Spies and civil servants who leak secrets face 14 years in prison

Spies and civil servants who leak secrets face 14 years in prison in the first overhaul of the Official Secrets Act for 100 years, reports The Telegraph.

In a period where there have been calls for greater protection of whistleblowers, The Law Commission has today published a consultation paper, which suggests that anyone who leaks “sensitive information” that damages the economy could be jailed for 14 years under the Official Secrets Act.

In a statement published on their website, The Law Commission has said that the review aims “to ensure that the law is keeping pace with the challenges of the 21st century.”

Law Commissioner David Ormerod QC commented, “The Law Commission welcomed the opportunity to conduct this rigorous, independent review of the law around the protection of data, including the Official Secrets Acts.

“We have made a number of provisional conclusions as to how the legislation could be improved that we believe will enhance the protection that is currently afforded to official information.”

The open public consultation on the protection of official data will run until 3rd of April and The Law Commission have said they will seek a wide range of views on the proposals.

To access the full consultation, provisional conclusions, recommendations, and to respond, click here.

The proposals from Government’s independent law advisers also advise that the four Official Secrets Acts, which back to 1911, are scrapped and replaced with a modernised Espionage Act and a data disclosure law.

Experts said the Law Commission’s plans – drawn up after a request from the Cabinet Office and in consultation with MI5 and MI6 as well as civil liberty groups – were vital to help Britain tackle the snooping threat from Russia.

The review is the first time that official secrets legislation has been overhauled in a century amid concerns that it is “archaic” and has failed to keep pace with advances in technology and modern threats.

The policy proposals come after Alex Younger, the head of MI6, warned in December that cyber attacks and attempts to subvert democracy by states such as Russia posed a fundamental threat to British sovereignty.

A Government spokesman said: “We welcome the important work undertaken by the Law Commission, at the request of Government.

The Law Commission is a non-political independent body, set up by Parliament in 1965 to keep all laws under review, and to recommend reform where it is needed.

Since the Commission was established in 1965, 73 per cent of its reforms have been accepted or implemented in whole or part by the Government.

Overhauling the Official Secrets Act – the Law Commission’s proposals

  • Civil servants who leak files of state secrets could be jailed for up to 14 years. Currently the maximum term is two years, under the Official Secrets Act 1989
  • Official secrets legislation to be expanded to cover “information that affects the economic well-being of the United Kingdom in so far as it relates to national security”
  • Foreigners who leak classified information overseas that damages British national security could be prosecuted in the UK for the first time
  • Dropping the use of the word “enemy” to describe foreign powers which are hostile to the UK to allow prosecutions for leaking of information to terrorist groups
  • “Anachronistic” jargon to describe secrets in law  like “sketches”, “plans”, “models”, “passwords” and “code words” to be replaced with the more generic “information”
  • The Official Secrets Acts 1911, 1920 and 1939 to be replaced with a modernised Espionage Act
  • The Official Secrets Act 1989 to be replaced with a data disclosure law amid concerns that it is “archaic” and has failed to keep pace with advances in technology
  • Prosecutors no longer to have to prove damage to national security to secure a conviction for disclosure of classified information
  • Spies and civil servants to be allowed “to seek authority” to release confidential information
  • An offence is committed if the defendant “knew or had reasonable grounds to believe his or her conduct was capable of benefitting a foreign power”