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Clause 65 — Certificate requiring inquest to be held without a jury: England and Wales

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 10th June 2008.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice 8:45 pm, 10th June 2008

It is extraordinarily dangerous. I know of only one other provision that allows the Government to interfere in some way—although this has been disputed—with an investigation in progress. This is the superintendence power of the Attorney-General over the director of the Serious Fraud Office in respect of its investigations, which was notoriously used in the BAE case. That is the only other example that I know of. These issues are up for grabs in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill. Why the Government are bringing forward yet another example of something that even they admit in that Bill, which proposes reform, to be wrong seems to me quite extraordinary.

The hon. Member for Hendon pointed out that only 2 per cent. of inquests end up before a jury, but that 2 per cent. is the crucial 2 per cent.—the 2 per cent. that consider deaths at the hands of agents of the state. At times in the debate, the Government's response to those of us who are deeply troubled by what they are doing has been to say that worrying about it reveals one to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist or an obsessive. It seems to me that that is not the case at all; it is perfectly reasonable to be worried— [Interruption.] The Minister chunters that no one said that, but when I read the Committee report, I thought that his treatment of Mr. Hogg was of exactly that nature.

It seems to me that we have examples before us that we should all worry about. The hon. Member for Hendon mentioned one of them, and we need to be careful about mentioning matters that are sub judice. It is clear, however, that mistakes are made by agents of the state—perhaps more than mistakes on occasion. There is always a temptation for the state to cover up its own mistakes.

Much has been made of the crucial issue of public confidence. It is important that the public have confidence in the investigative system and public authorities, but more is at stake. The jury and the coronial system are a counterweight—a deterrent—to the temptation to abuse power in the first place. That is why the Government's proposal is fundamentally wrong.

The Government's proposal is breathtaking in removing the jury from the case merely through a certificate of the Secretary of State—that point has been raised only peripherally so far, but is crucial to understanding why the proposal should be resisted. The basis of national security, relations with a foreign power and public interest is enormously broad—in particular, relations with a foreign power and being generally in the public interest seem to leave virtually nothing that could not be used to justify exclusion.

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