Tough on liberty

Has Labour changed sides on law and order? Some believe that in power, it could find itself accused of breaking the European Convention on Human Rights. Paul Donovan says the party appears only to listen to a select few, alienating the young in the process
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It has been noticeable that the furore over the Government's Police Bill has focused almost entirely on the supine position adopted by the Labour Party. The reaction is no doubt the result of a growing frustration in many quarters with Labour's efforts to out-Tory the Tories on law and order.

At the 1993 Labour Party conference Tony Blair declared Labour to be "the Party of law and order in Britain today. Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime". The speech predated Michael Howard's declaration at that year's Tory conference which heralded the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (CJA) and other hard-hitting measures.

The Act was the first real test of Labour's new "toughness". While extra- parliamentary opposition grew against a Bill that had little to do with crime but much to do with outlawing certain lifestyles, the Labour leadership did nothing. While attempting and failing to amend certain unpalatable sections in committee, when the final vote came the party abstained. Mr Blair justified this approach on the basis of needing to "disaggregate the issues and deal with each on its merits".

Paul May, who was an organiser of the Coalition Against the Criminal Justice Act, said: "By cutting itself off from this movement of opposition the Labour Party has lost a whole generation of young people."

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP, who was one of the few MPs to oppose the legislation, believes "the demonstrations against the Act showed the complete contempt of youth for the political system". His party's performance had made young people turn away.

Mike Schwarz, a solicitor with Bindman and Partners, regards the Police Bill as the next step after the CJA. He is convinced that "the provisions of the Police Bill, most of which concern building up intelligence on people, will be directed not just toward organised crime but also peaceful protesters." Mr Schwarz, who has defended cases brought under the CJA, said: "Peaceful direct protest is the only way that those who feel disenfranchised by the present political system can express their concerns. This Act is aimed at them."

The disenchantment of youth with politicians does not seem to worry Labour, which increasingly appears to be listening to a few select voices. In the criminal justice area the tough-on-crime policy translates as hearing the demands only of the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Labour's behaviour on the Criminal Procedure and Investigation Bill, introduced in December 1995, was the clearest example of its having abdicated opposition in favour of placating the police. The Bill sought to change disclosure rules back in favour of prosecutions. The police had campaigned for this change ever since the Court of Appeal ruled in the Judith Ward case in favour of full prosecution disclosure following a series of miscarriage of justice cases.

After much police lobbying and PR about "the guilty walking free" Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, was quick to take up the cause for full defence and limited prosecution disclosure. Once Michael Howard, Home Secretary, had then introduced the Bill it sped virtually unopposed through Parliament. Some unkind critics have pointed to the lack of involvement of Labour front-benchers in those earlier miscarriage of justice campaigns as a reason why they failed to grasp the real issues behind disclosure.

Louise Christian, a solicitor, is concerned at the changed climate that sees criminal justice legislation going through quickly and virtually unopposed. She compares the speed of passage of some recent legislation with that of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace) in 1984. As part of the GLC Police Committee she drafted 100 opposition amendments to Pace that were accepted by the Government. "The climate was quite different - people were concerned that legislation shouldn't be drafted that would result in an abrogation of civil liberties," she said. The legislation took more than a year to pass, with much input from outside bodies. "Even the Tories in 1984 wouldn't just listen to the police," she said. Ms Christian describes legislation now as being "put through in a panic and on the nod". As a practising lawyer she experiences the chaos that this badly drafted legislation causes in courts.

Mr Corbyn confirms that Labour now listens less to outside organisations, preferring instead the confidence of the police. "Labour used to be heavily influenced by organisations like Liberty, the Howard League, the Bar Council and the Haldane Society," he said. He traces the change back to Neil Kinnock's decision in 1986/7 to rewrite the aims and values of the party on the basis that it could only get elected by appealing to a right-wing constituency. As a result, now, he says, when senior police officers, "unelected civil servants, set a political agenda [they aren't] criticised for interfering in politics. Instead [their] contributions are often welcomed by the leadership".

A spokesman for the campaigning organisation Justice confirmed that it had "been listened to less than before, to say the least". He seemed to put the about-face of Labour on the Police Bill down to media pressure rather than the influence of campaigning organisations. Another voluntary organisation, which did not wish to be named, blamed pressure by editorials in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail.

Against this more draconian approach adopted by the Labour Party to criminal justice matters comes its policy of incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. If achieved a future Labour government could face the embarrassing situation of having legislation that it has supported struck down because it contravened the convention. The general secretary of Liberty, John Wadham, confirms that parts of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act will certainly be in contravention.

Liberty has campaigned for the incorporation of the convention and believes that it has been listened to by Mr Straw's team on the Police Bill. However, Mr Wadham still believes that "the Labour Party has not given the right priority to human rights and civil liberties and that it is incorrect to believe that to be tough on crime you need to erode rights". He is supported in this view by the former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall John Alderson who despairs of politicians who can only discuss controlling crime in terms of "the diminution of liberty".He hopes that there may soon be some rational debate between politicians regarding criminal justice matters. As Mr Corbyn warns, the present path is leading to "a burgeoning prison population, rising crime rate, growing insecurity and a growth in the number of cases of miscarriages of justice"