The Daily Telegraph

Call to reform century-old official secrets law

Update of 1911 espionage Act needed, say experts, amid concern over illicit Russian ‘activities’ in UK


BRITAIN’S most senior police officer and a former spy have backed calls to reform the 1911 Official Secrets Act amid growing concern about the malign influence of the Kremlin in British public life.

A report from MPS on the intelligen­ce and security committee, Parliament’s security watchdog, which was published this week, urged an overhaul of the law, described as “dusty and largely ineffectiv­e” by Sir Andrew Parker, the former head of MI5.

Nigel Inkster, a former intelligen­ce and operations director at MI6, said the 1911 legislatio­n meant that agents or their sources had to be caught “redhanded” for a prosecutio­n to land.

He told the BBC: “The 1911 Act – modified in 1989 – leaves the security services and police in a situation where unless they can catch someone redhanded taking delivery of papers marked ‘secret’, it is really difficult to prosecute anybody for espionage.”

Mr Inkster also backed Government plans – set out in January – for a new Espionage Act that would give powers to require Russian agents to register when they come to the UK.

He said: “If this new register is brought into effect, of course it is not going to stop countries like Russia from sending covert operatives to the United Kingdom to undertake intelligen­ce operations

“But it does make it possible, more realistica­lly, to prosecute the people who are supplying them with informatio­n – their agents.”

Earlier, Dame Cressida Dick, the head of the Metropolit­an Police, said the Act should be “firmed up”, warning that the public should be concerned about the threat from Russia.

Dame Cressida said that while it was for the security services to investigat­e attacks by hostile states, “we are the people who will use the law to bring people to justice – and we do. So, we think that legislatio­n absolutely could be firmed up.”

A three-year old review by the Law Commission into how to reform the 1911 legislatio­n is understood to be complete and awaiting publicatio­n.

In the House of Commons, Bob Seely, a Tory MP, pointed out that the foreign agent registrati­on process in the US covers lobbyists as well as those working for the Russian state.

James Brokenshir­e, a security minister, replied: “We’re drawing that together in terms of something that will be effective from a UK standpoint”, which could open the door to lobbyists working for Russia to be forced to add their names to the register.

There were also claims from Julian Lewis, the all-party select committee’s new chairman, that officials had tried to appoint a political adviser to his committee, which is independen­t of the Government.

That came after the nine-strong committee controvers­ially voted for Mr Lewis to become its chairman, not Chris Grayling, the former Cabinet minister, who was backed by No 10.

The Daily Telegraph understand­s MPS on the committee believed a political special adviser would be brought on to the seven-strong Civil Service team in the committee’s secretaria­t at the Cabinet Office.

Mr Lewis asked Mr Brokenshir­e for a “categorica­l commitment” that “no party political special advisers will be allowed anywhere near the intelligen­ce and security committee [ISC]”.

After further questions from Labour MPS, Mr Brokenshir­e said: “I do not want to see the question of its independen­ce drawn into any doubt. It is important that the ISC is independen­t and rigorous.”

‘Unless they can catch someone red-handed ... it is really difficult to prosecute anybody for espionage’

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