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".