Who’s Above the Law Now?

As the Foreign Office is ordered by the Court of Appeal to release details of the torture suffered by a British resident and facilitated by UK officials, it’s worth noting the success of Lord Pannick QC in limiting moves by the government that would have allowed British troops, spooks and law-enforcement bodies to bribe their way around the world without prior authorisation. I explained the background here.

On Monday, Lord Pannick’s amendment to the Bribery Bill was passed by 154 votes to 118, a majority against the government of 36. The amendment requires prior ministerial authorisation of bribery by members of the security and intelligence services and the armed forces.

The government defeat came despite what amounted to a threat by the justice minister Lord Bach to withdraw the Bill if the cross-party amendment was approved.

He told peers, during the third-reading debate on Monday: “If your Lordships see fit to pass this amendment, the Government would have to think very seriously indeed about whether this Bill should be pursued.

“I do not say this as a threat. I am repeating in other words what I have said on a number of occasions. I cannot emphasise enough the importance Her Majesty’s Government attaches to clause 13 in its current form.”

A member of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, the Labour ex-minister Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, had warned peers that “there would be hundreds of thousands of pre-authorisations on a regular basis” 

Lord Pannick, a crossbench peer and rising star in the House of Lords, was supported by the former Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern and the chairman of Lords constitution committee chairman, Lord Goodlad.

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, will now have to decide whether to accept the amendment or ask the Commons to modify or reject it.

Despite Lord Bach’s threat, there seems no reason to suppose that the Government would want to lose an important Bill. Mr Straw has previously indicated that he is open to persuasion on the issue of prior authorisation for bribery.

The Bill, which has now completed its Lords stages, makes it an offence to offer bribes to foreign public officials. 

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