The debate at this year’s Liberal Democrat conference on the Justice and Security Bill was one of the highest quality of the whole conference, particularly on the part of those supporting the motion (and opposing the party leadership’s amendment). It was no wonder after hearing those fantastic speeches that the motion was passed so overwhelmingly.
It is true that significant amendments have been made to the Bill by Liberal Democrats since it first arrived in Parliament. It has undoubtedly been improved. One of the main improvements was to remove inquests from the scope of the closed material procedures that are at the heart of the Bill. This was a point repeatedly made by those opposing the motion at conference.
However, welcome as this amendment was, it is undermined by the provisions of clause 11 of the Bill, containing the following:
(2) The Secretary of State may by order amend the definition of “relevant civil proceedings” in section 6(7).
(3) The power to make an order under subsection (2)—
(a) may, in particular, be exercised so as to add or remove a court or
(b) includes power to make supplementary, incidental, consequential,
transitional, transitory or saving provision (including provision
amending, repealing or otherwise modifying any enactment),
(c) is exercisable by statutory instrument which is not to be made unless a
draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a
resolution of, each House of Parliament.
In other words, the justice secretary can, by order, change the courts to which the bill applies. Does anybody really think that a future justice secretary, when a difficult inquest comes along, will be able to resist the call of securocrats and civil servants to bring inquests back under the scope of the Bill?
And don’t be fooled by the necessity to lay the order before Parliament. Dozens of pieces of secondary legislation of this type go before Parliament every week; they almost never have any votes against, let alone any chance of being defeated or of effective scrutiny.
This is a pernicious Bill in many, many ways; the unfettered power given to the secretary of state by clause 11 is just one. If Lib Dem MPs don’t vote against the Bill as the conference motion implores them to do, they must, at the very least, get rid of clause 11 and stop future justice secretaries undermining open justice any further.
* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.