Next Tuesday, which is both my nephew's 14th birthday and the 32nd anniversary of the founding of the SDP, the Justice and Security Bill comes back to the House of Lords for consideration. Now, my esteemed colleague Mr Valladares has given a very helpful account of what the Lords can and can't do. He goes on to suggest that the Upper House will often back down in the face of pressure from the elected Chamber.
If ever, though, there was a time for the peers to kick off, it is now, when the right to a fair trial remedy for those who have been tortured or otherwise wronged by the state is being threatened. This is what I said in my speech to Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference last week:
...if you torture me and I sue you and you file a defence that I can’t see, how am I supposed to tell the Judge that you are talking hogwash?
And when the Judge makes a ruling against me, which I also am not allowed to see, how am I supposed to know what my grounds for appeal are?
Mike Crockart and Julian Huppert have worked really hard on this Bill. They spent days on Committee trying to change it. They moved a vote to delete the secret courts provision and lost by one vote. But even all their hard work wasn’t enough. Mike and Julian did not think that there were sufficient safeguards in the Bill for them and they voted against it last week.
The fundamental principle behind the secret courts provision is so fundamentally wrong that it is impossible to amend it to make it acceptable. I think the best you can say is that they’ve turned it from a cowp to a midden.
There are some things that you just can't polish. This Bill should never have seen the light of day and certainly not with a Liberal Democrat's name on it.
Over the next few days, I think we should all contact as many peers as we can and ask them to do whatever they can to keep this Bill from becoming law, to amend the amendments in such a way as to keep the Bill going back and fore between both Houses until it simply runs out of time before the end of the session or the Government can be persuaded to withdraw it. Our civil liberties are worth protecting.
James Carville, brilliant and slightly eccentric Democrat strategist who masterminded Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns, once said:
When your opponent is drowning, throw the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) an anvil.
Similarly, when a bad piece of legislation is drowning in the currents between two Houses of Parliament, throw it an anvil, not a life jacket.
Let's spend the weekend filling their inboxes with short, well-argued pleas to find some way of sparing us the effects of this Bill. Liberal Democrat Peers are listed here and crossbench peers are listed here. Remind them that it's totally counter-intuitive for us as a party to be on a different side to Liberty, Reprieve, Amnesty. Remind them that human rights lawyers and the special advocates themselves oppose the bill and the Joint Committee on Human Rights is still not satisfied with the Bill.
If you agree with me that this Bill is entirely wrong in principle, get those anvils poised and ready to throw. Still not convinced? Read this by David Howarth, former MP for Cambridge.
Consider, for example, the torts of assault and battery and false imprisonment, torts on which our freedom from state oppression are built. The defences to these torts include necessity and self-defence. Those are precisely the defences that would be in issue in the most profound and difficult of cases, for example a torture and ticking time-bomb case or a case of holding a potential terrorist’s family as hostages. Are we really to have secret precedents in these areas of law? The very thought should make any liberal, or indeed anyone who believes in the rule of law, shudder.