Leading article: A quick fix that fans the flames of intolerance

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The Home Secretary saved his ministerial skin yesterday by offering the same repressive response to crisis that has become the default position of this government: more tough talk, more intolerance, above all, the promise of more illiberal legislation of the sort that has no place in a democratic and civilised society. By now, we have become so used to this sequence that we have almost forgotten how unseemly it is for such characteristically right-wing measures to be enacted by a Labour government.

How much further down this road will the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary be prepared to go? With the extended detention of terrorist suspects without charge, we have had the de facto suspension of habeas corpus. The new offence of glorifying terrorism is now on the statute book. The introduction of compulsory ID cards is now law, and the proliferation of Asbos rumbles on, in pursuit of the so-called "respect" agenda.

Yesterday, of course, time was of the essence. With local elections today, the Government was up against a deadline. It had to recoup as much of its damaged claim to competence as it possibly could. But an effort to restore an air of managerial competence was the very least of it. With Labour councillors fearing gains by the British National Party in several urban areas, London included, the pernicious association of crime, foreigners and illegal immigrants was in the air. And how did the Government address it? By shameless pandering to xenophobic prejudice.

In one respect, the Government was fortunate. We can only imagine the hay the Conservatives, let alone the BNP, could have made had the suspected murderer of the Bradford policewoman Sharon Beshenivsky turned out to be one of the foreign-born reoffenders who had escaped a deportation hearing. But this hardly mattered yesterday. Charles Clarke's statement in the Commons only perpetuated the myth that foreigners, asylum-seekers, illegal immigrants, offenders and reoffenders were all part of the same undesirable cast, and the sooner they were all deported the safer Britain would be. In the tenor of his statement and the promise of more legislation later this month, Mr Clarke played shamelessly to the gallery of populists and xenophobes. Why else boast about how many failed asylum-seekers were now being returned or propose automatic deportation for foreigners who commit "imprisonable" offences? This not only shifts the language of public discourse to the racist right, it scurrilously muddies the waters.

What the revelations of the past 10 days showed was not that existing legislation is inadequate, but that it was not being applied. There is no point at all in adding pages to the statute book if those already there are ignored. And so far as foreign offenders are concerned, it is for the courts, not the Government, to decide whether deportation should be part of their sentence. Automatic deportation would not only deprive courts of their discretion but risk exposing lesser offenders to dangers out of all proportion to their offences.

Mr Clarke had an opportunity yesterday to explain that the balance between the human rights of a released offender and the safety of law-abiding citizens is not always easy to calculate. He had a chance to distinguish between foreign offenders residing legally in Britain and those whose offence is to be here illegally. The automatic deportation the Government is proposing weighs the scales of British justice disproportionately against foreign nationals. It is discriminatory and xenophobic. For such a law to be enacted would be no less of a scandal than the Government failure Mr Clarke seeks so desperately to repair.