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Protect responds to Government Official Secrets Act reform with calls for a Public Interest Defence

Protect along with WIN (Whistleblowing International Network) have jointly responded to a government consultation on reforming the Official Secrets Act 1989.

Our response states,

We have long held the view that the Official Secrets Act should contain a Public Interest Defence (PID) which is vital to the functioning of a democracy. Whistleblowing is necessary so that wrongdoing, risk or malpractice within or by government can be raised and addressed.

The law, with its current lack of a PID, should not criminalise the actions of a whistleblower in raising these concerns.”

In such situations, there is a careful balance between protecting government interests and holding the government to account for wrongdoing. Strong internal whistleblowing arrangements within government are vital, but this needs to be backed by protection for whistleblowers in circumstances where a wider disclosure is in the public interest.

Protect Parliamentary Officer Kyran Kanda said, “The Official Secrets Act is a serious barrier to whistleblowers who speak up in the public interest. We live in a democracy where even the government is not above the law. A public interest defence will ensure that whistleblowers can expose public interest wrongdoing without the threat of criminal prosecutions and the government is held to account for its actions.”

WIN’s Executive Director Anna Myers said, “WIN has joined Protect in responding to this reform as we are deeply concerned about the worrying international trend to weaponise national security laws that will, by default or design, limit the freedom of independent media and whistleblowers across the UK.”

Protect responded to the Law Commission’s initial consultation in 2017 with this same view, and in 2020 the Law Commission proposed that a statutory public interest defence should be available for anyone – including civilians and journalists – charged with an unauthorised disclosure offence under the Official Secrets Act 1989. The Law Commission proposed that if it was found that the disclosure was in the public interest, the defendant would not be guilty of the offence.

Read our consultation response here.

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