Secret Courts: Nick Clegg’s refusal to meet campaigners is not helping

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Sadly this government is pursuing the right wing policies started under labour to remove freedom of the people secret courts now detention with out trial house arrest. this sounds all to familiar to what we was are fighting against abroad. The more power you give someone the more chance of abuse like anti terrorism laws used again a MP and a demonstrator at a party conference and no doubt countless other cases something is going wrong with our country and LibDems aiding this sad sad.

  • All good points and well put. I’m willing to lay own a tenner Cleggy will continue to ignore the will of the party on this as he has on so many other things. After all, what can we do about it?

  • This is now the defining moment of the Coalition for civil liberties. If Nick fluffs it we’re not going to have much to say on it except that we didn’t introduce quite as much awful legislation as a Labour government would have.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 26th Dec '12 - 2:57pm

    Terry, the Liberal Democrats have undoubtedly helped get rid of some of the Labour excesses – 42 days detention, gone, child detention for immigration gone, ID cards, gone, DNA database and fingerprinting kids at school gone. The battle isn’t over on web snooping yet but I think Labour and the Tories may well stitch that up between themselves.
    We’ve done well so far, but I do not want to see us blot our copybook by introducing a highly illiberal measure which will affect few, but is still a very bad thing to allow in our legal system, which has always been based on proper examination of the evidence.

  • Come on Nick – If you are acting like a true Liberal on this issue then at least meet the dissenters and put your case. As the vote a National Conference shows it is you that is in a tiny minority in the party. How can you come up with ideas for an alternative approach if you won’t listen to them?

  • Michael Berridge 27th Dec '12 - 10:36am

    “If Nick believes that secret courts are a good idea, then he needs to tell us why.” Hard to believe Nick Clegg has not put out a statement on this. Or have I missed something?

  • As a fanatical Clegg supporter can I agree 100% with Caron on this.

  • Peter – we have asked on at least five occasions for a meeting with Nick. The reply we eventually refusing the latest request was about three weeks after my email and after I raised the issue and the lack of an acknowledgement, let alone a substantive response, at Federal Executive. As the email was private I don’t think it is appropriate to publish it without the permission of the author (one of Nick’s SpAds). We were told that Nick is very busy especially in the run up to Christmas and that instead we should speak to Lord Wallace (who we had already met) and Jeremy Browne (whose department is not responsible for the Bill) and some SpAds (with whom we have already met). We have been repeatedly told that Nick is the person who can see off this illiberal Bill, which is why we have made repeated requests to meet him.

    Michael B- I’ve not seen any statement of that nature from Nick.

    Michael H – With respect it’s not correct that the party is divided. The vote at Conference (which sets party policy) was overwhelming in rejecting secret courts, or one-sided courts, if you prefer, overwhelmingly. Lords Wallace and Marks, Alistair Carmichael, Tom Brake and Julian Huppert made their arguments and were defeated. At the same time Conference rejected the watering down of the measure which is essentially the amendments suggested by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. As for your remark that parliament needs to make sure the procedure is ” fair and produces justice” – that is exactly the point. The procedure is not fair and does not introduce justice. It is a complete departure from our civil justice system which requires evidence to be produced to both sides, for each party to be able to challenge as appropriate. The Supreme Court has already ruled (in Al Rawi in 2010) that Closed Material Procedures cannot be used in civil proceedings – eg claims for damages by victims of torture, rendition, MoD negligence, false imprisonment etc. It is correct that CMP are available in a very limited number of statutory cases (eg Special Immigration Appeal Commission) but that is a completely different situation than allowing CMP in almost all civil cases as the Bill suggests. Besides that supporters of the Bill have been unable to point to a single case where a judge has released information which is damaging to national security under the current system of PII. It simply hasn’t happened. Finally, our party is the champion of civil liberties – we stand for fairness, freedom and openness. This Bill undermines each of our core values. It is a bad Bill and we should have nothing to do with it, and more, we our leaders should be actively trying to stop it, as they surely would if we were in opposition.

  • David Allen 27th Dec '12 - 7:07pm

    Clearly we continue to operate a secretive and unwritten form of coalition agreement, whereby Lib Dem ministers agree to promote Tory proposals and drive them through, irrespective of what Lib Dem activists want.

    This might just about be defensible if we were informed about what, if anything, the Lib Dem side gain in exchange. We aren’t.

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