MPs back new terror laws as government warned it can't 'lock terrorists away for longer and hope for the best'

Government plans to keep extremists in jail for longer after three terror attacks by released prisoners

Lizzie Dearden
Security Correspondent
Tuesday 21 July 2020 23:34 BST
The Fishmongers' Hall stabbing is one of four terror attacks in the UK committed by serving or released prisoners in the past year
The Fishmongers' Hall stabbing is one of four terror attacks in the UK committed by serving or released prisoners in the past year (PA)

The government must not jail terrorists for longer and “hope for the best”, it has been warned as MPs passed a controversial suite of terror laws.

The Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill contains a range of powers to keep extremists in jail for longer, despite concerns about radicalisation inside prisons.

Three attacks, in Fishmongers’ Hall, Streatham and Reading, have been carried out since last November by released inmates while a fourth alleged attack happened inside a high-security prison.

David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary, called for greater focus on deradicalisation and rehabilitation efforts, and funding for the stretched probation service that supervises freed terrorists.

He said: “It is simply not good enough to lock terrorists away for longer, put them out of our minds and hope for the best. As we’ve seen from the devastating attacks at Streatham and Fishmongers’ Hall, this approach does not work.”

Mr Lammy argued that longer prison sentences alone “cannot protect the public from ever-present threat of radicalisation and serious terrorist atrocities”.

“Even offenders convicted of the most serious terror offences will at some point be released back into society - that is the reality,” he told MPs.

“We have a moral duty to ensure that offenders leave prison less dangerous and less willing to harm the fabric of our society than when they went in.”

Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, said the proposed changes intended to “protect the public and keep our country safe”.

He told MPs: “The UK has one of the strongest counter-terror systems in the world but we continue to face a threat that is complex, diverse and rapidly changing.”

The Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday, and will now be considered by the House of Lords.

The law would increase the maximum penalty from 10 to 14 years’ imprisonment for several terror offences and judges would also be able to increase the sentence for any crime punishable by more than two years in prison by finding a “terrorist connection”.

The law would force terrorists given extended determinate sentences to serve the entire term in prison, rather than being released on licence, but only if the maximum penalty for the crime was life.

Legal changes would see those found guilty of selected offences, such as planning attacks, handed a minimum 14-year prison term and monitored for up to 25 years after their release under new “serious terrorism sentence”.

An impact assessment commissioned by the Ministry of Justice said that while longer sentences could give terrorists more opportunity to engage in deradicalisation programmes, there “is a risk of offenders radicalising others during their stays in custody”.

The document also warned that lengthy imprisonment could destroy “protective” relationships with loved ones and increase the risk of reoffending.

A 2016 report on Islamist extremism in prisons commissioned sparked the creation of separation centres to remove influential extremists from the general population, but only one of four units is now in operation.

A recent trial heard that convicted terrorists were free to exchange “jihad banter” and discuss attacks inside HMP Belmarsh, and in a separate case three jihadis who met in prison in 2013 planned an attack together after their release.

The justice secretary said that the number of specialist probation officers and imams would be increased, and a review of multi-agency public protection arrangements (Mappa) will be published before the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill goes to the Lords.

It would also increase licence periods and introduce lie detector tests for released prisoners.

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Several MPs questioned the reasons for a proposed widening of Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs), which allow police to impose wide-ranging restrictions on suspected terrorists without trial.

The orders can currently be imposed for a maximum of two years before being reviewed, but the new law would lower the standard of proof, expand their powers and enable them to be renewed indefinitely.

The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Jonathan Hall QC, said questioned the “operational case” for the changes and warned of a “conspicuous lack of safeguards”.

In a report published last month, he wrote: “Terrorism laws are not in general best served by unnecessary expansions.”

Mr Buckland said that authorities would seek to prosecute or deport suspected terrorists over using a TPIM, but that they remained a “vital risk management tool”.

“A lower standard of proof will allow for TPIMs to be considered for use in a wider variety of cases and will better protect covert sources and methods,” he added.

“The government has no desire to keep individuals on a TPIM for any longer than is necessary and proportionate to protect the public.”

Mr Buckland said an independent review of the Prevent counter-extremism programme should be completed by next August, but that the government needed to remove its previous statutory deadline with the bill.

The review, originally announced in January 2019, was delayed after a legal challenge over impartiality forced the resignation of lead reviewer Lord Carlile. A replacement has not yet been appointed.

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