Parliament: The Sketch: Will Tony Benn find himself in one of Straw's gulags?

JACK STRAW did not quite suspend habeas corpus but he made several dramatic strides in that direction to enhance his authoritarian reputation as a "tough" home secretary. Tory home secretaries talked tough but Mr Straw acts tough and yesterday he became the first one in living memory to propose measures to incarcerate people who have not actually been convicted by any court.

Even the last home secretary, Michael Howard, when chasing the whim of popular opinion, never had the courage to be so breathtakingly illiberal. There would have been a time when withdrawal of the liberty of the subject would have caused a riot in the House of Commons but Mr Straw knows he has that great Labour asset of public opinion firmly on his side.

Sex offenders are good scapegoats for society's ills and few MPs were going to give him much trouble when he announced proposals to detain people with "severe personality disorders", regardless of whether they had been convicted of any offence. Mr Straw proposed new legal powers for "indeterminate but reviewable detention of dangerously personality-disordered individuals" where it could be established that the individual had a recognised severe personality disorder and was a grave risk to the public. He did not set out precisely what such a disorder was but most MPs assumed it was to do with sexual offences.

But, knowing the extent to which this government will go to snuff out opposition from within its ranks, there was no guarantee that Ken Livingstone, Rhodri Morgan and their fellow travellers may not yet be restrained from the London mayoralty and the Welsh Assembly under these proposals. The Tory shadow spokesman, Sir Norman Fowler, broadly welcomed the proposals and joined in the general scapegoating, with talk of the need to protect the "safety of the public and children". But there was a hint of unease in some quarters, with a few brave souls on both sides prepared to break cover.

Tony Benn (Lab, Chesterfield) was in a state of genuine outrage. He was so unable to contain his fury that, although the Speaker had called Gerry Bermingham, he belted out his question without realising that Miss Boothroyd had not called him. He reminded the Home Secretary of the adverse consequences of internment 30 years ago in Northern Ireland and drew attention to the horrors of mental- health treatment and punishment in the former Soviet Union.

Gwynneth Dunwoody (Lab, Crewe and Nantwich), not normally known for wishy- washy liberal views, sounded a note of caution by referring to the "abuse of human rights" by such incarceration. Even Brian Mawhinney (Con, North West Cambridgeshire), the ultimate prince of Tory darkness, while welcoming the proposals, nevertheless sounded a note of caution. "Depriving people of their liberty is an important and serious step."

And where were the Liberal Democrats in all this? One might have expected the inheritors of the traditions of the liberty of the subject handed down by Gladstone, Lloyd George and Grimond at least to have made some effort to put up resistance to the Government but Simon Hughes (North Southwark & Bermondsey) made little effort beyond a bland reference to the duty of the state in protecting individual liberty.

It was all a far cry from the permissive society presided over by Mr Straw's illustrious Labour predecessor, Lord Jenkins, when he was home secretary in the 1960s and 70s. Mr Straw seemed to draw his inspiration from Lord Liverpool's government of the early nineteenth century, whose repressive measures guaranteed uninterrupted power for 15 years.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away

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