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Coffee House

Ken Clarke’s concession on secret courts fails to calm Lib Dem fears

18 December 2012

6:09 PM

18 December 2012

6:09 PM

Ken Clarke’s announcement that the government will accept a major House of Lords amendment to the Justice and Security Bill might ease the legislation’s passage through the Commons. The Lib Dems and several senior Conservative figures, including Andrew Tyrie, have been pressing the government to accept the amendment, which gives judges more discretion on whether a court should sit in secret. So those parliamentarians will be happy.

But there is still a fight on the cards, albeit not in either chamber of Parliament. The Liberal Democrat grassroots remain horrified by the Bill’s proposals for secret courts in general, even though they aren’t currently getting much traction with their MPs when it comes to scrapping the legislation entirely. This is what party members voted for at its autumn conference in Brighton, and campaigners are continuing to pursue it with some vigour.

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Nick Thornsby, a founding member of the party’s Liberal Reform group, says:

‘It is of course welcome that Ken Clarke has recognised some of the flaws contained in the original bill. But even the amendments made in the House of Lords don’t go far enough. The bill, establishing the principle of court cases where one side can’t hear the evidence from the other, is fundamentally illiberal. It is difficult to see how Part II can remain intact and be acceptable to Liberal Democrats.’

Over the weekend, another anti-secret courts campaigner Jo Shaw wrote to Nick Clegg to ask him to continue the commitment to civil liberties that he demonstrated by dropping his support for the Communications Data Bill and fight the Justice and Security Bill too. With the Lib Dem leader’s new commitment to gory government, now might not be the worst time to attempt some further differentiation on civil liberties.

I understand that campaigners are considering tabling motions for debate at the party’s spring conference on this matter, with some suggesting this could be as big a problem for the party as the Health and Social Care Bill was. There is still the possibility that activists could organise a special conference on the legislation, too. In this instance, though, there seems to be a wider disconnect between Lib Dem MPs and grassroots members, with the former currently accepting something the party members want scrapped.

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