Government advisers accused of ‘full-frontal attack’ on whistleblowers

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The government’s legal advisers have been accused of launching a “full-frontal attack” on whistleblowers over proposals to radically increase prison sentences for revealing state secrets and prosecute journalists.

Downing Street believes a major overhaul of existing secrecy legislation is necessary because it has become outdated in a digital age when government employees can easily disclose vast amounts of sensitive information.

Draft recommendations from the legal advisers say the maximum prison sentence for leakers should be raised, potentially from two to 14 years, and the definition of espionage should be expanded to include obtaining sensitive information, as well as passing it on.

The moves have prompted concern from whistleblowers that draconian punishments could further discourage officials from coming forward in the public interest. One critic said the changes were “squarely aimed at the Guardian and Edward Snowden”.

Meanwhile, media organisations and civil rights groups have expressed alarm at the Law Commission’s assertion that they were consulted over the plans, when they say no substantial discussions took place.

The Guardian, human rights group Liberty and campaign body Open Rights Group are among a series of organisations listed by the Law Commission as having been consulted on the draft proposals, but all three say they were not meaningfully involved in the process.

The Law Commission says on its website that in making the proposals, it “met extensively with and sought the views of government departments, lawyers, human rights NGOs and the media”. The law commissioner, Prof David Ormerod QC, said: “We’ve scrutinised the law and consulted widely with … media and human rights organisations.”

But Liberty said that while a meeting was held, it was “not on the understanding that this was a consultation”. A source said: “Liberty do not consider themselves to have been properly consulted. And we will be responding in detail to the [public] consultation.”

Cathy James, the chief executive of Public Concern at Work, was also surprised to see her the whistleblowing charity listed as being involved.

She said: “I didn’t actually know we were listed in the document as we have been working our way through it so it is a big surprise to me. I believe my colleague met with them initially but we were not consulted in the normal sense of the word consultation. That is not what happened.

“We are very worried about the extent of the provision in the recommendations both for whistleblowers and public officials. It’s a huge backward step and we are very worried.”

Jim Killock, the chief executive of Open Rights Group, confirmed it had not taken part in the consultation. “The real tragedy of this is that they’ve had nine months to actually talk to journalists and civil liberty organisations, and find out what the consequences of their suggestions might be, and in actual fact they’ve managed to talk to no one. But they’ve listed us all as having being consulted in the paper anyway,” he said.

The Guardian also held only one preliminary meeting with the government’s legal advisers and was not consulted before being listed in the report. A spokesperson said: “The proposals to threaten journalists and whistleblowers with draconian punishment, combined with powers just introduced in the [2016] Investigatory Powers Act to surveil journalists without their knowledge, represent a further attack on freedom of expression.

“We are surprised that a roundtable discussion with the Law Commission, which they billed as a ‘general chat’, has been described as formal consultation, and concerned that despite being told that we would be informed about the progress of these plans, the first we knew about them was when the law commissioner put pen to paper in the Daily Telegraph last week.”

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