Secret "justice" is nothing of the sort

Plans for secret courts in Britain would keep abuses secret too.

Judges often look at a person’s intention to understand the true meaning of their actions. A similar approach is needed with the controversial Security and Justice bill, which the House of Lords will begin reviewing on Tuesday (June 19).

The widely criticized bill would widen the use of secret hearings in the civil courts whenever national security grounds are invoked, excluding the person affected and his or her lawyer from the courtroom, thereby undermining a basic principle of justice: the ability to know the case against you. The bill would also prevent disclosure of material showing UK involvement in wrongdoing by other countries.

Notable opponents of the plans include most of the lawyers who act in secret hearings (known as “special advocates”) who are well placed to understand how such hearings undermine fairness. They are barred under current rules from consulting with the person on whose behalf they are supposed to be acting, or that person’s lawyers, about the secret part of the case.

Earlier proposals from the government to permit inquests into suspicious deaths to be held in secret and to allow secret hearings on even broader “public interest” grounds have thankfully been dropped, although opinion is divided on whether their original inclusion was merely a negotiating tactic.

The government’s intentions can be traced back to July 2010, when the Prime Minister first announced the proposals, alongside plans for an inquiry into UK complicity in torture and rendition, and changes to the guidance given to security services about interrogating suspects held outside the UK.

The announcement came after a series of embarrassing revelations under the previous government about UK knowledge and involvement in US and other government’s abuses against British citizens and residents in Guantanamo Bay, Pakistan and elsewhere.

The decision to hold an inquiry made all the headlines, and was welcomed at the time by Human Rights Watch and other NGOs. But when the terms of reference for the inquiry were made public in July 2011 it became clear that the government was not prepared to give the inquiry the independence and authority it needed to get to the truth, leading to a boycott by NGOs and lawyers. In January 2012 it was scrapped, with a commitment to hold a fresh inquiry at a later date.

The secret justice plans drew less attention at the time. The Prime Minister told Parliament that they were needed because the security services being “paralysed by paperwork” and Britain’s intelligence relationship with the US was being put in danger by public disclosure of US intelligence material shared with London.

But set in the context of the government’s efforts to limit its own inquiry and having seen the detail of its plans, it is evident that the government’s intention with the Justice and Security bill is to ensure that if abuses are repeated in future they will never see the light of day in British courts.

Recall how the previous Labour government fought tooth-and-nail for the British courts to prevent the publication of seven paragraphs of a court judgement in a civil case brought against the Foreign Secretary by former Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohammed.

As his lawyers have made clear, the material that the UK sought to block had already been made public in the US courts. When it was published, the real reason for the strength of the government’s objections became clear – the paragraphs showed that the UK knew early on that Binyam Mohammed was being tortured, a deeply embarrassing revelation.

The bill does contain one welcome element. The MPs and Lords who sit on the body that oversees the security services will now be appointed by parliament rather than the Prime Minister as now.

But the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) will otherwise remain toothless, with the Prime Minister able to veto investigations or block publication of material on broad grounds, and without the committee having the power to compel witnesses and evidence as the US Senate Intelligence Committee has. The Lords should use the bill as an opportunity to strengthen the oversight powers of the ISC.

Evidence continues to mount that the UK government was complicity in torture and rendition overseas. Last September, Human Rights Watch found evidence in Tripoli linking the British security services to the rendition of two Libyan men and a woman into the hands of the Gadaffi regime and the likely torture of the two men. Those cases are now rightly the subject of ongoing criminal investigations in the UK (the stated reason for halting the Gibson Inquiry).

The Libya cases are also the subject of civil suits against former UK government officials and the UK government itself. Those cases are an important measure of accountability and bulwark against future abuse. Yet if the government gets its way with this bill, such cases will be held behind closed doors, the victims and their lawyers, journalist and the public excluded. That is no justice at all.

Former Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohammed speaks. With these plans, his story would be depressingly commonplace. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Benjamin Ward is deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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