Wednesday 2 January 2013

Dear Nick...An Open Letter on Closed Material Procedures

Dear Nick,

You don't know me but obviously I know you. I'm writing to you about the Justice and Security Bill and its provisions for Closed Material Procedures (or Secret Courts, as they have become known). In particular, I'd like to ask you to reconsider your reported refusal to meet Jo Shaw and Martin Tod to discuss the party's (and the Government's) approach to the bill. But first, for the sake of background, a bit about me.

I'm a relative newbie having (re)joined the party in 2010 (post-election). Since then, I've gradually got more involved within the blogosphere, the local party and attending conference. Conference was a great experience, in particular the opportunity to attend and vote in the debates that make our party policy. Something which we are, justly, proud and which the party makes much of when "marketing" conference to the members.

I also really enjoyed the buzz of being with (relatively) like minded people throughout the week. Yes, we're a party with some profound disagreements on certain issues, but collectively we approach things from a broadly similar, liberal, mindset. Our party democracy facilitates honest, civilised and respectful debate - even on the most contentious of issues, things remain (for the most part) courteous. It may not be perfect, but it's better than policy being decided behind closed doors and fed down to the grassroots.

I'm proud of a lot of what we are doing in Government. I know we can't do nearly as much as we would like, and I know we have to swallow some pretty unpalatable things. I'm a realist but I supported the decision to join the coalition and I remain a supporter of it. We should be shouting from the rooftop about the raising of the Personal Allowance, implementing the Pupil Premium, stopping Child Detention and raising Capital Gains Tax, amongst other things. Trumpeting our achievements, not just the things we've stopped.

I was also proud of you, personally, when you stood up and accepted Leveson's central proposals in direct opposition to the Prime Minister. And when you accepted the Joint Committee's recommendations that the Draft Data Communications Bill needed a substantial rethink. And when you made a stand on Drugs and accepted the need for a Royal Commission and to look at alternatives to the current position.

These were bold and welcome moves. Moves that seemed to suggest you were seeking  to (re)claim the Liberal ground for us. To carve out a niche that isn't about chasing votes to the Left or to the Right. To be honest, I had hoped these would be followed with some pronouncements on the Justice and Security Bill. Sadly, though, that has not been the case...

Few things unite us more, as a party, than Civil Liberties. Few things differentiate us more from Labour - and increasingly - the Tories than Civil Liberties. For all the fine words in their manifesto, I'm sure I'm not alone in beginning to wonder how many of the coalition's achievements in this area would have been achieved without us in the Government.

I am, it has to be said, a loyalist. In political life, and life in general, I dislike dissension, aggression and conflict. But that is not to say that, when I feel strongly about things, I won't take a stand. And that brings me to the subject of this letter.

When I first read the text of the Autumn Conference Motion F41 "No Government Above the Law". I was reluctant to support it, given that it would - should - tie our Parliamentarian's hands. But, the amendment lacked, in my judgement, sufficient safeguards against the use of CMPs in circumstances conference, the party or even (perhaps) the current Government wouldn't deem appropriate.

Protection of Civil Liberties and Open Justice are at the root of an free and fair society. They are at the core of Liberal principles. The Justice and Security Bill strikes at the very heart of these principles. Just look at your Membership Card: "The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community..."

So much for the issue - but what of your response? After all, the motion was selected by FPC, in accordance with the constitution of the party. The amendment was debated (supported exclusively on the floor by Parliamentarians) and rejected overwhelmingly. The unamended motion was similarly passed overwhelmingly. As such, it is Party Policy to oppose Section II of the Bill.

Now, I appreciate that you can't stop everything. I know you only have some many cards that you can play. But you have a mandate from the party to reject this bill, and you aren't bound to it by the coalition agreement. I understand you must have invested some political capital in this: and that wholesale withdrawal at this stage would be embarrassing. (This, in itself, begs the question: how did you think the party would react when this was first mooted in the Quad, in Cabinet and amongst our MPs?)

As things stand, I am minded to support a further motion at Spring Conference and, if need me, at a Special Conference. Much depends on what you do next, and whether you respond to the party's obvious concerns in any way. I urge you, at the very least, to meet Jo and Martin to discuss the issue.

To finish, I want to quote you this:
"We will be strong in defence of Freedom. [We] believe that the British state has become too authoritarian [...] We will restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with Britain's tradition of freedom and fairness."
Our manifesto? No... The Coalition's own "Programme for Government".

Yours, Sincerely,

Andrew Brown

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