Protection of Official Data consultation deadline extended

Due to a large amount of interest, the deadline for responding to the Protection of Official Data open public consultation has been extended to 3 May.

The paper, launched on the 2nd February, suggests ways to improve the law around the protection of official information. It is an independent review of the laws – including the Officials Secrets Acts – to ensure that they are keeping pace with the challenges of the 21st century.

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. No final recommendations have been made.

Provisional proposals include:

  • The Official Secrets Acts 1911, 1920 and 1939 to be replaced with a modernised Espionage Act.
  • That the Official Secrets Act 1989 be replaced to ensure it keeps pace with changes in how information is stored.
  • New measures to ensure sites are protected if necessary to safeguard national security.
  • Simplifying and modernising the language to remove anachronistic terms like “code words” and “enemy” and replacing them with “information” – language that will future proof the legislation.
  • That foreign nationals who target British assets abroad, for example by committing espionage within an embassy, should also be subject to UK law.
  • That current Crown servants should be allowed “to seek authority” to disclose confidential information. There is currently no statutory mechanism.
  • That a member of the security and intelligence agencies ought to be able to bring a concerns to the attention of the independent Investigatory Powers Commissioner, who would have the power to investigate.
  • An offence is only committed if the defendant “knew or had reasonable grounds to believe his or her conduct was capable of benefitting a foreign power and intended or was reckless as to whether his or her conduct would prejudice the safety or interests of the state”. Currently someone can commit an offence under the Official Secrets Act 1911 even if he or she thought their conduct was in the interests of the UK.

Law Commissioner Professor David Ormerod QC said:

“We welcomed the opportunity to conduct this rigorous, independent review of the law around the protection of data, including the Official Secrets Acts.

“Our provisional proposals include greater safeguards for whistle-blowers than under the current laws whilst also ensuring that Britain is protected in the 21st century.

“But no final recommendations have been made and before they are, we want as many people as possible to be able to have their say. That’s why we are extending the deadline for responses to 3 May – we welcome views.”

View the full consultation paper and details on how to respond.