HL Deb 19 February 1990 vol 516 cc8-11

2.57 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

On how many occasions the Director of Public Prosecutions has considered complaints concerning threats to the life of Mr. Salman Rushdie, and on how many occasions proceedings have been authorised.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, in the past year the Director of Public Prosecutions has considered letters from 39 correspondents comprising complaints in respect of five instances of alleged threats to the life of Mr. Rushdie. Three police reports have been received in respect of allegations against individuals. Additionally, one article and one letter published in national newspapers have been considered. In respect of each instance the director decided after very careful consideration that there was insufficient evidence to justify the institution of criminal proceedings.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that reply. However, does he recall that it is now just over 12 months since Ayatollah Khomeini imposed his death sentence on Mr. Rushdie? Is he also aware that since that time we have witnessed a series of threats made in this country against the life of Mr. Rushdie who is still obliged to have armed detectives by his side in order to ensure that he is not murdered? Is he further aware that we have also witnessed constant threats which have been made by a number of individuals, including Dr. Siddiqui, and that we have seen banners carried in public processions saying, "Kill Rushdie"? In those circumstances does he not agree that it is rather odd that criminal proceedings have not been instituted against a single individual?

The Lord Chancellor

No, my Lords. The Director of Public Prosecutions concluded in the light of all the evidence available to him to which I have referred that it was not appropriate to institute criminal proceedings. In particular, in relation to Dr. Siddiqui he gave careful consideration to all the evidence available to him, including video evidence, concerning the remarks and actions of this person and received advice from leading counsel as to whether such remarks gave rise to any criminal liability. The evidence available to the director was insufficient to render it appropriate to commence proceedings. Accordingly, he was bound to conclude that proceedings Should not be instituted.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord say whether the decision not to prosecute was taken solely on the grounds of evidence or whether the matter of proper public policy was a part of the consideration?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, my understanding is that it was taken on the grounds that I have mentioned; namely, that the evidence was insufficient.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, are the Government giving consideration to preventing these public exhibitions in which the Moslems seem to believe that they have a right to take over our streets and call for the death of whatever person has been condemned by the ayatollah?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as I have said, the Director of Public Prosecutions has carefully considered every instance that has been brought to his notice in which this subject was raised. In deciding whether or not to institute prosecutions, the director must be bound by the evidence available in the light of the law. Every citizen is entitled to expect consistency from prosecuting authorities. Nevertheless, the director regards as a matter of extreme gravity any conduct on the part of any person within this jurisdiction which amounts to the offence of incitement to murder. It will remain his policy, with the full support of the Attorney-General, to deal accordingly with evidence establishing such conduct that may be placed before him.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor aware that millions of people up and down the country have seen with their own eyes evidence of the death threat being made by Dr. Siddiqui and others? They have seen with their own eyes people parading through our streets with banners, shouting, "Kill Rushdie". Does the noble and learned Lord agree that if other people did that, they would probably be clapped in gaol or at least prosecuted? Is he further aware that this is doing no good to race relations in this country when the majority of the population believe, rightly or wrongly, that there is one law for one section of the community and another law for another section?

Finally, are these death threats not considered serious? They do not appear to be since no prosecutions have taken place. However, if they are not, why is Mr. Rushdie granted an armed guard at such huge cost to the British taxpayer?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the question of an armed guard for Mr. Rushdie is not a matter for the Attorney-General, and I speak here primarily on behalf of the Attorney-General at present. It is a matter for those responsible for ensuring his safety so far as possible.

Regarding the earlier questions, particularly the reference to television, the brief extracts from Dr. Siddiqui's speech which were shown on television were insufficient to provide a reliable basis for determining whether an offence had been committed. The director, together with leading counsel, was supplied with a video recording of the whole speech and the events relating to it. He was therefore able to base his decision on all the available evidence.

I am sure your Lordships feel that in taking a decision whether to prosecute, the Director of Public Prosecutions ought to take account of all the evidence available to him and decide whether to institute a prosecution on the basis of that evidence. It would not be right that prosecutions should be determined by popular view or popular demand on a particular occasion. However, I emphasise the view of the director about the nature of any circumstances suggesting that the offence of incitement to murder had been committed. I believe that that view is clear and should commend itself generally.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, has the noble and learned Lord read the report of last night's meeting convened in the East End of London by Dr. Kalim Siddiqui, the director of Britain's Moslem Institute? The report stated that: … youngsters at the meeting—some under 10-years-old—gave their support to the death sentence". Does the noble and learned Lord agree that our children—I repeat the phrase "our children"—should not be admitted to meetings of this kind, especially at such an age? Will he consider consulting his colleagues on whether a suitable Minister can ask the leaders of the Moslem community, including Dr. Siddiqui, to see him? He can then communicate our sense of outrage that children should be brought into this matter.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am answering this Question as spokesman for the Attorney-General because the responsibility for prosecutions is a matter for him in his personal capacity. The Question relates to prosecutions. On the question of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, it would not be appropriate for me to make any comment on these circumstances. However, I shall take note of his suggestion and bring it to the attention of those of my colleagues who have responsibility in the matter.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the very basis of our democracy is that every citizen in this country is entitled to live in freedom under the law unless he offends against that law? Mr. Rushdie's case establishes that that principle no longer runs in this country.

Is the noble and learned Lord not replying to the Question on behalf of the Government? Prosecutions depend on the energy which is shown in collecting evidence. Will the noble and learned Lord agree that it is no good looking at a picture on television and saying, "That is insufficient evidence"? Has the Attorney-General instructed the Director of Public Prosecutions to go out and seek the evidence which is shown prima facie on the television and on the streets of this country in order to establish a prosecution?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I entirely agree that freedom under the law is essential in our democracy. An aspect of that is that people should not be prosecuted except on the basis of evidence sufficient to justify a prosecution. Turning to the reference to items seen on television, the comment I have already made indicated that the Attorney-General's consideration of these matters was not restricted to what was shown on television. The Director of Public Prosecutions obtained a video of the whole speech and of the circumstances relating to it. In the light of the whole evidence available to him, he came to the conclusion that I have narrated.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that many of us still remain puzzled that not a single prosecution has been initiated against a single individual, notwithstanding the clear evidence before our own eyes that death threats have been directed at Mr. Rushdie? Was the noble and learned Lord saying, when he referred to the law—I think I quote him correctly—that the present law is insufficient? If so, no doubt the Government will decide to bring forward further proposals. If I may say so, they have rightly taken the view that terrorism is a grave matter which requires the most robust response by government. If the present law is inadequate, what steps do the Government propose to take to deal with that issue?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the decision on whether or not to prosecute has been decided, in the light of the evidence, on the basis of the existing law. The law in relation to incitement to murder is the law set out in Section 4 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. I know of no proposal to change that section. However, in deciding whether or not a prosecution should be taken the Director of Public Prosecutions has to apply that section to the evidence available to him about the whole circumstances arising in the situation complained against.