On Tuesday 11 July, the Law Commission’s recommendations on espionage became law as the National Security Act secured Royal Assent.
The Act, which includes several Law Commission recommendations set out in the Protection of Official Data report, aims to modernise counter-espionage laws and address evolving national security threats. It was first introduced in the House of Commons in May 2022.
Until now, the Official Secrets Act 1911 has provided the principal legal protection in the United Kingdom against espionage, despite being enacted in the run up to the First World War. In the century following, significant developments in technology have fundamentally altered the nature and scale of Hostile State Activity.
In its Protection of Official Data report, the Commission made a number of recommendations to ensure that the law governing espionage is fit to counter threats to the UK’s national security from foreign powers, and that only sufficiently culpable conduct is criminalised. These recommendations followed extensive consultation with stakeholders, such as the News Media Association and the UK Intelligence Community, as well as assessment of classified evidence.
In particular, the Law Commission recommended that the Official Secrets Acts 1911-39 be replaced with a new espionage statute. The Commission argued that this statute should contain updated language – recognising, for example, that espionage can be conducted by “foreign powers” whether or not they are “enemy” states – and contain jurisdictional provisions that reflect the international, cross-border nature of cyber-espionage.
The new National Security Act repeals the Official Secrets Acts 1911-39.
Law Commission reforms
Further information about our Protection of Official Data law reform project, including our recommendations, can be found here.