Official Secrets Act to protect sensitive data

 

THE OFFICIAL Secrets Act is expected to be amended to prevent “highly sensitive and secret” official information from being disclosed as a result of new legislation aimed at protecting whistleblowers.

Earlier this year, Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin published the draft heads of a Bill which would ensure anyone who exposed wrongdoing in the public or private sector would be protected from prosecution. The Protected Disclosure in the Public Interest Bill 2012 provides immunity from civil and criminal liability for whistleblowers in certain circumstances.

An information note on the Bill states that amendments may be needed to the Official Secrets Act to ensure “highly sensitive and secret official information is safeguarded in a manner which facilitates the effective operation of the protected disclosure regime”.

Official secrets legislation, enacted in 1963, states that a person in public office who communicates official information without authorisation is punishable by a fine or up to seven years’ imprisonment.

It states that a person who contravenes or attempts to contravene any provision of the Act is guilty of an offence. Campaigners in favour of greater transparency in public life have long argued that this Act is too broad and a major barrier for public servants in reporting wrongdoing.

Launching the draft heads of the new Bill earlier this year, Mr Howlin said it would provide for the first time a single overarching framework protecting whistleblowers in all economic sectors.

“This is a huge advancement from the previous piecemeal approach where the patchwork of protections resulted in a fragmented and confusing standards of protection,” he said.

The draft heads of the new whistleblowers’ legislation aim to:

Ensure workers are protected from reprisals where they disclose information relating to wrongdoing in their workplaces. This could include, for example, criminal misconduct, corruption, the breach of a legal obligation, risk to health and safety, damage to the environment or gross mismanagement in the public service.

The proposals provide for a “stepped” disclosure regime, making a number of disclosure channels available to those who wish to make a protected disclosure. These include internal, regulatory and external channels.

It will also make what the Minister has said will be “significant” remedies to provide redress for workers who suffer detriment as a consequence of making a disclosure.

In addition, Mr Howlin said the proposed legislation highlighted the responsibility of employers to put effective internal mechanisms in place to investigate whistleblowing complaints. They would have an obligation to develop an “organisational culture” that supports whistleblowing as a key element of corporate risk management. This would identify potential wrongdoing and allow employers to take appropriate corrective action at the earliest possible stage.

The Bill has been welcomed by campaigners who are seeking more transparency and openness.

Transparency International Ireland chief executive John Devitt said the legislation could prove to be as important as the original Freedom of Information Act in protecting the public interest.

“There are some improvements to be made, but I think we’re on the right track,” Mr Devitt said.

The proposed legislation was heavily influenced by whistleblower laws in the UK and New Zealand. The recent report of the Mahon tribunal into planning corruption also called for whistleblower legislation to be strengthened as it played an important role in the detection of corruption offences.