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Justice and Security Bill [HL]

Volume 740: debated on Tuesday 6 November 2012

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will respond to the view expressed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that the proposals in the Justice and Security Bill [HL] regarding closed material procedures are incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government disagree with the EHRC’s analysis. Case law shows that closed material proceedings can occur compatibly with the right to a fair trial in Article 6 and the other rights contained in the convention. CMPs are explicitly made subject to Article 6 in the Bill. The UK Supreme Court affirmed as recently as last year in the case of Tariq that a procedure involving CMPs was compatible with Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The proposals regarding CMPs are controversial and difficult, are they not? How do the Government now propose, as they must, to deal with the powerful criticism of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and others that CMPs are incompatible with a fair trial, in breach of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights and fail to define clearly the national security concerns which are claimed to lie at the heart of the Government’s proposals? Are we too late to intervene and discuss the position with this body?

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Lord that these proposals are controversial, difficult and complex. Indeed, they have already been the subject of much debate in your Lordships’ House. As I indicated, the Government believe that they are compatible with Article 6. Upon introduction of the Bill, I signed a statement that its provisions are compatible, and the Government have published their own summary of the human rights issues in the Bill, which we gave to the Joint Committee on Human Rights and which has been published. The definition of national security was debated in your Lordships’ House in Committee, and there are many reasons as to why national security is not defined in many statutes. The noble Lord asked if there will be a further opportunity for discussion. Indeed, there will be such an opportunity because the future business set down for the House indicates that the Report stage will be held on the 19th and 21st of this month. I anticipate some informed and robust discussions during those debates.

My Lords, my noble and learned friend the Advocate-General will no doubt agree that the opinion of John Howell QC obtained by the commission needs to be taken seriously. Have the Government yet had time to consider how far amendment of the Bill might address the thrust of the criticisms he advances—in particular, by ensuring that its impact is strictly limited to material that would otherwise be subject to public interest immunity and to cases where otherwise no trial at all would be possible, and by giving claimants as well as the Government the right to have such material considered by a court, with the assistance of a special advocate?

My Lords, I can certainly assure my noble friend that the Government give serious attention to representations from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and to this particular opinion, as I have indicated. There is a good response to the two key concerns that have been raised. It is the Secretary of State who applies for the CMP, but it is nevertheless the courts which decide whether to grant a declaration and, thereafter, which material will be heard in closed proceedings. With regard to criticism of the standard of gisting, we believe, as we said in Committee, that following the judgment in the Tariq case the Supreme Court found that the requirement of fairness can vary from case to case. The Bill states that closed material proceedings must comply with Article 6, when it applies, and we leave it to the courts to decide what Article 6 requires in any case. I am grateful for the constructive proposal of my noble friend. He will be aware that as well as considering seriously the opinion of the ECHRC, we will also consider the comments made in Committee, and I think we will receive before Report stage the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I certainly look forward to giving that the consideration it deserves.

My Lords, given the dictum of the late Lord Scarman that public interest immunity is a matter of substantive public law, not private right, and that of the late Lord Bingham, that:

“It is an exclusionary rule, imposed on parties in certain circumstances, even where it is to their disadvantage”,

does the Minister agree with the opinion of leading counsel furnished to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission that,

“it is the duty of courts and tribunals to give effect to such immunity if applicable”—

on their own motion—

“even if the parties do not wish it”?

If so, what are the implications for the proposals in the Bill?

My Lords, again the issues regarding public interest immunity have been well aired and were referred to by my noble friend Lord Marks. I am sure that we will return to this on Report. The concern expressed during our earlier debates was that if PII is successfully asserted by the Secretary of State, that material in respect of which PII is successfully claimed has no part to play—it is not admitted to the proceedings. The Government’s concern is that there may well be situations where the Government have an answer to serious allegations made against them but, under the PII system alone, they are not able to bring that material before a judge. We believe that it is better if it is before a judge, subject of course to the proper safeguards in this Bill.

My Lords, I support what my noble friend has said, having appeared before that court on more than one occasion and set up my own chambers in Brussels, and having had an interest there. However that interest was always in our country, which predominated over that of the interest of Europe.