The justice secretary, Robert Buckland, has claimed the government is not politicising the death of the London Bridge terror attack victims by unveiling tougher prison sentences for the most serious offenders.
Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were killed in November 2019 in an attack at Fishmongers’ Hall in central London by the Usman Khan, a convicted terrorist who had been released halfway through his jail sentence.
Buckland denied he was “rushing” new anti-terror laws and said ministers had to act, otherwise the public would think they were “dragging their feet” on the issue.
Changes to be introduced in March include ending automatic early release from prison for terror offenders and a minimum jail term of 14 years for serious criminals. Lie detector tests could also be used to assess someone before their potential release.
Merritt’s father had said publicly he did not want his son’s death to be used to roll out more draconian prison sentences, considering the 25-year-old’s work in prisoner rehabilitation.
Speaking on Sky News’s Kay Burley show, Buckland said: “Certainly I do not want to politicise any tragedy, which is why although we move at pace with this legislation, it’s not just about the top end of sentencing, important though that is.
“It’s about resources we put into our prisons because whilst there are some of these people sadly not capable of rehabilitation, there are examples of others who are.”
The interview was the first time a government minister had appeared on Burley’s breakfast news show since the general election campaign, when she “empty-chaired” the party chairman, James Cleverly, who she claimed did not arrive for an interview.
Speaking later on Tuesday to BBC Radio 5 live, Buckland said he did not disregard rehabilitation as a method but in some cases people could not turn their lives around.
He said: “I do not disregard the work of people like Jack and everybody else who spend so much of their time to help rehabilitate prisoners.
“But the truth is, the first duty of the government is to protect the public and I have to be frank and acknowledge the fact that whilst there are some of these offenders who are capable of reform, there are others who are not and therefore I must be vigilant and make sure that we do everything we can to protect the public from people like that.
“There are some people who are not capable, I’m afraid.”
Buckland also defended the proposed use of lie detectors as part of the overhaul. He told BBC Breakfast: “Lie detectors have already been introduced in assessing the risk posed to the public by sex offenders. They came in about seven years ago.
“They’re not part of the criminal investigation or evidence one might hear in court. It’s all about the authorities assessing the risk posed to the public by offenders.
“This is not a new concept. I think it is a sensible measure in order to help maximise the understanding of the risks that some of these prisoners pose to society.”
Describing the move as a “major shift” in the UK’s approach to the sentencing and management of terrorist offenders, the announcement from the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice also promised to force dangerous terrorists who receive extended determinate sentences to serve the whole time behind bars.
Early release from jail will be scrapped for those classed as dangerous who have been given extended determinate sentences – in which criminals have to spend longer on licence after prison – and there will be double the number of counter-terrorism probation officers.
Asked about fears highlighted by the father of Merritt, Buckland told BBC Breakfast: “I make no apology for putting public protection at the top of the agenda.”
Khan, the London Bridge attacker, was convicted in 2012 in a complex court case involving three connected al-Qaida-inspired groups.
He was one of three men from Stoke-on-Trent who were convicted of planning to set up a terrorist camp in Pakistan, and had intended to travel there to carry out attacks in Kashmir.
Khan, 28, was released from prison on licence in 2018. At the time of the attack he was wearing an electronic tag, was being managed by the probation service and subject to low-level monitoring.