We mustn't green-light this cover-ups toolkit

Posted by Bella Sankey on 19 December 2012

Top of the spooks’ Christmas list this festive season sits the sinister Justice and Security Bill, which would turn 400 years of common law justice on its head. It’s hard to imagine British officials implicated in torture and rendition finding themselves on Santa Claus’ “nice” list, but nevertheless these odious proposals took another small step towards becoming reality last night.

The Bill was given its Second Reading by 262 votes to 18 in the Commons, after previously being heavily criticised in the House of Lords. Cabinet Minister Ken Clarke again insisted to Parliamentarians that the legislation was vital – to allow our spies to properly defend themselves and to protect relations with our US allies.

These tired arguments would be somewhat more believable if all of this wasn’t coming so soon after a series of shameful events that expose the true motivation behind – and danger of – this Bill.

Only last week the UK settled – for just over £2million – a claim brought by prominent Libyan dissident Sami al-Saadi. In 2004 he was forced aboard a plane to Libya, in a joint UK-US-Libyan operation, where he and his young family were all imprisoned before al-Saadi was held and tortured for years.

Naturally the Government will say it had to fork out because it couldn’t defend itself in open court without compromising state secrets. But this Bill isn’t really designed to prevent unjustified compensation. A case with no merit, or one too saturated with sensitive material, would never proceed under the current system. Either the court would throw it out, or the Government could apply to do so. Tellingly the UK has never opted to strike out any torture or rendition claim; but has instead now settled many of them for breathtakingly high sums. This alone suggests the cases had more than a little merit.

Consider that alongside the state collusion in Pat Finucane’s murder, the Hillsborough police cover-up and the silence over the Jimmy Savile child sex allegations and phone-hacking, and it’s clear that the powerful always resist transparency.

This Bill was never about terrorism. It would allow the Government to argue its case in secret in any “national security” claim – with the claimant, his lawyer and the press and public kept in the dark. Ken Clarke was forced to concede the legislation’s breadth last night – admitting that it could cover military claims against the Ministry of Defence.

Encouragingly, not all MPs were convinced. Conservative Andrew Tyrie, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes and Plaid Cymru’s Westminster leader Elfyn Llwyd all hit out at the plans; recognising that existing amendments are minor nips and tucks that leave the chilling prospect of secret justice untouched. As Mr Tyrie said: “I am deeply saddened that my country has become involved in kidnap and torture… I don’t want my country to be accused of covering it up.”

When the Bill reaches Committee Stage next year, Liberty urges fellow MPs to remember the persistent historical abuses, and the impact of secrecy on innocent victims and families, before green-lighting this toolkit for cover-ups.