Government rejects immunity for public officials who blow whistle on child sex abuse
By Mark Conrad and Alex Varley-Winter | 21 March 2015
Ministers defeated a move to amend the Official Secrets Act to ensure that it bars no one from giving evidence about VIP paedophiles.
Theresa May, home secretary, last week repeated in Parliament assurances that the act should not stop anyone from giving evidence to the overarching inquiry into child sex abuse (CSA). David Cameron even underlined the assurance at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday.
But Exaro can reveal that May and most of her coalition colleagues in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties blocked an attempt in Parliament to change the Official Secrets Act (OSA) to give legal backing to such assurances.
The government defeated the amendment proposed by John Mann, Labour MP in a night-time vote in February that went unreported. An alert Exaro reader drew it to our attention.
Mann told Exaro: “What people need are absolute guarantees of protection under the OSA. From what I am hearing, people’s biggest concern about whistleblowing is being prosecuted under the OSA.”
He tried to introduce the amendment to the Serious Crime Bill as it was going through Parliament, and would have created a defence to a charge under the OSA for anyone who had supplied material to an official investigation or inquiry into child sex abuse.
The amendment was defeated by 295 MPs to 233. The move was opposed by 254 Conservatives and 40 Liberal Democrats, suggesting a whipped vote. But Mann’s proposal was supported by 233 MPs in the 9.15pm vote on February 23, including 207 from Labour, as well as 8 Conservatives and 3 Liberal Democrats.
Mann said: “My amendment would have given immunity from prosecution only in relation to historical incidences of child abuse. It was very clear, targeted and concise.”
He found May’s opposition “very peculiar”. He said that his amendment would have provided clarity for serving or former public officials not only for the CSA inquiry, but also police investigations. “There are people who are not providing information to ongoing police investigations because of the uncertainty over the Official Secrets Act,” he said.
A spokesman for the Home Office said: “The home secretary has already stated that the Official Secrets Act will not stop people giving evidence to the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse.
“In addition, there are long-standing precedents for the attorney general to guarantee that witnesses will not be prosecuted for evidence they give to public inquiries.”
He said that May has written to Lowell Goddard, the New Zealand judge who is chairing the CSA inquiry to suggest that “she might wish to secure such a guarantee from the attorney general.”
The spokesman added: “She is clear that the Official Secrets Act should not prevent people from coming forward to give evidence to this inquiry.”
May repeated the assurance when giving evidence to MPs on the House of Commons home affairs committee on Tuesday, although it hardly amounted to immunity from the OSA. She said: “I hope they would not be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, and would not expect them to be.”
On Monday, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) announced that it was investigating allegations that Scotland Yard had halted operations that uncovered evidence of child sex abuse by MPs and others, adding pressure on the government to provide a clear-cut immunity from the OSA for serving and former police officers and other public officials.
Tom Watson, Labour MP, who supported Mann’s amendment, last week started a petition to demand a clear immunity for police and intelligence officers who can provide relevant information for the IPCC investigation.
He pressed Cameron during prime minister’s questions on Wednesday about the issue, asking: “Notwithstanding the reassurances from the home secretary, will the prime minister please give a cast-iron guarantee that former public officials with knowledge of the cover-ups are given full whistleblower protections?”
Cameron replied: “I am absolutely clear about the fact that I do not want anyone to be prosecuted for uncovering wrongdoing in such a way.”
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