Leading article: Good men who have refused to keep silent

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The Independent Online

The recently retired Lord Steyn has some sharp things to say about the proposed measures in his interview with The Independent today. He describes plans to extend the permitted period of detention without charge as "exorbitant and unnecessary". He also challenges the usefulness of the proposed new offence of incitement to religious hatred, suggesting that it could fall foul of the European Convention of Human Rights.

In addition, he issues a stern warning to the Government that it must respect the independence of the judiciary. This is his response to the Prime Minister's statement after the London bombings that the "rules of the game" had changed. The law is not a game, Lord Steyn retorts, stressing that it is for judges to apply the law in determining whether rules have been broken.

Lord Steyn's remarks chimed with comments made by the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, as disclosed by the Independent on Sunday. Lord Goldsmith reportedly believes that, while the present 14-day detention period might be too short, three months would not be justified. He is known to have support within the Cabinet for his views, and from sections of the Home Office. The Liberal Democrats have also voiced opposition to a 90-day period of detention.

That such hostility is emerging at this stage to key sections of the new anti-terrorism proposals suggests that Mr Blair will face a battle to get them through the Commons, even before they start their passage through the Lords. The Home Office has already been forced to drop its planned charge of "glorifying acts of terrorism". A significant dilution of the extended detention period - described by some critics as tantamount to internment - would call into question the wisdom of trying to toughen the legislation in this way at all.

The anti-terrorism laws, however, are but one of the ways in which the Government has restricted the rights of individuals or threatens to do so. Lord Steyn says he has great reservations about the practicality of ID cards and doubts the Government has properly thought the measure through. The introduction of Anti-social Behaviour Orders has been a mixed blessing, and legal challenges are mounting. New proposals for "baby" Asbos to deal with under-10s, as well as secure housing for unruly families have more than a hint of the "nanny state" turned enforcer. It is highly questionable whether the "respect" Mr Blair uses as code for good behaviour can, in practice, be encouraged in this way.

On immigration, too, the Government has shown an illiberal and authoritarian side that has left even the Conservatives with little to add. This makes the contribution of John Bercow MP to this debate, on our pages and in a pamphlet out today, especially welcome. Mr Bercow says the anti-immigration line taken by the Conservatives in the last election campaign was wrong and alienated some voters. He sets out the free-market argument for immigration and advocates a more consistent, and humane, approach to asylum.

It is to be hoped that this sort of new thinking on an old subject might be a straw in the wind as the Conservative Party prepares to elect its next leader. With this Labour government now striking such a hard-line pose on so many aspects of law and order, every reasoned expression of opposition needs to be encouraged. The wider the circle of those who speak out, the better our liberties will be safeguarded.