Thank you for your letter today about childcare. I welcome your work in this vital area.
I have noted from your letter your concern for new policy areas regarding civil liberties. You may recall I wrote to you in December on the subject of civil liberties when your letter referred to the equal marriage legislation and the Communications Data Bill, but not to the Justice and Security Bill.
You are aware of the strength of feeling in the party about this Bill. Our party voted democratically and overwhelmingly against the Bill’s extension of secret courts to any civil case. You should also, by now, be aware of the strengths of the arguments which demonstrate, as Lord Pannick said, that this Bill is “unnecessary, unfair and unbalanced”. As Liberal Democrat leader, you must also know the core values at stake, for our party as well as for our country.
You may have this week seen the excellent article by Andrew Tyrie MP and Tony Peto QC – “Neither Just Nor Secure” http://www.cps.org.uk/
The Justice and Security Bill could not have more serious implications for civil liberties in the UK. It is essential that it does not become law. Time is running out. My understanding is that the Bill is likely to conclude its process through parliament by early March, in advance of our Spring Conference.
As you will know, the Bill is now being debated in Committee in the Commons. Those who support CMPs say they will mean fairer cases and more trials being held with all the information being available to the judge. I completely disagree with this Bill on principle, and with the basis for those arguments, but I have examined the government’s proposed amendments (tabled in response to the Joint Committee for Human Rights recommendations, and Lords amendments) for the Committee stage with them in mind.
1. The government’s proposed amendments to the Bill make the rules different for civilians and the government when applying for a closed hearing. There can be absolutely no justification for this. If CMPs (secret courts) are fair (which I dispute) then they can and should be available on the same terms for all.
2. Additionally the government’s amendment removes the test of last resort for CMPs, and removes the balancing test for the judge between the sometimes conflicting public interests in protecting national security absolutely, and fair and open administration of justice. The new test is simply “fair and effective administration of justice in the proceedings”. In other words, the wider public interest in fair and open justice is not considered in deciding whether or not to order a CMP. This is wrong in principle.
3. The government amendments also mean that confidentiality rings (a means of protecting national security without going to the lengths of secret courts) are unavailable. This makes CMPs more likely in a larger number of cases.
The government amendments were a test of the good faith of those who support this Bill. That test has been failed. The government amendments make this Bill worse, not better.
Please use your role as Deputy Prime Minister and act now to stop Part II of this illiberal and offensive Bill. History will not forgive our party or indeed this parliament if it becomes law.