UK Politics

Ken Clarke defends 'secret courts' plan

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Media captionKen Clarke: 'We need spies in these dangerous times'

Ken Clarke has accused civil liberties campaigners of creating "fanciful conspiracy theories" over government plans for secret court hearings.

Under the bill, judges will be able to listen to more civil cases in secret without claimants being able to hear the evidence against them.

Mr Clarke stressed hearings would only be used in national security cases.

But civil rights groups described the bill as an "odious" move that would lead to more cover-ups.

Mr Clarke was stripped of the justice brief in September's reshuffle, but remains in the cabinet as minister without portfolio, with a continued responsibility for the Justice and Security Bill.

In a speech at the think tank Policy Exchange, he said the bill would boost the accountability of the intelligence and security services by allowing evidence to be heard in court that had never previously been allowed.

'Legal purism'

And he accused civil liberties campaigners of creating "fanciful conspiracy theories" and potentially scuppering "a golden opportunity for reform".

He said: "Some appear to be saying that if spies cannot give evidence in open court then they prefer to stay with secrecy and exclusion of evidence.

"Serious cases involving allegations of torture should be undecided, the amount of damages settled by a silenced defence.

"We can adopt a position of simplistic legal purism and try to wreck a golden opportunity for sensible reform.

"Or we can get on with it and actually deliver significant improvements to the parliamentary and judicial accountability of the security and intelligence agencies."

He said the government was wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on settling civil claims because it was unable to contest them - as the evidence it would wish to produce is so secret that it cannot be revealed in an open court.

It comes after 16 terror suspects, including former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed, received a multimillion-pound payout last November after they claimed they were mistreated by US and British security and intelligence officials.

These kinds of cases were, Mr Clarke said, a relatively recent phenomenon and a method needed to be developed to allow the government to contest the cases.

This would be done through allowing a judge to hear the intelligence evidence in secret, with a special advocate present to challenge it on behalf of the defendants.

Mr Clarke defended the scope of the bill, insisting it would only apply to "the narrow issue of evidence that involves national security".

"The chances of it applying to such matters as the Hillsborough Inquiry, investigations about Jimmy Savile, or the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, are about level to the chances of my picking up my running shoes on the way out of this building and running a marathon," he said.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights group Liberty, said: "Ken Clarke may be a national treasure but so is our justice system.

"His old friends in the civil liberties lobby hate to see him fronting up this odious policy that would replace open courts with secret stitch-ups between the government and judges, with the victims, press and public shut outside.

"Have we still not learned the danger of cover-ups?

"This bill only undermines trust in both security and justice itself."

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