Secrecy for them and us

Secrecy for them and us

When the then home secretary John Reid declared his department to be “unfit for purpose” it was split in two. The two halves were then inherited by Theresa May and Ken Clarke.

Clearly not the most compatible of cabinet colleagues, they have been forced into common cause by the strength of the opposition to their pet projects. Ken Clarke’s justice and security bill seeks to keep secret from us whatever they deem appropriate in sensitive trials, while Theresa May’s communications bill would make sure that we have no secrets from them.

The justice and security bill proposes using closed material procedures (CMPs) to prevent sensitive intelligence being revealed in civil courts. Introduced into the Lords first rather than the House of Commons, the bill had its second reading on Tuesday. Already two concessions had been made with the dropping of plans to introduce closed inquests with evidence heard in private; and confirmation that it will be judges, rather than politicians, who decide whether evidence in civil cases should be heard in secret.

Ken Clarke has defended the bill as a necessary method of exploiting intelligence material in court cases while protecting it from general disclosure. Security co-operation with Britain’s allies, such as the US, would be threatened if shared intelligence material was exposed through court cases.

But that has not been sufficient to satisfy the opponents. In a strongly worded critique of the bill, the Lords constitution committee claim that the proposals will undermine the UK’s long-established principle of open justice. The second reading on Tuesday ran into severe opposition from senior lawyers, and others, in the Lords. The bill was committed to a Committee of the Whole House, and from the tenor of the debate there will be fierce and sustained opposition at that stage.

Under the draft communications bill, published last Thursday, the data that police and intelligence services may seek about an individual includes email addresses and phone numbers of people who have been in contact, when this happened, where, and the details giving the police records of suspects’ associates and activities. The Royal Mail and other postal services could be asked to retain “anything written on the outside” of items for up to 12 months so they can be accessed by the police, security services and HM Revenue and Customs.

The proposals have proved most controversial within the coalition and have also been widely criticised, so much so that they have been removed from the fast tracked crime and courts bill into this stand alone bill. It will be given formal pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses and by the Intelligence and Security Committee.

The draft bill has been labelled by its opponents as an intrusive and draconian piece of ill thought out legislation. Privacy advocacy group Big Brother Watch has described it as “fundamentally an illiberal, intrusive boondoggle that will do little to improve national security and do everything to turn us into a nation of suspects.” Splits in the conservative ranks were highlighted by the former shadow home secretary David Davis who accused Theresa May of proposing an “incredibly intrusive” scheme that was exactly the same as the proposal David Cameron had attacked when Labour proposed it in office.

The Bill includes provision to help postal services and other communications providers with the cost of installing new equipment to comply with any laws, estimated to be an eye-watering £1.8bn over 10 years. The immutable law of government forecasting (eg the Olympics) means that this figure will at least double. And the record of large government computer programmes is dismal to say the least.

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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