Defending civil liberties in an illiberal climate

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Yesterday David Blunkett unveiled a thoroughly illiberal plan to allow the details of defendants' previous convictions to be known to juries in cases of child sex abuse and theft. This proposal serves to demonstrate the Government's dangerously cavalier approach to traditional judicial safeguards and civil liberties.

Yesterday David Blunkett unveiled a thoroughly illiberal plan to allow the details of defendants' previous convictions to be known to juries in cases of child sex abuse and theft. This proposal serves to demonstrate the Government's dangerously cavalier approach to traditional judicial safeguards and civil liberties.

The rule that guilt must be established on the facts of a particular case alone seems to be of little consequence to the Home Secretary. He argues that these reforms will "put victims at the heart of the justice system", but there is a grave risk that what juries will end up doing is trying defendants for their previous crimes. The presumption of innocence, the principle on which our legal system hinges, will be badly compromised.

Mr Blunkett seems to be motivated by headline-chasing populism, rather than a genuine concern to see justice done. Unfortunately, it seems that few politicians are prepared to stand up for civil liberties these days, despite the fact that rarely has a stout defence of our rights and freedoms been more urgently needed. And, of course, Mr Blunkett's illiberal approach extends into the Government's draconian anti-terror legislation introduced since 11 September.

In this troubling context, the speech in defence of civil liberties yesterday by Charles Kennedy was a breath of fresh air. The leader of the Liberal Democrats put forward an elegant critique of the Government's approach. He questioned the Home Secretary's detention of nine foreign nationals on suspicion of being involved in terrorism and pointed out that keeping these individuals locked up indefinitely, and refusing to show them the evidence on which they are being held, is a subversion of Britain's tradition of holding open trials. He also drew attention to Mr Blunkett's dubious rationale for introducing ID cards.

None of this means that the Liberal Democrats are less concerned about crime or the threat of terrorism than the other parties. They simply recognise that the erosion of our civil liberties will not make us safe, but will do serious harm to our traditions of freedom and toleration.

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