Justice and Security bill

Justice and Security bill

On Monday the Justice and Security bill came back to a packed Commons at Report stage. The bill extends the secret hearings, known as closed material procedures (CMPs), into the main civil courts in England and Wales.

Opening for the opposition, shadow justice minister Sadiq Khan accepted that there may be rare examples where it is preferable for a CMP to be used because there is no other way a particular case can be heard, but he believed that the legislation was drafted in such a way that there were too few safeguards in place. He said: “Safeguards are crucial because CMPs are alien to our tradition of open and fair justice, where justice is not only done, but is seen to be done. The Lords delivered a strong and clear verdict on the Bill last November. The pity is that the Government shredded the Lords amendments as the Bill progressed through Committee.”

He introduced a series of amendments aimed at putting in place appropriate checks and balances on the expansion of secret hearings. In response, Ken Clarke, the minister without portfolio who is steering the legislation through parliament, claimed: “We are in complete agreement on policy and there is no disagreement between us on the principles of the very great need to protect national security and the equally great need to protect the rule of law, the principles of British justice and all the values that we seek to uphold.” But in opposing the amendments he said: “Never can a Government have been quite so responsive to the points put to them….and I fear that I must resist the further pressure.”

Caroline Lucas had sought a more radical solution, tabling amendments designed to reject CMPs and get rid of part 2 of the bill in its entirety. She told the House: “Huge numbers of people are deeply concerned about the direction in which closed material proceedings would take us.” But she accepted that “my words are the minority view in this Chamber”, and Sadiq Khan said “we are not seeking to exclude part 2 from the Bill.”

Pressed to division, a Labour proposal aimed at introducing further conditions before CMPs could be used in civil courts, was rejected as Labour and coalition rebels lost by 225 to 298 votes, a government majority of 73. A second Labour proposal, requiring judges to balance the interests of national security against public interest in the fair and open administration of justice, was lost by 226 to 297, a government majority of 71. A third vote was lost by 227 votes to 295, a government majority of 68.

The intense four hour debate did not entirely follow party lines. Seven Liberal Democrats MPs rebelled to support the Labour amendments, including president Tim Farron, deputy leader Simon Hughes and former minister Sarah Teather. And some of the most powerful speeches against the government’s bill came from the Conservative benches.

On the other hand, several former Labour ministers chose to back the government’s position, including former home secretary Jack Straw and former counter terrorism minister Hazel Blears. Jack Straw said: “My purpose in rising to speak now is to explain why I believe that the Government’s formulation for the conditions for a closed material proceeding are to be preferred to those of the Opposition”, and he voted accordingly.

Civil liberties activists are dismayed. Clare Algar, executive director of Reprieve, said: “This has been a dark night for British justice. These plans for secret courts were always dangerous and unnecessary, but the failure of even minor attempts to modify the bill means that it is even worse than when it first reached the House of Commons.” And Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: “The opposition to turning British courts into secret commissions continues. Once again, we look to the House of Lords to defeat secret courts and defend the rule of law.”

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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