You may feel that the Lib Dems have little influence on government policy but don’t expect justice secretary Ken Clarke to agree with you. For the second time on the specific subject of inquests they have forced him into a burning rubber U-turn.
The creation of the post of Chief Coroner for England and Wales was at the heart of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. But in a Commons written statement in October 2010, justice minister Jonathan Djanogly said: “After careful consideration, we have decided that in the current economic climate we cannot go ahead with plans to implement national leadership from a Chief Coroner.”
Then in U-turn number one last November the proposal to abolish the office was dropped from the Public Bodies Bill then progressing through Parliament. This was partly thanks to strong opposition by the Lords. A year earlier the Lords had decisively rejected the government’s plan by a majority of 112.
Baroness Fookes, president of the War Widows Association of Great Britain, welcomed this change of heart, saying: “Its members know above all others what it is like to suffer the loss of loved ones and to go through military inquests. Over the years, they told me in no uncertain terms how difficult it was if a coroner was inexperienced in dealing with inquests, the nature of the war scene and the military ethos. To put it bluntly, the Ministry of Defence could pull the wool over the eyes of coroners not experienced in wartime matters.”
Then came this year’s Queen’s speech, which included the Justice and Security bill, to be pushed through parliament this session. The bill proposes using “closed material procedures” to prevent sensitive intelligence being revealed in civil courts. Ministers would be able to make initial decisions about material that should be withheld, and defendents or claimants and their representatives would be barred from the closed part of the hearings. Inquests were specifically included in these provisions.
Now comes U-turn number two, with the dropping of plans to introduce closed inquests with evidence heard in private. This follows a well-publicised row behind the scenes between Cameron and Clegg that delayed publication of the bill for almost a week. In a further concession it will be judges, rather than politicians, who decide whether evidence in civil cases should be heard in secret.
Lib Dems are claiming credit for the concessions, and the advantage for the prime minister is that his deputy and his Liberal Democrat colleagues in the coalition government will be able to argue they have scored a victory.
But there are only two cheers from many commentators. Former DPP Lord McDonald, in a radio interview, expressed his concern that the concessions have not gone far enough. “People whose cases are decided against them on the basis of evidence they have never been allowed to see are still going to feel bitterly aggrieved by this sort of procedure,” he told Today. “And some government wrongdoing in the area of national security is going to be less likely to see the light of day.”