Campbell aims to shake off 'soft on crime' tag

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Indy Politics

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell will today seek to counter Labour and Tory claims that his party is "soft on crime" with a speech demanding tougher treatment of serious offenders.

In the first of a series of major policy speeches setting out the direction in which he wants to take the party, Sir Menzies will signal a sharp shift in approach to law and order from that of his predecessor Charles Kennedy.

Without criticising Mr Kennedy directly, Sir Menzies will make clear he thinks the former leader was wrong when he said during last year's election campaign that Ian Huntley should have the vote. Serious offenders like the Soham killer should forfeit all rights to take part in democratic elections, he will say.

He will also voice support for the Government's anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos), call for a new register of violent offenders and demand new controls on foreign prisoners who cannot be deported after release.

And he will say that serious criminals should expect to be kept behind bars for the majority of the sentence handed down by the courts, not released on parole after serving just half of their time.

A senior aide last night admitted that, under Charles Kennedy, there had been "ambiguities" in the Lib Dems' handling of crime that had contributed to a public perception of the party as soft.

Sir Menzies was determined to dispel this impression and to make clear that his party's commitment to human rights and individual liberties would not stop it from being tough on criminals.

Speaking to Lib Dem councillors in London today, Sir Menzies will say: "A party which is serious about social justice cannot fail to be serious about preventing crime and enforcing the rules.

"I am determined that the Liberal Democrats under my leadership will stand for equality before the law and equality of responsibility under the law."

Crime is a "liberal issue" because "being assaulted, being burgled, being robbed is a violation of the liberty and freedom of the individual", he will say.

During his career as a barrister, he spent four years prosecuting crimes including murder, rape and armed robbery and saw close-up their "devastating" effects on victims.

"Those who break their obligations and infringe the rights of others must face the consequences," he will say.

Sir Menzies will accuse the Government of "mismanagement and inadequacy" for its handling of law and order, accusing Labour of putting more people in prison but then letting them out too early because of over-crowding.

He will pledge to reverse the recent introduction of automatic release for prisoners who have served half of their sentence, insisting that parole boards must be given discretion on when an inmate should go free.

"Parole should not be an automatic right, parole should be earned," he will say.

Aides said that Sir Menzies was not planning to dump official Lib Dem policy that some prison inmates should be granted the vote, but he was saying that the right should not be extended to those convicted of serious violent or sexual offences.

"Penalties should go beyond custody," he will say. "People like Ian Huntley should not have the vote. If you are guilty of a serious breach of the law, you forfeit the right to elect those who make the law."

Commenting on the recent controversy over 1,000 foreign nationals freed from jail without being considered for deportation, Sir Menzies will say that "undesirable" criminals from abroad should be transferred to serve their sentences in their home country or deported as soon as their sentence ends.

"If they cannot be deported due to threats to their life, we need to introduce new measures to restrict their freedom of movement and association," he will say.

"Where a dangerous individual cannot be deported due to threats to their life, we should look at legislation to impose restrictions on their residence in the UK."

Breaches of court orders limiting such people's movements and contacts with associates could be punished by returning them to jail.

Following the recent string of serious crimes - including the murders of banker John Monckton and teenager Mary-Ann Leneghan - committed by convicts on parole, Sir Menzies will call for the establishment of a violent offenders register to help police and other law-enforcement agencies keep track of dangerous individuals.

And he will announce the launch of a Lib Dem taskforce on crime and community, to devise ways of giving local people more say in the policing of their neighbourhoods, as well as a commission on community regeneration.

Sir Menzies will say: "Crime is a liberal issue. Britain is an instinctively liberal country. We believe in personal freedom and individual liberty. But we also believe that everyone should play by the rules and by the same rules.

"The rules need to be clearer and sharper. But, most important of all, they must be effectively applied. That is Labour's failure."

A Lib Dem criminal justice policy would "uphold the rule of law, respect human rights, recognise the victim, punish the criminal, strengthen communities and restore public confidence," he will say.