Private Justice Committee meeting will be transparent says chair

Posted on: April 6, 2020 by Claire Meadows

The chair of the Justice Committee has responded quickly to concerns that discussions with the Justice Secretary over the effects of Covid-19 on the legal system would not be sufficiently transparent.

A full unredacted summary of the discussions taking place tomorrow will be provided to the media and public, the committee chair has confirmed to the Society of Editors.

The assurances come in the wake of the Society writing to Justice Committee chair Sir Robert Neill this morning (April 6) outlining urgent concerns that the meeting regarding matters of serious public interest related to how the justice system is coping during the spread of Covid-19 was due to take place without public scrutiny.

In his response to the SoE, Sir Robert said: “You’re right to raise concern about potential loss of the principles of openness and scrutiny.  I share that concern entirely.  Any such loss would go against what this and other Select Committees stand for and cannot be a long-term option for effective scrutiny.  For now, though, we’re having to prevent the perfect being the enemy of the best we can do in rapidly changing circumstances.”

It was announced last week the Justice Committee would be questioning Secretary of State Robert Buckland MP QC tomorrow (7 April 2020) about the justice system and Covid-19 but that it would be held online and in private. This was due to what it deemed as “restrictions on Parliamentary capacity, partly caused by the virus.” A “summary note” of the proceedings was to be published shortly after the session had taken place.
The Justice committee has now confirmed that a full, unredacted summary of the proceedings will be published online after the meeting and that there will be live-tweeting during the discussions to keep interested party’s informed.

In a response to the Society’s letter Sir Robert Neill said that he echoed the Society’s concerns in relation to the potential loss of the principles of openness and scrutiny. The decision to hold the session in private is because the House of Commons, for technical and staffing reasons, ‘can’t provide a full slate of normally broadcast and transcribed meetings this week’ it said. Within those constraints, Neill said “it seemed better to proceed imperfectly rather than not at all in holding the Justice Secretary to account on action in the prisons and courts systems”.

Sir Robert added: “We’re aiming for the maximum transparency possible within the constraints we face.  Live tweets of new information will be put out as the meeting happens. A press release will be issued asap after it ends about 3.30pm.  And the summary note we’re providing will be as full as is possible, with nothing redacted, but in the absence of a normal professional transcript. For what it’s worth, it’ll also be provided same afternoon rather than in the 2-4 days for the usual full transcript, and it will be full, reliable and accurate, if not word for word. 

“The House does not have available capacity to record and broadcast this meeting, I’m afraid, and we find that as frustrating as anyone.  The Committee’s fully committed both to scrutinising what’s happening and to getting information to the public.  Indeed, it wouldn’t be a scrutiny committee if it wasn’t committed to maximum public provision of information, since that’s one of the reasons it exists.

“What we’re providing isn’t perfect, and I hope the issues currently constraining House of Commons activity can be resolved rapidly. I know that staff are working night and day to ensure we’re back as fully and publicly in action as possible as soon as can be managed.

Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors, had stressed in a letter to Sir Robert this morning that any discussion surrounding the justice system and Covid-19 must be open to public scrutiny to ensure the public had confidence in government decisions during the spread of Covid-19.

He welcomed Sir Robert’s swift response.

Murray had earlier outlined the Society’s concerns, that in contrast with the default position of openness and transparency in relation to committee hearings, the planned meeting with the Justice Secretary tomorrow would not be open to public scrutiny.

He said: “At a time when there are serious and well-documented matters of public interest related to how the justice system is coping amid the spread of Covid-19, it is concerning that both journalists and the public will be prevented from witnessing this importance discussion.

“As well as urgent issues around the spread of Covid-19 in prisons and the planned release of a significant number of prisoners, the public has a legitimate interest in hearing how the courts system is functioning amid the ongoing crisis and how justice is being maintained during this period.”