Ken Clarke tabled a series of amendments to the Justice and Security Bill last night, aimed at getting the legislation through the Commons when it reaches Report Stage next week. This is the ‘secret courts’ bill, the one that has upset a group of Tory MPs, the Lib Dem grassroots (and, to a lesser extent, their parliamentarians), the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Daily Mail. The changes are quite technical, but government sources insist that they should be sufficient to satisfy the critics. They are as follows:
- Claimants can apply for a secret hearing for material they don’t hold themselves.
- The judge in the case must be satisfied that the government has considered whether to make a claim for public interest immunity before applying for a secret hearing. The Bill’s critics wanted the test to be that the government had exhausted the PII process first, so this is a step down.
- Secret hearings will be examined by an annual report and a five-year review.
So does this satisfy opponents? Well, not exactly. In fact, the Lib Dem activists who have been pushing so hard on this are so unimpressed with the amendments that they are tabling an emergency motion on the legislation for their spring conference, which begins 8 March. I am told by those who are campaigning on the bill that it will remind parliamentarians that conference voted overwhelmingly in the autumn for the second part of the Bill, which contains the secret hearings, to be dropped. The deadline for emergency motions is Tuesday, and the Bill is likely to move to its very last stage in Parliament the following week, where the Lords considers whether to accept those amendments passed by the Commons.
Jo Shaw, a Lib Dem member who is leading the campaign, says:
‘This bill is utterly unprincipled, it is an affront to any supporter of liberal democracy and it puts a coach and horses through the Magna Carta. The case for it has not been made. The government’s amendments do not deliver the JCHR recommendations, they do not deliver what our conference voted for.’
This won’t be the only contentious emergency motion going in, though. Activists are also gearing up for a showdown on the NHS, as Nick Watt reported yesterday. And of course the conference comes at a time when the party is still reeling from the Lord Rennard allegations.
There’s also the Mail’s story today that 702 figures from the legal profession have described the bill as ‘dangerous and unnecessary’ and will ‘erode core principles of our civil justice system’. Next week could be interesting.