Its’s not been the easiest 24 hours to be a Liberal Democrat. It was very hard to watch the majority of our MPs vote to remove the right to a fair trial in civil cases where national security is deemed to be a factor. Just seven MPs voted in favour of amendments advised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The fact that the JCHR had a different view from the Government should surely have raised a huge red flag. An even bigger signal that our MPs were on the wrong course was the fact that Labour were voting in favour of the JCHR amendments. The Bill as it stood was too illiberal for the Party who thought it was ok to lock people up for 3 months without charge.
I spent a bit of yesterday talking to some MPs. I appreciated the time they spent discussing with me but despaired at the way they had swallowed some of the lines they had been given on the Bill. I was asked what my response would be to the “we’re paying money to terrorists and can’t prove our innocence” line. Well, my instinctive counter to that was to say:
If I’m suing you cos you tortured me and you put up a defence that I can’t see, how am I supposed to let the Judge know that you are talking hogwash?
I have been told today that a Very Clever Person thinks that’s a good summary of what this Bill means, and why the shredder is the only place for it. There is no amendment that can make it acceptable.
Locking people up is not a joke
I watched the debate in the House of Commons with growing despondency. There was far too much hilarity and levity in the Chamber as MPs discussed a serious change to the judicial system. At one point, our Dr Julian Huppert asked a very important question of Ken Clarke about whether the Bill covered civil habeas corpus – whether people could be locked up without being told the reason why. Clarke didn’t know and he laughed about the fact that he had to get it checked out. You would think he would have come prepared for that sort of question knowing that it was a key concern of many people.
I was also amazed that the Speaker chose not to allow a vote on the amendment to delete the provision for CMPs. To deny Parliament a say on such a fundamental principle strikes me as very wrong.
Where do we go from here?
The next vote on this Bill is in the Commons on Thursday night. We know we’ll lose one of last night’s rebels, Tim Farron, because he’s away. I don’t know how any of the others intend to vote. I hope they will continue their opposition even though there is little chance of the Bill being defeated in the Commons. It then returns to the Lords where we can hope that they do the decent thing and vote it down. I think our members of the House of Lords will find themselves very popular at the weekend in Brighton. You might want to acquaint them with the comments of the country’s most senior judge Lord Neuberger:
Anybody interested in justice and democracy will be very troubled by any legislation which involves having hearings which are closed in the sense of not open to the public because the public should see what’s going on, and possibly even more concerned about cases where one party cannot see the evidence which the other party is showing to the judge.
Bridging the gap
There is no getting away from the fact that there is a huge gap between what all but 7 MPs (and a few absentees) did last night and what most activists wanted them to do. These sorts of events are inevitable in a coalition, but we need to be very careful that a falling out doesn’t turn into a massive disconnect between grassroots and leadership. That would be disastrous for a party that depends more than any other on its activists. For a start, they need to imagine what would have happened if hundreds of people hadn’t put their lives on hold and gone to Eastleigh, phonebanked and donated money. Would we still have won? I think not.
I anticipated that there would be difficulties along this road way back in 2010 when the Coalition was first formed and I gave ministers some friendly advice. It would do them no harm to read it. They have a bit of making up to do at the moment and they need to tell a despairing party how we can regain our civil liberties credentials after last night.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings