National Security Bill - Committee (5th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 18th January 2023.
Moved by Lord Coaker
119: After Clause 89, insert the following new Clause—“Assessment of interaction with the Official Secrets Act 1989The Secretary of State must publish an assessment of how this Act relates to the Official Secrets Act 1989.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment intends to probe to what extent the Bill furthers the government’s objective to update the Official Secrets Act 1989.
I will not keep noble Lords too long on this amendment. There are a couple of points I wish to make and a couple of questions to ask. I say at the outset that Amendment 119 is a probing amendment, obviously, but it allows us to discuss reform, or not, of the Official Secrets Act 1989. As we know, this National Security Bill does not deal with that, but earlier Official Secrets Acts of 1911, 1920 and 1939, which deal with espionage. In that sense, this Bill represents a missed opportunity and leaves many unanswered questions which simply cannot be ignored, questions which Amendment 120 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, setting up an office of the national security whistleblower, also seeks to address.
In the Government’s consultation document for the state threats legislation reforms, it is clear that changes to the Official Secrets Act 1989 appear to be on their way. Is it correct that they will reform the Official Secrets Act 1989 as soon as possible? If they will, can the Minister give any indication of what “as soon as possible” might mean—other than “as soon as possible”?
The former Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland MP, highlighted the two main issues arising from this National Security Bill regarding future reform of the Official Secrets Act 1989. The first is the possible creation of a public interest defence, rather than leaving it up to juries; the second is to raise a statutory commission to allow people to raise their concerns, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, seeks to propose through her Amendment 120 and as was supported by the Law Commission.
I can appreciate the concerns of the security services. No one wishes to undermine them and we have had many good debates on the public interest defence, but the current situation is not satisfactory. Someone who sees wrongdoing either commits a criminal offence, keeps quiet or speaks to superiors, hoping that it will be taken seriously—in some circumstances, I am sure that it is. The Government are worried about this area; as we said earlier, and as the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, helpfully confirmed, they are looking at strengthening the guidelines to various government departments on how to deal with individuals who feel themselves to be in that situation. An independent office to which you could complain may be the answer; if it is not, the Government need to be clear about how they think we can take this problem forward.
There have been many examples in the past of individuals doing a public service by highlighting various issues which, had it not been for them, could not have been brought to public attention. These have been in security and many other areas of public life, including our Parliament. Would the murders that occurred between 2001 and 2004, highlighted by the ISC in its 2018 report—the Law Commission also makes this point —have been exposed with a better system that people felt confident in at the time? If the Government oppose these amendments, can they outline their policy?
My final point was raised by the Constitution Committee. Can the Minister explain why there is such a significant difference between the maximum sentences proposed for offences created by this Bill and those in the Official Secrets Act 1989, which will remain in force when the Bill is enacted? As the Constitution Committee report says, this may lead to different sentences being available for offences applied to the same conduct, depending on which Act is used with respect to a particular individual. That will give rise to legal uncertainty. Can the Minister explain why there are different sentences, including life imprisonment, in this Bill, soon to be an Act, and the Official Secrets Act? Does the Minister agree that this is yet another reason to bring forward reform of the Official Secrets Act 1989? The Government need to get on with reforming that Act. They seem to have said that they will do it; it would be helpful if they categorically confirmed to the Committee that that is their intention.
My Lords, I again find myself the only Back-Bencher of my party in the Chamber. This time I cannot claim to be speaking on their behalf, although last time I intervened I felt that I had sufficient support from Labour Members who were not here to be able to speak at large on behalf of the Back-Benchers.
I have an entirely technical point. My noble friend Lord Coaker has tabled an amendment which he described to the House and in the Marshalled List as being intended to probe
“to what extent the Bill furthers the government’s objective to update the Official Secrets Act 1989.”
Of course, in Schedule 16, at the end of the Bill, we see what the Government are doing about repealing—or otherwise—previous Acts, going right back to the Official Secrets Act 1911, as my noble friend Lord Coaker mentioned.
As I say, this is a technical matter. I do not ask for it to be dealt with this evening, but perhaps the Minister’s officials and advisers could look at this. When the Bill was before the House of Commons, the Law Commission gave oral evidence and then submitted written evidence. In that written evidence, it took up the issue of the Official Secrets Acts 1911 and 1920 and commented on their provisions. The Law Commission said, in its recommendation 9:
“The offence of doing an act preparatory to espionage should be retained. Save for that, section 7 of the Official Secrets Act 1920 should be repealed.”
If we turn to Schedule 16, we learn that the Bill proposes to repeal those Acts in their entirety. The question is, therefore, why the written report of the Law Commission is not being followed. There are great complications when you start having to sew old legislation into modern legislation, and as I have complained before, the legislative process has become too complicated. This is not something to be answered now. The Minister can be relieved of having to give any explanation at the moment, but I wondered if it could be carefully looked at.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for his supportive words on the key aspects of my Amendment 120. Obviously, I have not participated in the broader issues of the Bill, but I think I can say on behalf of my colleagues that we are very impressed by his amendment. The probing character of an amendment, certainly in Committee, is a very important tool to try to get responses from the Government.
Given the late hour, I want to focus specifically on my Amendment 120. We heard at Second Reading—in a sense, it has been repeated at various points in Committee; I have been following this a bit in Hansard—how concerned former leading members of the intelligence community are about the consequences of public disclosure. I think the Government have echoed that. There is one very good way to avoid public disclosure, and that is to have an excellent whistleblowing regime and process. That is exactly what my Amendment 120 seeks to do. I understand that my amendment is not ideally drafted, but my goal is to generate a proper and, I hope, fruitful discussion. That is one of the reasons I am rather sad that those former leading members of the intelligence community are not in their places today, but perhaps they will pick up this issue afterwards.
Yes, they were here earlier.
My preference would be to create an overarching office of the whistleblower covering all public and private activity, as I have proposed in my Private Member’s Bill. However, failing that, I suggest that much more immediate action could take place within the security and intelligence services.
Whistleblowers are essential in any and every field of activity. People err and power is abused, and whistle- blowing is both the best deterrent and often a necessary step to cure. But organisations so often welcome whistleblowers in their speeches, and perhaps in very general policy terms, but not in the practical reality.
I have to keep a good distance from sources because here in the House of Lords we do not have the power to protect their confidentiality. But over and again, the message comes that, in the security and intelligence services, various schemes—not all, but various and significant ones—are actually dysfunctional. Retaliation happens and is not exceptional, in the form of career destruction and the threat of the use of the Official Secrets Act—it may be entirely inappropriate, but it is a very frightening threat. Follow-up and proper investigation rarely happen. Instead, wagons are circled and retaliation begins.
In this, I have to say that the intelligence agencies are really no different from so many other parts of the public sector. We have to look only at the experience that the Metropolitan Police is currently going through to realise that there is a certain inbred complacency in many organisations. They are certain if you ask them that they have excellent processes in place, but then some event triggers and exposes problems that have lain underneath for a long time.
At Second Reading, I gave an example of a whistle- blower who spoke out using the existing systems to expose evidence that key equipment was being sourced from a hostile foreign power. That person is still suffering the price of a destroyed career.
Also at Second Reading, in explaining that he had worked with the intelligence community for more than 40 years, the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts—I think quite unwittingly—gave another, even more serious illustration of the dysfunctional nature of the system. Referring to the earlier speech that day of the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, and his reminder that in regard to extraordinary rendition
“Britain appears to have been involved in at least 70 cases, according to the 2018 ISC report”,
the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts said,
“in my experience, the men and women of the intelligence community were profoundly shocked by the revelations of what had happened in those fraught months and years after 9/11.”—[
I am sure that some people, including the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, were profoundly shocked, but with at least 70 cases, a significant number of people, including those at senior level, must have known, knew it was wrong and either decided or were persuaded to do nothing, because of misguided loyalty, a culture of cover-up and fear that retaliation would destroy their careers.
Speaking out is frightening, disloyalty being the least of the accusations that typically follow. Each person to pluck up the courage to speak out needs to know exactly who they can go to to speak safely and how they can initially do it—most of them wish to do so anonymously initially. They cannot turn for information or advice to a colleague, as that exposes who they are. They cannot go to a senior person, as that exposes who they are. They should never look on the intranet or internet because that is traceable. Even in the health services, nurses use burner phones to report wrong behaviour. A whistleblower has to be absolutely confident that the person they speak to has both the will and, even more importantly, the authority to follow up and investigate an act. That is what whistleblowers look for.
However, it is much more than that. Confidentiality, which is often seen as the greatest protection for a whistleblower, is almost impossible to sustain once an investigation process starts, because the issue and the information themselves direct anyone who is interested to the identity of the whistleblower. So it is absolutely crucial that any person or body that a whistleblower goes to can provide them with protection or, where things go wrong and there is retaliation, with redress.
At both Second Reading and in earlier days in Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, for whom I have great respect, and the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, listed reams of people who a whistleblower could go to. Of course, they would have to identify who was the right responsible person, what they would and could do, and, even more importantly, they would have to have their confidential contact details.
Included in the list from those speeches were government departments’ internal policies and processes, but, as we heard earlier, even the Government know that many of these are unsafe and are looking to improve their guidance because they are very broad, general concerns, so that is not a terribly good answer. Otherwise named were: a staff counsellor; the external staff counsellor in the Cabinet Office; organisational ethics counsellors—they play an important role but they have limited authority, particularly to investigate, and they have no power of redress as far as I can understand; the chair of the ISC; the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office; the Attorney-General’s Office, the Director of Public Prosecutions; the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police; with permission, the PUSS to the Home Office; the National Security Adviser; the Cabinet Secretary; and the Comptroller and Auditor-General. The list itself underscores the fact that this is a farce.
As I said, junior people on that list have relatively little power to act and certainly none for redress. As for the senior names listed—those many senior and important names—I am sure there are some people in this Committee who have the personal, confidential and secure phone numbers for those people, such as the National Security Adviser, but I very much doubt that a mid-level intelligence agent or the junior clerk in a supply chain has that information. Whistleblowers are very often the little people and mid-level people, because they are the least institutionalised.
I am asking the Government to get to grips with this now, and to at least make sure that there is a single place where people can go to to speak out, and that every member of every related organisation has that confidential number and contact information. The office that they go to—it cannot just be an individual, as that is far too narrow—has to have the power to set whistleblowing policies, procedures and reporting structures that include confidentiality and anonymity, the power to investigate and, significantly, because confidentiality is so fragile and so impossible to enforce, the power to redress where a whistleblower suffers detriment. In that way, there would be a system to catch wrong behaviour early. I would like to see it open not just to employees and contractors but to anyone who has relevant information. That information, coming early and going to the right people so that there is guaranteed follow-up, means that misbehaviour and wrongdoing are stopped in their tracks early. There is no better protection for the public interest.
My Lords, I wish to stress the importance of how the Bill, when it becomes an Act, will relate to the Official Secrets Act. I am almost in a minority in my own family in not having signed that Act, although I note, looking at the dates, that the version my wife signed in 1979 was the 1939 version, and the version my daughter signed is rather more up to date. It is worth noting that it was 28 years from the first Official Secrets Act to the first revised Act in 1939, and 50 years from then to the second revised version, in 1989. We are now approaching 34 years since the last revision. As the Law Commission suggested, we really need to update the Official Secrets Act.
Part of the disappointment that many of us have with the Bill is that it takes the place of what might have been an effective revision of the entire Official Secrets Act. We all know what happens with legislation in this House. The time taken up for the Bill as it becomes an Act will mean that it will be another four or five years before we get round to a proper revision of the OSA.
I say this to the Minister: part of the argument for taking our time as we complete this Bill is that, for the next four or five years, this is probably it in terms of legislation dealing with this whole area of national security. So we need to make sure that it is well considered; that it addresses our current, changing threats; and that it feeds into and informs the public debate for those who need to understand these things. It should not be rushed. I hope that, in Committee, the Minister has got a real sense of the disappointment and discontent at the quality of the Bill as it now stands. I look forward to our discussions and hearing about the wider consultations that now need to take place before this Bill finishes its time in this House.
My Lords, I must confess to being rather puzzled by some of the detail in Amendment 120 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer. When I got to proposed new subsection (4), I assumed that the office was intended to be a regulatory body ensuring that the whistleblowing arrangements with regard to national security were appropriate; however, it subsequently became clear in proposed new paragraph (b) that it was intended to be the whistle- blowing channel. Those seems like slightly different roles to me.
I am also puzzled as to why there is a proposal here for a whistleblowing channel that is in fact very narrow. It relates only
“to the commission of an offence under this Act”.
I would have thought that, if there was a need for a whistleblowing channel—
Perhaps I can help the noble Lord. Amendments must be written to be in scope; it is sometimes quite limiting.
I thank the noble Baroness very much for that clarification; in that case, the amendment certainly needs some amendment itself.
I am also puzzled as to the route proposed that any disclosure, particularly from one of the intelligence agencies, can go to any public authority. Again, that seems a surprising route for a whistleblowing channel for somebody in the intelligence and security agencies.
More particularly, and more importantly, I absolutely fail to recognise the culture of cover-up that the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, cites. Having worked in the Security Service for 33 years, I am confident in saying that, far from there being a culture of cover-up, there was in fact a strong willingness to speak up, as far as I could see. There was strong and, at times, fairly heated internal debate on some of the ethical matters that have been cited in this debate. So I do not believe that the characterisation of the intelligence agencies we have just heard in any sense accurate. Although the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, gave the complete list of everybody to whom a member of the agencies could go, I think that almost anybody in the agencies would recognise their ability to go to the internal ethics counsellor—a role that plays an important part in actively encouraging debate of these issues—who has a direct right of access to the director-general of the day; I am sure that that would still be the case. That role has now extended from the Security Service to the other intelligence agencies. Also, it was clear and straightforward how you obtained the contact details for the external counsellor who acted as a whistleblowing channel directly outside the service. Of course, that was put in place specifically because of previous concerns that there was no such provision, and it was reflected in the legislation of the day.
I feel that the detail of this amendment is not clear —certainly not to me. The need for this amendment has not been made clear, in my view, because it is based on a rather misleading characterisation of the internal culture of the intelligence services. In my experience, there has been considerable focus on ethical matters and the ability internally to debate those.
My Lords, I thank Members of the Committee for all their speeches. Amendment 119 seeks an assessment of how the Act relates to the Official Secrets Act 1989. As we set out in last week’s debate, the new espionage offences in Part 1 of the Bill replace and reform the existing provisions in the Official Secrets Acts from 1911 to 1939. They carry strict tests for a person to be caught within those sections. For example, the first two offences apply when a person is acting for, on behalf of, or with the intention to benefit a foreign power. This is distinct from the Official Secrets Act 1989, which covers unauthorised disclosures by Crown servants and government contractors. As the Committee knows, the Government are not reforming the 1989 Act through the Bill, as has been observed this evening. Under the existing law, it is possible that a person making a damaging disclosure could commit both the espionage offence in the Official Secrets Act 1911 and an offence under the Official Secrets Act 1989.
Pausing there, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, for his contribution in relation to the 1911 Act. The difference, drawn out in the fact that you could commit both an offence of espionage under the Official Secrets Act and an offence under the 1989 Act, will continue to be the case. It is possible that a person could commit an offence under two pieces of legislation simultaneously and be charged in relation to both. That is not a matter unknown in the criminal law. Any overlap between the espionage offences in the Bill and the Official Secrets Act 1989 allows us to prosecute damaging acts in the most appropriate way. Where a person commits both a 1989 Act offence and an espionage offence under the Bill, the charging decision would be taken by the Crown Prosecution Service in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors, as is always the case. CPS prosecutors select the charges that they consider are most appropriate on the facts of each case, and to reflect the nature of the wrongdoing. I hope that this explanation reassures the Committee that the Government have carefully considered the interaction between our new offences in the Bill and those in the 1989 Act.
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, raised a question regarding reform of the 1989 Act, and I will address it directly. The Government’s view is that the Official Secrets Act 1989 is an essential part of our ability to protect national security and sensitive information. However, the views and concerns raised by stakeholders in response to our public consultation for the Bill, including those in favour of not reforming the Act at all, highlight the complexity of the legislation and the wide variety of interests that should properly be considered before pursuing any reform. Given its complexity, we are also concerned that reform of the Official Secrets Act 1989 at this time may distract from the Government’s package of measures in the Bill to counter state threats, and prevent us from providing law enforcement and the intelligence agencies with the tools that they need now directly to tackle these threats. Accordingly, we do not have any immediate plans to pursue reform of the Official Secrets Act 1989, but will continue to keep that position under review. The matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, are well considered. Issues such as whether to increase maximum sentences under the Official Secrets Act 1989 would be considered as part of potential reform proposals and would be viewed in the round with the measures of sentences in the Bill.
Amendment 120 tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, proposes the establishment of a new office for the national security whistleblower. We are told that the aim of such an office would be to protect whistleblowers who make disclosures related to offences under the Bill where disclosures are considered to be in the public interest. Of course I pay tribute to her in her ongoing work and efforts to champion the important cause of whistleblowing. The Government are committed to ensuring that our whistleblowing framework is robust, and I confirm that the business department intends to carry out the promised review of the existing framework, and that further details will be set out in due course in relation to that.
However, as the Government outlined last week on the public interest defence—as many noble Lords present will remember—the offences in the National Security Bill target harmful activity by or on behalf of states, not leaks or whistleblowing activity. As the Law Commission said during oral evidence to the Committee for this Bill in the other place, and as the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, noted, the requirements of these offences take them outside the realm of leaks and into the realm of espionage. Consequently, the creation of a whistleblowing office in relation to the Bill is, in essence, a misunderstanding of the aims of this legislation.
Having said that, I welcome the opportunity this amendment brings to outline the Government’s commitment to individuals who seek to raise concerns about national security information pertinent to the Official Secrets Act 1989. The Government recognise that there may be situations where an individual has a legitimate need to raise a concern; for example, where there may have been wrongdoing or where they think there is a public interest in disclosing that information.
As we discussed on the previous occasion in Committee, there are already a number of existing internal and external authorised routes in government through which individuals can raise such concerns. The number of routes has increased since 1989 and the Government consider them to be safe and effective. Many were outlined in the powerful speech given by the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, during the debate last week on the public interest defence. With great respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, I find the testimony given by the former director-general of MI5 to be persuasive on what the view of an intelligence officer might be. That appears to have been confirmed in the contribution we just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale—in particular, his assessment of the culture in the intelligence services being one of honesty and integrity.
I am grateful to the Minister. He is aware of the point I raised earlier in Committee, which, as he correctly pointed out, pertained more to the Official Secrets Act in respect of the authorised disclosure of information. The Law Commission’s recommendation is clear—that there should be an independent statutory commissioner, to which individuals can go, who has investigatory powers—but the Minister says that there are no plans to reform the 1989 legislation.
We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Evans, and earlier from the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, that they do not recognise this culture, but the Law Commission came to its own view and its own recommendation. Do the Government accept that recommendation but then say that they are not going to do anything about it, or will we have to find a way to bring together the disclosure of information and the points that my noble friend raised? The Law Commission’s recommendation was perfectly clear, and it was not besmirching the culture within the agencies. It was a very clear recommendation.
Indeed, the Law Commission made a recommendation about a potential reform to the 1989 Act. As I have already said, that is not the purpose of this Bill and will be a matter for a future reform, which will not be conducted immediately, as I already explained in answer to the point from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. The Law Commission’s recommendation will have considerable weight but, at this stage, I cannot prejudge any government decision in relation to the 1989 Act.
In last week’s debate, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked about the Government’s plans to update internal whistleblowing guidance. I can confirm that the Government regularly keep this guidance under review and, last year, they updated it to include specific reference to how to raise an issue that would require disclosure without breaching the Official Secrets Act 1989. The updated internal guidance has been shared across departments and agencies, with confirmation from all Whitehall departments that a review of their own processes and procedures has been undertaken or is planned.
Across government, organisations have also continued to undertake activities further to develop a safe and supportive culture for raising concerns. Over the last year, the majority, including all 17 Whitehall departments, have undertaken communications through awareness-raising events and campaigns, including an annual “Speak Up” campaign.
We of course understand that journalists have a specific and important role to play in holding government to account in our democratic society. We also understand that responsible journalists do not want unwittingly to put lives at risk or compromise national security. That is why we have robust processes in place which enable journalists to mitigate the harm caused when considering the publication of potentially damaging information.
For example, during the Government’s public consultation on the Bill, several media stakeholders commented on the value of the Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee—the DSMA—which alerts the media to the consequences of disclosing certain types of information and provides advice on how to mitigate damage, while leaving editors to judge whether to publish or broadcast. A number of editors already engage with this valuable process when considering the publication of sensitive information, and we encourage them, and others, to continue to do so.
The Government are committed to ensuring that these channels are safe, effective, and accessible. Accordingly, for the reasons I have just set out, the Government, with regret, cannot accept the tabled amendments and invite their withdrawal.
My Lords, I will be brief, but will start by thanking the Minister for his response and all noble Lords for their contributions to this short but important debate. I am grateful to the Minister for following up on my question from last week about what was happening with the updating of guidance for people in departments across government who wish to raise concerns. But frankly, the headline from what the Minister has said is that the Government have kicked the reform of the Official Secrets Act 1989, which was never particularly on the immediate horizon, into the long grass. That is deeply disappointing because, irrespective of one’s view, the issues of the public interest defence and people being able to come forward—whistleblowers, if you want to call them that—will not go away. Reforming the Official Secrets Act would have enabled us to debate that and come up with an Act that is relevant to 2023 and beyond. As I say, it is deeply disappointing that the Minister has effectively kicked that reform into the long grass, and that is the headline from this response to the amendments. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 119 withdrawn.
Amendments 120 to 120B not moved.
Clause 90 agreed.
Schedule 16 agreed.
Clause 91 agreed.
Clause 92: Regulations