Emphasis on safety and security provokes 'scaremongering' claims

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The Government was accused of creating a "climate of fear" yesterday after unveiling a Queen's Speech including measures to improve "safety and security" which will dominate Parliament before the general election next year.

The Government was accused of creating a "climate of fear" yesterday after unveiling a Queen's Speech including measures to improve "safety and security" which will dominate Parliament before the general election next year.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats claimed Tony Blair and his ministers were raising concern about a terrorist attack and crime in an attempt to play the "law and order" card at the election expected next May. Ministers denied they were "scaremongering" and insisted they were responding to "the people's agenda".

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, will try to force his controversial plans for a national identity card scheme through Parliament before the election. Today he will publish another priority measure to set up a Serious Organised Crime Agency, a "British FBI". It will be followed by a further crackdown on anti-social behaviour, with more on-the-spot fines for minor offences, and tough new powers to test suspected criminals for drug use.

There were six "safety and security" Bills in a programme that included 29 proposals for legislation and a further eight in draft form. But some, such as a shake up of the anti-terror laws, will not be introduced until after the election.

Yesterday's package contained few surprises or major policy initiatives outside the crime and security agenda. There was a boost for those aged 16 to 19, who will get child benefit if they are in training as well as education. A Bill to ratify the European Union constitution and allow a referendum on it will be introduced. But it is unlikely to become law before spring because Mr Blair does not want it to "clog up" Parliament and wreck his plans to keep law and order in the spotlight.

A row erupted over Labour's attempt to use the Queen's Speech to bolster its credentials on crime and terrorism. Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, accused ministers of turning the terrorist threat into a "political football" after they suggested Labour would make the country "safer" than the other parties.

Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, told BBC Radio 4 last night: "I believe the risk would be lower under Labour because we are bringing in the measures - including massively increasing the staff and resources of the security services - to deal with terrorist threats. It is partly our intelligence operations over the past year or so that made sure terrorist activity inside Britain - because there is terrorist activity by the various al-Qa'ida-affiliated cells - has not materialised in an attack."

Mr Kennedy said any responsible government would have boosted spending on the security services. He warned that the Government's strategy would backfire and it would have no credibility because of its discredited claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrat chairman, said: "This is a disgusting claim from the Leader of the House who should know better than most that all parties are united in their concern to keep Britain safe from terrorism. The kind of claim George Bush's campaign team made in the US against the Democrats will not go down well in Britain."

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said Mr Hain's claim that Britain would be "less secure" under the Tories was extraordinary. He added: "I'm surprised they are trying to play politics with this issue."

Liam Fox, the Tories' co-chairman, accused the Government of seeking electoral advantage by fostering an atmosphere of fear. He said: "It is clear they are trying to raise the fears of terrorism in the country. Now I think that is quite despicable, but it is a desperate government."

Mr Blair rejected the charge were "scaremongering". He told the Commons: "The threats faced by this country, and every other major country, are real; there are still far too many victims of crime and I am determined, building on the success of the antisocial behaviour legislation, to ensure we have respect and responsibility back on the streets and communities."

The Prime Minister admitted introduction of identity cards was a "big change" but added: "Frankly, with terrorism, illegal immigration and organised crime operating with so much greater sophistication, identity cards, in my judgement, are long overdue."

Mr Blunkett said: "This is not about the politics of fear, but taking sensible and commonsense measures to protect people. Fear of crime and insecurity remain too high, partly because the incidence of crime is moving from the impersonal to the personal, in the antisocial behaviour and drink-driven thuggery on our streets, or in the unseen but ever-present threat from new forms of terrorism."

As the Commons began a six-day debate on the Queen's Speech, some Labour MPs echoed the criticism of the Government's strategy. Mick Clapham, MP for Barnsley West and Penistone, said: "Under the banner of the fight against terrorism we are in danger of eroding civil liberties. I do not think that identity cards will add anything to the fight. Even before we have rolled out the identity card to every individual they are likely to have been falsified and those false identity cards available on the market."

Mark Oaten, the home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "David Blunkett is relying on a climate of fear to push through a scheme which will not guarantee our security. In reality, ID cards are likely to give rise to discrimination through increased identity checks against ethnic minorities suspected of being terrorists or illegal immigrants."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty, said: "Tough talk and tougher legislation is cheap. It doesn't make us safer from crime, terrorism and the other great causes of fear. What it will do is to undermine the very democracy this government and its allies across the Atlantic say they want to defend."

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