Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who spoke in this short debate. The amendment would require a trial of the issue as to whether there is a terrorist connection to an aggravated offence. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marks, for the way in which he set out his amendment, but I am afraid we feel that it would represent a fundamental departure from existing processes—a significant divergence from practice within the wider criminal justice system—and it is therefore not an amendment that the Government consider necessary or appropriate.
It may be helpful if I first briefly recapitulate why the Government are making the changes that we propose in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, gave a good summary. Clause 1 will expressly require the courts, in cases where it appears that any non-terrorism offence with a maximum penalty of more than two years was committed in the course of an act of terrorism, or for the purposes of terrorism, actively to consider whether the offence was committed with a terrorist connection and should be aggravated as such. At present only specified offences can be so considered. Closing this loophole will make for more effective and flexible legislation, reflecting the fact that terrorist offending takes a wide variety of forms.
The noble Lord, Lord Marks, gave some examples of offences that are and are not covered. It might be helpful to include further examples. Various offences under the Firearms Act 1968 are not currently covered, including possessing a firearm with an intent to endanger life; as are offences under the Criminal Damage Act 1971, including destroying or damaging property with an intent to endanger life, and arson. There are many more, but I hope that provides an illustration of some of the offences that we think ought to be considered, if needed.
These changes will also ensure that the consequences of a terrorist connection are applied consistently to all offenders. The identification of a terrorist connection by the courts has a wide-ranging impact, as the noble Lord noted. It must be treated as an aggravating factor when sentencing, helping to ensure that terrorist offenders receive punishment befitting the severity of their offending and the risk that they pose to public safety. It will also result in offenders being subject to the registered terrorist offender notification requirements following their release from prison, which supports the police to manage their risk more effectively.
Finally, under the Bill, these offenders will be subject to a minimum of 12 months on licence following their release and will be eligible to have certain licence conditions imposed on them to assist in the effective management of their risk. I emphasise that both the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Jonathan Hall QC, and the Crown Prosecution Service expressed their strong support for this change. In fact, Mr Hall stated in his oral evidence to the Public Bill Committee in another place that this change, out of all the measures in the Bill, would make the most substantial difference to public safety.
Having set out the background, I will address the substance of the noble Lord’s amendment, which proposes a significant change to the process by which the courts in England and Wales, and in Northern Ireland, determine a terrorist connection at the point of sentencing. This process is well-established, having been in successful operation for more than a decade since the provisions of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 came into force. It is also consistent with the wider criminal justice system.
Under the existing process, courts are required to apply the criminal standard of proof—beyond reasonable doubt—when determining whether an offence has a terrorist connection. The court will make this determination on the basis of the usual information before it for the purposes of sentencing—that is, the trial evidence or evidence heard at a Newton hearing, if necessary, following a guilty plea—and take into account any representations by the prosecution or defence, as well as any evidence heard.
Furthermore, in England and Wales, and in Northern Ireland, it is the standard approach for the judge, rather than the jury, to determine the presence of aggravating factors as part of the sentencing function. To provide one example, Section 66 of the Sentencing Act 2020 requires the court to aggravate a sentence for an offence if it was motivated by hostility based on certain protected characteristics, such as race or sexual orientation. The judge will determine such a finding as part of the sentencing. The terrorist connection provision works in exactly the same way. This very issue was debated by your Lordships’ House in 2008, when the terrorist connection provisions were first enacted. It was concluded then that the existing process is appropriate and the reasons that I will now outline still stand.
During the passage of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, the then Government set out that, as part of their consultation on that Bill, they considered whether the determination of a terrorist connection should be made by the jury, rather than the judge at sentencing. That included discussing the option with experienced prosecutors in this area. It was concluded, however, that there were significant practical issues in taking that approach. For example, having to prove the terrorist connection as part of the trial would lead to lengthy diversions, were the defence to argue that the action of the suspect did not fall within the definition of terrorism. Such an approach would divert the prosecution from its primary aim to secure swift justice for the substantive offence—that is to say, securing a conviction or freeing the individual on trial—and would unnecessarily create significantly longer terrorism trials.
Alternatively, if the jury were to be responsible for determining whether there was a terrorist connection as part of a sentencing exercise after the trial, it would have to be summoned to make such a determination following a guilty plea. This would be entirely novel and run counter to well-established sentencing procedure. We therefore strongly believe that it would not be right to put it in the Bill. It was concluded then, as we maintain now, that sentencing is properly a function for the judge.
That is why the Government cannot accept the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Marks: it would impose unusual requirements on the finding of a terrorist connection, deviate significantly from well-established practice and, in doing so, put that process out of kilter with the courts’ considerations of other similar aggravating factors. The current system provides adequate safeguards against the erroneous finding of a terrorist connection. A judge who has determined that the offence was committed with a terrorist connection is required to state in open court that that is the case. That determination is capable of being appealed to the Court of Appeal. For the reasons outlined, despite the noble Lord being minded to do otherwise, I hope that he will see fit to withdraw his amendment.