Lord Falconer of Thoroton: 'Iraq has brought a climate of distrust into politics'

The Monday Interview: Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs
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It shows a gathering storm, with waves bashing against a pier and swimmers cowering. In the background, a rainbow has appeared. "Even in a storm, there is a rainbow behind," says the cabinet minister.

Charlie Falconer is no stranger to political storms, of course. Party activists blocked the barrister from fighting a Labour seat because his children attended private school. There were accusations of cronyism after his former flatmate Tony Blair summoned him from the Bar into the House of Lords and then into the Government.

On Labour's front bench, he was handed a series of half-baked proposals to sort out. He was charged with selling the Dome after it flopped; then there was Mr Blair's botched reshuffle of 2003. Assorted struggles with the legal profession - including over plans to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor - followed, and he faced a deadlock over reform of the House of Lords.

Recently, Lord Falconer has been battling with the human rights lobby - and various judges - over plans to instruct the courts how to interpret the Human Rights Act when deporting foreign extremists. He denies that the intention of the Government is to pick a fight with judges.

What did the Prime Minister mean, then, when he said last month that he "was prepared for a lot of battles" with the courts if they tried to block the deportation of extremists?

"The Prime Minister is most certainly not seeking or intending to give any sort of message of confrontation with the courts, most certainly not," he said. "All he was saying is that matters need to be tested by the courts."

Some judges and senior lawyers are concerned that they will be pressured to deport foreign nationals who could face torture abroad, in contravention of the Human Rights Act. Lord Falconer says it is right for Parliament - and the Government - to give a "clearer steer" to the courts on "interpretation of the Human Rights Act". This arrangement is accepted by judges - even those who may disagree with the policy of deportation.

Lord Falconer says the decision about whether to deport should be a question of "balance" for the courts, between the risk to UK citizens and the "rights of foreign nationals who may suffer ill-treatment abroad".

But what of concerns that assurances about torture from some Arab states may not be worth much?

"We should seek sensible assurances. It's then for the courts to evaluate whether or not they work in the individual case," says Lord Falconer.

Another aspect of the new terror laws that has raised the hackles of civil liberties campaigners is the proposal for a new criminal offence for "condoning" terror. Critics say students debating in a pub or young men expressing ill-informed bravado on a street corner could be caught by this law.

Lord Falconer says there must be "a clear and unambiguous condoning of an act of terrorism" and insists that argumentative students would not be arrested. The target would be extremist preachers inciting terrorism in public places.

The Lord Chancellor, a likeable minister, is at pains to make it clear he has nothing personal against the courts. He praises judges for resisting public calls to lengthen - and shorten - prison sentences.

Lord Falconer is good at soothing statements. But the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs is not all twinkly-eyed sophistry. He says, with surprising bluntness, that Iraq has had deep implications for the way politics is conducted in Britain, and that it has contributed to a breakdown in trust. "Iraq has had a profound effect on the whole political climate, it seems to me," he says.

"The vigour of the debate has to some extent got to a position where because there was such a profound disagreement it has led to people being distrustful of each other."

Coming from a close friend of Tony Blair, this statement is remarkable in its frankness.

"There were very, very profound disagreements in parts of society about that particular policy, in particular in The Independent newspaper," he says. "That there was disagreement about that issue should not lead to a corrosion in trust. Plainly those who disagree with us on Iraq do not in any way forfeit our trust, and it should be visa versa."

Lord Falconer is adamant that one way not to revive trust is through a fresh look at the voting system, and says that electoral reform is simply not "a priority" for the Government.

He provoked a storm of protest earlier this year after telling the BBC there was no "groundswell" of support for electoral change.

He still believes "there is no consensus in the country, let alone significant pressure for a change" in Britain to introduce proportional representation (PR). But perhaps he is not as closed-minded on the issue as he had led the public to believe.

"I must be careful in what I say in relation to this," he says, looking uncomfortable. "The detail of the debate is interesting. There are arguments that can be made both ways. But it's a major piece of constitutional reform which would take significant amounts of both legislative time and political capital."

He says Tony Blair's focus is not on PR, but public service reform, tackling anti-social behaviour and the war on terror.

The deadline of Tony Blair's departure (he resists saying when this might be) has given the Prime Minister a renewed "vigour" and focus, he says.

"The vigour with which he is approaching that is driven in part by the fact that the time he has got to do it is limited," he says.

The end to the interview arrives and Lord Falconer, ever in demand on the social circuit, is off to a party. It is the launch of a book about Consuelo Vanderbilt, a New York heiress who married the 9th Duke of Malborough, and her mother.

"The two Consuelo Vanderbilts," explains Lord Falconer, "were both great supporters of female suffrage."

It seems Lord Falconer just cannot escape from the issue of voting reform.

The CV

* BORN: 19 November 1951

* FAMILY: Married, three sons and one daughter

* EDUCATION: Trinity College, Glenalmond; Queens' College, Cambridge

* CAREER: 1974: Called to the Bar (Inner Temple)

1991: Becomes a QC

1997: Appointed Solicitor General

1998: Minister of State at Cabinet Office

2001: Joined Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions; appointed Minister for Housing, Planning and Regeneration

2002: Joined Home Office; appointed Minister of State for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reform

2003: Appointed Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor