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The Queen’s Speech: Counter-Terrorism – The Implications

The UK government led by PM Boris Johnson have set out their legislative plan for the year in the Queen’s Speech. Amongst some of the most pressing matters the government is expected to deal with, it is no surprise that terrorism is prominently featured.

With the recent London Bridge terrorist attack by Usman Khan, both the public and the authorities are rightly gathering their thoughts about how we deal with terrorists. The Queen sets out the government’s position in this regard: “New sentencing laws will ensure the most serious violent offenders, including terrorists, serve longer in custody.”

Prima facie, it appears the government is legislating in response to one event, rather than taking a long term and considered approach to terrorists. However, it is probably worth looking at what the proposals and implications are, before arriving at a conclusion as to how strong this move forward is.

The foundational thesis of the Counter Terrorism (Sentencing and Release) Bill is that the most serious terrorist offenders will stay in prison for longer. This is, of course, a move that will win a lot of public support, particularly from those that see it as the government’s business to do whatever is needed to keep the public safe. However, there will be those that oppose this as a draconian measure, which infringes on the human rights of terrorists in our system.

In an article about terrorists in prison I wrote for Kootneeti, I made the point that although we have policy measures in place to deal with terrorists in prison, neither of them are the most ideal; this is in reference to Usman Khan et al gaming the system. I further advance my argument that, unless we have qualified individuals with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to deal with radical terrorists, then our efforts may be fruitless.

Containing terrorist prisoners from the public may eliminate a direct threat by them because it reduces a very real physical threat they pose, but it doesn’t prevent copycat or lone actors from carrying out their own or revenge attacks. In fact, it doesn’t eliminate terrorism at all.

The implication of this legislation, though well-intentioned, is that we may move towards a system of indeterminate sentences with little to no chance of release because we have no way out. This is a worrying aspect that needs to be considered. Prisons currently do not enjoy the luxury of unlimited prison spaces, this is backed by a report from the Howard League for Penal Reform in which it claims that 18,000 prisoners are living in cells designed for much fewer numbers.

The Prison Reform Trust, in their report “Prison: the facts,” reveal an alarming statistic in regards to safety in prisons. For example, over the last seven years from 2018, the deterioration of safety has declined rapidly. Of the 317 deaths that occurred in prison, 87 of them were self-inflicted, with men counting as 83 and women 4. The manner of deaths includes self-inflicted, natural causes and others.

In addition, the Prison Reform Trust also looked at rehabilitation and resettlement. In their analysis, they found that reoffending rates remained high and that short prison sentences were less effective. Less than half of those prisoners involved, 43%, received a positive rating for purposeful activities, such as education and work. This, of course, sends the message that whilst prisons are doing a lot to manage inmates, positive results are unfortunately not yielded and something the government must look at in tandem with longer prison sentences.

Where does all this leave us with longer sentences for the most serious crimes? It leaves us nowhere closer to managing the problem of foreign and homegrown terrorists. Prison is a tool to be used once someone has been convicted and sentenced, therefore on the most basic level, it doesn’t serve as a deterrent. More effort, funding, and resources must be put into preventing such crimes from even taking place. It is inevitable that some will slip through the net, but this shouldn’t be our reason not to focus our attention on that.

This latest measure the government has proposed appears to be nothing but a message of reassurance for the public. With safety concerns heightened in the current climate, the government is rightfully looking at ways to ensure the public has confidence in them dealing with the most serious offenders. But, terrorism cannot be locked away. It is a recurring phenomenon and one in which we need to deal with more intelligently. With this in mind, I am reminded of the cliché of “prevention is better than cure.” However, a prison in and of itself is no cure, at least not for many given that reoffending rates remain high. So, our efforts should not only be on how we prevent crimes from taking place but also how we rehabilitate those in our prisons from not reoffending again- especially if the government pushes through with this bill.