment that I have tabled cannot be selected for debate, so I am content to address clause 35 stand part instead.

We accept that polygraphs have their uses, albeit very limited. Most notably, we recognise that polygraph examinations have been used with some success in the management of sexual offenders since 2013 by the National Probation Service. The Minister spoke about that and convinced us that, for that reason, we do not need a pilot for the Bill.

However, as has been said over and again in the evidence sessions and in debate, they are far from 100% accurate. While they give an indication, when used in the right conditions, that can detect traits associated with lying, they are far from infallible. The Bill allows the Secretary of State to impose mandatory polygraph examinations on high-risk offenders who have been convicted of terrorist offences or offences related to terrorism. Specifically, it allows for mandatory polygraphs to be taken three months post release and every six months thereafter unless the test is failed, after which the offender would have to take them more regularly.

However, the Government seem shy of spelling out the detail of how their proposed regime will work, leaving it to secondary legislation in the shape of regulations, which are mentioned in subsection (9). I, for one, am always a little wary of the Government when they opt for that route.

The Minister needs to provide a robust explanation of why he does not want that detail in the Bill. Is it a case of having insufficient detail at this stage to work out exactly what he wants to achieve with polygraph testing, or does he share everyone else’s reservations about the application of the test? I hope that he will explain why there has to be a delay. I am sure that if the Minister looked at the legislation relating to the application of polygraph tests to sex offenders, he could cut and paste the wording, and tidy it up to suit this legislation, so there is no excuse for it not being in the Bill.

The Ministry of Justice has committed to a review of the value of polygraphing terrorist offenders and those convicted of offences related to terrorism after two years, which we very much welcome. However, as I said earlier, we would welcome that kind of commitment in the Bill, and a clear statement that people with protected characteristics will be covered specifically. It would help the Committee were the Minister to spell out how he expects such a review to be conducted, what he expects out of it, and whether he would adopt the need to achieve the specific things that I have spelled out.

I reiterate that Labour does not object to the use of polygraphs as set out in the Bill, but we should see the detail from the Government on exactly what they want to do. They ought to spell it out in the Bill. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that, and perhaps accept that it would be an easy job to cut and paste from the other legislation and to table an amendment on Report that provides the clarification we seek.

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

The shadow Minister asks why we do not specify in the Bill the full detail about how the polygraphs will be used, and why that will be done in secondary legislation. Of course, that is extremely common. It is usual for matters of great detail to be done via secondary rather than primary legislation, in order to avoid, in the first instance, filling the Bill with a great deal of operational matters.

There is also the possibility that operational best practice may change in due course. If scientific evidence develops, or as practice evolves, there may be things that we could do differently or better. Clearly, if it was set out in primary legislation, it would take a great deal of time to change the detail. We would have to wait for a Bill to come before Parliament with the matter in scope, which could take some years. There are quite a few things that the Government have been wanting to do for a while, and we have been waiting three or four years for the right Bill to come along, including some in the Ministry of Justice. Of course, such changes can be made more deftly and more quickly by secondary legislation.

If the shadow Minister wants to see the sort of detail that he can expect, the existing regulations made under the 2007 Act to implement polygraph testing for sex offenders will give him a great deal of information. Obviously, we will study those very carefully when making regulations under clause 35. If he wants further detail, he can certainly find it in the existing regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 35 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.