The battle for civil liberties: Government on offensive after criticism of 'authoritarian' laws

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair attacked critics yesterday, dismissing the former law lord Lord Steyn as "out of touch" with modern Britain and saying that there would be no let-up in the hardline approach to crime suspects.

Then last night the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, published a 14-page critique of an article by the Independent columnist Simon Carr which criticised the Government's record on civil liberties.

Mr Clarke will reinforce his message tonight in a speech designed to address what ministers see as myths about the Government's record on civil liberties, contending that only Labour can be trusted to protect the public from antisocial behaviour, crime and terrorism. He will say that complaints from critics are exaggerated, and stress that Britain remains a democratic state with a free press. He will argue that commentators have not recognised that the Government must defend the rights of people against terrorist attack as well as their civil liberties. Labour wants to make its record of legislation on issues such as antisocial behaviour and terrorism a central plank of its campaign for the local elections next month.

Tony Blair pledged a renewed crackdown on crime, including powers to seize the cash of suspected drug dealers and new restrictions on those suspected of being involved in organised crime. He said: "I would generally harry, hassle and hound them until they give up or leave the country."

Writing in The Independent, Mr Clarke attacked "incorrect, tendentious and over-simplified assertions about this Government's record on civil liberties".

Labour officials argue that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have left Labour as the party of law and order, accusing them of opposing measures to tackle antisocial behaviour and watering down police and criminal justice reforms. Campaign material highlights political opposition to plans to hold suspects for up to 90 days without charge, control orders, ID cards and the ban on glorification of terrorism.

Critics of government policies insisted that a raft of controversial legislation passed since 2001 was undermining civil liberties.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the pressure group Liberty, said: "This must be one of the most authoritarian governments in living memory. The danger of its addiction to the easy fix that draconian legislation offers is leaving a terrible constitutional poverty in its wake. Whatever the good intentions of the Government they are leaving broad laws which could cut away at our rights for years to come." Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said the Government was "shameful" to engage in "crude electioneering". He said: "There is nothing more indicative of political weakness than ratcheting up authoritarian language."

Mr Clarke will face a High Court challenge tomorrow when an Algerian terror suspect will attempt to overturn moves to return him to his homeland. Amnesty International published a report highlighting a series of torture techniques used by Algeria's military intelligence service.

Sarah Green, of Amnesty International, said: "Our areas of concern include the implementation of control orders as well as attempts to deport terror suspects to states where torture is practised, America using rendition sites around Britain and the Government's refusal to investigate this, the UK troop abuse in Iraq not being investigated, and the treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees who are sent to detention centres before removal. It's a pretty poor record. There is a dangerous imbalance between the draconian actions the UK is taking in the name of security and its obligation to practise human rights."

Mr Blair has faced repeated criticism from legal figures in the House of Lords who have spearheaded revolts over proposed anti-terror legislation. He said the attacks showed "how far out of touch much of the political and legal establishment is today with the reality of people's lives".

Lord Steyn, the former law lord, had accused the Government of authoritarian tendencies and creating "oppressive" immigration laws.

Mr Blair also took on the journalist Henry Porter, another critic of the Government's civil liberties record, in a series of e-mails published in The Observer. Mr Blair accused him of "a mishmash of misunderstanding and gross exaggeration".

Roger Smith, director of the pressure group Justice, said: "Within government, there is an unwillingness to accept that principles are in play that have to be respected and corners are being cut which erode civil liberties.

"It goes beyond civil liberties. We are concerned about a number of things like the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill where in its current form, it can give enormous power to government to amend legislation.

"But the question I want to ask is how much Charles Clarke is in charge of the Home Office agenda. It's pretty clear that the Prime Minister is."

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "The Prime Minister may talk tough, but under his premiership violent crime has soared, gun crime has doubled and hard drugs continue to pour in through our porous borders."

Essential measures - or chipping away at our freedom?

Antisocial Behaviour Orders

THE PURPOSE: Introduced in 1999 to give local councils and police powers to clamp down on low-level crime. About 7,000 have been issued, 2,000 to children.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: Professor Rod Morgan, the Government's chief adviser on youth crime, warned yesterday that children issued with Asbos are often demonised.

Detention Without Charge

THE PURPOSE: Police powers to hold terrorist suspects for up to 28 days without charge were contained in the Terrorism Act 2006, which came into force this month. The Act doubles the length of time police can hold a terrorist suspect without charge. Plans to give police powers to hold suspects for up to 90 days without charge were dropped.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: They bitterly opposed the planned 90-day detention as a fundamental infringement of civil rights. They are unhappy at the 28-day compromise, saying it is the most sweeping power of detention in western Europe.

ID Cards

THE PURPOSE: Parliament this month approved the creation of a national system of identity cards and a national computer database to hold biometric data and other information required to verify the identity of all adults. The first ID cards should be issued in 2008-09, initially on a voluntary basis when people renew passports, after the House of Lords negotiated a temporary opt-out. Ministers expect the scheme to become compulsory shortly afterwards.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: Both main opposition parties are committed to scrapping the legislation, saying ID cards will be an expensive white elehant that will do little to cut crime and will change the fundamental relationship between citizen and state.

Glorification of terrorism

THE PURPOSE: The Terrorism Act 2006 makes it a criminal offence to say or do anything that glorifies terrorism and gives the Government new powers to ban groups which publish material seeking to support terrorism.

CRITICS SAY: The powers will stifle free speech.

Stop and Search Powers

THE PURPOSE: Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 allows police to stop individuals in areas seen as being at high risk from terrorism, even if they are not suspected of a crime. Ministers say the law is essential to disrupt terrorist activity. WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: Civil liberties campaigners say the law is a return to the "sus" laws of the 1970s and could be used to harass legitimate demonstrators.

Control Orders

THE PURPOSE: Introduced under the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act after the indefinite detention without charge of terrorist suspects at Belmarsh prison was ruled illegal. The Act introduced powers to impose orders limiting the movement and communications of suspects. The policy was ruled to be " conspicuously unfair" by the High Court this month.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: Campaigners say the law is a form of house arrest and insist suspects should be charged and tried in court. Amnesty International says it "amounts to persecution".

'I was threatened with arrest': John Catt, anti-war campaigner, 81

By Thair Shaikh

John Catt, 81, is an unusual victim of the 2000 Terrorism Act, but one who highlights how its interpretation and application can be flawed.

Mr Catt, an anti-war campaigner, has been stopped twice under the Act. The first time, the retired builder and RAF veteran, was stopped in east London when police searched his van. "I was pinned in by two police cars. They asked ridiculous questions like where was I going and why, how old I was and where I had been. They searched thethe van and gave me a receipt to say why I had been stopped."

His second arrest occurred last September when he was stopped and searched by police as he walked towards the Brighton seafront, not far from the Labour Party conference hall, for wearing a T-shirt with anti-Bush and Blair slogans.

He had to sign a form confirming he had been interviewed under the Act.

Mr Catt was not arrested ­ but he says he was threatened with arrest if he refused to answer questions.