Friday 7 February 2020 5:19 am

We must not let fear of terror attacks compromise our human rights

The recent attacks in London Bridge and Streatham have highlighted clear flaws in the management of terror offenders.

Both were perpetrated by convicts still under licence conditions, released automatically halfway through their sentences. 

The government is now urgently looking to address this — as it undoubtedly should. However, it should be wary of trampling civil liberties and common sense in the name of security.

One measure proposed is legislation to retrospectively end early release for current prisoners. This is likely to fall foul of the Human Rights Act, which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights into English law. 


Though it is accepted that parliament can enact retrospective legislation, it is rare — and for good reason.

It is a fundamental principle of justice that laws are knowable and certain. Allowing the state to change the law on a post hoc basis undermines this. Though the victims this time may be people who have plotted against us and our society, it should still unsettle us all that the government gets to rewrite its own rules.

It is also likely to be practically flawed. The current system was designed for prisoners to serve half of their time in prison and half under strict licence conditions, allowing them to be recalled to prison for breaches which might not otherwise be an offence. 

Making them serve the full time in prison would of course delay their release, but it would also mean that they are subject to less supervision on the outside. Equally, changing the rules halfway through a sentence is unlikely to assist in rehabilitation.

Others have suggested the introduction of indefinite sentences for all terror offences. Such sentences are not unknown here — around 75 prisoners are serving “whole life orders” with no prospect of release, after conviction for particularly heinous murders and sex offences. But rolling out such sentences to relatively low level terror offences, such as glorifying or promoting terror, would be a huge expansion.

Reminiscent of internment in Northern Ireland, such measures may take dangerous men off the streets, but they could set us back in our fight against terror. Not only can such policies easily radicalise those on the fringes, but they can also mean these individuals commit deadly attacks sooner. Where the penalty for a relatively minor offence is the same as for the highest, suspects could decide to strike hard first, before coming to the attention of the authorities.

The creation of an Islamist “Long Kesh” (the prison in Northern Ireland that housed paramilitary convicts during the Troubles), full of radicalised inmates with no hope of release, will not do the government any favours. It would hand radicalised Islamists a focal point for their propaganda, and would be a nightmare to control. No one would envy the wardens walking the landings alongside terrorists who had nothing to lose.


Those driven to kill and die by ideology present a particular challenge for our justice system. These are people who have grown to violently despise not only our government but our society and our way of life. We should be tough with them, and empower the police, security services and the probation to address these issues.

Retrospective and draconian changes to the law are not the answer, however. They are not merely likely to be counterproductive, but are cowardly. It is vital that we stand up to our principles in the face of this threat. We should cherish the values that our enemies revile: the rule of law, a belief in the power of redemption, and rehabilitation. 

No one wants to see attacks like this on our streets, but we must also be wary of how far we betray ourselves in stopping them.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

Share