The Justice and Security Bill goes back to the Lords with last-minute amendments

One of the government’s most controversial bills of this session – the Justice and Security Bill – goes back before the House of Lords today for Report Stage consideration. The second part of the Bill makes provision for civil cases to be heard in a ‘closed material procedure‘, with one side (and the public) barred from hearing the evidence of the other if a judge deems that it would be damaging to national security if it became public.

Liberal Democrat members, of course, overwhelmingly passed a motion  at this year’s autumn conference calling on our Parliamentarians to vote down Part II of the Bill. Since then a grassroots campaign has been launched to maintain pressure on the parliamentary party to follow members’ wishes.

And independent groups, too, have also stepped up their campaigns. Civil liberties pressure group Liberty has, as one might expect, been leading the opposition. And just last week groups representing the country’s solicitors and barristers made clear their opposition in a joint letter:

[Close Material Procedures] depart from an essential principle of natural justice … that all parties are entitled to see and challenge all of the evidence relied upon before the court, and to combat that evidence by calling evidence of their own.

In addition, [they] also undermine the principle that public justice should be dispensed in public and will weaken fair trial guarantees and the principle of equality of arms. These are both essential concepts of the rule of law.

Secret trials and non-disclosure of evidence are potential characteristics of repressive regimes and undemocratic societies.

Previous Liberal Democrat efforts, while the Bill was still in draft form, had succeeded in removing inquests from the scope of the “secret” procedures, but a pernicious clause giving the justice secretary the power to bring any other civil courts within the system at a later stage without parliamentary oversight remained.

Late last week, however, the government accepted an amendment removing this clause of the Bill. But while this will clearly be welcomed by most all it does is stop secret hearings spreading – it doesn’t address the objections which many have to the fundamentals of the Bill.

My understanding is that, while the government is open to further amendments being made, there remains at this stage little desire in the upper echelons of the Lib Dems to ditch the Bill. But one of the most significant amendments which could be made – giving judges the power to balance the competing interests of openness in the public interest and secrecy for national security reasons, instead of tying judges’ hands and compelling secret hearings – seems unlikely to be accepted, for it is the very situation the Bill seeks to avoid. Securocrats want certainty, not judicial discretion.

All of which puts the Liberal Democrats in a tough spot. Many in the parliamentary party genuinely seem to believe that the Bill is a necessary and proportionate response to an admittedly difficult situation. Yet, as Charlotte Henry says, the rest of the party is almost universally united in increasingly vocal opposition, in a way we have not previously seen during the party’s time in government. The likely outcome remains unclear, but it looks like there will be battles to come before a resolution – continuing today in the House of Lords.

* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.

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19 Comments

  • Nick – thanks for this.

    Two things: we are speaking to all of the parliamentary party including Ministers and those in positions of influence. No-one seems to be keen on this that I have met or spoken to (which is not to say those in Ministerial positions are prepared, at this stage, to ditch it). So – much done, much more to do.

    Secondly, having had conversations with peers and others over the weekend the majority seem against the Bill. What happens remains to be seen, but I think those propounding the line of “difficult but necessary” are in the minority.

  • What is the point of the party if it’s not even going to oppose this kind of thing?

  • jenny barnes 19th Nov '12 - 3:42pm

    If I’m reading this right, the LDs who happen to be MPs and in the Lords see no reason to follow the overwhelming direction of conference. They certainly didn’t want the motion passed as it was. I thought conference was sovereign?

  • jenny barnes 19th Nov '12 - 4:56pm

    See http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/anthony-barnett-david-davis-mp/coming-dictatorship-of-britain

    and this quote, which says it better than I could:
    the Liberal Democrats…. it defies belief that the leaders of a party which pinned its reputation on its integrity should abandon their fundamental principles for a few weeks of high office. I had assumed that when the party conference this year voted down the leadership and opposed the Justice and Security Bill that that would decide things. After all, the other parties had abandoned internal democracy leading to the decomposition of their membership. Why should the Lib Dems discard such a vital asset – and one so important in a smaller party? Apparently how their mere members vote is of no consideration to the Lords of the Liberal Democrats. At the tug of their ermine they will follow their leaders like shameless scuttlebugs, preferring office to preventing the screams of innocent victims.

  • Andrew Suffield 20th Nov '12 - 12:59am

    I thought conference was sovereign?

    It is, but in this instance, only by virtue of its ability to replace the party leader with a different MP that is willing to follow its instructions.

    Meanwhile, let’s not go prejudging the MPs involved for something that they have not done yet. There are all sorts of good political reasons for them to avoid taking an aggressive stance, and the conference motion only talked about the desired outcome. It did not specifically demand that MPs drag the party down in an ignominious flurry of Tory-bashing, which appears to be what some people care about more than the bill.

  • “It did not specifically demand that MPs drag the party down in an ignominious flurry of Tory-bashing, which appears to be what some people care about more than the bill.”

    Certainly there seems to be remarkably little interest in the bill on LDV.

  • You don’t need to Tory bash just to vote against this bill. I will repeat what another said:

    What is the point of the party if it’s not even going to oppose this kind of thing?

  • I don’t want to “drag the party down in an ignominious flurry of Tory-bashing”, I do however want those that call themselves Liberal Democrats to stand up for core beliefs you know, things like “a fair, free and open society”, Part II of the bill goes directly against these principles.
    Jo Shaw says that the majority of those in positions of influence oppose secret courts, fine, lets hear them say it. Lets hear Nick Clegg stand up in Parliament and say, on the record, that he and the party are opposed to this pernicious piece of legislation.
    I’m sure that there is a lot going on behind the scenes with regard to this but it has to reiterated, local parties have to vote on the reselection of their sitting MPs. They serve at the behest of the local party membership and if they vote against conference wishes in this matter it isn’t going to be that difficult to convince local members to deselect them. I can’t imagine any LibDem member being swayed by any argument that includes the words “Yes I did vote for secret courts but…”. We’ve heard the arguments and we have rejected them as wholly unconvincing.
    I don’t want to come across all SWP but this is OUR party too not just the leaderships. Our MPs needs to be reminded that we trusted them to go to Westminster to protect and improve our liberties, not to give them away.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 20th Nov '12 - 10:03am

    Chris, I have to take issue with your comment that there has not been much mention of this Bill on LDV. I’ve written about it at least twice, Jo Shaw had her speech published in full, and there have been other articles as well.

  • Andrew, I do not agree with you about not taking an aggressive stance on this hideous Bill. What on earth are we supposed to be saving up taking an aggressive stance for, if not for protecting our basic right as citizens to a fair trial and open justice? This has absolutely nothing to do with Tory bashing. It’s to do with core Liberal Democrat values which we have to fight for, whoever we are opposing – whether other political parties or the security services.

  • “Chris, I have to take issue with your comment that there has not been much mention of this Bill on LDV. I’ve written about it at least twice, Jo Shaw had her speech published in full, and there have been other articles as well.”

    I was really referring to the relatively small number of comments from readers. Only 11 on this thread and 7 on the other live one, compared with nearly 70 on Sarah Teather’s remarks on benefit caps.

  • Andrew Suffield 20th Nov '12 - 11:57pm

    Andrew, I do not agree with you about not taking an aggressive stance on this hideous Bill. What on earth are we supposed to be saving up taking an aggressive stance for,

    Why should we take an aggressive stance at all? That kind of yah-boo politics does nobody any good, and the party’s been speaking against it for decades.

    If the bill just quietly never shows up in the Commons, or it does show up with part 2 mysteriously absent, then we’ve won and the conference motion has been followed to the letter.

  • OK. To try to stimulate the debate a bit, I’ll ask – what earthly reason is there for the Lib Dems to support this bill?

    It’s not in the Coalition Agreement. On the contrary, the Coalition Agreement is full of wonderful rhetoric about “reversing the substantial erosion of civil liberties”, more Freedom of Information, “protecting historic freedoms”, introducing safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation, and so on and so forth.

    There’s no question at all of the party having to support it as part of the Coalition deal. So why is the parliamentary party supporting it? Surely somebody somewhere must know.

    It’s worth bearing in mind that Nick Clegg did tell us, once upon a time, that he would be willing to go to prison to defend our civil liberties (that was with reference to ID cards, of course). So why is this happening? I’m genuinely bemused. Can anyone help?

  • “If the bill just quietly never shows up in the Commons, or it does show up with part 2 mysteriously absent, then we’ve won and the conference motion has been followed to the letter.”

    I’ve no idea whether that will happen, but it’s rather a bizarre strategy for the Lib Dem MPs to vote for a grotesquely illiberal measure in the pious hope that it won’t become law because there will be a revolt in the Lords. I can only ask again – what conceivable reason is there for the Lib Dem MPs to support this measure in the first place?

    And are you for it or against it, Mr Suffield?

  • I don’t care how this Bill gets killed off, whether aggressively or not. I just want it gone so we remain true to our core values as stated in the Preamble. And I still have no idea why our party leaders are intent on supporting it, when they lack any real enthusiasm for it, and have failed to unearth justification for it (according to the JCHR).

  • Andrew Suffield 21st Nov '12 - 8:49pm

    it’s rather a bizarre strategy for the Lib Dem MPs to vote for a grotesquely illiberal measure in the pious hope that it won’t become law because there will be a revolt in the Lords

    That would be a rather bizarre strategy, given that the bill was introduced in the Lords and will go to the Commons afterwards.

    I don’t see any particular reason for the parliamentary party to support it, or any evidence that they are. It’s clearly a Tory bill.

  • Andrew

    Thanks – I had finally worked out this afternoon that it started in the Lords.

    But what I still can’t work out is your claim that there’s no reason for the parliamentary party to support it, because it’s a “Tory bill”. Surely the whole problem is that it’s a government bill, which has been backed by Nick Clegg and other senior Lib Dem ministers. And why on earth did they back it?

    By the way, you forgot to say whether you were for it or against it.

  • Andrew Suffield 22nd Nov '12 - 7:34am

    Surely the whole problem is that it’s a government bill, which has been backed by Nick Clegg and other senior Lib Dem ministers. And why on earth did they back it?

    A cynical observer would suggest that a lot of people around the party have been asking for debates over the merits of bills to happen more publicly, rather than being resolved before the bill ever comes to light, and that you can’t get much more public than the Lords.

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