Why Boris Johnson is planning to overhaul a treason law from 1351

Government spies opportunity to give security services more power

Military personnel wearing protective suits investigating the poisoning of Sergei Skripal
(Image credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson plans to overhaul Britain’s archaic treason laws to enable the prosecution of people who leak secrets to hostile states.

The government announced in Thursday’s Queen’s Speech that it was “considering the case” for a new espionage bill amid concern about the activities of Russia and China.

The proposed reforms

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The newly re-elected prime minister intends to revise the Treason Act of 1351, which has not been used since 1945, The Times reports. The move is intended to give power to the state to prosecute anyone who participates in “harmful activity” with a foreign state.

The proposed changes follow the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, in the Wiltshire town of Salisbury last year.

Government ministers blamed Russia for the attack, in which powerful nerve agent Novichok was used. Investigative website Bellingcat subsequently identified the attackers as Russian military intelligence officers.

Johnson’s government says the planned legislation is intended to “give our security services the legal authority they need to tackle the evolving hostile state threat now and in the future”.

A source told The Times that the new law was also intended to prevent “another Kim Philby” - a reference to the former British intelligence officer who worked as a double agent for the Soviet Union, before later defecting to Moscow.

All foreign intelligence officers working in Britain may be required to register with the government, and risk imprisonment or deportation if they fail to do so. The law is part of a series of security measures intended to make Britain a “harder environment for adversaries to operate in”.

Johnson says the combined measures are “the most radical reassessment of our place in the world since the end of the Cold War, covering all aspects of international policy from defence to diplomacy and development”.

Why was the Treason Act first introduced?

The act was passed in 1351, the 25th year of the reign of Edward III, and was named “A Declaration which Offences shall be adjudged Treason”.

The legislation was passed to clarify exactly what crimes amounted to “treason”, as the definition in common law had been expanded by the courts to the extent that its scope was controversially wide.

Before the act was passed, anything considered an “assortment of royal power” - doing anything that only the king or his officers could legally do - was considered treason under common law.

The Treason Act was last used in 1945 to prosecute William Joyce, a British fascist who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War.

What other measures has Johnson proposed?

The PM is planning to update the Official Secrets Act, the legislation governing the handling of secret information.

The act, “which applies to everyone in Britain, was written to crack down on traditional espionage, such as stealing or disclosing secret documents”, says the London Evening Standard.

But in its current form, that act does not cover “agents of influence”, including people secretly paid or planted by a foreign power to spread conspiracy theories or extreme views in order to cause social unrest.

The criminal justice system is also to be updated. In a foreword to the Queen’s Speech package, the Johnson wrote: “More action is needed to ensure dangerous criminals and terrorists remain locked up for longer... Our current justice system needs serious change, so we will establish a royal commission on the criminal justice process.”

Tougher sentences for terrorists will be introduced through a counterterrorism bill ending early release for the most dangerous offenders.

Those not considered “dangerous” would be eligible for release two-thirds through their sentence, rathr than halfway as is currently the case.

And the most dangerous terrorists would receive 14-year minimum sentences.

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