HC Deb 19 May 1986 vol 98 cc14-5
50. Sir John Biggs-Davison

asked the Attorney-General why no charges of treason have been brought against alleged terrorists; and if he will make a statement.

The Attorney-General

While treason remains available for an appropriate case, there are substantial problems in bringing a prosecution based on the language of a statute designed for the different circumstances of more than six centuries ago. The common law remedy of murder, coupled with legislation on explosives and firearms, has proved both appropriate and effective for all recent cases.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that I do not find his answer wholly convincing, having regard to the recent announcement on this matter by the Lord Chancellor?

The Attorney-General

I know of my hon. Friend's great interest in this matter. I think that there was an early-day motion in his name on the subject some 12 years ago. One must realise that the 600-year-old statute is couched in such archaic language that it would be difficult to prove all the necessary ingredients of the crime and for a modern jury to come to grips with the terminology. It should be remembered that the Act was originally intended to deal with rival claimants to the throne in the 14th century, or where the country was at war with a foreign power. Fortunately, those conditions do not prevail today.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

In view of that answer, why does the head of the judiciary, the Lord Chancellor, keep suggesting the use of the Act?

The Attorney-General

The Lord Chancellor was speaking in his personal capacity. As the House will know, the only people who have ministerial responsibility to this House for prosecutions are my hon. and learned Friend and myself.

Mr. Stokes

As there is a capital penalty for crimes of treason, arson of the royal dockyards and certain other crimes, which I shall riot specify, would a not be convenient to add terrorism to the list? Regarding history, surely the dangers now are greater, but the penalties seem weaker.

The Attorney-General

The penalties would be the same under the Treason (Felony) Act 1848, for example, but, as I said in my initial answer, the Treason Act 1351 remains available in appropriate circumstances.

Mr. John Morris

Will the Attorney-General confirm that there have been no cases of peacetime treason this century? Was he confirming a moment ago that constitutionally responsibility for prosecution is his and that the Lord Chancellor, while head of the judiciary, has no role in it? If the Lord Chancellor's recent speech at Grantham was a criticism that no treason charges were preferred in the Knightsbridge bomb case, which he gave as an example, will the Attorney-General remind the Lord Chancellor that, while we would all condemn any act of terrorism, the House, on a free vote, rejected the restoration of capital punishment for terrorist murder?

The Attorney-General

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right. The constitutional position remains the same.