11 March 2021

The new Crime Bill is welcome – but not enough to deal with the extremist threat

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For those of us who think the criminal justice system is out of balance with the needs of public protection, particularly around national security, the introduction of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill yesterday is welcome news. With a couple of big caveats.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland has his critics, but he can hardly be accused of a lack of energy and determination to control the risks posed by serious and violent offenders. It is regrettable that this activism was triggered in part by two lethal demonstrations of the impotence of the state to protect the public. The release of two unrepentant Islamist extremists from custody who then caused murder and mayhem either side of Christmas 2019 briefly plunged the Government into a law-and-order crisis. Buckland has led the response with alacrity and skill.

We have a problem with violent extremists in prison. We don’t know where they all are, we can’t control them adequately even if we did and we can’t change them meaningfully. The outworking of these failures increases exponentially in our disordered and violent jails where public safety and risk management has for too long played second fiddle to fashionable ideology. That puts people like the Streatham attacker and the London Bridge killer – Sudesh Amman and Usman Khan – on a fatal trajectory with innocent members of the public after their release.

Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t stop there. We have a potentially greater risk posed by those convicted of non-terrorist crimes being radicalised in prison by dangerous and charismatic ideologues. Up-to-date numbers for this malign cohort are notoriously hard to come by, but according to evidence given to the Commons Security and Intelligence Committee in 2018, our security service was looking at 300 serving prisoners as ‘subjects of interest’ and 400 more were assessed as at risk of being drawn into terrorism. The true figure is likely higher and, as inconvenient as it might seem to some officials who peddle the ‘equal threat’ delusion, 85% of this 700 were Islamists.

The proliferation of that threat across a penal system almost designed to weaponise it is one of the reasons Buckland has introduced measures to keep those suspected of being radicalised in prison for longer. In practice this means that someone imprisoned for a non-terrorist crime but who has adopted an extremist ideology while banged up can be referred to the Parole Board rather than released automatically. The Parole Board can then in theory keep them in custody until the expiry of their whole sentence, if it sees fit. The new proposals say that if the extremism risk persists this type of offender can now be referred on their eventual release to multi-agency public protection arrangements previously reserved for those convicted under terrorism legislation.

This is a sensible and proportionate response to fix a lethal weakness in our counter-terrorism armoury. But to be effective it must rely on two key areas – intelligence and treatment. And these are still far from adequate.

In his 2020 paper for Policy Exchange, ‘Justice that protects’, the former commander of the Met Counter Terrorism Police Richard Walton described the intelligence deficit:

“There remains a high degree of frustration by senior detectives at the lack of response by the prison service to intelligence coming from sources other than their own, and indeed an inability to effectively receive and manage highly sensitive intelligence. There appears to be a cultural defensiveness that is entrenched and highly resistant to structural change in this important field.”

Those of us familiar with the Prison Service’s intelligence-gathering capabilities will recognise the description. The ability to identify those at risk of extremism depends on an intelligence-gathering process that is assertive and credible, with the right systems in place and extremely high levels of co-operation. I’m told that several high-profile secondments have been made to force some much needed improvement in this capability, but I remain sceptical. In 2020, a convicted terrorist offender was able to radicalise a violent criminal in one of our highest security prisons to an extent that almost resulted in the first terrorist murder of a prison officer in Great Britain. That grooming process took place in plain sight over a number of weeks and was reported but nothing was done about it. 

The second problem is about the quality of extended custody for suspected extremists. Keeping dangerous prisoners in custody for longer might only delay the harm they can do without assertive and effective intervention to break the hold of dangerous ideologies. The current suite of generic interventions is simply not adequate to that task. Moreover, casting people who have a ‘dangerous’ label back into society with a largely securitised response to help them (re)integrate is very unlikely to get people to disengage with toxic beliefs in the long term. Much, much more needs to be done to assist resettlement or any work possible in custody will be undone.

As I have argued in the past, the best chance we have of dealing with the profound challenge of violent extremism is not by endless tinkering with our current fractured, overloaded and philosophically schizophrenic risk management system. We need a single, multi-disciplinary executive terrorist and extremist management agency to manage dangerous ideological offenders from first night in custody to last night on community supervision and those who emerge at any other point. These new measures are necessary but insufficient advances. Somewhere in the system, the next terrorist is being formed.

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Professor Ian Acheson is a former prison officer and Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.