Isabel Hardman

Exclusive: Senior Lib Dems push for changes to secret courts bill

Exclusive: Senior Lib Dems push for changes to secret courts bill
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Senior Lib Dem MPs are deeply concerned about the government's plans for secret courts, and will urge the government to accept changes made to the legislation in the House of Lords, I understand.

The Justice and Security Bill will have its second reading in the House of Commons in the next few weeks, fresh from a series of embarrassing defeats on the secret courts measures in the House of Lords. Ken Clarke has said that some of the amendments brought in the upper chamber will need modifying at the very least. But the Liberal Democrat grassroots have been lobbying their parliamentarians to drop the Bill entirely ever since their conference voted on a motion calling for just that in September.

Deputy Leader Simon Hughes, who sits on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which recommended the amendments passed by peers, has told Coffee House that he wants the government to accept the changes when the Bill comes before the House. He says:

'Clearly the Bill had some proposals which were rightly the cause of some concern. The House of Lords made significant amendments after this bill was considered by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The government should now accept these amendments when they come to the House of Commons for further consideration.'

The party's president Tim Farron tells me he is also concerned about the proposals, and has been holding meetings with campaigners.

The changes made in the House of Lords would give judges more power to decide whether a court should sit in secret, and restrict the government's power over the use of covert intelligence in civil cases.

But grassroots members will not be satisfied if the government accepts the amendments and then continues with the legislation: they want it dropped altogether. Jo Shaw, who is leading the push against the Justice and Security Bill, says:

'If the Joint Committee on Human Rights' amendments are accepted, it will change the dynamic of the debate a little, but we need to remember that those changes were rejected when we voted on the issue at conference. Our motion rejected the Bill itself, and the principle of secret courts as a whole, and that's what we are going to keep pushing for. We hope that those from the Labour party and Conservative party who share our grave concerns about this Bill will join in the interests of fair trials to see off secret courts in civil cases.'

For now, it looks as though the campaigners aren't going to get that, unless the party leadership becomes sufficiently worried about the effects of the Bill. But it's an interesting stand-off between activists and their MPs as it represents the first big confrontation since the Health and Social Care Bill. Though there is never going to be public outrage about the way courts operate in the same way as there is about changes to the NHS, Lib Dem members themselves get very worked up about the idea of secret hearings. There could be another face-off at the party's spring conference in March 2013. The deadline for motions on the conference floor is late January, by which time activists may be starting to get nervous that their MPs aren't going to be convinced that they should obey the autumn conference motion instructing them to vote down the legislation.