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15 December 2008

Labour’s illiberal home secretaries

What is it about the office of home secretary that makes perfectly decent politicians turn away from

By Jeremy Sare

What is about the office of home secretary, which transforms relatively well-adjusted Labour ministers into illiberal controllers of our freedom?

Jacqui Smith has already joined the line of recent Labour Home Secretaries who have put aside luxurious notions of individual rights in favour of police powers.

The events surrounding the arrest of Damian Green MP amply demonstrated her acceptance of the police as an authority beyond reproach; seemingly trumping even Parliament.

The home secretary is the only cabinet minister, other than the prime minister, who has 24-hour armed protection.

One can’t help wondering if this constant reminder of the threat of violence has some subliminal influence on their outlook.

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Over time, home secretaries seem to lose their public affability and become increasingly emotional when dealing with criminal issues.

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Liberal Democrat spokesman on Home Affairs, Chris Huhne argued: “Even those who have entered the Home Office with the best of intentions have found it simpler to peddle the easy answers of authoritarianism when in office. The result are policies that appeal to the more punitive nature of public opinion and the popular press.”

The majority of the most criticised criminal justice measures since 1997 originated between 2001 and 2004 when David Blunkett occupied the office.

Blunkett instigated ID cards, removed the automatic right of trial by jury, established the world’s most extensive DNA database and gave authorities widespread surveillance powers under RIPA – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

Anyone who has ever read Blunkett’s various tabloid columns can deduce he is driven by a populist agenda.

As leader of Sheffield City Council in the 1980s, he saw himself as a bulwark against the harsh social aspects of Thatcherism. But when home secretary, he succeeded in establishing more draconian legislation than Willie Whitelaw, Leon Brittan, or Douglas Hurd would have dared raise in a Thatcher cabinet.

Shami Chakrabati of Liberty termed Blunkett, “the most authoritarian home secretary in living memory”. His successors have not seen fit to reverse any of their predecessor’s tough enforcement measures.

One of David Blunkett’s few liberalising acts was to initiate the reclassification of cannabis to a class C drug to stop tens of thousands of young people being criminalised every year.

Charles Clarke immediately tried to overturn this measure and so abandoned a brief period of rational thinking on drug policy.

By next January, Jacqui Smith will have succeeded in completing the volte-face; she has only offered cursory justification describing the legal change as necessary, “to help police prioritisation”.

Central to any home secretary’s tenure is the relationship they forge with the police. Blunkett extended police powers more than any previous home secretary in modern times. The police did not always return the love; following his retirement former Met Chief John (now Lord) Stevens described Blunkett as, “a bully and a liar”.

A home secretary may be responsible for an effective law enforcement regime but equally should balance that with the protection and promotion of our personal freedoms.

The second part seems, at times, to have become a source of intense irritation to Labour home secretaries: Jack Straw decried those in the “prison reform lobby”. David Blunkett referred to groups such as Liberty as, “self-appointed gurus of our freedom” and libertarians as “airy-fairy”.

Fiona Mactaggart MP was a Home Office minister under both Blunkett and Clarke and disagrees they were increasingly illiberal in their approach. “David Blunkett introduced a mandatory recording system for police stop and searches. He also remedied the injustice created by the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act whereby British nationals with no other citizenship, largely from east Africa, were deprived of the right to come to Britain. Charles Clarke was developing a radical vision of community prisons, which would have been much less oppressive.”

But the expansion of the DNA database perfectly encapsulates how a home secretary loses balance.

There is no doubt capturing the DNA profiles of criminals has been a highly innovative and effective weapon against serious crime. But its scope has been extended way beyond the original intention and now the police now hold samples from 850,000 people who have not faced a charge let alone been convicted.

The high proportion of samples from black and ethnic minority groups and minors would, at one time in their careers, have stirred the consciences of many Labour ministers.

Instead, Jacqui Smith, “mounted a robust defence,” of this prima facie diminution of individuals’ rights before losing hands-down in the European Court last week.

However, it would seem this unrelenting harsh approach and controlling instincts is a more of a feature of Labour Governments under Blair and Brown. Roy Jenkins in the Wilson Government in the 1960s did not feel restrained to act for individual liberty where it was suppressed by an inequitable and intolerant state. In the teeth of opposition, often from the police, he established legal abortion, gay rights and relaxed censorship in less than two years.

Compare Jenkins’s resolute defence of freedoms with Jacqui Smith’s deference to police independence when an opposition MP was arrested for his political activities.

In October, she was clearly incensed to be denied the power to detain suspects for 42 days without charge. But there always seem to be new measures to sate a modern Home Secretary’s desire for greater control. The proposed database capturing every e-mail, text and phone call should do it.