According to a report by the Guardian, a terror laws watchdog will say that a “staggeringly high” number of people with autism are referred to the government’s Prevent programme.

The Prevent programme is an anti-radicalisation strategy that aims to reduce the threat of terrorism to the UK by stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.

Jonathan Hall QC is the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, appointed in May 2019 to scrutinise and report on terrorism legislation in the UK. He will speak at Bright Blue’s Ludgate lecture series this evening (7th July) about the current threats facing the UK.

According to the Guardian, Hall is expected to say that although autism and terrorism has not received much public attention, it is an issue which needs to be addressed as the criminal justice system is not always the right solution for autistic people.

Hall will also say that in many cases, autistic people who get drawn into terrorism are affected by factors such as an “unstable family background or some other cognitive difficulty”, and this needs scrutiny.

“Consider the offence of possession of material likely to be useful to a terrorist. Academics use the word remoteness to draw attention to the fact that having possession of something does not necessarily mean you are going to do something with it.

“What about autistic people who simply develop what is called a ‘special interest’ in this sort of material?” Hall is expected to say.

The Ministry of Justice has launched a review into how many offenders are affected by neurodivergent conditions

At the end of last year, the Ministry of Justice launched a review into how many offenders are affected by neurodivergent conditions, including autism, with a view of improving support in the criminal justice system.

This has long been an important issue for those who are neurodivergent, as often they can be susceptible to coercion and manipulation. In fact, people with learning disabilities account for 7% of the prison population in England, and over 30% of the prison population have learning disabilities or difficulties

As the criminal justice system in the UK does not cater for those affected by neurodivergent conditions, many remain in the system for years and do not receive the care or support that they need.

The Guardian expect Hall to cite four different terrorism cases in which the defendants were autistic. These include:

  • The case of 17-year-old Lloyd Gunton who was sentenced to life in prison for preparing a vehicle and knife attack in 2018.
  • The case of Jack Reed, who was jailed for nearly seven years for planning to attack Durham synagogues from the age of 13.
  • The case of 17-year-old Paul Dunleavy who was jailed for five and a half years for his involvement in attack planning in the West Midlands, inspired by the far-right Feuerkrieg Division.
  • The case of a 16-year-old from Newcastle who earlier this year invited support for the neo-Nazi organisation National Action in the interest of creating a white ethno-state.

Hall is expected to use these examples to assert the need for better provisions within the criminal justice system, highlighting the need for professionals within the system that understand autism and can provide specialist support.

High numbers of children arrested under terrorism powers

It is also important to highlight the age of the people identified in the previous examples, all of whom are below the age of 18. The high number of children identified as being associated with terrorism is concerning, and Hall will say he has “lost count” of the number of times he has been notified that an individual arrested under terrorism powers is a child.

The Guardian’s report also states that the number of arrests for terrorism-related activity among the under-18s is rising. Between 2003 and 2012, the figure never rose above 5%. Now, in each of the last quarters ending March 2021 it has been between 10% and 16%.

As these figures continue to rise, it is clear that better provisions need to be in place to prevent autistic children (and children in general) from falling prey to radicalisation.

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