Tide turns on secret courts

Posted by Bella Sankey on 26 September 2012


Today Liberty congratulates all those Liberal Democrat members who defied the desperate pleas and exaggerated claims of their leadership over recent days and last night overwhelmingly passed Jo Shaw's motion against secret courts and the odious Justice and Security Bill.

Jo Shaw showed courage and clarity in her proposer's speech as did so many other speakers for the motion - notably Lord Paul Strasburger (who has already fought the Bill so unequivocally in the House of Lords) and MEP and long-time campaigner for accountability over extraordinary rendition Sarah Ludford.

At Liberty’s Lib Dem fringe on Monday night, it was clear that plans for secret courts were in trouble. A record number of restive delegates turned out to hear the plans rubbished and our Director’s request that party activists support Jo Shaw’s motion and oppose the Government wrecking amendment was met with huge, prolonged applause.

Peter Kellner read the original Coalition Agreement pledge on civil liberties and asked how that could be reconciled with a wrecking amendment that would allow secret justice “as a last resort”? He told the audience that YouGov number-crunching suggests that of the 3 million Lib Dem supporters that remain “your attitude to civil liberties is core to them”.

Business Secretary Vince Cable was up next and warned “civil liberties is like the environment, you can’t just stick it in a silo”. He revealed that he had been lobbied by big business to dump the Snoopers' Charter and pledged Lib Dem opposition if the scrutiny Committee are dissatisfied.

Lord Ashdown warned of the Tory threat to the Human Rights Act; labeled the Snoopers’ Charter a “scandal” and said he would vote against the Justice and Security Bill. His later suggestion that the latter could be improved with amendments was met with cries of “no” from the floor. One Lib Dem member threatened resignation.

Distinguished lawyer, Prof Phillipe Sands QC, said we would never have known about the Government’s role in the War on Terror if the Bill had already been in place. He was clear, “the Bill must be opposed in total. It can’t and mustn’t be amended. It must be consigned to the rubbish bin”. Former Cambridge MP David Howarth backed his analysis and the mood of the audience was with them.

Last night’s landmark victory is all the more significant given critique and commitments on the Bill from Labour in recent days. The Shadow Justice Secretary wrote to the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg last week describing Ken Clarke’s claims as “positively misleading” and warning that Labour would oppose the introduction of secret courts. And in a letter to the Guardian yesterday, Lord Beecham, Labour’s Justice Spokesperson in the Lords attacked the Bill and observed “Clarke says if his proposals are opposed from both right and left they are probably correct. The alternative view is that they are probably wrong”.

The Liberal Democrat party is now formally and officially opposed to Part 2 of the Bill. While the Lib Dem leadership may attempt to fudge the political implications, they must know they are now in a sticky bind. HM Opposition have said that they won’t support it and many Conservatives are unhappy. It is unthinkable that Lib Dem parliamentarians could be whipped to vote against official party policy when Parliament returns next month. Principle and parliamentary arithmetic don’t always go hand in hand but on this issue they might still…