MPs vote on plans to allow secret courts to confiscate journalists’ files

Ministers have conceded they will carry out further consultation over plans to
allow authorities to demand journalists hand over their notebooks, digital files and photographs in secret courts.

Clause 47 of the deregulation bill, which is being debated in the Commons, would remove rules forcing state requests for journalistic material to be made in open court with media representatives.

Instead, the so-called 'production orders' would scrap existing safeguards and conduct the discussions in hearings closed to the public and without media lawyers present.

Minister Oliver Letwin said he had only heard about objections from the Newspaper Society and others last week.

He told MPs: "It would make sense to do some further consultation in case there's anyone out there who's got views who's not come forward."

The issue was raised by Green party MP Caroline Lucas, who also warned the bill was scrapping regulations which protected workers from injury, ill-health and abuse.

The Newspaper Society said: "The deregulation bill's provisions could enable the current statutory safeguards to be removed completely, reduced, weakened or otherwise radically altered at any later time, without prior consultation of the media affected nor detailed parliamentary scrutiny of the effect/

"Reporters are put at risk, whether reporting riots or investigating wrongdoing, if perceived to be ready sources of information for the police."

While the production order rules themselves remain unchanged, critics fear judges will be more likely to agree to enforce them if they do not hear from media representatives.

The push for journalists' information to be more readily available to the state first came during the Leveson inquiry.

The report on media regulation said steps needed to be taken to ease the process by which authorities can get their hands on reporter's books and files.

The move comes amid a controversial production order issued by the Metropolitan police against BSkyB over a story involving an SAS officer leaking information to a journalist contact.

The Met's appeal for the information did not come with all its substantiating evidence and officers later said they wanted to be able to secure material without having to disclose all their interests.

Similar arguments have been used by intelligence agencies about terror suspects, triggering the creation of secret court hearings in the first place.

The move has won comparatively little coverage in the UK but is being widely reported in the foreign press where it is seen as a significant power grab by the government.

"Every measure in the deregulation bill is intended to remove unnecessary bureaucracy," a Cabinet Office spokesperson told the Guardian.

"Clause 47 would bring the Police and Criminal Evidence Act into line with other legislation in this area and would allow the criminal procedure rules committee to make procedure rules that are consistent and fair.

"However, the government has noted the concerns raised about this issue and Oliver Letwin is happy to meet with media organisations about this before the bill goes to committee."