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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 January 2007, 00:24 GMT
Support for liberties 'declining'
A graph showing changing levels of support for forms of public demonstrations
Support for civil liberties is declining in the UK - but terrorism may not be to blame, a study has suggested.

British Social Attitudes, which regularly monitors public opinion, found majorities supporting tougher police and surveillance powers.

Some 45% of the 1,058 respondents said denying a trial-by-jury to terrorism suspects was a "price worth paying".

And the proportion of respondents who object to compulsory identity cards has nearly halved since 1990.

Researchers involved in the Social Attitudes project regularly ask the public the same questions to monitor changes over time. The studies are produced by a range of academics for the National Centre for Social Research.

Asked for their views on civil liberties and police powers amid the current tensions over national security, most respondents told the researchers they supported strong measures.

Eight out of 10 respondents agreed it was "a price worth paying" to restrict the freedom of those suspected of terrorism, such as by using electronic tags, home curfews or bans on going to certain places.

A graphic showing changing levels of support for the police being allowed to question a suspect without a solicitor present

The government's controversial control order powers, currently in force against 18 terrorism suspects, impose similar restrictions.

Virtually the same number again said that following people suspected of involvement of terrorism, tapping their telephones, opening their mail or detaining them for a week or so without charge was a "price worth paying".

Just over a fifth thought that torturing terror suspects in British jails to get information would be acceptable - although 76% disagreed.

On ID cards, the figures were more complex. While only a fifth of those asked in 2005 said adults should not have to carry them, the numbers who said they definitely should have fluctuated greatly over 15 years, with 54% in 2005 supporting their introduction.

A majority of those surveyed also said they wanted a return of capital punishment - although the trend continues to fall.

Effect of bombings

The research team found the London bombings led to "very few differences" in public attitudes after taking into account the immediate short-term effect of the events.

The only area where attitudes had clearly hardened was over the rights of "revolutionaries" - namely those seeking to destabilise a government or state.

In contrast, the largest part of the decline in support for civil liberties occurred in the early 1990s, said the researchers. However, political changes, including the tone of language, played a part, in particular ministerial approaches to law and order.

John Reid: Asked if we should make sacrifices
It is up to each and all of us to ask the questions: what price our security? What price our freedoms? At what cost can we preserve our freedoms?
Home Secretary John Reid

In 1985, Social Attitudes found that 67% of Labour supporters thought public protest meetings "definitely should be allowed".

Some 860 of the 1,058 respondents were asked to expand on their views in 2005.

Researchers found only 45% of Labour supporters now backed that view on public protest meetings.

In contrast, the number of Conservatives who supported the right to public protest grew by nine points to 59% over the same period.

Asked whether the police should have powers to interview a suspect for up to a week without a solicitor being present, the number of Labour supporters who opposed such a move fell from 79% in 1990 to 55% in 2005. Similar shifts were seen among Liberal Democrat and Conservative voters.

The prime minister and Home Secretary John Reid have frequently underlined what they say is a need to rethink our approach to freedoms and security.

In a speech last summer, the day before a series of high-profile anti-terrorism arrests, Mr Reid said the "challenge to all of us" meant "we may have to modify some of our freedoms in the short-term in order to prevent their misuse and abuse by those who oppose our fundamental values and would destroy our freedoms and values in the long-term".

Professor Conor Gearty, co-author of the Social Attitudes report, said: "The very mention of something being a counter-terrorism measure makes people more willing to contemplate the giving up of their freedoms.

"It is as though society is in the process of forgetting why past generations thought these freedoms to be so very important."

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