Should we chillax about secret justice?
Well, should we? Hmm. I’m actually feeling quite laidback right now so I’ll come back to that particular question in my own sweet time …
Instead … a few words about a famously laidback person, David Cameron. He’s promised a proper investigation into allegations of UK complicity in rendition, secret detention and torture but … well, not much is happening. The Gibson inquiry has been set up and then put out to grass. A number of civil actions are in the offing. And of course new legislation over civil claims in “national security” cases is on the way.
So, a reason to be anxious or, er, chillaxed? Well, we can assume that David Cameron - a self-acknowledged chillaxer who uses a “Clegger” tennis machine, a few glasses of claret and a sing-song on his Karaoke machine to wind down - is feeling unstressed about the proposals. It’s his government after all.
Meanwhile, I think we can be pretty sure that Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is similarly Zen-like about it. He’s known for listening to jazz (always a good thing I think …) and, after the overnight media, it’s also clear he likes to stretch out at a Test Match (the Trent Bridge mid-yawn Clarke photo is already bit of a classic, I reckon, especially a version showing him with one of his famous brown suede shoes on and the other off). The always imperturbable Clarke took some John Humphrys ribbing about this in his stride this morning, but somehow the image of a super-relaxed minister lingers uncomfortably now, as we reflect on the serious damage that could be wrought by his department’s newly-published Justice and Security bill.
In his usual languid fashion, Clarke says that in “national security” civil cases we need new “closed material procedures” - where one party to the case is prevented from seeing all the evidence being relied upon by the court and is unable to directly cross-examine the case’s witnesses - because a terrorist could be “in the public gallery taking notes” about how our spies operate.
Not so. It will be perfectly possible to do things like conceal the identity of witnesses where national and individual security might be at issue. Clarke is arguing that the “closed material procedures” are needed because it’s either “reveal our secrets” or “settle every time” over civil claims for damages over torture and other abuses, but this is a false proposition. It’s perfectly possible to run a civil case according to the principle of giving due weight to the need for maintaining security whilst also ensuring that victims and the general public learn who has been responsible for serious wrongdoing (as in the alleged Libyan rendition cases).
Amnesty’s Alice Wyss says the bill will “allow the Government to throw a cloak of secrecy over wrongdoing, including the alleged involvement by UK officials in rendition, secret detention and torture”. If it becomes law it’s likely to mean that members of the secret intelligence services and senior politicians will feel altogether chillaxed about grave allegations of complicity in torture, knowing full well that the information is always going to remain secret in the interest of “national security”. I don’t think this is something we should feel particularly chillaxed about though.
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