Leading article: A law too precious to be sacrificed to populism

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister, we are told, is planning to put a month of disarray behind him today by re-launching his reform agenda in a major speech. Forgive our scepticism, but in at least one crucial respect - the criminal justice system - that agenda is already looking less like reform and more and more like retrenchment.

In a letter sent yesterday to the new Home Secretary, John Reid, Mr Blair spoke of the need to ensure that the "law-abiding majority can live without fear". He also raised the prospect of new legislation designed to curb the effect of the 1998 Human Rights Act. And this was no private note. Not only was it leaked to the press, it was swiftly interpreted by unnamed officials not a million miles from Downing Street as meaning that the Human Rights Act could be amended.

Nor was Mr Blair alone in his weekend intervention. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, gave interviews two days in a row, likewise suggesting the possibility of new legislation that could dilute the Human Rights Act. Lord Falconer spoke of "real concern" about the way the Act was operating. "We need to be absolutely clear," he said, "that human rights does not in any way reduce people's public safety."

The reasons for the Government's worry are clear enough. The local election campaign was overshadowed by revelations about how many foreign offenders had completed their sentences without being considered for deportation. The then Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, lost his job over that débâcle.

Scarcely was the post-election Cabinet reshuffle complete than two new cases hove into view. A court ruled that nine Afghan hijackers should be given refugee status in Britain. And a report into the murder of Naomi Bryant by a convicted rapist, Anthony Rice, concluded that, in releasing him, officials had considered his human rights above their duties to the public.

In every case, either the Human Rights Act itself or the climate it had created came in for blame. Not far below the surface was the inference that this was a piece of alien legislation misguidedly incorporated into our judicial system from Europe. By the end of last week, the Conservative leader, David Cameron had undertaken to reform, replace or abolish the Act if he were elected.

With the reshuffle poorly received, even more foreign criminals reportedly lost, and urgent questions being asked about the Blair-Brown handover, the Prime Minister clearly needed to seize back the initiative. But did he really need to do so by appealing so blatantly to the baser instincts of the law and order lobby and so shamelessly trying to trump Mr Cameron?

There are two quite different ways of interpreting the Blair-Falconer remarks. Either the Government plans a real assault on the Act, in the same repressive spirit that brought us the anti-terrorism legislation, or they are merely hot air designed to silence the more outraged sections of public opinion, while ensuring that the provisions of the Act are protected. Lord Falconer's assertion that the Government does not intend to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights seems to hint at the latter.

At this stage it scarcely matters. With the local elections out of the way, the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor had a chance to set the record straight. They could have pointed out that none of the controversial rulings had much to do with the Human Rights Act; they had more to do with other laws - and with sometimes flawed judgments and procedures. In short, they could have defended the Act, introduced as a key addition to our statute book the year after New Labour's euphoric election. Instead, to their shame, they chose the low road of harsh words to please the crowd.

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