New controversy over counter-terrorism plans

A new controversy has erupted over the government’s counter-terrorism bill after it was revealed it grants the government powers to hold inquests in secret.

The measure – section 63 of the bill – was passed over without many people noticing it during the stormy row over 42-day detention but is now taking centre stage just as the House of Lords prepares to vote on the proposals in October.

The section allows for the government to keep matters secret if doing so is in “the public interest”. This could include barring the public from ‘public inquests’ such as that into the death of Iraq weapons inspector David Kelly, allowing the home secretary to stop a jury being summoned and replacing a coroner with a government appointee.

But lawyers and civil liberties advocates are furious at the changes, which would eradicate a centuries-old right of the public to observe inquiries into a death.

The case of Azelle Rodney, who was shot by police in a 2005 surveillance operation, will be one of the first to be subject to the new rules.

Other inquests which could have fallen under the remit of the changes include that into the death of Princess Diana or the future inquest into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by police officers after the failed London terrorist attack of 2005.

“These proposals are completely wrong,” said David Howarth, a Liberal Democrat spokesman on home affairs.

“They allow the secretary of state to remove a case from a jury on the vague ground that it is in the public interest – the whole thing is an appalling violation of the separation of powers.”

Dominic Grieve, shadow home secretary, agreed, saying the Conservatives would pour on pressure to make sure the Lords reject the bill – a move it is expected to adopt anyway.

“The government has so far failed to make the case for handing it the power to appoint the coroner, disband the jury and hold inquests in secret,” he said.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: “These proposed changes will ensure inquests are as thorough as possible by ensuring that the coroner can always examine all material central to the inquests even if the material cannot be disclosed publicly.”