Espionage Act which could see whistleblowers and journalists jailed condemned as 'backwards and unbalanced'

14th February 2017

Public Concern at Work is joining forces with other civil society groups to campaign against plans to replace the Official Secrets Act with a new Espionage Act jailing whistleblowers and journalists for up to 14 years.

The Law Commission on behalf of the Government has drawn up draft proposals (published February 2) which will see much harsher punishment for anyone involved in blowing the whistle on sensitive information.

Proposals suggest that maximum sentences for breaching Official Secrets Act style offences should be increased from two years to 14 years in prison. In short, the Espionage Act puts whistleblowing and leaks of information where government wrongdoing is exposed in the same category as spying.

The 326-page consultation document by the Law Commission (consultation February 2 – 3 April) suggests broadening the range of suspects who could be jailed for disseminating official material to include journalists, charity workers and elected politicians. It also removes an important counterweight to the strict liability of such offences which was brought in following thorough debate and forward thinking reform in 1989, the need for the government to show actual damage to national security in order for a prosecution to succeed.

Public Concern at Work Chief Executive Cathy James said, “A combination of an increase in the prison term, denying whistleblowers a public interest defense and viewing whistleblowing in the same light as espionage with no need to prove damage, represents a crackdown on whistleblowing within Government.”

She went on to say, “In addition, the proposals are unbalanced. It is interesting to see that the Government have amended the Digital Economy Bill to include a public interest defense for journalists disclosing information and publication of that information, yet the current consultation rejects the inclusion of a public interest defense in the Official Secrets Act.”

“Possibly the most dangerous proposal from the consultation is extending prosecution to sensitive information that could damage the ‘economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom as it relates to national security’. This vague proposal opens the threat of prosecution to a whistleblower who reveals sensitive economic statistics, which are hardly states secrets. The Government is conflating national security issues with a desire to ensure embarrassing news stories do not see the light of day.”

Public Concern At Work is coordinating a meeting with the UK’s civil society groups this month to establish a formal response to the consultation which closes on April 3.

You can contribute to the consultation by emailing pod@lawcommission.gsi.gov.uk