Amendment 4

National Security Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 1 March 2023.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames:

Moved by Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames

4: Clause 1, page 1, line 13, at end insert—“(1A) Section (Public interest defence) applies to any offence under this section.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment, and others in Lord Marks’ name, are connected to Lord Marks’ amendment after Clause 38 (Public interest defence) to apply a public interest defence to the offences under Clauses 1 to 5 of the Bill and to offences under Section 5(6) of the Official Secrets Act 1989.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, this group concerns the public interest defence which is contained in Amendment 79 in my name, and the names of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, to whom I am very grateful for their help, counsel and support. I am not sure that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has made it here so far because he is in court, but I expect him shortly, although he may not speak.

Our amendment would introduce a public interest defence to offences under Clauses 1 to 5 of the Bill, together with the amended Official Secrets Act defence, amended by Schedule 17 at paragraph 5. The group also contains associated amendments, together with Amendments 18A and 79A, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Ponsonby.

Although, as discussed in the last group, the Government have made a number of welcome concessions since Committee in tightening up the offences set out in the Bill, there has been no concession on a public interest defence. That is despite the repeated strong calls in the press and elsewhere, from many quarters, for such a defence; and despite the fact that such a defence is available in our Five Eyes partners and that the Law Commission recommended one here in 2000, and so did the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Each expressed the view that the lack of such a defence risked our being in breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

While the Government may not have moved, we have. Amendment 79 is significantly changed from the amendment I tabled in Committee, in large part to meet the reservations expressed on my amendment in that debate. First, the burden of proof has been changed. The amendment in Committee would have imposed the burden of proof on the prosecution to disprove the offence once it was raised, and to do so to the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt. Some noble Lords thought that this imposed on the Crown a burden that would be too difficult to discharge in a security-sensitive context. While I am doubtful that that is the case, I accept the point, and I also accept the difficulties of proving a negative. So our amendment now imposes the burden on the defence to prove its case on the balance of probabilities—the civil standard that is usually applied in these cases.

Also significantly, the element of subjectivity in our amendment has been replaced by overall objectivity. It would be for the jury to decide not what the defendant reasonably believed—which was our position in Committee —but whether their conduct was in fact carried out in the public interest, having regard to the factors proposed new subsection (3) in our amendment, which is based on the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. Those factors have been altered to respond in particular to the point made in Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, that it is important that whistleblowers within the security services and elsewhere go through recognised channels where available, rather than making public disclosure at the outset. That is why proposed new subsection (3)(f) now reads:

“Whether such conduct was in the public interest is determined by having regard to … the availability of any other effective authorised procedures for achieving the purpose of the alleged conduct and whether any such procedures were exercised, and if any such procedures were not exercised, the reasons why they were not so exercised”.

The amendment has also been extended to cover the amended offence under the Official Secrets Act 1989, which is to be significantly broadened by Schedule 17 to the Bill, so that the offence of disclosing information obtained by espionage now extends instead to a breach of any of Clauses 1 to 4 of this Bill, which include obtaining or disclosing protected information, the trade secrets offences, assisting a foreign intelligence service—even a friendly one—and the prohibited places offences.

Since this amendment has been tabled, I have received no criticism at all of its drafting. I have received no criticism at all of the factors we have listed in proposed new subsection (3). Importantly, I have received no criticism of our proposal that this defence should be available to all, not just to investigative journalists or campaigners. That accords with the recommendation of the Law Commission in 2000, which also recommended a universal defence. We believe that is right because, although it is a very important part of a public interest defence that it should protect journalists and investigative reporting—and indeed campaigning and political campaigning—nevertheless, it is important for ordinary citizens, too. Certainly, we maintain the position mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Black, in the last group that there is a very severe chilling effect for journalists and campaigners of introducing these very serious offences, with very long potential prison sentences—life for Clause 1 offences and 14 years for the other offences in Clauses 1 to 4. That is a matter of real concern.

But this is also about exposing wrongdoing. It is to protect not just whistleblowers who see wrongdoing from within organisations but ordinary members of the public who become aware of it by whatever means. They, too, would be deterred from taking action to expose that wrongdoing if they thought that by so doing they would be criminalised under the Bill without an opportunity to mount a defence.

This amendment covers cases such as that of Clive Ponting, who exposed the truth about the sinking of the “Belgrano” in 1982. I also mention the Matrix Churchill case in 1992 and the cover-up of sanctions-busting, though that is it not on exactly the same ground because that prosecution collapsed when a government Minister, Alan Clark, came up with the truth that the Government had connived repeatedly at the breach of sanctions against the sale of arms to Iran. Nevertheless, the Government had previously given an untruthful account of the breaches of sanctions, and that untruthful account could have been, and ought to have been, exposed well before any prosecution of the directors of Matrix Churchill.

The idea that we can rely legitimately upon juries to give perverse verdicts, such as they gave in the Ponting case, to correct injustice, is a travesty of the rule of law. How can we, in conscience, pass a law that criminalises behaviour without an available public interest defence, then expect judges to direct juries that there is no defence in law, and then rely on those juries, in breach of their oath, to give a true verdict according to the evidence—and that is of course according to the law as directed—to acquit anyway? That is not just unsatisfactory, as it has been described in debates on this Bill; it is entirely unacceptable.

Nor is it any answer that these prosecutions require the Attorney-General’s consent. There are many failed prosecutions that have been authorised by Attorney-Generals. There is a matter of principle that, in our system, a defendant is entitled to a decision by a jury. They should not have to rely on a decision that authorises his or her prosecution. Although I entirely accept that law officers may be expected to make their decisions in an impartial way, their decisions are not the same as decisions made by juries on full consideration of a public interest defence.

We have completely understood the concerns of those who are worried about the safety of intelligence service officers, those concerns having been eloquently expressed in Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller. However, I suggest that the deployment of a public interest defence at a trial, many months after the conduct concerned, is unlikely to increase the risks faced by the intelligence services, which we all want to minimise, so completely and significantly as to put us off introducing this defence.

I will say a word or two only about the two Labour amendments. Amendment 18A from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, calls for a consultation and the publication of a report on that consultation. However, it relates only to the offence under Clause 3(2) of assisting a foreign intelligence service. There is nothing on disclosing information, the extremely broad trade secrets offences or the prohibited places offences. The time now is passed for a limited review. The facts are out there, and it is time to introduce the defence now, at the point when these security offences are being so significantly extended by this Bill, particularly in the change in the definition of foreign power to encompass all Governments that are not our own, except for the Irish Government.

I am told that Labour will not whip to vote in favour of our amendment. If that is right, and if I have not persuaded it to do so, that is a great shame, and represents a departure from the position taken by many distinguished Labour figures in the past. It is a shame that Labour has not stuck with the decision taken in the House of Commons by Kevan Jones MP, who supported a public interest defence in similar terms to those which we now propose. It is not only Labour. I remind the House that Ted Heath was vociferous in his support of a public interest defence to security cases many decades ago.

The proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for a statutory commissioner for the investigation of complaints by whistleblowers represents a helpful step, but it does nothing to provide a defence to investigative journalists, campaigners or others who expose wrongdoing but do not fall into the categories of whistleblowers who would be assisted by that amendment. We need far more, and we need it in this Bill. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Manningham-Buller Baroness Manningham-Buller Chair, Conduct Committee, Chair, Conduct Committee 4:45, 1 March 2023

My Lords, before we get on to the substance of the Bill, perhaps I might just correct something that the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said that I said in Committee. I did not speak for the protection of the lives of intelligence officers, such as I once was. I was speaking of concern for the lives of human sources who give us intelligence at the risk of their lives and those of their families. That was the concern I highlighted. There was no worry about my own safety; I was talking about those sources.

Photo of Lord Garnier Lord Garnier Conservative

After that intervention, the noble Lord, Lord Marks, had better watch out for his safety.

I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Marks, one of the co-signatories of Amendment 79, for explaining the arguments behind it with such clarity and so dispassionately. I appreciate that he, along with many others, has invested a lot of time and thought in it, and I am somewhat of a latecomer to this particular party.

I have put my name to this amendment, along with those of the noble Lords, Lord Marks and Lord Pannick, not because I think the Government will accept it without question—clearly they will not—but because the question of whether such a defence should be available has long since arrived, and it is certainly possible to say that it is almost too late for us to start debating it now.

The noble Lord, Lord Marks, said that the Labour Party’s stance and its inability to whip its members to support this amendment in the Lobby was a shame. I am afraid that I will be the subject of shamefulness as far as the noble Lord, Lord Marks, is concerned, because I will not push this to a Division, and if others do, I am afraid that I will not join them. However, the reason why I think this debate is important is that, as I said before, it has not been had before, and certainly not in relatively recent memory. That may seem illogical but let me do my best to explain.

I realise that, in matters of national security, no Government, of either of the main parties, and certainly not a coalition Government, will cut and paste an amendment emanating from outside the Government. I can see that the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale, and the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, are in their places. I know from my time as a law officer, who had from time to time to consider matters to do with the Official Secrets Act, that the security services, as well as the lawyers who work for them, do not initiate prosecutions under the Act unless there is both a clear public interest in a particular prosecution and sufficient evidence to warrant it. It is my experience and clear recollection that they were all strict adherents to the rule of law in general and the provisions of any relevant statutes in particular, and wanted them applied lawfully and dispassionately in every case. In every case I dealt with I had their support and they had mine in ensuring that things proceeded with propriety and that no shortcuts were taken.

I therefore follow the previous debate on the first group and come to this amendment with a high degree of realism and more than academic or theoretical interest, albeit in a spirit of inquiry, to see where the Government’s thinking is on the matter. Clearly, anything that looks as though it may make the lives of those who want to damage our national interests less difficult, or make prosecutions in the right cases more difficult, must be considered with care, and will, at least initially, be likely to alarm those charged with the day-to-day care of our security. However, I hope that the arguments in favour of this amendment have been heard and that, once they have been digested, the Government will take some time to respond as fully and as openly as they can. My purpose today is to provoke that discussion, not to embarrass the Government. Nor is this group of amendments an opportunity to debate Clause 31 and the foreign power conditions, although Clause 31(3) and (6) clearly need careful attention. As I said at the outset, my intention is to raise the public interest issue firmly in Parliament.

At the moment, breaches of the Official Secrets Act are, to all intents and purposes, absolute offences, as will be future breaches of the Bill when it is enacted. The defendant’s intention or purpose behind the breach is largely irrelevant, save perhaps as to penalty. Once the defendant’s disclosure of the information has been established under the Official Secrets Act and under the elements relevant to this Bill, it is more or less the end of the question of criminal liability: as often as not, the jury is more or less directed by the trial judge to convict. In most cases, of course, that is how it should be, because traitors disclosing information that undermines national security need to be deterred, or caught and imprisoned. Their activities can lead to the death, or endanger the safety, of our own agents or security and military personnel and HUMINT, as the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, clarified a moment ago.

There have not been a great many prosecutions under the Official Secrets Act. When they happen, they are clearly newsworthy. The case of the employee of the British embassy in Berlin is the latest example of the just disposal of a prosecution under the OSA. The proposed public interest defence in our amendment would have been of no help to that defendant. He was paid by the Russians to disclose information which he knew he had no business disclosing. His plea in mitigation that he was an alcoholic depressive cut no ice with the judge. I doubt that any right-minded person would think that his 13-year sentence was a moment too long.

In a very few cases—of which the Berlin embassy case would not be one—the jury’s view of where justice lies makes a nonsense of the law. Some defendants, despite the judge’s clear direction on the law, benefit from what are, in reality, perverse acquittals. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, touched on this. In law, and on the evidence, the defendant is guilty, albeit that the information was disclosed for non-venal reasons. It must be assumed that some juries see the prosecution as unjust, oppressive or unnecessary, or think that the defendant disclosed information that ought to have been in the public domain, or that it demonstrated that the Government were dissembling to the public. Again, I realise the terms of Clause 31, but it seems to me that that is not enough to dispose of these arguments.

As the noble Lord, Lord Marks, mentioned, perhaps the “Belgrano” case is one example of a perverse verdict. It is at least arguable that the defendant in that case did not harm national security by disclosing that the Argentinian warship that was sunk was heading in one direction, when it had been announced that she was heading in another, more threatening one. He might have been able to satisfy the factors set out—

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour 5:00, 1 March 2023

Perhaps I might intervene. Ships alter course and go in all sorts of directions. There is a general trend, of course, and the general trend of the “Belgrano” and her group was towards a sudden pincer that would have attacked our force. That was why she was sunk—quite correctly. It was the right decision. In the context of this amendment, I would not want that to be confused.

Photo of Lord Garnier Lord Garnier Conservative

I would not describe the noble Lord as a young man in a hurry although, had he waited just a second or two, he would have discovered that he and I might be in closer agreement than he might otherwise have imagined. But there we are. Let us ignore for the moment the direction in which the ship was going, understand that it was sunk and understand that Ponting disclosed that it was going in a particular direction when the Government had announced it was going in another. That is the end of that little anecdote. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his intervention. In my view, the short point is that it was an enemy ship that was generally threatening our ships. We were at war with Argentina. Argentinian warships were at risk of being sunk if they came within range of British Armed Forces. I do not have any particular sympathy for the Argentinian ship—albeit of course that it led to the most appalling loss of life for many Argentinian sailors.

However, it is not satisfactory for juries faced with a case where they think that a conviction on the evidence before them is unjust to be forced to bring in a perverse verdict in breach of the judge’s clear direction on the law and how it applied to the facts of the case. I suggest that this amendment is conservative with a small “c” and not a traitor’s “get out of jail free” card. The burden of proof is on the defendant to demonstrate that the disclosure was in the public interest and that the factors set out in proposed new subsection (3) are met. It would not allow for someone to disclose national security information because they thought that their view of the world was more attractive than that of the Government or the security services, or out of greed; nor would it allow for a Snowden or a Wikileaks scenario where vast swathes of information were dumped into the public domain.

If, for example, there was a better way of dealing with the sensitive information—noble Lords should look at proposed new subsection (3)(f)—the defendant would be hard pushed to persuade the jury that public disclosure was in the public interest. In my view, the proposed amendment accepts reality and prevents juries bringing in perverse verdicts in order to achieve informal or dishonest justice. A law that is not respected or is avoided by perversity, perhaps following some intellectually dishonest advocacy, is not worth having. In an era of electronic media, when information gets out pretty much immediately across the world in vast quantities, it may be better to inhibit desperados and attention seekers by getting them to think about what they will need to prove to found their public interest defence.

It seems to me that we can either carry on pretending that perverse verdicts do not happen—and swiftly change the subject when they do—or face up to reality and legislate sensibly for a really very unradical public interest defence that will neither bring down the state nor damage respect for the rule of law.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, although I sympathise with Amendment 79, which seeks to protect those who act genuinely in the public interest, I do not support it, for a number of reasons.

First, although I accept that, in its comprehensive 2020 review relating to the protection of official data, the Law Commission recommended that a public interest defence be introduced, that was in relation only to the Official Secrets Act 1989. Its recommendation did not suggest that such a defence should be incorporated into the rest of the Official Secrets Act regime, which is what in effect this Bill seeks to replace.

Secondly, in any event, the risks of introducing such a defence need to be carefully considered and balanced against the benefits of potential alternative approaches. This includes the creation of an independent commissioner to receive and investigate complaints of serious wrongdoing, which the Law Commission also recommended.

Thirdly, any introduction of a public interest defence needs to form part of a wholesale reform of the Official Secrets Act 1989, which this Bill does not seek to do. As I said at Second Reading, the ISC was disappointed to see that the Government were not reforming that Act. I will not repeat what I said then, other than to say that it is a very significant missed opportunity. That is particularly so because the Government have accepted the need to change the OSA for years, and this Bill represented a clear legislative route to do it.

Lastly, this amendment is very broadly drafted. It would introduce a public interest defence into a range of offences that do not require one, such as the offence of assisting a foreign intelligence service. For those reasons, I cannot support it.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, I recognise the Government’s argument that these spying offences need to be broad enough to capture the wide range of illicit activities that foreign powers may undertake to harm the UK. However, if that is so, equally broad defences are needed to protect innocent people who may become ensnared in the broad definition of the offences. Amendment 79 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, is absolutely vital; it must be in the Bill.

I want to respond to the Minister’s comments in our debate on the previous group. I heard his reassurances about journalistic freedom, which I am sure were very sincere, but promises can be broken. Ministers move on. Governments move on. Commitments can be forgotten. I just do not think that, if it is not in the Bill, it can be held to be the law.

Photo of Lord Evans of Weardale Lord Evans of Weardale Crossbench

My Lords, I acknowledge the changes that have been made to Amendment 79 since it was introduced in Committee, but I still do not feel that it would be appropriate and right for us to accept it. The noble Lord, Lord West, has pointed out a number of the reasons why, but I emphasise that we are being invited to introduce a public interest defence for what is, straightforwardly, espionage on behalf of a foreign service. I do not believe that we need to provide a public interest defence when an individual obtains and provides protected information on behalf of a foreign power while recognising that this is prejudicial to the safety of the United Kingdom.

I also recognise that the amendment extends to the Official Secrets Act 1989 but, again in support of the noble Lord, Lord West, I say that, if we are to change that, we must do so in a careful and deliberate fashion and bring forward legislation to do so. The 1989 Act does not deal with espionage on behalf of a foreign intelligence service. It is drawn up for different purposes. Therefore, it is separate from the issues that we are considering regarding the Bill. More broadly, it remains extremely dangerous to encourage or to lead individuals to believe that there is a public interest defence to the disclosure of highly sensitive information. Any one individual is unlikely to be able to make an accurate assessment themselves of whether their declaration and their disclosure is damaging to national security. That must be considered carefully, and it is not something for an individual official, however senior, to take on themselves. Therefore, any legislation and any amendment that might encourage them to do so is misguided.

Also, once a disclosure has been made, it cannot be withdrawn. Even though there may be benefit in prosecuting an individual for having done it, that does not stop the damage that has already been done. Therefore, we must have care not to lead people into believing they will be able to defend themselves having already made a disclosure, because the damage will have occurred.

Finally, on the question of evidencing damage, I recognise that the change in the burden of proof is a significant change to the amendment. Nevertheless, we are then faced with a situation where a person who has been accused of this offence will be trying to argue that they did not cause damage. In so doing, they are likely to adduce more evidence and more contextual material which might itself be damaging. It is not clear that this makes it easier in terms of the evidence or that it makes the prospect of prosecuting people for harmful activity any easier. For these reasons, I do not support this amendment. I hope that the House agrees.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I have a question on a point of clarification. I understand the point that the noble Lord makes regarding those offences which may be at the direction of a foreign power, as in espionage. However, the Bill contains offences that are not necessarily at the direction of a foreign power. His point would mean that my noble friend’s amendment would offer no public interest defence for those offences in this Bill which are not under the direction of a foreign power—as in, not espionage offences.

Photo of Lord Evans of Weardale Lord Evans of Weardale Crossbench

If I am being invited to comment on whether I would support a different amendment, I say that might well be the case. However, I do not support the amendment that is before us.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, throughout the passage of the Bill, concerns have been raised that legitimate acts in the public interest could lead to prosecution under the Bill. The Government have insisted that a public interest defence could legalise instances of espionage or sabotage. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, has said that he will press his amendment to establish a public interest defence. While we in the Labour Party support this in principle, we believe that the amendment is too broad and that it could in effect legalise espionage. We believe that there need to be appropriate safeguards built into any future legislation.

Further to this, we believe that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, fails to implement the Law Commission’s recommendations; that was a point made by my noble friend Lord West. I will instead press Amendment 18A, in the name of my noble friend Lord Coaker, to a vote; that is for a consultation on the introduction of a public interest offence, which we believe can establish some mechanism for addressing the concerns of the House. We believe that the amendment is a tighter and more focused approach than the alternative of the noble Lord, Lord Marks. To address wider concerns on whistleblowing, we have also tabled Amendment 79A to establish an independent statutory commissioner, although we will not press it to a vote in due course.

I think that the position of the Labour Party was perhaps best summed up by the noble Lord, Lord Evans, when he spoke just now. It is clearly not for any individual to be in a position to decide on the wider security aspects of any potential activity; that could have extremely damaging implications, and to claim a public interest defence may be inappropriate. There need to be appropriate safeguards, and there needs to be a more targeted approach. We believe that our Amendment 18A, establishing a mechanism for addressing the concerns expressed by the House, would be the best way forward.

Photo of Lord Murray of Blidworth Lord Murray of Blidworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 5:15, 1 March 2023

My Lords, this group of amendments covers the introduction of a public interest defence—a PID. This topic has been debated at length throughout the passage of the Bill. As the House will hear, the Government agree with the criticisms of Amendment 79, just elucidated so clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby.

I thank all noble Lords for their remarks during this debate, especially the degree of involvement we have had in the development of the Bill generally, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, on the last group. However, it is right to say that the amendment does not address the issues that arise, and the Government therefore cannot accept it. As I set out during the debate in Committee, the offences in the Bill target harmful activity from foreign states, not whistleblowing or public interest journalism. Our view, therefore, is that a public interest defence is not only unnecessary but risks significantly undermining the utility of the provisions in the Bill.

The Government’s principal position is that a public interest defence in relation to espionage is not appropriate. While we note the changes made to the amendment, this does not change the Government’s view on the matter. Notably, the risk with a public interest defence is that, at the point that the defence comes into play, the harm will already have been done. Seeking to rebut any form of public interest defence in criminal proceedings risks only compounding the damage. This, of course, is a point already eloquently made by the noble Lord, Lord Evans.

Furthermore, the proposed public interest defence for onward disclosures of information obtained via the espionage offences in the Bill, as has been proposed here, is inherently damaging to the national interest. I also entirely agree in this regard with the noble Lord, Lord Evans. To permit onward disclosures of this information under any circumstances would significantly undermine the weight we are affording to these offences.

The questions posed about the Law Commission’s recommendations relate to the Official Secrets Act 1989 which is not, as we discussed in Committee, the topic of reform in this legislation. We have heard strong views and concerns raised about the 1989 Act in our public consultation, and we need to take time to give proper consideration to those concerns. Therefore, we are not reforming the Official Secrets Act 1989 in this Bill.

It is clear to us that reform is complex and engages a wide range of interests. It is only right that proper due consideration should be given to the concerns that stakeholders have raised in the consultation. Furthermore, we need to prioritise delivery of our wider package of measures to tackle state threats and ensure that our law enforcement and intelligence partners have the tools that they need to keep us safe from those seeking to do us harm. We do not want the complexity of Official Secrets Act 1989 reform to distract from this. To that end, I agree with what the noble Lords, Lord West and Lord Evans, said.

I turn to the points raised in the previous group by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, in relation to whistleblowers. We say that there are sufficient safeguards for whistle- blowers in the espionage offences. For the offence of obtaining or disclosing protected information, that activity has to be for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom. If an individual uses appropriate whistleblowing routes, their conduct would not meet this requirement—a point powerfully made by the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, when these amendments were being considered in Committee.

For the offence of obtaining or disclosing trade secrets, the activity has to be unauthorised. Using appropriate whistleblowing routes would not meet the requirement for unauthorised activity. Moreover, there is a damage element to the offence in Clause 2(2)(b). For the offence of assisting a foreign intelligence service, the person has to know or reasonably ought to know that their conduct may assist a foreign intelligence service in carrying out UK activities or intend their conduct to do so. This is very different from reporting something to an appropriate regulatory body as a whistleblower.

It is not the case that there is a reliance upon juries in the place of a whistleblowing defence, as the noble Lord, Lord Marks, appeared to contend. The role of a jury, when advised by the judge, is to determine whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty based on the evidence presented during the trial. This takes up many of the points raised by my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier in his speech a moment ago. This is an integral tenet of our justice system and applies in 1989 Act cases. This does not mean that the Official Secrets Act 1989 legislation is deficient. There is, of course, no statutory public interest defence in the 1989 Act, and therefore it is already clear in the law that juries should not acquit a defendant on the basis that they consider that the public interest in making a disclosure outweighs the damage caused by the disclosure. The Government are clear that we do not consider the introduction of a public interest defence in the Official Secrets Act 1989 to be appropriate. It is not the safest or most appropriate way for an individual to raise a concern of wrongdoing and have it rectified. It is already possible to make disclosures of information that are not damaging without breaching the 1989 Act.

However, the Government have heard and understand the concerns that the Bill could inadvertently capture genuine journalistic activity, as we discussed in the previous group. Even if the Government were to accept that these offences risk criminalising such genuine activity, a public interest defence would not be an appropriate way to address this. This sentiment was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, during the debate on the public interest defence in Committee, for which I am grateful. Indeed, a public interest defence would create loopholes that hostile actors would use to commit espionage against the United Kingdom.

As the noble Lord, Lord Evans, was quite correct in saying, the difficulty for whistleblowers is that they have an imperfect picture of the available information. It is not for the whistleblower to determine the extent of potential damage caused by the disclosure in the public interest.

The question of damage was raised in the debate. It was suggested that a damage requirement should be added to these offences. The Government’s position is that this would significantly undermine their utility. The type of activity described in the offences is inherently damaging. For example, in Clause 1, if an individual discloses protected information to a foreign power or otherwise on their behalf or for their benefit with a purpose

“prejudicial to the safety or interests of the United Kingdom”,

this is inherently damaging. Including a damage requirement would mean that we may need to prove the damage caused by disclosure in court. This, of course, would risk compounding that damage further. If we could not prove that damage in court, for example, because the risk of compounding the damage was too great, a person could freely provide protected information to a foreign power with the intention to prejudice the United Kingdom.

I already noted the potential risks and loopholes that could be created and exploited. This is not a defence in relation to Clause 3(2). The Government have extensively considered the arguments for and against a public interest defence but have concluded that the risk this could cause to the United Kingdom and the fact that this would undermine the purposes of the Bill mean that such a defence is not appropriate. Therefore, there is no need for an assessment and formal consultation on the inclusion of such a defence as tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, at Amendment 18A and the Government do not accept that amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, noted, there have been significant changes to the oversight provisions in the Bill. It is correct that this amendment should be viewed in light of those changes in position by the Government.

Instead, we say that the focus should be on ensuring that the drafting of the requirements and offences in the Bill is sufficiently tightly drawn to ensure that genuine activity, including by journalists, is not in scope. This is why the Government have responded by tabling amendments to the provisions in Part 1, as stated a moment ago by my noble friend Lord Sharpe. This includes clarifying the phrase “ought reasonably to know” and the amendments to Clause 3. For these reasons, the Government cannot accept the tabled amendments.

I move now to Amendment 79A, which proposes the establishment of a new office for the national security whistleblower. I am grateful for the indication from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that he will not be pushing the matter to a vote but let me outline the government position in relation to that. This proposal differs from that debated in Committee in this House. The Government’s view remains that such a role is not required in relation to these offences. As I set out in Committee,

“The Government are committed to ensuring that our whistle- blowing 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.”—[Official Report, 18/1/23; col. 1913.]

We have just debated how the Bill targets hostile activities for and on behalf of foreign powers. I have been explicit that this legislation is not targeting the genuine work of journalists. By extension, it is therefore clear that the Bill does not target genuine whistleblowing. Consequently, a whistleblowing office in relation to this Bill misunderstands the aims of the legislation. Again, I refer the House to the Committee stage, when I and the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, set out the options available where an individual has a genuine need to raise a concern and I shall not repeat those here. The Government are committed to ensuring that these channels are safe, effective and accessible. For these reasons, we cannot accept the tabled amendments. I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice) 5:30, 1 March 2023

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for his response to these amendments, but it has disclosed a very sharp distinction between those of us who believe that a public interest defence can do no harm and a great deal of good, and those who do not. We regard as a complete mischaracterisation of the public interest offence the suggestion that it is likely to encourage or enable espionage or other disclosures that would be damaging to the national interest. By way of contrast, we see the presence in this Bill of a proposed series of absolute offences—as discussed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier—where there is no defence for journalists, no defence for campaigners acting innocently, no let-out for whistleblowers and no protection for members of the public. We are concerned by a system that relies on perverse acquittals rather than acquittals according to law. Therefore, I beg to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 79, Noes 226.

Division number 1 National Security Bill - Report (1st Day) — Amendment 4

Aye: 77 Members of the House of Lords

No: 224 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Amendment 4 disagreed.

Amendments 5 and 6 not moved.

Clause 2: Obtaining or disclosing trade secrets