MPs last night voted in favour of holding some inquests in secret.
The justice secretary will now be able to suggest that some inquests should be held without juries or press, if the Coroners and Justice Bill is apporoved by the House of Lords.
The final decision on whether an inquest will be secret will be taken by a high court judge.
The move was opposed by, among others, the Society of Editors, civil rights group Liberty, and military families, who fear servicemen’s deaths may be left unexplained.
A bid to remove secret inquests from the Coroners and Justice Bill was rejected last night in a Commons vote by 263 to 229, a majority of 34.
In total, 19 Labour MPs defied the Government, and voted in favour of the amendment.
The bill allows secret inquests in the interests of “national security, the relationship between the UK and another country, and preventing or detecting crime”.
Justice secretary Jack Straw said, following opposition, the circumstances for secret inquests had been “significantly tightened”.
But critics from all sides in the Commons argued that did not go far enough.
Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth said: “It is unquestionably a crucial part of public confidence in the state, in the police, in the prison service, that there are ordinary people in the jury making judgments about these sorts of cases.”
Plans to exclude relatives and reporters from parts of some inquests were dropped from counter-terrorism legislation last year, but revived in the Coroners and Justice Bill.
Straw said the Government’s “fundamental recasting” of the Bill had been welcomed by the Bar Council and the Criminal Bar Association.
He told MPs: “We’ve made a fundamental change in these proposals and those who say the parliamentary process doesn’t work, I just simply say ‘It does work’.
“These proposals are a million miles from where they started out in the original Counter Terrorism Bill.”
Straw added no “sane secretary of state” would use the law for “trivial” reasons. Applications made or granted would be “few and far between”, he said.
But shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve warned that the Government’s “unnecessary” move would “undermine” the coroner’s system, rather than enhance it.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said afterwards: “The strong rebellion against secret inquests will only encourage the House of Lords to stand firm once again.
“How dare the Government that spent 12 years lecturing us about victims’ rights seek to deprive bereaved families of the open justice that is the only point of an inquest?
“Whether in Brixton or Basra, those who die on the Government’s watch are entitled to better than this. The secret inquest plan is already destroying the trust of numerous families who think it might be applied to them.
“National security can be protected within the jury system but the political embarrassment of soldiers killed by “friendly fire” should never be camouflaged from public view.”
The 19 Labour MPs who rebelled were: Diane Abbott (Hackney North & Stoke Newington), Colin Burgon (Elmet), Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley), Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North), Andrew Dismore (Hendon), Frank Dobson (Holborn & St Pancras), Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent Central), Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow), John Grogan (Selby), Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North), Glenda Jackson (Hampstead & Highgate), Lynne Jones (Birmingham Selly Oak), Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool Walton), John McDonnell (Hayes & Harlington), Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock), Gordon Prentice (Pendle), Alan Simpson (Nottingham South), and Paul Truswell (Pudsey).