Great Britain

London Bridge attack victim's father hits out at Boris Johnson's 'cynical' plan for terrorist lie detector tests

The father of one of the victims killed in the London Bridge attack has called Boris Johnson’s proposals to put terrorists through lie detector tests a “cynical, headline-grabbing gimmick”.

David Merritt, whose son Jack was one of two victims murdered by released terrorist Usman Khan in November 2019, was among critics questioning the accuracy of “unreliable” polygraphs.

They are part of a raft of measures announced by the government in response to the attack, including longer jail sentences for terrorists and increased probation officers.

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But a prison officers’ union warned that two of the three separation centres intended to hold dangerous extremists had already been closed, and said deradicalisation courses were “clearly not working”. 

Mr Merritt accused the government of “shutting the door after the horse has bolted”.

“Keeping the public safe is key — government failed public by cuts in probation, policing and botched reorganisation of probation services,” he wrote on Twitter.

“Focus also needed on deradicalisation and rehabilitation. Keeping terrorists in prison longer will not per se keep people safe, particularly if they are exposed to radicalisation inside.”

His son, 25-year-old Jack Merritt, was the coordinator of Cambridge University’s Learning Together rehabilitation programme, while fellow victim Saskia Jones was a volunteer.

They were at an event in Fishmongers’ Hall on 29 November when Khan, who had been invited as a guest, attacked them with two knives while wearing a fake suicide vest.

He was chased onto London Bridge and shot dead by armed police. Inquests will examine potential failures by police, probation and the security services before the attack.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, said it confronted the government “with some hard truths about how we deal with terrorist offenders”.

“We are delivering on our promises, giving police and probation officers the resources they need to investigate and track offenders, introducing tougher sentences, and launching major reviews into how offenders are managed after they are released,” she added.

It comes after The Independent revealed that up to 800 extremists are currently being held in British prisons, as terrorists are allowed to network and radicalise others.

Convicted plotter Brusthom Ziamani allegedly launched a new terror attack at HMP Whitemoor on 9 January, after a court heard how the Buckingham Palace sword attacker got tips on avoiding conviction from terrorists inside HMP Belmarsh.

In 2017, the government announced that it would set up three separation centres to remove “the most subversive prisoners” from other inmates they may influence.

Usman Khan: What we know about the London Bridge attacker

But only one — at HMP Frankland — currently contains any prisoners following the closure of units at HMP Full Sutton and HMP Woodhill, which was emptied days after Khan’s attack. 

The centres had been hit by a series of legal challenges by inmates placed there, and prison staff said “red tape” makes referrals difficult.

The Prison Officers’ Association has warned that staff did not have the capacity to spot the signs of radicalisation amid a crisis of drugs and violence.

Chair Mark Fairhurst told The Independent government plans to increase prison sentences would require “more prison spaces, more funding and more staff”.

He called on the government to review deradicalisation programmes like those taken by Khan “because what we have got in place is clearly not working”.

“If you are going to lock people up for longer periods what do you want staff to do with them?” he asked.

“We’re very unimpressed. I want to know where the money is coming from and what they expect our staff to do with these people.”

Doubts were also raised about the accuracy of planned lie detector tests, which are currently used on sex offenders in Britain and measure supposed signs of deception including changes to blood pressure and breathing.

Lie detector tests are not admissible as evidence in British courts, and the Liberty human rights group called the policy “untested” and “knee-jerk”. 

Advocacy director Clare Collier said: “'Today's headline grabbing announcements show the government's counter-terror agenda is in chaos, with ministers abandoning facts in their desperation to be seen to take action.”

The Independent understands that polygraph results would not be used to recall a terrorist to prison, but could be used to carry out extra checks or enhance supervision. 

Khan, who was imprisoned six years for terrorism offences before his release last year stabbed several people in London on Friday, Nov. 29 (AP)

When questioned about the accuracy rate, the justice secretary said the tests had been “very useful” in assessing the claims made by sex offenders.

Robert Buckland admitted lie detectors were “not the be all and end all” but told Sky News: “We get a lot of people who are superficially very compliant with the regime and sometimes the assessment of risk is a really difficult thing to do.

“You can get people who are, in effect, sleepers for many years and then suddenly back come the hatreds and the prejudices and we see atrocities like the one we did at Fishmongers' Hall.”

The government also announced plans to double the number of specialist probation officers to supervise released terrorists, and increased funding for counterterror police and supporting attack victims.

The Ministry of Justice said it would increase the number of specialist psychologists and specially-trained imams who conduct deradicalisation work and risk assessments inside prison.

It also pledged to number of places in probation hostels, so authorities can keep “close tabs” on terrorists immediately after their release.

An independent review of the Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements system, which is used for serious offenders like Khan to link police, probation, councils and the security services, is to be launched.

But a proposed law to legally require venues to have minimum security standards was absent from the package, despite assurances by successive security ministers.

Figen Murray, the mother of Manchester bombing victim Martyn Hett who has been campaigning for a new law in his name, said on Tuesday that she felt “let down”.

Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, said that the overhaul was an “admission of failure”.

“Major terrorist outrages have occurred all too frequently, including attacks by perpetrators who were known to the security services,” she added.

The Liberal Democrats called the proposed legislation “unnecessary and reactionary”, pointing out that life sentences can already be used for attack planning.

The head of UK counterterror police, assistant commissioner Neil Basu, called for more resources to be put into the Prevent programme to “turn the tide” against terror plots.