Page last updated at 15:22 GMT, Wednesday, 31 March 2010 16:22 UK

Civil liberties 'a divisive issue'

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News

Enroling for the National Identity card at Manchester passport office
Identity cards are controversial

Ask voters what the key issues are at a general election and they rarely respond with the phrase "civil liberties". Yet how to balance individual liberty with the security of the state has created divisions between the main political parties - and even within some of them.

Back in 1998 - a year into their first term in office - the Labour government brought in the Human Rights Act, incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, and received plaudits from civil rights campaigners.

The Conservatives say they would replace this with a British bill of rights.

But enthusiasm among civil liberties groups changed as the government faced new challenges - first in the wake of 9/11, then five years ago, just into Labour's third term, after the home-grown terrorist attack of 7/7.

It is not quite true to say all oppositions tend to defend civil liberties and all governments undermine them - but there is little doubt that any future government will still have to grapple with how to preserve individual rights while protecting the wider public

Increasingly, the government gave more weight to public protection and - its critics say - less weight to individual rights when trying to balance security and liberty.

The government would maintain that the "right to life" - contained in the European convention - is paramount and therefore robust action to tackle the threat of terrorism is justified.

But they have faced mounting opposition from those who say they are undermining the democracy they seek to protect.

So in 2006, while the police were given the power to detain terrorist suspects for 28 days without charge - up from 14 - opposition on Labour's benches, as well as from the bulk of opposition MPs, defeated an attempt to increase this to 90 days.

A subsequent attempt to increase pre-charge detention to 42 days was defeated in the Lords. The Liberal Democrats favour a return to 14 days.

ID cards

The government has also faced opposition to the introduction of ID cards.

Scientist examining DNA sequencing
New rules for the DNA database are being considered

In Labour's 2005 manifesto the party made it clear these would be introduced "initially" on a voluntary basis.

But the intention was to make them compulsory - following a parliamentary vote - if Labour were to win a fourth term.

Gordon Brown subsequently ruled out making ID cards compulsory in the next Parliament in his Labour Party conference speech last year.

The Conservatives have also changed position, officially abstaining on ID card legislation in 2005 then, under David Cameron's leadership, opposing them outright as an example of "ineffective authoritarianism".

The Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Democratic Unionists are also firmly opposed.

Sinn Fein, who don't take their seats at Westminster, are against what they call "a British ID card for Irish citizens".

Identity register

ID cards are being phased in on a compulsory basis for foreign nationals and the government is also pressing ahead with plans for a national identity register, which they say will help the fight against identity fraud and could prevent terrorists assuming a double identity.

But the main opposition parties see this database as unnecessarily intrusive and believe savings can be made from scrapping the scheme.

The Lib Dems have also committed themselves to scrapping ID cards for foreign nationals.

And the parties are divided over the merits and scope of the DNA database in England and Wales.

The European Court of Human Rights has intervened to prevent the "blanket" retention of DNA samples of those arrested by police but not necessarily convicted by the courts.

The government has said that DNA samples of innocent people will now be destroyed after six years - or 12 in the case of those arrested in connection with violent or sexual offences.

But the opposition says this is too draconian and in effect suspects are being judged potentially guilty even if they are not charged, never mind convicted.

The Conservatives favour the adoption of the Scottish system throughout the UK, where most DNA records of those arrested are destroyed if there are no subsequent charges or convictions.

But a DNA profile of those arrested for serious sexual or violent offences can be kept for a maximum of five years even if suspects do not face charges.

The Liberal Democrats would remove all innocent people from the database.

Rolling back laws

And Nick Clegg's party say they will go even further than the other parties to protect civil liberties.

They have published what they call a Freedom Bill that, in their words, is intended "to roll back the draconian laws passed by successive Labour and Conservative administrations".

It would include the abolition of "control orders", which place restrictions on the freedom of terrorist suspects, even though there may not be enough evidence to convict them of any offence.

The Conservatives say they would review what they term "the controversial control orders system".

And David Cameron's party would set up a National Security Council to co-ordinate anti-terrorist activities across departments.

It is not quite true to say all oppositions tend to defend civil liberties and all governments undermine them - but there is little doubt that any future government will still have to grapple with how to preserve individual rights while protecting the wider public.



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