Press freedom campaigners have won a partial victory in their fight against proposals to ban journalists from sensitive inquests on national security grounds.
The Ministry of Justice confirmed today that a clause in the counter-terrorism bill, which would have allowed the justice secretary to hold certain coroners’ hearings in private, has been scrapped.
The MoJ has told Press Gazette that the proposal has not been abandoned entirely – and could still be discussed in parliament as part of a broader review of the coroners’ court system due to be held later in the political year.
The clause on secret inquests was designed to stop sensitive information about military operations and the Government’s anti-terrorism initiatives being made public.
It had prompted a campaign by groups such as the Society of Editors and the Newspaper Society, both of which had written to the Ministry of Justice arguing that the extra power could be used by the Government or the military to suppress unwelcome news.
In a statement today, the Ministry of Justice said: “Both the House of Commons and House of Lords have expressed a strong desire to debate the coroners’ proposals within the context of wider coronial reform.
“We will therefore be removing the proposals from the counter-terrorism bill and bringing them forward again in legislation to reform the coroner system more widely.
“The Government recognises that in a very small number of cases of inquests a change to the law may be required to enable inquests to go ahead where highly sensitive material is relevant.”
Society of Editors director Bob Satchwell said the group gave a “cautious welcome” to the announcement.
“We’ll obviously need to look at the detail of the decision carefully and bear in mind that there’s been a change of minister as a result of the cabinet reshuffle.
“We can only hope that the Government has listened to the very powerful arguments for maintaining the open nature of inquests.”
The Newspaper Society said in a statement: “The NS lobbied against this inroad into independent inquiry and open justice, and very recently met the counter-terrorism minister to discuss this and other threats to journalism in the bill.
“However, we will have to be alert and wary of any similar restrictions being reintroduced by way of the forthcoming coroners’ reform bill.”
Today’s climbdown comes days after another controversial element of the counter-terrorism bill – allowing terrorism suspects to be detained for up to six weeks – was scrapped after it was heavily defeated in the House of Lords.