The Government's review of the laws which safeguard individual freedom will not result in it scrapping the Human Rights Act, the Lord Chancellor has said.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton confirmed that ministers may bring in a new law to ensure that the Act, which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law in 1998, does not endanger the safety of the public. But he tried to head off criticism from civil liberties groups by insisting that he would not tear up the Act. He said that the problem was not the Act itself but the way it was being interpreted.
He said the Government would not withdraw from the convention, because signing up to it was a condition of EU membership. "We've been a signatory to the convention for decades, it represents basic rights that everyone would subscribe to," he told Sky News.
Lord Falconer said: "This is not about an attack on the judges, this is about making clear in particular areas - like for example the release of prisoners who might be a danger to society - that public safety comes first."
Ministers are treading a delicate path between reassuring the public they are not soft on crime and terrorism, without provoking criticism over civil liberties. The landmark 1998 Act has always been their main defence against such criticism.
Tony Blair is anxious not to be outflanked on law and order by the Tories, whose leader David Cameron said last week his party would reform, replace or scrap the Act. Mr Cameron's intervention came after critics blamed the Act for a judge's ruling that nine Afghan refugees who hijacked a plane could not be deported and for a convicted rapist, Anthony Rice, murdering a woman while on parole. Government sources said the review would operate at three levels. First, officials would be trained to ensure the Act was applied properly and priority was given to public safety. Second, the Government would pursue appeals in cases such as the Afghan hijackers.
After assessing the success of these two moves, the Government would consider whether a change in the law was needed - either by amending legislation or changing the umbrella 1998 Act. "We are at the stage of posing the question," said one Whitehall source.
Mr Blair ordered the review in letters to Lord Falconer and the Home Secretary, John Reid, setting out key challenges facing their departments.
He told the Lord Chancellor: "You should devise a strategy, working with the judiciary, which maintains the effectiveness of the Human Rights Act and improves the public's confidence in the legislation."
Mr Blair told Mr Reid: "We will need to look again at whether primary legislation is needed to address the issue of court rulings which overrule the Government in a way that is inconsistent with other EU countries' interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights."
Louise Christian, a human rights lawyer, said the moves were a diversion from the failure to review foreign criminals for deportation. "This is a blatant attempt by a Government that's in trouble over bread-and-butter criminal justice issues to distract attention from its own problems," she said.
Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP, said: "It is puerile politics to blame a single rape or murder on the Human Rights Act."