'Secret inquests' bill faces strong opposition from MPs

Conservative MPs have warned that they will oppose a reform of the coroners system that would allow certain inquests to be held in private unless substantial amendments are made to the bill.

A Liberal Democrat bid to block the coroners and justice bill during its second reading in the Commons last night was defeated by 278 votes to 47.

But ministers are facing a fierce parliamentary battle when it has its third reading, with the bill facing challenges from all sides of the political spectrum.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw conceded he was not “particularly comfortable” with the powers to hold inquests without a jury and away from the press, even though they were likely to be only rarely used.

“I understand the fact that the house is so uncomfortable about this provision,” he said.

“It is not one that I’m particularly comfortable with myself – it’s a real difficulty. What we have to do is try and find a way through it.”

Plans to exclude relatives and reporters from parts of some inquests were dropped from counter-terrorism legislation last year.

But they have been revived in the bill to cover cases involving sensitive information that had implications for national security – sparking angry opposition from both the Tory and Liberal Democrat benches, as well as some Labour backbenchers.

Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve hit out at the plans, saying: “Frankly the proposals that the Government are coming up with are really no different than the Government convening a secret internal inquiry of their own and then saying afterwards: ‘We’re satisfied that everything is all right.’

“I think the proposals as they are drafted for the secrecy clauses and the lack of a jury completely undermine the whole purpose for which an inquest is convened in the first place.”

Liberal Democrat spokesman David Howarth told Straw: “The arguments you gave in favour of holding the inquest in private don’t themselves justify the removal of the jury unless one believes that juries are inherently some sort of security risk.

“Isn’t the attitude of the Government to assume that members of the public are not capable of keeping as confidential information that is put before them as jurors?”

Labour former minister Chris Mullin questioned whether the Metropolitan Police could have used the measure to prevent a public inquest into the shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes.

“The default position of those in authority when a mistake of that magnitude occurs is secrecy, usually,” he said. “The danger is that once one opens this little gap in the law, it will be exploited.”

Under what has been hailed as the first major reform of the coroners’ service in over 100 years, a new chief coroner, a high court judge, will be appointed to preside over the reformed service to provide “national leadership”.

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