Clarke enters fray with cautious liberalism

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Charles Clarke subtly distanced himself from his outspoken predecessor yesterday as he began work on the vast portfolio that will form the heart of Labour's election campaign.

Charles Clarke subtly distanced himself from his outspoken predecessor yesterday as he began work on the vast portfolio that will form the heart of Labour's election campaign.

The new Home Secretary poured praise on David Blunkett, and aides insisted he would not usher in policy changes.

But he stressed his commitment to civil liberties and hinted that concessions could be made to the contentious Identity Cards Bill. And the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock suggested that Mr Clarke, his chief of staff in the 1980s, would steer a more liberal course than Mr Blunkett.

His workload includes seven Bills announced in the Queen's Speech, as well as continuing issues of terrorism, criminal justice, and law and order.

The job's unrelenting pressures were underlined yesterday when the Law Lords dealt a devastating blow to anti-terrorism laws by ruling that the detention of foreign nationals contravened human rights legislation.

On Monday Mr Clarke faces MPs for Home Office questions and will then lead in the second-reading debate of the Identity Cards Bill. One of his immediate problems will be to talk round as many potential Labour rebels as possible.

A Home Office source said: "He's doing an awful lot of reading, but it is an advantage he has worked here before. The indications are that there will be no upheaval - he was consistent with David on so many points."

Interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Clarke rejected calls to put a hold on the ID cards legislation, insisting he had always supported the measure. But, in a hint of possible flexibility on the scheme, he said: "The question of how you put it into effect and what you do is a matter of debate."

He also appeared to contradict an infamous Blunkett remark dismissing "airy-fairy civil liberties".

"I certainly would not use the phrase 'airy-fairy civil liberties'. I don't think civil liberties are airy-fairy," he said. "David has always been concerned in real civil liberties - real freedoms - and not notional freedoms. Presumably he used that phrase in a similar context of some discussions at that time."

Mr Clarke said the immigration and asylum system needed "urgent reform" to cut numbers. "Great achievements have been made by David Blunkett and his predecessors, but I think everybody acknowledges there remain issues that have to be resolved."

However, he echoed Mr Blunkett's broadsides against the legal profession, putting opposition to anti-terror measures down to "concern amongst some who have been involved, particularly as lawyers".

Mr Kinnock told Radio 4: "Charles will be his own man and his instincts, of course, are enlightened as well as being characteristically very tough and energetic.

"His instincts are definitely liberal. He is thoughtful and very bright. His strongest motive force is justice."

A spokesman for Tony Blair's office denied that Mr Clarke would retreat from Mr Blunkett's focus on anti-social behaviour, security and terrorism. "It's the agenda of the Prime Minister and the Government as a whole," the spokesman said.

The Government has decided to mount a major initiative on immigration and asylum - on which it knows it is vulnerable - next month. Mr Blair and Mr Clarke will jointly be leading the campaign.

The new Home Secretary also has to steer the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill though the Commons. It includes much-criticised proposals to tackle religious discrimination.

HOME OFFICE IN-TRAY

  • Anti-terrorism legislation
  • Identity cards
  • Creating the Serious Organised Crime Agency
  • New penalties for drug dealers
  • Merging the probation and prison services
  • Outlawing religious discrimination
  • Drafting legislation that will cover corporate manslaughter
  • Tackling the rise in drink- related crime

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