The move follows the decision by a French court last November to reject Britain's application to extradite David Shayler, a former MI5 agent, to face charges under the Official Secrets Act after he revealed details of M15 operations in a newspaper. Senior Labour MPs have told Tony Blair they believe the court would have been much more likely to extradite Mr Shayler if a "public interest defence" had existed under British law.
The Prime Minister has told Labour backbench leaders that he understands their concerns about the lack of such a defence for whistleblowers in MI5 and MI6. He has promised he will report back to them shortly.
The Official Secrets Act imposes a lifelong duty of confidentiality on the security services. Any disclosure is illegal, regardless of the public interest, and punishable by two years' imprisonment.
Ministers confirmed last night that they were investigating the MPs' claims that a "public interest defence" might have made a difference in the Shayler case. They insisted that no decision had been taken on amending the Act, but they will consider whether the Government should offer some protection to staff who blow the whistle out of conscience rather than to secure money.
Ministers are reluctant to respond directly to the Shayler affair, as they insist that many of his claims - including a plot by MI6 to kill Libya's Colonel Gaddafi - were bogus.
Labour's Parliamentary Committee, which represents the views of its backbenchers in talks with the Cabinet, has told Mr Blair that the existence of such a "conscience clause" could have spared the Government's embarrassment over the Shayler affair.
There is strong pressure from Labour MPs for the Government to amend the 1989 Act, which Labour opposed when it was introduced by the Tories. Supporters of reform include Chris Mullin, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, and Clive Soley, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
In another reform, the Government is considering setting up a special tribunal for disaffected workers in the intelligence services to enable them to "let off steam" without going public.
The proposed tribunal, which could be made up of carefully vetted members hearing cases in private, was recommended by the all-party Intelligence and Security Committee - chaired by Tom King, the former Tory secretary of state for defence - which monitors the services.
Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, has accepted that MI5 and MI6 staff should "as much as possible, enjoy the same rights as other employees". But he said the Government remained "committed to maintaining a strong defence against illegal disclosures by the [intelligence] agency staff or former staff".Reuse content