First of all, some words of heartfelt thanks. People like Ros Scott, Sal Brinton, Tim Clement-Jones, Sally Hamwee and Dee Doocey simply don’t strike me as the rebellious sort. That Tony Greaves is doesn’t make me any less grateful to him, but he is pretty familiar with the grass on that side of the fence. Sixteen of our seventy – ish peers who were around to vote last night in the Lords chose to stick with party policy and vote to delete the secret courts provision from the Justice and Security Bill. That’s a tough choice to make and I am grateful to each and every one of them. I was particularly chuffed to see Bob Maclennan in there, who was MP for Caithness and Sutherland where I lived when I first joined the SDP in 1983. The others on my Role of Noble Honour are Lords Hussein, MacDonald, Shipley, Strasburger, Tope, Roberts and Thomas and Baronesses Walmsley and Linklater. Thank you all. There were some others, by the way, who seemed to have made themselves scarce between the earlier votes and this crucial division, so they didn’t vote for the clause to stay in either.
I know exactly why I think it’s wrong to have cases decided between a spook, a judge and a state appointed advocate for the defendant/complainant who isn’t allowed to tell them of the case against them. I do, however, get a bit scared about writing about it, not being a legal person. My Lib Dem Voice colleague Nick Thornsby has written a hell of a good article for the Guardian on why secret courts are a bad idea. As he says:
It is difficult to comprehend just how fundamental a departure from centuries-old principles this would be. The right to see and hear the evidence of the other side, and subsequently to challenge the veracity or utility of that evidence, forms the basis of our entire civil justice system. The prospect, too, of claimants being told that they have lost their case but not being given any reasons why should send a chill through any believers in fair, open justice.
The delete vote was the fourth out of five votes. The Government had been pretty heavily defeated on the first three which sought to add safeguards to the Bill. They certainly made it better – but that is a relative term. It was horrific and it’s now merely bloody awful. The number of Liberal Democrat peers voting for the Government line was a whole 12. That is not a good day at the office for the man introducing the Bill, Jim Wallace, by any manner of means. If he could only take 11 colleagues with him, that should send enough shock waves through him to make him realise the strength of feeling in the party. Jim was a very good Deputy First Minister, and he should recognise this situation as the parallel to the 1999 Coalition. We had made very specific promises on tuition fees (which we did not implement) and free personal care (which we did bring in). If we had reneged on either of these, the party would have spontaneously combusted. This, I think, is where we are with secret courts, where the only people who seem to have any sort of time for it are those in Parliament. As I said on Lib Dem Voice yesterday, a glance at the list of the 172 party members who signed the letter to the Times shows unanimity across loyalists and the awkward squad, social and economic liberals, Lib Dems the length and breadth of the country. I hope that Jim heeds what he is being told and takes steps to get rid of the secret court provisions once and for all. It is really important for this party that he does.
The Bill is back in the Lords next week before it heads off to the Commons. For the Lib Dems against secret courts campaign, there is a long way to go. Jo Shaw wrote about last night’s proceedings here. If you’re a Lib Dem member and you want to support the campaign you can do so by signing the petition here and following the blog or the Facebook page here.