Critics say British plan to alter secrecy law doesn't do enough

The British government has revealed its plan to reform the country's highly restrictive secrecy law. But parliamentary consensus on the subject is as remote as ever.

The proposal, submitted to parliament last week, has fueled vigorous debate and may erode the Thatcher government's sizeable majority in the House of Commons when the reform measure is submitted as legislation later this year.

In announcing the government's position after months of study, Home Secretary Douglas Hurd said he hoped to break the ``deadlock'' which has beset previous reform attempts.

Mr. Hurd said the proposals, submitted as a White Paper or statement of government policy, were a liberalization of Section 2 of the repressive Official Secrets Act of 1911, which makes it an offense to disclose any official information, regardless of its triviality.

Government critics, including members of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's own party, have said that even under its reforms the government retains ``capricious power'' which can be used to prosecute the press and keep it beyond public accountability.

``The moral pretensions of the White Paper are greatly flawed,'' says Richard Shepherd, a conservative member of Parliament. He had earlier tried to goad the government into adopting more liberal legislation with his own reform bill.

Because it is virtually unenforceable, the Official Secrets Act of 1911 has been upheld more in its breach than in its observance. No one defends its provisions on protecting official information. But it has been used to try to prevent disclosure of embarrassing secrets such as in ``Spycatcher,'' a book by Peter Wright, which revealed misdeeds of the British intelligence services. The government failed to prevent its publication.

Under the government's proposals, it would no longer be a criminal offense to disclose any official information without authority.

``The scope of the legislation would be confined to the very small amount of information which it is in the whole nation's interest to keep secret and which should therefore have the protection of criminal law,'' Hurd told the Commons.

Information concerning defense, security and intelligence, international relations, and that obtained in confidence from other governments or international organizations would be protected. Information which is ``useful to criminals'' or related to the interception of communications would also be secret.

If there are violations, in most cases the government must show harm has been caused according to specific ``tests of harm'' to be decided by the courts. These tests include whether a disclosure has harmed the armed forces' ability to defend the nation, led to loss of life, or jeopardized Britain's interests abroad.

However, the government's proposals omitted the ``public interest'' defense for offenders. This could allow, for instance, that in cases of crime or fraud the public interest would be served by disclosing information.

Hurd admitted that this omission could prove to be ``the one that will be most controversial between the government and its critics on the liberal side.'' Parliament member Shepherd told the Monitor the omission of a public interest defense was cause for ``very considerable alarm.''

The government also ruled out any defense based on prior publication of information which is protected in Britain but already published elsewhere. This suggests that the publication of Mr. Wright's book, for example, would remain a criminal offense in Britain, even though it is widely available overseas.

On restrictions for members of the security and intelligence services - the sources of the most damaging intelligence leaks - Hurd proposed that they be subject to a lifelong rule barring disclosure of any information about their work. This is a tighter rule than for most other Western countries, including the United States.

Some critics say too that the protection of any information received in confidence from international organizations would introduce new criminal offenses for actions which are now legal. British journalists, for instance, can now report on revelations about confidential European Common Market negotiations. But under the government's proposals, this would become a criminal offense.

The blanket protection of information regarding interception of communications would also make it illegal to disclose that the government had tapped a person's telephone or opened his mail.

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