INFORMATION COMMISSIONER AND TRIBUNAL DECISIONS - NEXT FOI CASE LAW UPDATE 6TH JUNE 2024. RESERVE YOUR PLACE NOW!

Home Office proposals for Official Secrets Act reform disproportionate and oppressive

The Home Office proposes to reform the Official Secrets Act 1989 (OSA) to make it easier to convict those who disclose information without authority and substantially increase prison sentences for convicted whistleblowers or journalists. This would apply to disclosures about the security services, defence, international relations and law enforcement. It appears to be on course to reject a Law Commission proposal that defendants should have a public interest defence and says the maximum penalties for leaking should be brought into line with those for espionage – directly contradicting the Law Commission’s view. The current maximum sentence under the 1989 OSA is two years imprisonment, whereas espionage carries a maximum of 14 years. Extending this to unauthorised disclosures, particularly of government misconduct, would be entirely unjustified and help protect improper behaviour from exposure.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information with ARTICLE 19 was heavily involved in the Law Commission consultation exercise on reform of the OSAs. The Law Commission’s final report published in 2020 contains a number of references to our joint submission, including five direct quotes from it.

We also drafted the bill, introduced in 1988 by Conservative MP Sir Richard Shepherd, to reform section 2 of the old OSA which made any leak a criminal offence. The Shepherd bill, which would have established a public interest defence for whistleblowers, led the government of the day to introduce the narrower 1989 Act, which still provides no public interest defence. The government now seeks to reverse even that progress.

The Campaign is in the process of responding to these proposals, though we have already made our initial views known, including in an interview on LBC. In a subsequent interview on LBC, the Prime Minister promised that the press wouldn’t be ‘muzzled’ by the changes.

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