Draconian changes proposed to Official Secrets Act

Out of the blue, on Saturday, we learned that The Law Commission has been at work. It proposes changing the Official Secrets Act to cover matters that are about what the government of the day considers to be matters of national economic interest. Anyone in unauthorised possession of material that might be included in the scope of the Act, or who transmits it or publishes could go to jail for up to ten years. There would be no restriction on who can commit the offence,” including hackers, leakers, elected politicians, journalists, and NGOs.

What this boils down to is the ability of government to shut people up. Imagine this; The Daily Boot is passed a paper that says that, as part of trade deal negotiations, HMG will allow US chicken treated with chlorine to be sold in the UK. If the news becomes public the trade talks might be jeopardised. The Boot’s editor either publishes and risks jail or lets the matter quietly drop. Ah, but that’s not good enough. Even being in possession or having had knowledge of the information could make the editor liable to prosecution. The Damoclesian Sword hangs forever over the editor’s neck.

The Liberal Democrat MP for Old Sallop can’t raise the matter in the Commons, as that would mean the member admitting they know what is in the material, thus rendering themselves liable to prosecution.

The Law Commission has published an enormous consultation document called Protection of Official Data.

I put consultation in italics because the Commission claims it has already consulted widely, though this statement is as thinner than an After Eight mint crushed by ten-ten road roller.

The essence of the consultation paper is contained in the phrase “the safety or interests of the state”. I’m in favour of protecting the country from its enemies, whether they be targeting our armed forces, our intelligence services, people or land, or malignly undermining our economic interests. What I’m wholly against is giving the government of the day draconian legal protections from scrutiny and giving it carte blanche to reach economic deals with foreign powers without proper public, media and parliamentary scrutiny.

We could all be caught in this new law. If a whistleblower passes material to, say, a French newspaper and you or me go online and read what’s published there we are now in possession of knowledge we should not have. If this should come to the notice of the state, can we expect some hammering on our front doors, probably around 4am?<

I wonder too how widely drawn can be the economic interests of the state? What if a major aircraft engine manufacturer is on the cusp of a big deal with, let’s say, a Middle Eastern power. The Daily Boot is passed proof positive of bribery by the British company. Publication might scupper the deal. Publish and be damned or say nothing and let commercial and economic interests avoid censure, persecution and punishment?

Liberal Democrats don’t need me to explain how dangerous and worrying these proposals are. I’ll be writing to The Law Commission. I hope you do too.

* Martin Roche is a member of Canterbury Liberal Democrats

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19 Comments

  • nigel hunter 13th Feb '17 - 3:48pm

    This is one step towards a police state. Also the arrival of George Orwell’s 1984 cannot be far behind.

  • So in trade negotiations with the US, a US citizen can publish leaked details but a UK citizen could not. Not good. In trade negotiations with China, citizens of the UK would probably be on the same Level as those of China…

    Not the side the country should be emulating. Dreadful proposal.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Feb '17 - 4:22pm

    I don’t agree with the up to 14 years in prison (which is actually the same for the financial professionals if they undertake fraud, as far as I know) but in general I don’t think newspaper editors should be free to publish whatever they like. We shouldn’t just have unaccountable newspaper editors as the sole decision makers on what the public has a right to know about.

    I’ve often thought that if newspapers want access to state secrets then they should sign the official secrets act and be given them, not the status quo where they openly fish for them and then decide to publish whatever they like. There needs to be protection for whistleblowers who clearly act in the public interest, but not for all leakers of security information.

  • Matt (Bristol) 13th Feb '17 - 5:14pm

    Without a clause involving intent to use the gathered data/information to damage the state, and without some kind of clarifying public interest defence, this is the most sudden and bizarre expansion of the state in some time.

    I can’t help wondering what Damian Green thinks his chances would have been under this proposed legislation?

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7754099.stm

  • Matt (Bristol) 13th Feb '17 - 5:30pm

    Oh, and is there any clause that clarifies between information held by the state that not available elsewhere and information that was already in the public domain (or could be gathered together or inferred from other pre-existing non-secret sources)?

  • @ nigel hunter “This is one step towards a police state. Also the arrival of George Orwell’s 1984 cannot be far behind.”

    Curious that it was a Liberal Government under Asquith,YES – A LIBERAL GOVERNMENT, that passed the 1911 Official Secrets Act. Went through the Commons and Lords in less than 30 minutes in both Houses without any discussion after the Agadir Crisis which proved a useful pretext that the Daily Mail would have approved.

    John Buchan, 39 steps, twitchiness about German Spies drawing pictures of battleships going down the Forth etc., Curiously, an exception was made for John Lavery (friend of the Asquiths – and one of the Glasgow Boys) who did several paintings of the fleet at Rosyth (and of Squiff in his study at Sutton Courtney).

    Nigel probably knows Orwell (aka Blair) is buried near Asquith at S.C.

  • Martin Land 13th Feb '17 - 6:36pm

    Perhaps we could support this if it included issuing false or misleading economic data. Like telling people that Brexit would mean £350,000,000 extra for the NHS each week

  • Martin Roche 13th Feb '17 - 7:13pm

    As I understand it, it’s not only editors and journalists that could be brought into the scood if these proposed changes. Anybody might, including MPs. Most newspapers are extremely cautious about using leaked material and usually gonto great lengths to verify things.

    Anyway, if you really want to understand the isues here I suggest you read today’s Gaurdian. You’d need to be a specialist lawyer with two weeks to spare to read and understand the more than 300 page document from the Law Commission (obscure language and great lengths are well known ways of discouraging public interest). I am not a lawyer and nor do I have two weeks to spare. The Times and Gaurdian have depth on it. But please don’t leave it to the press. Please write to the Law Commission, even if just a few lines.

  • Tony Dawson 13th Feb '17 - 7:27pm

    I presume that there is not actually any Law Commission. This proposal suggests to me that someone has just hacked Donald Trump’s inbox and found an email from Vlad Putin to copy. 🙁

  • This was discussed briefly on Andrew Marr and, while the Tory blogger pointed out that it is still far away from becoming official regulations, the male contributor was strong in explaining why it would be a bad thing.

    There is an awful lot written about Brexit on this site but sometimes an issue like this is the reason we became interested in the party.

  • @Martin Land – “Perhaps we could support this if it included issuing false or misleading economic data.”

    Well if the Telegraph article Martin links to is to be believed:

    “One legal expert said the new changes would … extend the scope of the law to cover information that damages “economic well-being”.

    I think this would not only cover your example but could, if it had been in effect, been used to prevent publication the actual result of the Referendum, given the doom and gloom forecasts around the time…

    I also think the wording is such that it is likely that media companies that fund WikiLeaks will also fall foul of this legisation – particularly given the poor wording etc. of other legisation such as the Snoopers Charter, OPB… Also I suspect it will lead us back to the Spycatcher situation. In another country (the EU?) I will be able to buy books/magazines/newspapers and ‘unwittingly’ read about UK ‘secrets’. Obviously, if I let this be known to the UK authorities or try and bring such publications back into the UK…

  • Eddie

    “We shouldn’t just have unaccountable newspaper editors as the sole decision makers on what the public has a right to know about.”

    What economic data do you think would justify such restrictions?

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Feb '17 - 10:03pm

    Psi, I don’t think it should apply to economic data. I’m talking in general about the belief that the press has a “special status”, in other words unregulated and unaccountable and I don’t agree with it.

    I probably support the law as it stands, but for many even that is too strict.

  • Could it be anything to do with Rolls Royce and dodgy activity ? :

    “Rolls-Royce posts biggest loss in its history. Currency costs from Brexit vote and bribery case settlement force record £4.6bn statutory pre-tax loss for 2016”.

  • Simon Banks 15th Feb '17 - 9:36am

    The point here, in reply to Eddie, is the definition of security material. I was one who had little sympathy for Chelsea Manning, who leaked material that was secret for very good reasons and gave the justification that “information should be free”. But as Martin makes crystal clear, this proposal treats any information THE GOVERNMENT CONSIDERS DAMAGING TO THE ECONOMY as justifiably secret and similar to military secrets. The trade deal example is bang on. Or consider the financial correspondent who discovers indications that the pound may be overvalued and tries to raise concerns. Even is (s)he starts by raising concerns with ministers, (s)he’s in possession of potentially damaging information.

    If this goes through, the best way of fighting it would be mass disobedience.

  • Matt (Bristol) 15th Feb '17 - 10:01am
  • @Matt(Bristol)
    I like the statement made in the article you reference:

    “The consultation on how to reform the Official Secrets Acts (OSA) in the digital age was headed by the law commissioner, Prof David Ormerod QC, who confirmed that the initiative for the review had come from the Cabinet Office in 2015 but said that he relished the opportunity to update “archaic” legislation “that was ripe for reform” in the digital age.”

    So it would seem that this report actually reflects Prof David Ormerod QC’s view of what a “digital age” OSA might look like. He obviously read “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, however instead of reading from the perspective of Winston Smith (Orwell’s intended viewpoint) but from the perspective of Big Brother – perhaps he thinks Big Brother’s intent was misunderstood?

  • Martin Roche 23rd Feb '17 - 3:56pm

    If not too late, Private Eye this week publishes a list of stories that would be allowed if these proposals were to become law.

    *Goldman Sachs sweetheart deal with HMRC.
    *MOD/corruption. Saudia Arabia corruption allegations.
    *The failed Trident missile test.
    *Network Rail’s failure to keep track of spending on a West Coast Mainline power supply upgrade.

    There are more, but shows the instinct of some to just try and close government down.

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