Lord Alderdice writes… Improving the Justice and Security Bill

Last night the House of Lords debated and voted on the Justice and Security Bill at its Report stage. I know from reading Lib Dem Voice and from listening to the recent debate at Conference what a touchstone issue this Bill is for many members. Which is why I want to explain how the Bill, which we have now passed to the Commons, is a very different beast from that originally under consideration.

Some of you will have seen that the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) produced a unanimous report last week. We have two eminent Liberal politicians sitting on that committee, Lord Anthony Lester and Simon Hughes MP, and they made a very helpful contribution to the debate. The report explained that the Bill needed tightening, narrowing, and recommended an extensive range of amendments to improve it. Nick Clegg made clear in Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions this week that he thought adopting the changes would be an improvement – and that is exactly what happened last night.

Now, Nick had already fought for some important changes to the Bill, which made it a great deal better than the original Green Paper proposals. He secured important wins that reduced the scope to national security cases only, removed inquests from scope entirely, and made sure that it was an application to a judge and not a decision by a Minister which would trigger a closed material proceeding (CMP).

But the changes made last night are significant and take these principles even further. A judge now has even more discretion to decide the best course of action to ensure that nothing is heard in closed session that could be heard in open court. There are even more safeguards to make absolutely certain that every other avenue for dealing with sensitive material is explored before a closed court can be used. And all parties to the proceedings will now be able to apply for a CMP rather than just the government, so everyone will be treated on an equivalent basis. The amendments also put beyond doubt the fact that CMPs cannot be extended to inquests or, in Scotland, Fatal Accident Inquiries.

Our Conference in September clearly demonstrated the strength of feeling in the party about this issue, with a quality of debate that our party should be proud of. And that is why Liberal Democrat peers had no less than three meetings of the whole group in the last week alone discussing what to do, and then voted in large numbers to amend the Bill. The Liberal Democrats have always placed the utmost importance on the defence of civil liberties and the principles of fair, open justice. And our parliamentarians have a long and proud tradition of upholding these values: voting to remove all clauses from the Criminal Justice bill that tampered with trial by jury in 2003; voting through the night against control orders in 2005; and defeating the government on 42 day detention in 2009. (Not to mention all the unpicking of Labour’s authoritarian legislation we have done in Government!) But even in these cases, compromises had to be made. In the infamous vote on 90-day detention, we had to compromise on 28 days, even though the status quo was only 14 days. We would have made different choices if we could, be we are the smallest party of the three main parties and must be realistic about what we can achieve with our numbers.

Most of our peers did not vote to throw out part 2 of the Justice and Security Bill entirely, because having put in the protections, it would have been counterproductive to then vote them all out again. I know some party members would have wanted the Lords to vote to get rid of Part 2, in line with the motion at conference. I can understand and respect that position but it is important to be clear that there was not sufficient support in parliament to win a vote to that effect, as the figures showed.

The fact is, given the position of both the Labour and Conservative parties in not supporting the removal of part 2 of the Bill, it would have been impossible for Liberal Democrat parliamentarians to deliver the exact position of Conference. So rather than symbolically support a vote that couldn’t be won, colleagues decided to work with a range of parties to get as close as possible to the conference motion. In short, given the position of the big two parties, what was achieved was the outcome most in line with party policy that it was possible for Liberal Democrat parliamentarians to deliver. Indeed, if the Labour party had not abandoned ship and gone home we could have done more. But the changes we have achieved in the Bill now make the occasions in which a CMP can be used a lot less frequent and remove the possibility of them ever being extended, and bring in more safeguards through judicial authority.

Further negotiations inside Government will now have to take place before the Bill goes back to the Commons. Liberal Democrats will, as always, argue for the best deal possible. There are different views and things have to be agreed on both sides of the Coalition. We are now a lot closer to achieving an outcome which underpins both justice and security in a way fully in keeping with our Liberal Democrat principles and our responsibilities as a party of government.

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7 Comments

  • “Now, Nick had already fought for some important changes to the Bill, which made it a great deal better than the original Green Paper proposals.”

    Can someone – anyone – please explain why Nick Clegg “fought for changes” to make the bill better?

    There was nothing about secret courts in the coalition agreement. The party was under no obligation whatsoever to vote for secret courts.

    Why, if Nick Clegg is as committed to civil liberties as he claimed to be before the election, didn’t he simply say “This is a bad bill and the Lib Dems will not support it”?

  • Cllr Colin Strong 22nd Nov '12 - 4:36pm

    Thanks for the article. Very informative.

    Having negotiated so that it was a ‘better’ bill we should have left it to the illiberal Labour and Conservatives to vote the ‘better’ bill through. It’s not of course.

    However ALL Liberal Democrats (Peers and MPs) should make it clear they will vote NO to Part II.

  • ” I know some party members would have wanted the Lords to vote to get rid of Part 2, in line with the motion at conference.”

    I think you’d be correct that having paid several hundred pounds to attend and vote at the party’s sovereign making policy body and see a motion entirely consistent with the party’s prior history, expressed in clear terms and passed overwhelmingly, people would expect the party’s Parliamentary representatives to have taken notice of that.

  • “The fact is, given the position of both the Labour and Conservative parties in not supporting the removal of part 2 of the Bill, it would have been impossible for Liberal Democrat parliamentarians to deliver the exact position of Conference. So rather than symbolically support a vote that couldn’t be won, colleagues decided to work with a range of parties to get as close as possible to the conference motion.”

    It really is difficult to make sense of this argument.

    Clearly “we didn’t think we’d win the vote” is a terrible reason to vote in favour of keeping secret courts in the bill, if you think secret courts are a bad thing.

    As for “we decided to work with others instead”, why on earth wasn’t it possible to do that AND to vote to remove secret courts from the bill? Is it really being argued that the other parties would have been less likely to support the amendments if they knew the Lib Dems were going to vote against the principle of secret courts? I don’t believe a word of it.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 23rd Nov '12 - 8:12am

    I’m sorry, but I don’t think that this is good enough. This is a bill that we shouldn’t have let see the light of day. The amendments make a horrendous bill merely awful. We should not allow a situation where a spook, a judge and a state vetted lawyer are the only people allowed in court discussing evidence which can’t even be discussed with the defendant. I mean, the defendant may have information that might easily refute the evidence. It is so fundamentally wrong that we should have refused from the start to have anything to do with it.

    We’ve seen some concerning abuses of state power in the past few years – Hillsborough for a start and also that case where the two MOD pilots were wrongly blamed for the helicopter crash in Argyll. With CMPs, these people would not have been able to secure justice. Liberal Democrats should not be supporting a measure that makes it even more protracted and distressing for people to obtain a just resolution of their case.

    There is such a strong feeling in the party about this bill. Every test of Liberal Democrat opinion has shown a huge majority against the proposals. The only people with anything to say on its behalf are certain of our representatives in the Houses of Parliament .

    If the JCHR amendments are such a good thing, why did the Government oppose them and why is it being reported in the press that the Government will try to overturn them?

    I’d also be intrigued to know exactly in what circumstances you might expect a non government party to request a CMP? Who is going to say “Ok, appoint me a lawyer who can’t tell me any of the evidence against me and isn’t allowed to discuss it with me to prepare my case?”

    If we were in opposition, we would, without any shadow of a doubt, be opposing this Bill because it’s so offensive to everything we believe in.

    I will not be satisfied with anything less than full withdrawal of Part 2 of this Bill and I expect parliamentarians to abide by the clearly expressed will of conference.

  • Tom Snowdon 23rd Nov '12 - 8:47am

    Well said Caron, I totally agree. If our parliamentarians don’t vote NO, what is the point of conference ?

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