MPs demand changes to sweeping UK national security bill
MPs from across the political spectrum are preparing to work with members of the House of Lords to amend government secrecy reform legislation amid concerns that it poses substantial risks to press freedom and whistleblowers’ rights.
Civil society groups have also warned that provisions inserted into the national security bill late in its passage through the House of Commons could present them with significant legal threats.
Robert Buckland, the Conservative former justice secretary; Dame Margaret Hodge, the veteran Labour MP; and Stuart McDonald, the Scottish National party’s justice spokesperson, are among the MPs voicing concern.
“We’ve got to protect responsible journalism and freedom of speech,” Buckland said.
McDonald said many MPs were worried that the bill, which seeks to modernise a patchwork of laws dating back to 1911, was too broadly written and that some of the offences created in it potentially criminalised an excessive range of activities. These include journalists possessing “protected information” leaked by whistleblowers.
MPs and the media have also warned that some prohibitions in the bill apply both to official information that is classified and information that it was “reasonable to expect” would have been classified.
Several crimes created in the bill are defined as applying when someone has acted in a way “prejudicial to the safety of interests of the United Kingdom” — a definition that has been criticised as potentially applying to people who merely disagree with government policies.
“I think a lot of us are concerned that there’s no public interest defence and suitable protection for whistleblowers,” McDonald said.
The News Media Association, a trade body for news publishers, has warned that the bill creates a “blueprint for authoritarian governments around the world to threaten journalists, activists and whistleblowers”.
Critical MPs plan to work on amendments with peers worried about the legislation, which is currently in the House of Lords. Several peers have indicated that they intend to add significant new safeguards to the legislation. The MPs hope to pressure the government into accepting the Lords amendments when the bill returns to the Commons for final approval.
If approved, the legislation will also create a foreign influence registration scheme, intended to control the activity of organisations operating in the UK funded by hostile foreign governments.
However, the section of the bill detailing the working of the proposed register was added to the bill only after its Commons committee stage. MPs consequently had no opportunity to seek expert advice on its potential effects.
“I think that’s going to be absolutely crucial for the House of Lords to look at,” McDonald said.
Bond, a network of groups working in international development, has said the bill could make it a criminal offence for any group with foreign funding to possess leaked government documents. The proposed law could also force foreign-based groups making representation to UK politicians to go through the registration process.
Buckland said many media outlets were “pretty concerned” about the freedom of speech implications of the sections dealing with the handling of secret documents.
An open letter signed by 40 international media organisations, organised by the News Media Association, has warned that clauses in the bill intended to target spies acting on behalf of foreign states could also bring into the bill’s scope individuals working for international media and charity organisations.
“This could have a chilling effect on the legitimate flow of public interest information to the UK general public and create a blueprint that could be used by authoritarian governments around the world as a means to threaten journalists, activists and whistleblowers with lengthy prison sentences,” the letter said.
Buckland said he hoped the insertion of a public-interest defence for media organisations and whistleblowers in the House of Lords could alleviate some of the problems.
The Home Office insisted that the bill contained safeguards and that there were specific requirements in the definition of each offence that ensured they avoided targeting “legitimate activity such as investigative journalism or whistleblowing”.
“Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy and journalists must be able to do this job,” the department said.