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National Security Bill – public interest defence is essential

The National Security Bill has its report stage in the House of Lords on 1 March 2023. The Campaign for Freedom of Information is urging peers to support Amendment 79 to create a public interest defence to charges under the Bill. The amendment has been tabled by Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames supported by Lord Garnier and Lord Pannick. 

The unduly broad drafting of the offences in clauses 1-3  of the bill, in particular, will expose civil society organisations and journalists to wholly unjustified risk of prosecution and lengthy prison sentences.  

NGOs with some funding from friendly governments’ development agencies or foreign ministries for international work promoting environmental protection, human rights and similar issues would be treated as acting on behalf of a ‘foreign power’ under a regime designed to deal with hostile states attempting to undermine the UK’s security or economy.  Their use of leaked information to oppose government policies could lead to prosecution for offences carrying sentences of up to life imprisonment. The same would be true for journalists working for friendly states’ national broadcasters.

The Law Commission’s 2020 report on Protection of Official Data recommended that there should be a public interest defence to the 1989 Official Secrets Act (reform of which has been omitted from the bill). However, the bill’s new offences are drafted in even wider and less precise terms than those in the 1989 Act, increasing the chances that prosecutions may be brought against people who should not be subject to them and may have no defence to them.  We believe a public interest defence is essential.

Read our report stage briefing for peers. 

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