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Returning Jihadists: Treason Act

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 21 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to update the Treason Act 1351 to prosecute returning jihadists.

My Lords, to prosecute terrorists for treason risks giving their actions a political status or glamour that they do not deserve, rather than treating them as merely criminals. The Government have just passed the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act, which updates terrorism offences and introduces new powers to reflect the threat we face today from foreign terrorist fighters. This will provide the police and the intelligence services with the powers they need to protect the public.

My Lords, while no one would want to glamorise any of the crimes that we are talking about here, nevertheless does the Minister not agree that those who have justified the murder of other British citizens through, for instance, the bombing of the Manchester Arena in 2017 and people who have taken up arms or given succour to those who have targeted British forces and civilians have betrayed this country, its people, its values and its laws?

Given the conflicting conclusions of the Law Commission reviews of 1977 and 2010, is it not time to provide a solid legal basis rather than the 1351 Act for prosecuting hundreds of returning jihadists, perhaps in line with the conclusions of the Policy Exchange paper by Professor Richard Ekins of the University of Oxford and others, with a foreword by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, which I have sent to the Minister? Would not this, and the creation of a regional tribunal to prosecute for crimes of genocide, demonstrate our unerring and passionate belief in the rule of law, and that those responsible for heinous crimes cannot expect to evade prosecution?

I totally agree with the noble Lord that anyone committing atrocities such as the Manchester attack—I was in Manchester at that time—should not escape justice. I commend the Policy Exchange paper, and I think that the noble Lord would agree that the Home Secretary has said that he will review all the laws we have at hand. However, if the noble Lord looks at the recent counterterrorism Bill which has now become an Act, I am sure that he will agree that the new powers available in that Act might in the future prevent some of the terrible things that we have seen in recent months. On a regional tribunal, I am not sure how practicable that would be given the situation in some parts of the region.

My Lords, I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I do not believe that this would glamorise the loathsome things that have been done by these people and I think that it is appropriate that as a nation we show how repugnant and appalling this sort of behaviour is. When I was a Minister, at times it was very difficult to get into court people who should have been tried. This seems to be a way that it could be done. Might it not be easier to update the treason law and show these people to be traitors, which is something that our nation really believes they are?

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord agrees that the recent legislation has given more powers to the courts to prosecute. I am pleased that the noble Lord supported that Bill through its passage. I agree that the Treason Act 1351 is rather old. It was updated relatively recently—in 1861, I think—but whether a prosecution is justified in individual cases, and whether treason is the appropriate charge, will be a matter for the courts. I am not dismissing it. The Home Secretary has said that he will consider the matter—we keep all laws under review—but whether that charge is brought will be a matter for the courts.

My Lords, during the passage of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, to which my noble friend referred, my noble friend Lord Faulks and I tabled an amendment to the Treason Act 1351 to try to give the Government wider powers to deal with the fast-moving challenges to our security that now exist. In asking that the amendment be withdrawn—which it was—my noble friend said,

“in the knowledge that there is ongoing work in the Home Office to examine whether there are further gaps in our law, and in order to help us counter hostile state activity”.—[Official Report, 31/10/18; col. 1382.]

Could my noble friend update the House on the progress of that work?

My noble friend is right to raise this matter because we have to constantly keep our laws under review to keep up with the fast-moving methods by which terrorists will seek to destroy the unity of this country. Laws are kept under review. Noble Lords have talked about an espionage Bill and a treason Bill. Certainly the CT Bill in which my noble friend took part was significant in updating some of our laws.

My Lords, yesterday the Minister implied that it was difficult to prosecute those involved with ISIS as we had, in effect, no extradition arrangements with Syria. That is why the Government had to deprive people of their British citizenship. Many of these people want to return to the UK but the Government are preventing them from returning to face justice by depriving them of their citizenship. Is the Government strategy confused or is it just me?

It might be the noble Lord because it is difficult to prosecute people in Syria, where we have no consular access. People have been prosecuted when they come back to this country and have been put into programmes such as Channel to try to rehabilitate them. There are a number of different remedies available to the Government and the Home Secretary to bring people to justice.