Knee-jerk counter-terror bill will not make the UK any safer

Knee-jerk counter-terror bill will not make the UK any safer
Comment: It's high time the government took a step back, and adopted a more reflective approach to counter-terrorism, writes Fahad Ansari.
6 min read
13 Feb, 2020
Streatham High Road was the site of a terror attack earlier this month [Getty]
The catalyst on this occasion was the November 2019 attack in which convicted terrorist Usman Khan stabbed five people in London Bridge before being shot dead by armed police. 

Khan had been released from prison just a year earlier on conditional license after serving half of his 16-year sentence. Under the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, prisoners who are serving a standard determinate sentence are automatically released from prison at the halfway point of the sentence.

The government's reaction was to propose amendments to the law that would mean that in future, those convicted of terrorism and were deemed to be dangerous would not be entitled to early release.

This rhetoric was cranked up this month after it emerged that Sudesh Amman, the perpetrator of a double stabbing in Streatham in South London on 2 February 2020, had been released from prison just 11 days earlier, having served half of his 40-month sentence for disseminating terrorist publications.

On 11 February 2020, the government set out its new emergency Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill which proposes the following:

  1. Anyone convicted of a relevant terrorist offence will have to serve a minimum of two-thirds of their sentence, as opposed to half their sentence;

  2. At this point, the Parole Board will decide if they can be released without posing a danger to the public (as opposed to automatic early release). If the parole board considers the offender still poses a threat, he/she would serve their full sentence;

  3. The law will apply retrospectively to those currently serving sentences for terrorist offences.

The direct and immediate effect of the law if passed will be to prevent the automatic early release of around 50 prisoners who are currently serving standard determinate sentences.

The Justice Secretary Robert Buckland was emphatic in the need for the new legislation: "Enough is enough. This government will do whatever it takes to keep the public safe."

Buckland's mantra is reminiscent of former Prime Minister Theresa May's own "enough is enough" speech following the 2017 London Bridge terrorist attack, in which she also proposed new counter-terrorism laws.

However, beyond the rhetoric, the laws and policies introduced by successive Labour and Conservative governments for almost two decades have failed to keep the public safe. Since 2000, at least 14 pieces of legislation have been passed into law strengthening police powers, increasing sentences and criminalising everyday activity such as travel, poetry and photography as falling within the realm of terrorism.

Approximately £40 million a year is invested in the government's heavily criticised counter-radicalisation programme, Prevent. Despite all of these hard and soft power approaches, the Metropolitan Police has admitted that the terrorism threat is "not diminishing".

It is high time the government took a step back, and adopted a more reflective approach to counter-terrorism if it genuinely believes that enough is enough. For it is unlikely that the current proposals will keep the public any safer than it already is.

Firstly, the statistics do not support the government's position that offenders released early on license are likely to reoffend. Of the 196 convicted terrorists released from prison since January 2013, only six went on to re-offend.

Put another way, 97 percent of those released have remained out of trouble in this period. Even if we were to include Khan and Amman in these figures, it would only raise the proportion of those who reoffended to 4 percent.

It is difficult to see how this can form a rational basis for amending the law to prohibit the early release of all those convicted of terrorism. The general rate of recidivism for offenders, including those convicted of sexual and violent crimes, is almost 50 percent, over 10 times greater than the 3 percent of those convicted of terrorism.

The statistics do not support the government's position that offenders released early on license are likely to reoffend

If the argument for ending early release is to keep the public safe, then the case for applying the new proposals to all offenders is significantly greater.

Secondly, the proposals are short-sighted in that they seem to ignore the fact that these offenders will need to be released at the end of their sentences in any event, regardless of the risk they may be assessed to pose.

However, since they have completed their sentence, offenders will be released without any transition or engagement with probation designed to address offending behaviour. It is perhaps because of this license period that the proportion of those released who do reoffend is so low.

Thirdly, some scholars have argued that more time spent in prison actually increases the likelihood that someone will go on to commit an act of violence due to systemic problems in prioritising rehabilitation over punishment within the prison system.

Sudesh Amman went to jail for disseminating terrorist propaganda but emerged less than two years later as a killer. Research part-funded by the Home Office and carried out by The Youth Empowerment and Innovation Project suggests that marginalisation, injustice, anger and division are what lead people to commit acts of political violence; unless these root causes are addressed, the public will remain at risk.

Read more: A kitchen porter named Mohammed revealed as one of the London Bridge heroes

Finally, the retrospective application of the law is arguably unlawful and will undoubtedly be subjected to legal challenges. The dozens of offenders it is intended to keep locked up would have been told at the point of sentence that they would be automatically released after serving half of their sentence.

These proposals if passed would breach Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights as they would then be receiving a higher penalty than was applicable at the time of their offence. The government's position is that the changes relate to the administration of the penalty, rather than its scope, and that the bill is therefore compatible with the Convention.

As the Law Society president Simon Davis noted, these challenges will only place an additional burden of the already overstretched criminal justice system.

A genuine approach to tackling terrorism will require the government to be honest with itself and the British public

A genuine approach to tackling terrorism will require the government to be honest with itself and the British public that the counter-terrorism strategy it (and previous governments) has implemented for almost two decades have failed.

Knee-jerk emergency laws railroaded through parliament, while useful to pacify public anger, have a history of being eventually struck down by senior judges as unlawful and fail to make the country any safer.

Serious questions need to be asked about the direction Britain is being taken in with fundamental human rights and the rule of law being gradually eroded in the name of national security.

Fahad Ansari is the principal solicitor and director of Riverway Law, a niche UK firm specialising in immigration and nationality law. He is regularly instructed in cases involving national security such as deprivation of citizenship, passport confiscations, exclusion and deportation of convicted terrorists. 

Follow him on Twitter: @fahadansari

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.