CentreForum’s ‘Liberal Hero of the Week’ #15 – The Liberal Democrat Conference

by Stephen Tall on September 28, 2012

ImageWelcome to the 15th in our series — Liberal Hero of the Week — as chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

The aim is to showcase public figures who help promote the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book: economic, personal, political and social liberalism. We highlight individuals regardless of their party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism then they’re in contention.

The Lib Dem Conference

The annual gathering of party members, held this year at Brighton, 22-26 September..
Reason: For ignoring the party leadership and voting to oppose ‘secret courts’, defending the right of all citizens to free and fair trials.

It’s not the fact that David Cameron doesn’t know the translation of ‘Magna Carta’ that worries me. It’s that he doesn’t appear to understand its central tenet:

No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.

Fair and open justice may be enshrined within Magna Carta, but it is undermined by the Coalition’s proposed justice and security bill, which would see the extension of secret courts, known as closed material procedures (CMPs), into the civil courts in England and Wales. CMPs enable sensitive information to be introduced in a trial that can be seen only by the presiding judge and security-cleared ‘special advocates’, who are able to access evidence that is otherwise restricted due to national security concerns. ‘Special advocates’ are not in a solicitor-client relationship and may only provide the defendant with a ‘gist’, or loose summary, of the evidence that may end up sending them to prison.

The bill was the subject of a debate at this week’s Liberal Democrat conference: the leadership wanting to maintain maximum wiggle-room for negotiation with their Conservative Coalition partners, and activists wanting to maintain the party’s position as proud defenders of civil liberties. When the vote was taken the result was overwhelming in its call for Lib Dem parliamentarians to oppose the extension of ‘secret courts’.

Here’s my favourite quote from the debate…

… and here are my three reasons for my naming the Lib Dem conference this week’s CentreForum liberal heroes:

First, the debate itself was of the highest quality – on both sides, I should add, as noted by The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour. Lib Dem MPs queued up to extol the virtues of the liberal changes already made to the bill as a result of Lib Dem intervention, for example by removing inquests from the scope of the closed material procedures. They were listened to politely before being reminded that — on such a fundamental issue as this, where innocent lives may be at stake — Lib Dems should aim for the best not just mitigate the worst. The fact that the debate itself took place, openly in front of the watching eyes of a cynical media always looking to attack internal divisions, is itself worthy of recognition.

Secondly, the debate got to grips with the key issues and came to the conclusion that the bill as it stands knocks out a cornerstone of our justice system. As was pointed out, in the supreme court’s decision in 2011 on Al Rawi v the security service, Lord Kerr asserted: “Evidence which has been insulated from challenge may positively mislead … the right to know the case that one’s opponent makes and to have the opportunity to challenge it occupies … a central place in the concept of a fair trial.” Though amendments to the bill have secured some safeguards that are welcome, there are still gaping holes in the legislation which would allow future government ministers to widen the scope of ‘secret courts’ without any further parliamentary legislation. In short, this bill is unamendably illiberal.

Thirdly, there is every chance that the conference vote could actually halt the bill, or at the very least ensure its most pernicious ‘secret court’ components are dropped, as Labour also is expressing serious concern with the proposals. Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan has strongly criticised the bill, arguing “it is positively misleading to claim it is judge-led. Ministers retain the power on what is kept secret – meaning the usual checks and balances that provide proper scrutiny of government action will not be present.” Liberals who believe in pluralist politics believe in looking at issues not on the basis of which party proposed them, but on the basis of which is putting forward the best liberal arguments regardless of tribal label.

It’s easy to be cynical about party conferences, to argue they cannot change anything. Yet this week’s debate on ‘secret courts’ was a reminder that not only can they produce a first-rate contest of ideas, but that they also offer a route for party members democratically to change government policy.

* The Guardian has produced an excellent short guide to the issues around secret courts here.

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.