The Government is to rush through interim measures to stop police viewing journalists' phone records without judicial oversight in a move that signals victory for the Press Gazette Save Our Sources campaign.
The Liberal Democrats have tabled an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill to be heard in the House of Commons on Monday requiring police to get judicial approval for telecoms records requests involving journalists' sources. Such requests are currently signed off in secret by police forces themselves.
The Government has rejected the amendment, but instead promised to rush through measures to curb police spying on journalists ahead of the May general election. And it has said that primary legislation to tackle the issue will be tabled soon in the next Parliament.
Home Office minister Karen Bradley said in a letter circulated to MPs today: "There is no other suitable legislative vehicle to take this forward in the current Parliament.
"That being the case, we intend to put in place an interim solution pending legislation in the new Parliament.
"Under the interim arrangements, law enforcement agencies (that is, the police, the National Crime Agency and HM Revenue and Customs) would be required to use production orders, which are judicially authorised, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) (or the equivalents in Scotland and Northern Ireland) for applications for communications data to determine journalistic sources until such time as the new primary legislation is in place."
This means the Government will use a statutory instrument to ensure that if police wish to view journalists' phone records they will have to give notice and, if necessary, make the case for disclosure in court.
Bradley said the Government will also "shortly' publish draft clauses that will form the basis of legislation in the next Parliament to reform RIPA.
The Government had initially signaled that no action would be taken on RIPA before the general election and it appears to have been spurred forward in order to head off a vote on the Liberal Democrat amendment.
Dr Evan Harris, the Campaign Director at Hacked Off who helped to draft the RIPA amendment, said: "The Tories talk grandly about press freedom but do nothing concrete. Since source protection is a critical part of the public interest role played by newspapers and broadcasters, Hacked Off decided to force the question. We are delighted it has succeeded."
Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert, who tabled Monday's amendment, said: "Whistleblowers need protection. I'm delighted that the Tories have finally agreed that a judge must agree police attempts to get phone records that might reveal a reporters' sources.
"They dragged their feet on this over and over again; it took very strong Lib Dem pressure to make this happen, and I had to work really hard to get cross-party support from backbenchers to force Conservative Ministers to change their mind.
"Credit must be given to Press Gazette who have run such a strong campaign, Save Our Sources, and will need to keep up the pressure until this is in primary legislation."
The Press Gazette Save Our Sources campaign was launched last September following news the Metropolitan Police used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to secretly view the telecoms records of The Sun and its political editor Tom Newton Dunn.
The information was used to find and sack three police officers said to be involved in lawfully leaking information to The Sun.
More than 1,700 have signed the Save Our Sources petition calling for judicial oversight of police requests to view journalists' phone records and 100 editors signed a joint letter of protest to the Prime Minister.
Earlier this month the Interception of Communications Commissioner's Office published the results of an inquiry which was launched in response to the concerns raised in the Press Gazette campaign.
It found that police forces had viewed the phone records of 82 journalists over the last three years via RIPA and that officers had failed to give adequate consideration to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (freedom of expression).
It called for a change in the law to provide judicial oversight of such requests.
A spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democract leader Nick Clegg said: "We're glad the Tories have finally found some sense and have at the least agreed to ensure temporary measures are put in place to protect journalist sources. The Deputy Prime Minister has consistently said the accessing of the source of journalistic information should be signed off by a judge.
"Britain has always prided itself on having a free press that holds the structures of authority to account and we should protect whistleblowers who dare to expose injustices against the public. Whilst temporary measures are better than none, we will not stop pushing to ensure permanent safeguards are put in place."