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.
* Lord John Alderdice, a former Leader of our sister party the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, and former President of Liberal International is currently leading the independent inquiry into culture and processes within the party with a particular focus on race and ethnicity.