Secret inquest ‘replacement’ becoming law

By Alex Stevenson

The government is pushing through its ‘secret inquests’ agenda before the current parliamentary session ends later today.

Its coroners and justice bill contains proposals to allow some aspects of coroners’ cases to be heard in secret by suspending the inquest and replacing it with an inquiry presided over by a senior judge.

Under the proposal, which now only requires royal assent, ministers will be able to order the inquiry to replace an inquest featuring a jury where intercept evidence is deemed to be sensitive in national security terms.

Justice secretary Jack Straw has insisted the provision will only be used rarely. Rejecting a Conservative amendment this lunchtime, he told MPs the lord chief justice would have an “absolute veto” over the transition to an inquiry.

“I understand the suspicions that are caused. I am no more comfortable with the principle than others,” he said.

But he added: “The lord chief justice has a complete and absolute veto on this, and that is the way I want it to be.”

The Lords had attempted to stop the inquiries, but MPs rejected their amendments in a close vote on Monday night.

Yesterday the Lords backed down, leaving it up to the Commons to rubber-stamp the changes in their brief debate today.

Among yesterday’s changes, the Lords had proposed allowing intercept evidence to be made available to an inquest when needed.

The Liberal Democrats’ Sue Miller warned peers: “Once the concept that the government can order an inquiry instead of an inquest has been established and has gained a statutory footing, we will have taken a big step down a road where the public will lose all trust that we have maintained adequate defences against state impunity.”

But as the Conservatives indicated their reluctance to push through allowing intercept evidence at this late stage the Lords did back down, defeating Baroness Miller’s amendment by 175 votes to 70.

Parliament will be prorogued at the end of today’s business. Its final session before the coming general election will begin next Wednesday with the Queen’s Speech.