Way back in March, I wrote a few words of advice to Nick Clegg in the wake of the NHS debate at Spring Conference. They seem relevant today as activists and leaders are at loggerheads over Part II of the Justice and Security Bill. That’s the part that introduces Closed Material Procedures, or secret courts. This would mean that if national security, Government vetted Special Advocates would represent the non-Government side, but would not be allowed to share any details with them. You can see how difficult it would be to prepare a case if you aren’t even allowed to have one of the parties give their take on the evidence.
In September Liberal Democrat conference overwhelmingly backed a motion which called for:
- The Coalition Government to withdraw Part II of the Justice and Security Bill; and put in place instead a statutory scheme reflecting the current Public Interest Immunity system to be enacted which will retain judicial discretion, be a proportionate means of ensuring national security is not jeopardised by any litigation, and ensure the working successful democratic principle of open justice is retained.
- All Liberal Democrats in parliament to press the government to do this and in any event to press for the withdrawal or defeat of Part II of the Justice and Security Bill.
So far there has been little sign that the Parliamentary Party is taking heed. Last month, many of them voted for amendments in the House of Lords supported by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, but only 16 voted to withdraw Part II. MPs appear to have been assured by the Government’s acceptance of these amendments. They should not be. They miss the point, as our own Nick Thornsby told the Spectator’s Coffee House blog:
The bill, establishing the principle of court cases where one side can’t hear the evidence from the other, is fundamentally illiberal. It is difficult to see how Part II can remain intact and be acceptable to Liberal Democrats.
Leading Liberal Democrat anti secret courts campaigner Jo Shaw,who spent 12 years as a barrister, outlined the next steps in the campaign, including a motion to Spring Conference, earlier this week. For me, the crucial sentence in that article was:
Nick Clegg has refused to meet with us to discuss the Bill, and the Liberal Democrat response to it.
I have a lot of time for our leader, but I am losing patience with him on this issue, not just for the substance, but for the way he is handling it. He needs to wake up and realise that Lib Dems against secret courts isn’t the Awkward Squad being difficult. It’s a heartfelt campaign which unites the entire party. I don’t know what on earth he thinks refusing to engage with these reasonable people will achieve.
In March, I suggested three things that Nick needed to do to get his relationship with the Party back on track. One was to get everyone on the same page before agreeing to legislation. That ship has sailed in relation to secret courts. Rebuttal is another element. If Nick believes that secret courts are a good idea, then he needs to tell us why. Of course, it may be that he knows fine he has mucked this one up and that there is no such defence.
It’s too late for getting people on the same page. Rebuttal of the indefensible is not an option. Rapport is the only thing left. Nick needs to listen to the experts in the party who may be able to help him find a way through this. The risks of being so dismissive of the overwhelming view of the party are clear. As I wrote in March:
There is no point in Nick or other ministers getting cross and deciding to retreat from the party. That way lies tumbling satisfaction numbers. The party’s future, more than the others, relies on having lots of activists getting out there and knocking on doors and doing the work on the ground to get our Councillors and MPs re-elected.
I call on Nick to sit down with Jo Shaw and Martin Tod, listen to them and work to find a way forward. If you agree, then you might like to sign up to the petition against secret courts if you haven’t done so already. The campaign is also seeking signatures for a new motion to Spring Conference. It may help persuade Nick to engage with the party rather than ignore it if voting representatives were to support it. You can email your support to [email protected]
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings