Review of effects on children and young offenders

Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 7th July 2020.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must, within one year of this Act being passed, lay before Parliament a review of the effects of the provisions of this Act on children and young offenders.

(2) That review must detail any differential effects on children and young offenders in—

(a) sentencing;

(b) release of terrorist offenders; and

(c) the prevention and investigation of terrorism.

(3) The review must consider the impact of imprisonment under this Act on the physical and mental health of children and young offenders.

(4) The review must consider the influences on children and young offenders who commit offences under this Act, including but not limited to—

(a) the internet;

(b) peer-pressure; and

(c) vulnerability.

(5) When conducting a review under this section, the Secretary of State must consult with Scottish Ministers.

(6) The review may make recommendations for further changes to legislation, policy and guidance.

(7) For the purposes of this section, young offenders include adults aged under 25.”—

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to review the effects of these measures on children and young offenders. It would also require the Secretary of State to consult with Scottish minister when conducting the review.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I apologise if I am interrupting the flow of the hon. Member for Stockton North as we go through the new clauses, but I suspect that he will sympathise with this one, which I move on behalf of the Scottish National party. I remind colleagues that sentencing is a devolved matter, and that there will have to be a legislative consent motion in relation to the Bill, but clearly the Bill has implications for sentencing across the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

New clause 5 would require the Secretary of State to carry out a review of the effects of the provisions of the Bill on children and young offenders, to lay that review before the House within one year of the Bill being passed, and to consult with Scottish Ministers when conducting it. The clause reflects concerns already expressed by the hon. Member for Stockton North and by some of our witnesses about the impact of the legislation on children and young people. In support of it, I will refer to four aspects of the evidence that the Committee has received in writing or orally.

The first relates to evidence from the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Jonathan Hall, which we heard on the first day of evidence, 25 June—in particular, his responses to questions 15 and 16, which were asked of him by the hon. Member for Stockton North in reference to one of several notes that Jonathan Hall has prepared on the Bill. The hon. Gentleman asked him about point 10 of the first of those notes, titled “Note on Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill: Sentencing Reforms (1)”, in which Mr Hall says:

“The requirement of a minimum mandatory sentence for all adult offenders, however young, puts in doubt whether judges can properly reflect the fact that an adult of 18 years and one month may not be any more mature than a child of 17 years and 11 months”.

Of course, those sentences are not available for a child, but they are available for those defined as over 18. Mr Hall went on to say:

“Age may or may not result in ‘exceptional circumstances’ being found, which is the only basis on which the 14-year minimum can be avoided.”

The hon. Member for Stockton North put it to Mr Hall, in question 15, that that struck him as a cautionary note, and he invited him to elaborate upon it. Mr Hall said:

“I have identified what is really a policy choice for Parliament. As a matter of fact, I can say that an increasing number of quite young people are being caught up in terrorism, including new forms of terrorism—not just conventional Islamist, extremist or right-wing terrorism, but other new emerging forms, such as the incel movement or even things at the very boundaries of what you might consider terrorism that are very violent. It is not impossible that young people will be caught up in this.

The point I am making—I have referred to an authority from England and Wales and I think I have also referred to the approach in Scotland—is that there is recognition that people who are young and immature are probably more susceptible to change than adults. I suppose it is a choice for Parliament, but the age for a mandatory minimum sentence—meaning no prospect of early release, and effectively putting to one side the possibility of reform—might be raised to 21, rather than that being for those in the 18-to-21 bracket. I understand that in Scotland there is a debate over whether it should be as far as 25.

All I can do is identify the choice that has been made and point out that when it comes to sentencing, traditionally it is recognised that people are not necessarily that different when they are one month over 18 as opposed to one month under 18.”––[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Public Bill Committee, 25 June 2020; c. 10, Q15.]

The hon. Member for Stockton North said:

“But the bottom line is that with young people, perhaps, there is greater change. You have said that there may be greater opportunity for reform there than with those who are considerably older.”

Mr Hall replied:

“That is what judges are increasingly finding.”––[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Public Bill Committee, 25 June 2020; c. 10, Q16.]

The hon. Member for Stockton North has mentioned this afternoon that there might be a greater opportunity for young people to reform their ways and be deradicalized than there is for middle-aged and older people.

My second piece of evidence is Mr Hall’s third note on the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, which deals specifically with the effect of the proposed changes in sentencing in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In particular, in paragraphs 21 to 26 Mr Hall talks about children and young people, and states:

“Striking features of the proposed legislation concern its application to children and young offenders.

The proposed application of the serious terrorism sentence to offenders aged 18 to 21 in Scotland raises starkly the question of whether there is a bright line between offenders above and below the age of 18. This is because the Scottish Sentencing Council is currently consulting on its third draft guideline, ‘Sentencing Young People’ and proposes that special sentencing principles should apply to offenders up to the age of 25.”

Paragraph 23 of the note states:

“Even if the Sentencing Council guideline does not ultimately go as far as 25, the application of the minimum mandatory sentences to those in the 18 to 21 bracket, and even more so the removal of the role of the Parole Board…for dangerous serious terrorism offenders for both adults and children, appears inconsistent with the distinct youth criminal justice regimes which have developed in each part of the United Kingdom.”

Mr Hall says:

“The current trend in Scotland is towards a welfarist approach to youth criminal justice, reflected in the Scottish government’s Youth Justice Strategy in June 2015. In Northern Ireland, following a recommendation by the Criminal Justice Review…the Youth Justice Agency was established to administer youth justice in Northern Ireland.”

He continues:

“There is a risk in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, that young offenders may be manipulated by terrorist groups or other unscrupulous individuals operating in the real world or online.”

He concludes at paragraph 26:

“As part of my role I receive regular briefings on counter-terrorism detention. I am aware of children, including quite young children, being arrested and detained for serious offences. Age does not necessarily inhibit capability (particularly technical capability) and intent. The internet, peer-pressure, and vulnerability are all significant factors in the types of offences committed and ideologies espoused. I question whether children who receive extended sentences for serious terrorist offences are so different from children who commit extended sentences for other serious offences, as to justify removing the Parole Board’s role.”

That is a fairly detailed exposition of the concern that the Independent Reviewer of Terrorist Legislation has about the impact of the Bill on children and young offenders.

My third piece of evidence is the written evidence from the Law Society of Scotland. On page 6 it echoes the concerns of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, and draws attention to the fact that the Scottish Sentencing Council is currently consulting on sentencing young people and considering changing the definition of a young person by raising the age to 25. That consultation opened on 28 February and will close on 21 August. Views are being sought on the sentencing of young people, with a recognition that that is complex and challenging and a suggestion that the sentencing of young people requires a more individual approach, with a need to take the unique circumstances of the young person into account.

The Law Society of Scotland states in its evidence that the

“introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing gives rise to concerns about the effect on young persons”,

because, as Jonathan Hall has said, they are more responsive to internet peer pressure and more vulnerable—those are significant factors in their offending.

Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, has extensive experience of working in the system as a governor and deputy governor. In his oral evidence session, I asked him to elaborate on something that he had told the Minister at the beginning of the session:

“You said that some aspects of the Bill may undermine public protection. Can you summarise what you meant by that?”

Mr Dawson replied:

“There are two aspects in particular. One I have spoken about: the absence of a process for some of the people affected. There is probably nothing more to say on that.

The second is probably rather more controversial because it is about the length of sentences. The Government, in explaining the Bill and justifying a 14-year minimum, say that that gives time for work to be done with the offender during the sentence. That is much longer than is needed for that work to be done. The difficulty with very long sentences, across the board, is that they destroy what is known in the trade as protective factors—they destroy the things that are most likely to help someone out of crime in the future.

Relationships are an obvious example. For somebody who is convicted in their late teens or early 20s and who is not released until their mid to late 30s, the opportunity to build a life that is worth living, in which they can contribute to or play a part in society, has very often been destroyed. All of the things that the rest of us do during that period in our lives have not happened and may not happen once that person is released. It is a disgruntling process. Long sentences are justified for the most serious crime, but the longer we make them, the more harm we do and the more difficult it is for the person to live the rest of their life in the way that we all do.” ––[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Public Bill Committee, 25 June 2020; c. 34, Q78.]

I then asked Mr Dawson:

“How important is rehabilitating terrorist offenders for the ongoing protection of our constituents and the public at large?”––[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Public Bill Committee, 25 June 2020; c. 35, Q79.]

He said, “It is essential.” I read from that that Mr Dawson was drawing on his long experience to say that we are potentially creating real difficulty for ourselves by applying minimum mandatory sentences to children and young people. Those who are convicted in their late teens and early 20s will not get out until their mid to late 30s. During that time, most of us are maturing, learning how to participate in the labour market, forming significant relationships, and possibly having children or taking on responsibility for children in our wider family and friendship circles. Those convicted young people will be unable to do any of those things, which may prevent their deradicalisation.

Drawing on the evidence from Jonathan Hall, the Law Society of Scotland and Mr Dawson, I think that there is real and well-founded concern about the potential impact of minimum mandatory sentences on children and young people, which happens against the backdrop of divergent approaches to youth justice across these islands—I have explained what is happening and is being contemplated in Scotland, and what is happening in Northern Ireland. It is against the backdrop of those—in my submission—well-placed concerns that I seek to amend the Bill to mandate the Government to carry out, within one year, a review of the effect of the provisions on children and young offenders.

We would probably all accept that children and young people are different from middle-aged and older people and that we perhaps have a special responsibility towards them. In this context, with particular regard to the evidence given by Mr Dawson and Jonathan Hall, we have a responsibility to the public to try to rehabilitate children and young people who become involved in terrorism. There seems to be strong evidence that there is more chance of rehabilitating them than there is with older people.

There are two good reasons to have this review: our responsibilities to children and young people in general and, perhaps more importantly, our responsibility to the public, and British citizens at large, to do what we can to try and deradicalise convicted terrorists. We know we are much more likely to be able to do that with children and young people. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in response to my new clause.

Photo of Taiwo Owatemi Taiwo Owatemi Labour, Coventry North West 3:30 pm, 7th July 2020

Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.

I speak in support of new clause 5, in the name of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West, which calls on the Secretary of State to review the effect of the measures in the Bill on children and young offenders. Much of the new clause relates to young offenders, and I agree that the impact of this Bill on them must be huge. We simply cannot treat young offenders in the same way as fully matured, grown adults, who fully understand their actions. The impact on their mental and physical wellbeing should be a fundamental consideration on how we carry out justice in this country.

The new clause also leaves room to consider the more general impact on children who are not accused of a crime. Children are often victims in the pursuit of justice, when they have done nothing to deserve the situation or warrant being the victims of a crime. All too often, children of offenders will pay the price for their parents’ crimes. This crime will also have serious effects on women. Only 9% of children whose mothers are in prison are cared for by their fathers, in the absence of their mothers. Only 5% of children remain in their family home when their mother goes to prison. A fifth of women prisoners are lone parents before imprisonment.

I am not aware of the background of Members in this Committee, but I cannot imagine how it must be for a child to see their parents taken away from them for a long period of time and having to live in a different way, with different people. Victims of crime never deserve to be so. It is imperative that this House recognise the true impact of our legislative decisions and how they affect the most vulnerable, in this case children. We support this new clause on that basis.

The young offenders of today do not have to be the reoffenders of tomorrow, but we need to make an effort and carry out the research to stop that happening. There will be children and young offenders caught up in terror crimes. It would be naive of us to think that there is any crime that children cannot be drawn into, but we have a choice about how we respond. We have the opportunity to ensure that they are not defined by the actions of their youth and that the actions of others will not disproportionately affect their lives.

I hope that the Minister will be able to support this new clause, as we do, and act to acknowledge that we must put the focus on how children and young offenders are treated and impacted.

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

I thank the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West for moving the new clause, and for the eloquence and passion with which she described its various component parts.

The Bill already treats people under the age of 18 very differently from those aged over 18. It has different provisions, as we have already debated. Therefore, people who are children in the legal sense of the term—people who are under the age of 18—are already treated completely differently by the Bill, compared with those over the age of 18.

In relation to those aged between 18 and 20, 18 and 21, or 18 and 24, depending on where the line is drawn, there is clearly a wider debate to be had about the way that their brains mature and about the opportunity to reform those people, compared with people who are a little bit older. However, in the context of the Bill, I emphasise that we are talking about the most serious terrorist offenders. We are not talking about the average 20 or 21-year-old. We are talking about people who have committed the most serious terrorist offences.

It is worth reminding ourselves what level of severity has to be met before somebody gets the mandatory 14-year minimum term, all of which gets spent in prison. To qualify for that sentence, it has to be a serious terrorist offence. The offender has to be found to be dangerous—a finding that the judge makes on reading a pre-sentence report, so the judge can take that into account. It has to be an offence—one of the most serious offences—that ordinarily carries a life sentence. Most chillingly of all, it has to be an offence where there was a risk of causing multiple deaths, and the person carrying out the offence would have known or should have known about that. So we are talking about offences of the most exceptional gravity.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

I entirely accept the important point that the Minister raises and how the issue is about severity. However, Labour Members keep raising the point about maturity. Whether it is stealing apples or being involved in planning a major terrorist incident where loss of life is potential or actual, maturity is an issue. As colleagues have said several times, and there is a raft of evidence, young people under 21—they get more mature as they get nearer 25—are at risk of coercion and radicalisation, and their very immaturity draws them into these crimes, however severe. All we ask in this new clause is that there should be a review and that maturity should be taken into account, in the same way that it is now taken into account in the context of sentencing those over 18.

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

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s intervention and the sentiments behind it, but I am not sure I entirely agree that this very small number of offences can be compared with the theft of apples. We are talking about a tiny handful of people who have committed the most serious offences where multiple people could have been killed and where the judge has found that the offenders are dangerous. Had they simply been misled, or coerced even, it might be open to interpretation as an exceptional circumstance, although we expect the exceptional circumstance derogation to be extremely rare—as the name implies, it is truly exceptional. Should truly exceptional circumstances exist, there is that opportunity open to the judge, but it would have to be truly exceptional.

To emphasise again how small the numbers are, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stockton North, reading out my letter when we debated a previous clause, said that, last year, in 2019, of the 22 people convicted of terrorist offences, only four were aged between 18 and 20, and not all of those would meet the criteria for the serious terrorist sentence that we are talking about, so the numbers are microscopically small, thankfully, for those aged between 18 and 20. There is also the exceptional circumstance override, and we are talking about offences of the most serious kind, which have to pass three or four different hurdles before qualifying for the assessment that we have just described. In that context, where the offending is so serious and the risk so grave, the approach being taken is a reasonable one, but I accept the more general point about maturity in other, less serious contexts.

On the question of a review, given that the numbers are so very small, I am not wholly convinced that a bespoke review is the right thing to do, but, of course, there will be a regular review, as I might say frequently in the coming clauses, at the three-year mark, where it is right that the matter gets considered.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West raised some points that will require consideration. It might well be that nobody at all aged 18 to 20 ends up being affected by this measure, in which case it will be a pretty short consideration. Mandating it by statute is not necessary. There are other review mechanisms. As we saw when we debated the Prevent review earlier, if we have too many statutory reviews, we end up tripping over our own shoelaces by failing to meet all the deadlines that we have created.

The questions are serious. I understand and respect them. We will need to debate them in future, quite properly and rightly, but putting this measure in the Bill is a step that we do not need to take this afternoon.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank the Minister for taking on board some of the points that I have made. In response to his points, first, I accept that this is only for the most serious terrorist offences. I completely accept that, and I accept that the numbers of children and young people who are so sentenced may be very small, but the important thing is that, if we have a young person or child convicted of a serious terrorist offence, and given the evidence we have heard about the opportunity to deradicalise and rehabilitate, there is all the more reason to try to make sure that that opportunity is taken.

All we are asking for is a review. If it turns out that the numbers are small, as is expected, it will not be a complex or time-consuming review. Although I am not going to push my new clause to a vote, I anticipate bringing it back to the Floor of the House. I would appreciate it if the Minister, in the spirit in which he responded, could take the evidential concerns away and consider what could be done specifically to measure the impact of this legislation on children and young offenders across these isles. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.