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Coffee House

Tory MPs keen for changes on secret courts bill as Lib Dem grassroots clash with Clegg

5 February 2013

5:40 PM

5 February 2013

5:40 PM

The committee of MPs considering the Justice and Security Bill was sitting today, but outside the group of loyal MPs scrutinising the Bill line by line, moves are still afoot from those who oppose part II, which enables secret court hearings.

I understand that there is now a group of Conservative MPs keen to support further amendments being considered by Andrew Tyrie, which I covered on Coffee House last week, including Douglas Carswell and Peter Bone. Tyrie says:

‘The Joint Committee on Human Rights are right to call for more judicial discretion, so-called equality of arms and a much narrower definition of “sensitive” information.  In additional it’s crucial that the Bill contain a sunset clause and that the Wright Committee proposal for the reform of the ISC be implemented.  The Bill was in a shocking state when it was first introduced in the Lords.  Their Lordships have done some good rescue work on it, but there’s a lot more to do.’

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You can read more about those specific demands in Tyrie’s CPS paper on the legislation. This is not a gaping party split, but it is interesting to see a group of Tories pushing for changes beyond the amendments from the JCHR.

But the Lib Dems do have a split, not in the parliamentary party, but between parliamentarians and the grassroots. Party activists are continuing to push for part II of the bill to be dropped entirely. MPs, meanwhile, including those Lib Dems on the Bill committee – Julian Huppert and Mike Crockart – are content for the JCHR amendments to mark the end of the battle. Simon Hughes, who we reported before Christmas was pushing for the amendments to be accepted in full, also believes that the fight should stop there.

But MPs were instructed in a vote at their party’s conference in September to vote against part II of the bill. If they teamed up with the Conservatives interested in this, they might even tempt Labour to make some mischief on the Bill. So why aren’t they doing this? One senior Lib Dem source tells me that ‘there’s an understanding of their concern, but also a feeling that we’ve done everything possible in a way that wouldn’t have happened if the Lib Dems hadn’t been in government’. They feel that they do not have the political capital to achieve any changes beyond the recommendations of the JCHR.

But that’s not enough for the activists. They are furious that they have not been able to secure a meeting with Nick Clegg to air their concerns, and that their motion on the Bill for the party’s spring conference has been rejected. Those members are now appealing against that motion, but they are also collecting signatures from federal conference reps for a special conference. The problem is that the legislation may well have finished in the Commons by the time the Lib Dem decamp to Brighton for the spring conference. So a special conference on the bill would enable the party to debate the matter again, although one problem is that the party coffers aren’t exactly overflowing at present. They also need 200 signatures to be able to do this.

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