The government's Queen's Speech in December included plans for new "espionage legislation". It stressed the need to combat "hostile state activity" and make the UK "a harder environment for adversaries to operate in" – an indirect reference to the poisoning in Salisbury of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal.
But it also insisted that the Official Secrets Act, drawn up in 1989, must be "updated" and confirmed that the Law Commission, the body that reviews the law in England and Wales, has been commissioned by the government to do this.
Yet proposals drawn up by the Law Commission to review the Official Secrets Act pose major dangers. Whistleblowers and journalists could be convicted for revealing information about defence, international relations or law enforcement, even if it was unlikely to cause harm. They would make it easier to secure convictions by weakening the existing tests for proving an offence.
Neither would someone revealing danger to the public, abuse of power or serious misconduct be able to argue that they acted in the public interest. In addition, maximum prison sentences on conviction, currently two years under the Official Secrets Act, would be increased.
Moreover, it would not be a defence to show that the information had already lawfully been made public – unless the information had also been "widely disseminated". How would that be determined?
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, has warned that the Law Commission's proposals could criminalise the release of a vast amount of additional information.