Monday, 4 March 2013

Secret Courts - #notinmyname

Over the weekend, there have been reports that the Tories want Britain to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)*. It appears that Theresa May wishes to make this a manifesto commitment for the 2015 general election. This would go further than their 2010 commitment to replace the Human Rights Act (which enshrines the ECHR in British law) with a Bill of Rights. 

It is also at complete odds with the Coalition Programme which spoke of building on all our obligations under the ECHR, ensuring the rights it bestows continue to be enshrined in law and protecting and extending those liberties.
"We will seek to promote a better understanding of the true scope of these obligations and liberties."
One would like to think that these last words were drafted and inserted by the Liberal Democrat side of the coalition. Given the recent rise of UKIP - and an emboldened Tory right - Liberals need to make a positive case for the ECHR (as well as the European Union which, whilst completely separate as an institution, is often deliberately confused with the ECHR.)

The Convention has earned its "hated" reputation as a result of a number of high profile cases, as well as the length of time that things can take in being settled at the Court in Strasbourg. As with any legal system, there will always be cases in which the outcome is at odds with what some (or many) of the populace want. But that is why we have a court system: to prevent mob justice.

Whilst we may disagree with some of the judgements of the Court, the underlying principles of the ECHR are about a society in which people are entitled to liberty and justice without fear or favour. It contains such outlandish notions as the Right to Life, Prohibitions of Torture, Slavery and Forced Labour, Rights to Liberty and Security, Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion, Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly and Association. And it contains a right to fair trial.

Withdrawing from the ECHR would be a retrograde step for Human Rights in this country - but that day (if it is coming) - is some way off. 

Civil Liberties in Britain face a more immediate attack. Today (Monday) the Justice and Security Bill will return to the Commons' for the Report Stage before completing that stage and receiving a Third Reading on Thursday. It appears the Government want to get the Bill out of the way before the Lib Dem Spring Conference, beginning on Friday.**

The bill's principles run contrary not only to the instincts of the Lib Dems at large but also to the Coalition Agreement - but it appears to have been agreed to wholeheartedly by Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander within the "Quad". Furthermore it appears not to have been agreed as part of a deal - so Liberal Democrats now appear to be supporting a piece of Draconian legislation with no Quid Pro Quo. Not only so, but the leadership have not been particularly forthcoming with a explanation or rationale for supporting the legislation.

Liberal Democrats are opposed to the provisions in Part Two of this bill, which provide for "Closed Material Procedures", dubbed Secret Courts. This has been demonstrated with a overwhelming vote in favour of a motion opposing them at Party Conference, numerous blogposts across the blogosphere (including a number of my own), a petition, and letters to The Times. The exception to this rule appears to be the leadership of the party, and our Parliamentarians (with a few honourable dissenters). 

An additional motion was proposed for Spring Conference but rejected by the Federal Conference Committee. An Emergency Motion has now been proposed which it is hoped will be discussed at conference - even if, by then, the die has been cast. If passed, the motion would reaffirm Liberal Democrat policy to repeal the legislation if in a position to do so.

Lib Dems in Government have achieved a number of notable successes - including in the area of Civil Liberties. The ending of Child Detention, abolition of ID cards and the associated database, the scrapping of the Draft Data and Communications Bill. But this bill, if passed would strike at the principles of fair access to courts which have underpinned our legal systems for centuries. This bill would be a stain on our reputation as a Country - and as a Party.

Defending Human Rights and Civil Liberties should be central to our politics. Whether that be supporting the ECHR against a reactionary press or fighting the erosion of basic legal principles against an authoritarian government machine. If the Security and Justice Bill is passed - and Closed Material Procedures become part of Civil Court proceedings - it will be a sad day for Liberal Democracy, and for Liberal Democrats.


*For any Sun readers reading this, that's the "Hated European Convention on Human Rights"...

**This, in itself, is a kick in the teeth to all those who campaigned for the party in Eastleigh, securing a win which will have helped to shore up Clegg's position against the small number of those who wish to see a change in leader.

Jo Shaw has written an excellant summary of the current state of play, here.

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