Official Secrets Acts reviewed to meet the challenges of the 21st Century

The Officials Secret Acts are being independently reviewed to ensure that the law is keeping pace with the challenges of the 21st century.

The Law Commission – an independent body set up to reform the law – has today published a consultation paper which suggests ways to improve the law around the protection of official information.

Law Commissioner Professor David Ormerod QC said:

“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.

“We welcome views.”

Protecting Britain in the modern world

Classified information is protected because its disclosure might harm national security, or damage international relations.

If such information is misused, serious damage can be caused, which is why the unauthorised disclosure of such information is criminalised by the Official Secrets Act 1989.

In addition, there are a multitude of other offences contained in numerous statutory provisions that protect different categories of information.

The Official Secrets Act 1911 still provides the principal legal protection in the United Kingdom against espionage, despite the fact it was enacted in the run up to the First World War.

Since its implementation over 100 years ago this legislation has been subject to very little independent scrutiny.

As a result, the Cabinet Office, on behalf of the government, asked the Law Commission to review the effectiveness of the laws that protect Government information from unauthorised disclosure.

Now in a consultation published today the Law Commission is seeking views on its proposals which suggests ways in which legislation could be improved to ensure that it protects information more effectively.

These include:

  • Clarifying the scope of espionage type offences and those related to making unauthorised disclosures.
  • Proposed increased maximum sentences to reflect the seriousness of some conduct.
  • New measures to ensure sites are protected if necessary to safeguard national security.
  • Making clear that the criminal offences protecting sensitive information apply whether the conduct takes place at home or abroad.
  • Simplifying and modernising the language to remove anachronistic terms like “code words” and “enemy” and replacing them with language that will future proof the legislation.
  • Providing a process for concerns about illegality and impropriety to be investigated in an independent and rigorous way which is compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Law Commission also suggests separate reviews should be undertaken to:

  • examine the coherence of those offences that protect personal information and
  • ensure the right balance is struck between the right to a fair trial and the need to safeguard sensitive material in criminal proceedings.

Further information

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

The open public consultation on the protection of official data will run until 3 April. The Law Commission is seeking a wide range of views.

To access the full consultation, provisional conclusions, recommendations, and to respond visit: http://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/protection-of-official-data/

In making its proposals the Law Commission met extensively with and sought the views of government departments, lawyers, human rights NGOs and the media. A full list can be found in the report in Appendix B.

For media enquires please contact: Patrick Coyne, Head of Communications, Patrick.coyne@lawcommission.gsi.gov.uk, 020 3334 3305