The Government came in for withering criticism from all sides yesterday as its plans to hold more court hearings in secret were attacked as “inherently unfair” and “dangerous”.
Human rights organisations backed up a committee of MPs and peers from all parties, which questioned whether the controversial proposals to extend the use of hearings behind closed doors were necessary and called for them to be abandoned.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights said the proposals were based on "vague predictions" and "spurious assertions" about catastrophic consequences. They were a "radical departure from long-standing traditions of open justice" which should only ever be used when publicly disclosing material would carry "a real risk of harm to national security", the committee added.
Dr Hywel Francis, the committee's chairman, said it was "troubling" that the Justice and Security green paper was not clear on the scope of its proposals, adding: "Closed material procedures are inherently unfair and the Government has failed to show that extending their use might in some instances contribute to greater fairness.”
The divisive reforms, which would give ministers sweeping powers to order closed hearings, are said to be aimed at improving the way information from the security and intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, is handled while still protecting national security.
After multi-million pound payouts to 16 terrorism suspects, including former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed, last November, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said the settlements were necessary to enable MI5 and MI6 officers to get on with their jobs. He claimed the case had risked damaging the UK's intelligence relationship with the United States amid claims Britain released US intelligence into the public domain.
Responding to yesterday’s report, Mr Clarke said the Government's proposals were "a common sense solution to a genuine problem in a very small number of cases".
"This Government will do everything possible to uphold the principle of open justice. But British intelligence agents obviously cannot give evidence in open court about their sources, their techniques and their secret knowledge,” he added.
But the committee said the green paper failed to show there was a "a real, practical problem at all" with the current system, adding: "It seemed to us that… the Government had fallen back on vague predictions about the likelihood of more cases being brought in future in which intelligence material will be relevant, and spurious assertions about the catastrophic consequences of information being wrongly disclosed.”
Its views were unanimously echoed by human rights groups. Clare Algar, executive director of Reprieve, which has described the plans as “dangerous”, said: "It should now be clear to ministers that these proposals must be dropped. To destroy our centuries-old tradition of open justice is bad enough. To do so based on unfounded gossip and misunderstanding would be nothing short of criminal."
Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights group Liberty, said: "Perhaps this damning report shows Parliament finally asserting itself over the increasingly cocky demands of the spooks.
“First they want private chats with judges to replace open justice; then total access to all our internet browsing and communications. No scrutiny for them and no privacy for us. Is it time to ask who runs Britain?"
Angela Patrick, director of human rights policy for the campaign group Justice, said the proposals had been condemned as unfair and unjustified, adding: “it is time for the Government to abandon its overreaching and unnecessary green paper.”
Helen Shaw, co-director of the campaign group Inquest, said: "It is abundantly clear that there is no need for such sweeping changes to the law. The fact that the Government was unable to produce a shred of evidence to support these proposals is testament to that.”