Spies and civil servants who leak national security secrets face up to 14 years in jail, in a major overhaul of the Official Secrets Act in the face of the growing threat from Russia, the Daily Telegraph has learnt.
Foreign spies who steal information from the Government and leak it overseas, or those who snoop on British embassies, will also face prosecution in British courts for the first time, under plans to be considered by ministers.
Under the proposals, which are published today, officials who leak “sensitive information” about the British economy that damages national security could also be jailed.
Experts said the Law Commission’s plans – drawn up after a request from the Cabinet Office and in consultation with MI5 and MI6 as well as civil liberty groups – were vital to help Britain tackle the snooping threat from Russia.
The review says: “It is crucial that the United Kingdom has a robust legislative response that meets the challenges posed by espionage in the 21st century.” Current legislation is “not capable of reflecting the potential harm and culpability that may arise in a serious case” of stealing state secrets, it says.
The review is the first time that official secrets legislation has been overhauled in a century amid concerns that it is “archaic” and has failed to keep pace with advances in technology and modern threats.
Pointing out that the maximum jail term for such breaches in Canada is 14 years in jail, it adds: “We provisionally conclude that the maximum sentences currently available for the offences contained in the Official Secrets Act 1989 are not capable of reflecting the potential harm and culpability that may arise in a serious case.”
Writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, Professor David Ormerod, the Law Commissioner who drew up the reforms, said at present Britain’s “principal legal protection in the United Kingdom against espionage” was the 1911 Official Secrets Act.
He says: “Some offences in the 1911 Act are focussed narrowly on protecting specific locations, but are mainly related mainly to sites of munitions of war.
“But what about an embassy abroad? Or a data centre? The legislation needs to protect against modern threats.”
The overhaul comes after Alex Younger, the head of MI6, warned in December that cyber attacks and attempts to subvert democracy by states such as Russia posed a fundamental threat to British sovereignty.
And it comes in the wake of the Edward Snowden case which saw the former US defence contractor copied classified information from the National Security Agency, before fleeing fled to Hong Kong where he passed the data to journalists. He eventually flew to Russia where he is thought to reside today.
The 324-page review suggests that anyone who leaks “sensitive information” that damages the economy could be jailed under the Official Secrets Act.
Currently official secrets legislation is limited to breaches which jeopardise security, intelligence defence, confidential information and international relations.
Foreigners who leak information overseas that damages British national security could also be prosecuted in the UK for the first time.
This would include a non-British citizen seconded to a government department and in that role have access to information that relates to security and intelligence”.
Currently, they can only be prosecuted if the leak is by a British national or happens on UK soil.
The most recent Official Secrets Act 1989 will be replaced with a new data disclosure law.
Changes include dropping use of the word “enemy” to describe foreign powers which are hostile to the UK to allow prosecutions for leaking of information to terrorist groups.
“Anachronistic” jargon to describe secrets used in the earlier legislation like “sketches”, “plans”, “models”, “passwords” and “code words” will be replaced with the more generic “information”.
A Government spokesman said: “We welcome the important work undertaken by the Law Commission, at the request of Government.
“As the work is ongoing and no final conclusions have been made, it would be inappropriate to comment at this stage.” A public consultation on the plans runs until April 3, after which the Government will draw up a draft Bill for the Government to consider.
The Law Commission is a non-political independent body, set up by Parliament in 1965 to keep all laws under review, and to recommend reform where it is needed.
Since the Commission was established in 1965, 73 per cent of its reforms have been accepted or implemented in whole or part by the Government.
- Civil servants who leak files of state secrets could be jailed for up to 14 years. Currently the maximum term is two years, under the Official Secrets Act 1989
- Official secrets legislation to be expanded to cover “information that affects the economic well-being of the United Kingdom in so far as it relates to national security”
- Foreigners who leak classified information overseas that damages British national security could be prosecuted in the UK for the first time
- Dropping the use of the word “enemy” to describe foreign powers which are hostile to the UK to allow prosecutions for leaking of information to terrorist groups
- “Anachronistic” jargon to describe secrets in law like “sketches”, “plans”, “models”, “passwords” and “code words” to be replaced with the more generic “information”
- The Official Secrets Acts 1911, 1920 and 1939 to be replaced with a modernised Espionage Act
- The Official Secrets Act 1989 to be replaced with a data disclosure law amid concerns that it is “archaic” and has failed to keep pace with advances in technology
- Prosecutors no longer to have to prove damage to national security to secure a conviction for disclosure of classified information
- Spies and civil servants to be allowed “to seek authority” to release confidential information
- An offence is committed if the defendant “knew or had reasonable grounds to believe his or her conduct was capable of benefitting a foreign power”