National Security Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Home Office
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes, it was possibly a serious disruption.

We have all received a very large number of briefings calling for a public interest defence, and none of them has suggested that such a defence is a bad idea or that it would imperil national security. I record our thanks to all the organisations which have sent us these briefings, including the BBC, the NUJ, Index on Censorship, openDemocracy, Guardian News & Media Limited and Mishcon de Reya, among many others. The briefings have concentrated largely on the threat to investigative journalism posed by the criminal provisions in the Bill. We dwelled on these at Second Reading, in the first two days in Committee and, to some extent, earlier today, so I will not go into detail. Suffice it to say that the threat to investigative journalism of criminalisation and the accompanying very long sentences is real and chilling—chilling in that the threat will have a deterrent effect on investigative journalism and in that it represents a real and frightening, and not merely theoretical, threat to open democracy.

It seems to be generally agreed that these provisions risk breaching Article 10 of the ECHR, on freedom of expression, a concern that was expressed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its report on the Bill. The committee said, at paragraph 172:

“There seems to be a certain level of consensus that a whistleblowing or public interest defence is needed”.

It is also significant that a number of other countries, including our Five Eyes partners Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have some form of public interest defence to charges under similar legislation. However, it is not exclusively investigative journalism or even campaigning that is under threat. Those who expose wrongdoing by public servants or whistleblowing employees are equally at risk and may be equally deserving of an acquittal for an offence under this Bill after deploying a public interest defence.

It is for that reason that the public interest defence in our Amendment 75, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed, goes further than protecting journalists alone. In so doing, it is close to the Law Commission’s recommendation in its 2000 paper, Protection of Official Data, which recommended that there should be a statutory public interest defence to unauthorised disclosure offences which should be available to anyone, civilians as well as journalists.

Therefore, our amendment would apply to all prosecutions for offences under Clauses 1 to 5 of the Bill, not just unauthorised disclosure offences, with which the Law Commission was concerned, but we regard that as right. Disclosure of restricted material is just as capable of being in the public interest as it is of assisting a friendly country’s intelligence service to apprehend or expose wrongdoing, as is entering a prohibited place to photograph or record corrupt transactions involving public servants. All can give rise to prosecution under the Act, and in each case there ought to be a public interest defence.

The defence we advocate is based on reasonable belief, so it relies on a test that is, in part, subjective—“Did the defendant believe their conduct was in the public interest?”—and, in part, objective: “Was that belief reasonable?” Juries are well used to applying that type of test and I suggest it is the appropriate one. By contrast, a wholly objective test of whether or not conduct was in fact in the public interest would impose a burden on juries to make what is essentially a political judgment, no doubt on the basis of conflicting evidence, expert and factual. That would not be the best test of the criminality of a defendant.

We have also maintained the principle that, once the defence is raised, it is for the prosecution to rebut it to the criminal standard of proof. That is the way our criminal law responds to a number of defences, reasonable self-defence being one such. We suggest it is the appropriate response. It would perhaps be different if we were concerned here with unauthorised disclosure by a member of the security or defence services who was bound by an agreed and binding confidentiality requirement. However, we are legislating here for criminal charges against private citizens, who, I suggest, are entitled to the benefits of the usual protections inherent in our criminal law.

In applying the test we advocate, juries would have to consider a number of factors set out in proposed new subsection (3) of the amendment. In formulating them, we have relied loosely, but not exclusively, on the factors mentioned in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, which amended the Employment Rights Act 1996 for the protection of whistleblowers. These factors are designed to steer juries towards a balance between confidentiality and the public interest in disclosure. But we do not argue that these are in final form; at this stage, they are designed to give shape to what we would like to see in a public interest defence.

I repeat what I said the other day in Committee: there is no genuine democratic protection in the requirement that the Attorney-General’s consent should be obtained for a prosecution to be brought. That is a welcome safeguard, but its point is to avoid unnecessary and unmeritorious prosecutions. What is needed for the determination of guilt or innocence on a public interest defence is a trial before a jury, where the defendant has a fair chance to put their case that they reasonably believe that the conduct of which they are accused and which is said to be criminal was in the public interest.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for his amendment but, unlike him though it may be, we say it goes nothing like far enough. We need a defence when the Bill becomes law, not merely an assessment of its possible merits. I note that, in the other place, the amendment of Kevan Jones MP, the Labour Member for Durham and a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, was nothing like as diffident as that proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. I also note that Tom Tugendhat, for the Government, promised to engage further with the Opposition on this issue. I sincerely hope that the Minister gives a similar promise to consider the public interest defence, not just because of what we say here but because of the wide interest and concern about the importance of this expressed across the nation. The incorporation of the public interest defence in the Bill would address many of the concerns that these Benches and others have expressed about the dangers to personal liberty in this legislation. I therefore beg to move.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I will add very briefly to the comprehensive introduction of the amendments. I thank my noble friend for drafting the amendment and allowing us to debate it in Committee. My remarks relate to the concerns raised by the BBC—just one of the organisations that has been in touch—which I think are extremely significant. I have been very fortunate in my work as the foreign affairs and development spokesman for my party in being able to travel, including to conflict-afflicted areas. Our journalists and our BBC around the world are one of the jewels in our country’s crown. When they raise significant concerns, I think that there is a duty on us to listen to them very carefully.

With our free and fearless press in this country, I think that there is a dichotomy. I am sure that those in the intelligence community know that our free press and our openness make us more at risk; in fact, many journalists doing their job are at risk themselves in many areas. But we are a safer and more open and democratic country because of the press, and we have a higher standing in the world in the long term. So when the BBC raises concerns, as my noble friend indicated, highlighting the Law Commission’s comments about whether we are considerably less likely to not be complying with Article 10 of the ECHR, it is of concern for those recommendations to be ignored.

With the Bill, it seems as if we are now going to be in stark contrast with comparable legislation in other countries, including our closest intelligence partners in the Five Eyes countries. I would like for the Minister, in responding to this, to state why we go far beyond our Five Eyes allies in this regard.

There are a couple of other areas that the BBC raised: one is the criminalisation of the publication of material that is already in the public domain. With sentences of potentially life and 14 years, the chilling effect on journalists could be marked. I hope that that will be responded to very clearly by the Government. Those powers go beyond the Police and Criminal Evidence Act with regards to protections provided for journalistic material.

In Committee so far, we have raised the breadth of the Bill, combined with the extensive sentences that are open to it, and I believe that the chilling effect on our media will have a negative impact on our country overall. If they do not accept my noble friend’s amendment today—which I suspect the Minister will not—I hope that the Government will engage with him and with others who want to see the Bill work, but work by protecting the essence of our country, which is what my noble friend outlined.

Baroness Manningham-Buller Portrait Baroness Manningham-Buller (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I think this amendment has substantial problems. If I may, I will remind the noble Lord, Lord Marks, of what Article 10 actually says—I have borrowed the iPad of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, which is still working, my iPhone having died. The second paragraph of Article 10, after talking about freedom of expression, says:

“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security”,

and a string of other things are added to that. I just remind the noble Lord of that qualification.

If the BBC and others are making such remarks, then of course we should take them seriously. I have not received all this briefing, but perhaps that is understandable. It is superficially attractive to have a defence of public interest, but let me explain to the Committee why it is really very difficult. From it, the risk of release of national security information is substantial. What does that mean? National security information includes information that can indirectly identify the sources of intelligence, whose lives may be at risk. It can identify sources and methods that are vulnerable and unable to be defended.

--- Later in debate ---
I hope that my explanation has been helpful in explaining why it is the Government’s clear position that these offences are sufficiently tightly drawn so as to be targeted at harmful espionage activity—
Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
- Hansard - -

The Minister knows that, on previous days in Committee, we have discussed the issue of how the interests of the United Kingdom are defined and how broad that is. Whom does he believe should be the final arbiter in defining what is in the interests of the country and in the public interest?

Lord Murray of Blidworth Portrait Lord Murray of Blidworth (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The noble Lord’s question as I understand it is whether the decision about public interest is one for the police or for the prosecutor because, in reality, that is where the decisions would lie. Ultimately, if both those bodies were satisfied and a prosecution were brought, the issue would be one for the court.

It is our position that a public interest defence is neither necessary nor appropriate. However, it is important to point out that, even if the Government were to accept the case that the offences risked criminalising such legitimate activity, a public interest defence would not be an appropriate way to address this issue. As crafted, the proposed defence puts the onus on the Government to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that the defence did not apply. This defence would therefore act as an open invitation to those who seek to conduct espionage against the United Kingdom, and disproving this defence would likely require the disclosure of further sensitive material and only serve to compound the original harm.

The consequence of this is that those who intend to harm the United Kingdom will be able to exploit this defence to continue conducting harmful activities in the knowledge of the prosecution difficulties that would be faced by the authorities. This would limit the effectiveness of the legislation in enhancing our ability to deter and disrupt harmful activity.

Amendment 120B, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, would require the Minister to publish an assessment of the potential merits of introducing a public interest defence. As I have just laid out, the Government have extensively considered the merits, or otherwise, of such a defence, and this renders a review after the Bill’s passage unnecessary, for the reasons I have already set out. Thus, for all these reasons, the Government cannot accept the tabled amendments.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
- Hansard - -

Before the Minister sits down, I am conscious that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, mentioned, we will come on to the whistleblowing aspect, but the Minister was at pains to quote liberally from the Law Commission’s evidence to the Public Bill Committee in the Commons on this. I of course have read the evidence, as others will have done. I was interested when it came to the disclosure of information element, because Professor Penney Lewis told the Public Bill Committee:

“Indeed, we recommended a mechanism for authorised disclosures to an independent statutory commissioner, which would have appropriate investigatory powers to look into, for example, disclosures that might be embarrassing to the Government.”—[Official Report, Commons, National Security Bill Committee, 7/7/22; col. 52.]

Why are we not legislating for that in the Bill? The Minister seemed to have accepted everything that the Law Commission had said, but not this.

Lord Murray of Blidworth Portrait Lord Murray of Blidworth (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is clear, in the view of the Government, that those issues relate to the provisions found in the 1989 Act, which are not addressed in the Bill. While I note that evidence, it is not relevant to this amendment. As I have already said, I therefore invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.