The Sketch: A public need to find a truth too secret to reveal

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The Independent Online

Secret inquests went to the Lords and yesterday came back. Poor Jack Straw regards himself as a champion of coroners' juries but has to introduce this new way because there are things too secret for ordinary people to hear.

Thus, now state servants may kill a citizen without the public scrutiny of a coroner and a jury. The police do shoot people occasionally and don't always apologise.

The oppositions thought they'd killed off the clause but it's like cockroaches.

The Government had sent up the Bill with a majority of just eight on one big clause. Outside the Commons, Bob Marshall Andrews, a persistent opponent, had said: "We won!" The Lords would take that fag-paper win as a mandate to reject the whole thing. All was well. Ancient liberties. Great traditions. The executive confronted and contained.

All wasn't well. The Tory Lords abstained. "To oppose or to support the Bill would not be the correct course," one of the old baboons said. Why? Parliament has its reasons. It may not be legal to ask what they are.

In the Commons, the Bill came back yesterday for its final stage. Dominic Grieve had launched a fascinating amendment to replace "that judge" with "a judge". On such niceties do large matters turn.

Denis McShane started with a sorrowful speech about having voted the wrong way on the fag-paper win and declared himself unable to follow his old boss into the lobby. He sounded quite heroic, if you can imagine that.

But in a sudden change of tone he got into a food fight with the Conservatives, denouncing their "lying deceit" and razzing them as "millionaires". He was a firebrand, a tribune! Imagine our surprise at the division when he and his friends didn't vote at at all. Like the Tory peers they abstained.

Why? It was a point of principle. No, the other principle.

In sum, Jack Straw has put in an ingenious concession. A minister will not be able to order an inquest to be held in secret. He has to ask the Lord Chief Justice. Ah, but what does he have to ask?

He has to ask if a particular judge ("that judge") is acceptable. If the judge isn't, the Bill (or Act as it now is) allows the minister to put up another, and another, and another.

Straw said it wouldn't work like that, they shouldn't waste time with a vote. There wasn't any need to write it into the Bill because Clause 4 (a) clearly related to sub par little 1 (b) Big 2 – and as we know from earlier exchanges, there was no cause not to trust him.

Maybe it'll be a non-event, like Control Orders – a power that lies dormant waiting for the right government to bring it to life.