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New sentencing guidelines for terror offences amid shifting threat

Use of encrypted communications to become aggravating factor

Terrorists caught in the early stages of an attack plot will face tougher punishments under landmark sentencing guidelines.

Offenders who play a minor role in terror planning could also receive harsher penalties from next month.

The approach has been drawn up in response to a shift in the threat, with conspiracies escalating to the point of violence more quickly and often involving "low-tech" attack methods using cars or knives.

In an indication of how terrorists have exploited technology, the use of encrypted communications to avoid detection or repeated accessing of extremist material are listed as potential "aggravating" factors that can be taken into account when judges weigh up sentences.

The Sentencing Council will publish the first comprehensive guidance on a number of terrorism offences for courts in England and Wales.

Work started on the plans in 2016 but they are being fast-tracked after Britain was hit by five attacks last year.

A key change applies to offences under section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006, which can be used to prosecute individuals who plan terrorist acts or those who help others in the plotting.

In 2016, the Court of Appeal issued guidance for sentences imposed under the section.

This has worked effectively to now, but the "changing nature of offending" means it needs to be reconsidered, according to the Sentencing Council.

It noted that terrorist acts seen in recent times have involved "far less sophisticated methods" than was previously the case.

Three attacks involved vehicles last year, while knives were used in the Westminster and London Bridge atrocities.

The new guidelines will keep the same maximum sentence of life with a minimum term of 40 years for section 5 cases.

But the sentencing range for the lowest-level crimes will be set at three to six years - compared to 21 months to five years under the existing guidance.

Cases that could fall into this category include those where preparations are not well developed, or where an offender offers a small amount of assistance to others.

Sentencing Council Chairman Lord Justice Treacy said: "Terrorist offences are among the most serious that come before the courts.

"Offending can include an extremist cell plotting a deadly attack on the public, someone trying to make a bomb or another recruiting for a terrorist organisation.

"As well as the threat to people's lives, terrorist activity threatens the way our society operates.

"These threats have evolved and we are ensuring that courts have comprehensive guidance to help them sentence offenders appropriately so they are properly punished and their activities are disrupted."