Clause 16 - Aggravating factor where foreign power condition met: England and Wales

National Security Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 11:30 am ar 14 Gorffennaf 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Llafur, Bethnal Green and Bow

With this it will be convenient to consider clauses 17 to 19 stand part.

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

Although the Bill provides a range of offences specifically targeted at state threats activity, it will not always be appropriate or possible for harmful activity to be prosecuted under the Bill. Where offences already exist on the statute book that deal effectively with the relevant state threats activity, there is no need to create a similar offence in the Bill. For example, the offence of murder deals effectively with state-sponsored assassinations.

While the Bill provides a suite of offences and accompanying tools and powers, there remain cases in which it will be difficult to secure prosecution due to the covert nature of the activities and the difficulties involved in presenting admissible evidence to a court to illustrate all the components of an offence beyond reasonable doubt. In some cases, however, it might be possible or more appropriate to charge the individual with another offence on the statute book.

The aim of the aggravating factor in clauses 16 to 18 is to ensure that in such scenarios the state threats element is acknowledged in court and offenders are sentenced accordingly. The state threats aggravating factor will apply in cases where the foreign power condition—to which I have referred a number of times in Committee—is satisfied. Currently, if someone is convicted of an offence and it is known that the offence was linked to state threats activity, the judge may take that into account, but there is no formal mechanism to require the judge to factor that in when making a sentencing decision, and there are no clear definitions to enable the court to apply that consistently. This is in contrast to terrorism, where there is already a statutory requirement to acknowledge a terrorist connection when considering the seriousness of certain offences. That has been effective in cases such as those of the murder of Jo Cox MP, and Lee Rigby, where the seriousness of the offences was aggravated by the sentencing judge because of the terrorist connection, so a higher sentence was imposed.

The Government believe that the state threats aggravating factor should be available in relation to any offence. A state threat is a unique national security threat that can take a wide range of forms. We must ensure that our justice system is able to acknowledge all forms that such activity might take, and be able to penalise it accordingly.

Clause 19 ensures that the aggravating factor can apply to those who are convicted of offences in service courts. The service courts system applies to those who are bound by the Armed Forces Act 2006—for example, serving members of the armed forces. The state threats aggravating factor will apply in the same way in service courts as it does in civilian courts, in that if an offender pleads guilty to or is found guilty of an offence—for example, theft—and the foreign power condition is met, the offender’s sentence will be aggravated accordingly.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Llafur, North Durham

I support the proposals. My concern, which is one I will express throughout the passage of the Bill, is the Bill’s relationship with the Official Secrets Act 1989, under which the maximum penalty is two years. The Minister or his officials might not know the answer now, but I am happy for him to write to me. How will the two Acts intersect? Clearly, if someone has committed an offence, they will want to be found guilty under the Official Secrets Act, under which the sentencing powers are limited, as opposed to under the Act that this Bill will become. That will be the problem with the Bill—I still cannot understand why the Government did not do both: what they promised, which was the full reform, and a Bill for a new Official Secrets Act.

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are reforming the first three Official Secrets Acts, but not the 1989 Act, with the Bill. We will write to him with the information to explain how that is going to work.

In summary, the aggravating factor provides another tool for prosecutors to deploy, and helps to future-proof the Bill by ensuring that our judicial system can respond to any evolving state threats and activity in the future.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Ali. I very much welcome your early judgment call on jacket wearing; we are all eternally grateful.

Clause 16, as the Minister outlined, inserts new section 69A into the sentencing code to provide a new aggravating factor for sentencing when the foreign power condition is met in relation to an offence. The court will make its determination on the basis of the usual information before it for the purposes of sentencing, which may include the evidence heard at trial or evidence heard at a Newton hearing following a guilty plea. If the court determines that the foreign power condition is met in relation to conduct that constitutes the offence, it must treat that as an aggravating factor when sentencing the offender and must state in open court that the offence is so aggravated.

We are introducing a measure that will mean that, if an individual is found guilty of an offence that is not outlined in the Bill, but the foreign power condition can be proven, a judge may aggravate their sentence. On Second Reading, the Home Secretary provided a serious recent example to highlight why she felt the measure was needed, and we very much recognise the merit in that.

However, I note that a sentence would be aggravated only up to the maximum available for the original offence. I have sought a legal opinion about whether there is a precedent for aggravating an offence beyond the maximum sentence where deemed appropriate. Although the judge ultimately has discretion to sentence beyond the sentencing guidelines, it is far from common practice and will be subject to appeal.

I want to work through the application of the measure. For example, if someone acting on behalf of a foreign state were to commit a section 18 assault against someone who was going to speak at an event against that Government as a means of preventing them from honouring that commitment, it might be possible to prosecute them under some of the new offences in the Bill. If that is not the case and they are prosecuted for the section 18 assault, the foreign power condition having been met and the sentence aggravated, it is still subject only to the maximum sentence for a section 18 assault. I feel that the weight of the very serious sentences in this Bill will not be felt by the perpetrator in that instance.

Will the Minister outline why we are not able to push the sentences under clauses 16, 17 and 18 further? Will he comment on whether the usual so-called early plea discount will be ruled out in cases where the foreign power condition is met?

Clause 17 introduces the measure for offences in Northern Ireland, and clause 18 makes a corresponding provision to the one in clause 16 for sentences to be aggravated where the foreign power condition is met for offences in Scotland. Clause 19 amends the Armed Forces Act 2006 to make corresponding provision for service courts considering the seriousness of a serious offence for the purposes of sentencing. The case for tougher sentencing is even stronger in those circumstances, given that people serving in the armed forces and acting on behalf of our nation potentially have a level of access to the UK security apparatus that others do not have. We recognise the seriousness and necessity of these measures, and fully support them, but will the Minister address the points I have raised?

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. I have one very short point. I am very supportive of these measures. Clause 18, as we have heard, relates to Scotland. As I understand it, it operates and is drafted similarly to other aggravations in Scottish criminal law. I just want to be absolutely sure that the Government are collaborating closely with the Scottish Government to ensure it fits with the schemes in Scottish criminal law. What discussions has he had with compatriots up there?

Photo of Stephen McPartland Stephen McPartland Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

I am very grateful for hon. Members’ responses and support for these clauses, and I will try to provide clarity on the points made by the hon. Member for Halifax.

Serious offences that have a state threat component, such as murder and violent offences, already have significant penalties, as the hon. Lady said, and the aggravating factor will therefore allow for those sentences. However, she is right that for lower-level offences such as harassment, stalking or common assault, this would be a useful example of how these powers can be used if someone is not able to use some of the other clauses, so that they can identify that this person is part of the problem, and the person can at least be prosecuted for something, whereas at the moment it would not really be possible to prosecute them.

Also, the aggravating factor allows for an increase in the sentence, but within the sentencing code. The hon. Lady is correct that if it was a one-year sentence under the guidelines, the aggravating factor would be a maximum sentence of one year.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 16 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 17 to 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.