The careless way in which ministers destroy freedom

The freedom to live our lives as we choose has become a secondary consideration for Labour

IN SCANNING the news of the past week or so, I've begun to notice how often the stories have involved restriction of personal freedom. Later today, for instance, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is due to announce plans to lock up people with personality disorders who have committed no crime.

He thus raises an issue of civil liberties. As did the Prime Minister when he stated recently that fox-hunting would be banned. As did Merseyside Police when they arrested an old soldier and charged him with racially aggravated criminal damage for allegedly displaying posters of the UK Independence Party on the front of his house, along with flags of St George and the injunction, scrawled in paint: "don't forget the 1945 war". As, finally, did the social services and local police in Gateshead earlier this month when they prevented another old soldier, Bill Wallace-Carthew, from retrieving his 81-year-old wife, Edna, from what was described as temporary care for senile dementia.

This former drill sergeant was also arrested (he was later to be released) for wanting, as he said, to "be with [Edna] and care for her in my own way". They had got married during the war.

In each of the examples, good reasons have been offered for going ahead with a restrictive policy. The new approach to handling people with severe personality disorders was prompted by the killing of Lin Russell and her daughter Megan by Michael Stone, now serving a life sentence. Just before he did his dreadful deeds, he had asked to be taken to hospital. His request was refused because he had no criminal record and his condition was judged incurable. In the case of a ban on hunting, the present House of Commons voted in favour of an earlier Bill by a large margin, and public opinion polls are strongly supportive. In Liverpool, the police are giving much higher priority to what they consider to be racially motivated crimes than hitherto. And it may be that an old gentleman can no longer adequately look after his elderly spouse when she is seriously ill.

However, if questions of personal freedom have come to have a low priority in the day-to-day work of the Government and its organs, we can be encouraged that there are substantial estates of the realm that notice and make a fuss. First among these is the law. While in the past judges tended to support the government of the day, the development of judicial review, a process under which the courts can declare the actions of an official body contrary to natural justice, has become a valuable safeguard. In the work of the two public bodies with which I am involved, I have occasionally found myself restrained - rightly so - by the possibility of judicial review.

Next in the list of countervailing powers are lobby groups. When I put on my official hats, I have to take notice of them. Indeed, they will undoubtedly comment vociferously on the Home Secretary's plans, in terms both of mental health procedures and civil liberties. Then finally there is the so-called fourth estate, our remarkably vigorous, aggressive, well- resourced press. Typically it has been newspapers that have given plenty of coverage to the problems of the two old soldiers.

Having been put on notice, what should we look for in Mr Straw's scheme? A medical legal panel would be given powers to order forcible and indefinite detention of hundreds of innocent people who are believed to have dangerous personality disorders. Known psychopaths in the community would be assessed by a team of probation, health, prison and social services staff. Those detained would have their cases regularly reviewed and could appeal.

Assuming that the leaks are accurate, the first thing I notice is the likely expense of the scheme. It might involve 200 disturbed people. Prison costs about pounds 25,000 annually per head; specialised facilities might require three or four times as much. This suggests expenditure of an additional pounds 15m to pounds 20m of public money on supposedly incurable schizophrenics. By all means let us invest more heavily in the alleviation of mental illness, but is this the most effective use of such a large sum? A further question is whether the proposed panel is to be the final tribunal so far as somebody's liberty is concerned, or whether a court of law will have to ratify its decisions.

Let us remember, too, that the diagnosis of personality disorders is not a straightforward science. The understanding and evaluation of mental illness is far behind the assessment of physical diseases. Schizophrenia is not like measles, where you have either got the disease or you haven't. The spectrum from normality to abnormality has many gradations. That is why, in everyday conversation, when we say that an acquaintance is a bit of a psychopath, meaning that the person can behave in a heartlessly violent manner, we don't necessarily mean that he or she should see a doctor or be sent to hospital.

Furthermore, the provision of a right to appeal may lack substance. The person concerned has already been classified as being of unsound mind so, presumably, the demand for a review would have to come from relations or friends. That in turn requires skills and experience that may not be available. All Mr Wallace-Carthew could think of to do was to ring the staff of the home where his wife had been confined to tell them that he was coming to take her away. As he went to take hold of his wife, the police burst through the door. This pathetic story is true to life.

The big picture, I think, is this: When an opposition party comes into office, its experience may well have made it sensitive to issues of personal freedom. For example, New Labour swiftly arranged to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into English law as the Human Rights Act, 1998. It has recently published a draft Freedom of Information Bill which, much criticised though it has been, represents a significant improvement. Then, when the new government settles down, it becomes managerial rather than principled.

As a matter of fact, I don't take the items I have listed above as proof that the Government has quietly become anti-libertarian as a deliberate act of policy. Rather, it is a reminder of how quickly a new administration can become careless of people's rights and adopt the same authoritarian attitudes as its predecessors. The freedom to live our lives as we choose, provided we do not adversely affect our neighbours, becomes a secondary consideration. That is the present situation.

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