Labour forces secret inquests Bill through the Commons
Secret inquests which will bar bereaved families and the public from attending hearings into controversial deaths were forced through Parliament last night.
The Government narrowly defeated opposition to the new powers by a majority of eight MPs in a highly charged vote in the House of Commons. Under the measures ministers will be able to order that an inquest is replaced with a secret inquiry whenever they deem it necessary.
But last night MPs and civil rights groups accused the Government of eroding the ancient right to a public inquest. Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, which had strongly opposed the powers, said: "The British public has no taste for secret justice, particularly when the rights of grieving families are at stake. We will continue to fight for open jury inquests until the Government thinks again."
At last night's debate Labour's Bob Marshall-Andrews (Medway) described the inquiries as a "disproportionate remedy" to tackle the problem of sensitive information being made public in inquests. "In order to rectify what is an evidential problem, the Government is proposing to hand a massive new power to the executive," he said.
Ministers want to use the Inquiries Act to hold investigations into deaths which require the use of sensitive information such as intercept intelligence, which could not be placed before an inquest jury. The measure, buried in the Coroners and Justice Bill, gives the Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw, absolute discretion to order a secret inquiry in place of a public inquest.
It could mean that inquests that might expose the negligence of Government or a public body, or embarrass ministers or foreign allies, could be censored. It comes only six months after Mr Straw dropped similar proposals to hold sensitive inquests in private without juries.
Mr Straw said the move would only affect a "tiny number" of cases. "Every effort is made by this Government ... to push the standard coronial system, with a jury, in this kind of case to ensure that if humanly possible it is a normal coroner's inquest with a jury which holds the investigation."
He added: "There is no intention whatsoever by the agencies, by the police, by the Government, by the law officers, that any provisions in this Bill should ever be used as an alternative to a normal inquest where such a normal inquest, stretching the envelope as far as possible, can be used."
There was only one case currently where the central evidence was obtained from an intercept and there was "grave anxiety" that it would have to be made available to people who had not been security cleared. The case of Azelle Rodney, who was shot dead by police as he sat in the back of a car in north London in 2005, has not been the subject of an inquest.
Mr Straw said: "Unless we find a way through this problem there will be no satisfactory investigation into the cause of death in an equivalent case." But in the Lords, Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for the Liberal Democrats, said that although the Government had "very sensibly" withdrawn the secret inquests plan, using the Inquiries Act as an alternative was "an even worse solution".
Civil rights campaigners and MPs have attacked the Government for trying to sneak through an "abuse of power".
That's some guestlist! Stunning images show huge dynastic wedding between Ultra-Orthodox Jewish families which attracted 25,000 guests
Exclusive: Woolwich attack suspect attended meetings of banned Islamist group - and were known by security services
'Sickening, deluded and unforgivable': Horrific attack brings terror to London’s streets
World news in pictures
Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, the mother-of-two hailed as a hero for confronting Woolwich attackers, thought: 'better me than a child'
- 1 Exclusive: Woolwich attack suspect attended meetings of banned Islamist group - and were known by security services
- 2 'Sickening, deluded and unforgivable': Horrific attack brings terror to London’s streets
- 3 Grace Dent: I’m not sure how these people can avoid being called ‘bigots’. And the more ‘civilised’, the worse they are
- 4 Woolwich murder: They killed, then they performed - these men should be starved of our attention
- 5 Woolwich attack: The EDL will seek to exploit this evil crime for their own evil ends
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Nook is donating eReaders to volunteers at high-need schools and participating in exclusive events throughout the campaign.
Get the latest on The Evening Standard's campaign to get London's children reading.
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.