On Tuesday, Liberal Democrat conference will debate a Bill which strikes at the heart of liberal principles. The Justice and Security Bill will effectively put ministers and government officials above the law. If this is to be avoided, it is essential that Liberal Democrats vote for the motion, unamended.
Under the Bill, the state will be able to kick anyone bringing a case against them out of court simply by claiming ‘national security’ is at risk – a claim which has been used to cover up Government involvement in torture and rendition all too often during the ‘War on Terror’.
Politicians will be able to shut the courtroom doors to press and public alike, and present one-sided evidence to the judge, free of effective challenge. Worst of all, in a case between the citizen and the state, the citizen could lose without even knowing why, or being able to see what evidence had been used against them. This is surely a red line in our justice system which must not be crossed.
Well-respected ministers have given reassurances that this Bill will not be used to cover up anything that would previously have been made public, and that it will only be used in a miniscule number of cases, but it is simply impossible for them to ensure that future governments will keep to these promises.
The fact is that this Bill will enable ministers to push a wide range of cases – from victims of state torture to soldiers who have suffered as a result of Government negligence – into secret courts, where it will be much easier for the state to win and to avoid airing its dirty laundry in public.
Just over a year ago, Nick Clegg rightly said, “You shouldn’t trust any government – including this one.” It would be wise to heed his advice, and to ignore the siren calls of Ken Clarke, who asks people to back this Bill on the grounds that he himself is “an instinctive liberal”. What is needed is close scrutiny of this Bill, and what it would allow. And what must always be at the forefront of our minds is when deciding whether or not to back it is what it would allow our politicians and officials to do – not what it is they say they intend to do with it.
It is entirely possible that this Bill is a genuine attempt to shine a light into the dark recesses of the state, but the fact is that that it would in fact allow the government to do the opposite, throwing a shroud of secrecy over a wide range of civil court proceedings. The Government needs to go back to the drawing board on this one – a vote in favour of the motion as tabled on Tuesday would be a valuable step towards this.
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* Clare Algar is the Executive Director of Reprieve, a human rights NGO.