Saturday, 24 November 2012

This week...I’m so proud to be a Lib Dem

It’s not every day I say this.

But, this week, I am very proud of my party.  Or – to be more precise – I am very proud of a large number of our peers, and our leader Nick Clegg.

It’s not every day that I wax lyrical about members of our unelected second chamber, and certainly not a frequent occurrence for me to shower our leader with praise (although there have been moments when I have, and when such praise has been fully merited).  But this week has demonstrated a number of things: what we can achieve in government, what we are achieving in government and the difference between the two.  More significantly, we’ve also seen why we need the Liberal Democrats – a party committed to a liberal society and social justice will always be needed at the heart of British democracy so long as the two principal political parties are Labour and the Conservatives.

The euphemistically named Justice and Security Bill was up for debate in the House of Lords this week.  Even more of a misnomer than the Access to Justice Act of 1999, the Bill is little more than a continuation and extension of the previous government’s commitment to eroding our civil liberties.  What is under threat this time, aside from the coalition government’s credibility given the supposed pledge “to restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with [the spirit of] freedom and fairness”, is the guarantee of open justice.  The Bill aims to legislate to replace such a guarantee, and the civil rights and freedoms inherent within it, with what are being termed “secret courts”.

Of course, the government doesn’t use that term – preferring instead another misnomer, “closed material procedure”.  It amounts to the same thing.  Under the proposals, civil matters in which national security is claimed to be at risk will take placed behind closed doors, out of view of the public and – more importantly, as Nick Thornsby explains in the Guardian – “the claimant, and his or her legal representatives, will also know nothing of what is presented.”

I’m not saying there isn’t a case for revisiting how the justice system considers evidence in instances where an obvious threat to national security exists.  What I am suggesting is that the one being made is ill-conceived.  Secrecy is never the answer when the question relates to matters of justice. 

Knowing that the Justice and Security Bill was to be debated in the Lords, last weekend I spoke to some Liberal Democrat peers about my concerns.  On Monday, I also signed an open letter to The Times that reads thus:

Your leading article (Nov 19) expressed your paper’s opposition to the Government’s plans for “secret courts”.  We, as members of the Liberal Democrats, agree.
On Monday Lord Pannick QC described the Justice and Security Bill as “”unfair, unnecessary and unbalanced”.  The issue at stake – open and equal justice – could hardly be more serious.  We believe the proposals are neither liberal nor democratic and, for us, go right to the heart of what it means to support liberal democracy.
We urge all peers to vote for the amendment supported by Lord Dubs, Lord Strasburger and Baroness Kennedy which deletes Clause 6 of the Bill.  If Clause 6 is deleted, secret courts will not blight our civil courts and our international standing for decades to come.  It will also mean that Liberal Democrats across the country can continue to assert, as our constitution states, that our party “exists to safeguard a fair, free and open society”.
Should the Bill pass with secret courts included, the damage to our justice system and our country will be incalculable.

The letter was published on Wednesday, although the newspaper only printed the names of five of the more senior signatories, thereby not demonstrating the strength of feeling in the party on this matter.  I was very proud to be a signatory to a letter making such a simple stance of defiance against the poorly conceived and potentially catastrophic ambitions of the government. 

(As previously advised, on this occasion I did write to the leader informing him I had signed a letter to a national newspaper which may be construed as a criticism of his leadership.)

On the vote itself, there were some defeats for the government in relation to safeguards.  These defeats were significant and undoubtedly mean that the Bill is fundamentally better.  On the specific issue of secret courts there was a significant Liberal Democrat rebellion against the government; a rebellion that was wrongly crushed but one that showed that there are Lib Dem parliamentarians who put the principles our party holds dear before slavish loyalty to government.  A list of the 25 peers standing against secret courts includes a mere three Labour peers and no Conservatives:

Bath and Wells, Bp. (Non-affiliated)
Brinton, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Clement-Jones, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Doocey, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Dubs, L. [Teller] (Labour)
Greaves, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Hamwee, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Hussain, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Judd, L. (Labour)
Kennedy of The Shaws, B. (Labour)
Kidron, B. (Crossbencher)
Linklater of Butterstone, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Macdonald of River Glaven, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Maclennan of Rogart, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Pannick, L. (Crossbencher)
Roberts of Llandudno, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Scott of Needham Market, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Shipley, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Stern, B. (Crossbencher)
Strasburger, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Thomas of Gresford, L. [Teller] (Liberal Democrat)
Tonge, B.* (Non-affiliated)
Tope, L. (Liberal Democrat)
Walmsley, B. (Liberal Democrat)
Wigley, L.(Plaid Cymru)
*until very recently a Liberal Democrat

That Liberal Democrat peers had the courage and conviction to make a stand against the government and the man charged with introducing the Bill in the Lords, Jim Wallace, made me enormously proud.  Some of these names are those of personal friends and I expected nothing other. What was surprising was the virtual unanimous support among the Conservative and Labour parties for secret courts, and this fact more than any other underlines the need for a party that is liberal and democratic – and, moreover, actually values civil liberty and an open and transparent justice system.

Caron Lindsay, another Lib Dem opponent of secret courts, was unusually critical of Jim Wallace who she described as having “a bad day at the office”.  “If he could only take 11 colleagues with him, that should send enough shock waves through him to make him realise the strength of feeling in the party.”  That neatly sums up the problem our leading parliamentarians are facing: like the NHS Bill, it’s taken a conference defeat for the leadership for them to realise quite what the mood is in the party on this matter.  Almost to a man, we don’t want the principal of open justice undermined.  And we don’t care if that offends our Conservative colleagues.

When the Bill returns to the Commons, I hope that Liberal Democrat MPs will make their objections a little more vigorously than they did last time around.  In the longer-term, I feel a certain inevitability about these proposals, unopposed as they are by a Labour Party unwilling to reverse its less than proud record in relation to civil liberties.  But that doesn’t mean that our party should not provide resistance.  There are two key reasons: firstly, our identity as a party in pursuit of a fair, free and open society demands it; secondly, a failure by the parliamentary party to follow the line set at conference risks widening divisions between the leadership and the grassroots. 

Inevitably there are feelings of frustration but the overriding sense of pride offsets that.  It was in the pursuit of such principles as justice and liberty that I became a Liberal Democrat, and it is in defence of them that I remain so.

Another thing that made me very proud this week was Nick Clegg.  As a new dad to be (Xanthe arrived in July this year), I encountered a potential new employer with unhelpful views in regards paternity entitlement.  Their evident inability to grasp why this was important to me – and a legal right – led to me seeking (and finding) employment elsewhere. But that’s not really the point – what I really want to highlight is how British paternity rights have lagged behind those of other European nations.  Frankly, it’s disgraceful and only entrenches gender inequality and “traditional” notions of parental roles.

Of course Nick announced the week previous that new flexible parental leave is soon to become a reality.  The detail of this may not be exactly what I would have wanted (Clegg himself admitted he would have wanted to go further with paternity leave, but had to consider the fragile state of the economy) but ultimately some well overdue progress has been made.  And it’s been made because the Liberal Democrats, and Nick Clegg personally, have been determined to move forward.  It’s part of that fairness agenda Clegg so often speaks of but too often doesn’t translate into legislation.

I’m not simply proud of Nick because he’s announced a useful initiative that will undoubtedly help new parents.  I’m actually proud of him because, since the announcement, he’s made the effort to remind us how his policy thrust, with the emphasis on fairness and family, is government by personal experience.  He’s a dad himself and one who knows he’s more than a bit luckier than many of us.  He’s showing a lot more humility and understanding in the last few weeks that we’re accustomed to and in addition to the renewed commitment to fairness, there’s also been new efforts to connect with the membership – this week discussing plans to tackle homelessness. 

What he now has to do is translate that obvious passion for childcare and early years onto issues his party feels so much stronger about...such as secret courts.  Wonderful new initiatives to help new parents pale into insignificance beside such an unnecessary erosion of civil liberty.  And so, while I’m proud and pleased at Clegg’s attempts to reconnect with the party and press on with delivering a fairer deal for many families, the real challenge he has is to persuade his MPs to follow the party when the Justice and Security Bill returns to the Commons.

And if he can do that, I will be really proud...

1 comment:

Countdown to November said...

Finally distancing themselves from the Conservatives in public is precisely what the Lib Dems must do if they want to regain their past support. There's little doubt that their public opposition to the Justice and Security Bill, which to me seems like the UK's equivalent of the US Patriot Act, will no doubt give them credibility on a truly liberal issue that no other party in the House of Commons, save maybe Plaid Cymru, is targeting.

But opposition to the justice bill won't be enough, and the Lib Dems must focus all their efforts on differentiating themselves from the Conservatives in other, more concrete ways as well. Forcing their senior coalition partners to cave in to their green wind-farm agenda is certainly a start, but this liberal progress must continue and must be farther reaching if Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats are to gain any traction in the polls.

On a separate note, I've just written a nice piece on my blog about Catalonia and Spanish Federalism, which you might find of interest.