Straw hits back at ‘fashionable’ liberal critics

The justice secretary has hit back at claims Labour has undermined liberty, pointing to the government’s record for passing legislation that forwards human rights and openness.

Writing in the Guardian the day after the home affairs select committee tore into Jacqui Smith’s plans to extend the period for pre-charge detention, Jack Straw insisted Labour had a strong record on protecting civil liberties.

Mr Straw wrote: “Does the sun rise in the east? Has Labour enhanced rights and liberties? The answer to the second question is as unambiguously a yes as to the first.”

But with opposition MPs and human rights groups raising concerns at the government’s illiberal record, he maintained a “fashionable but false orthodoxy” sought to deny Labour’s achievements since 1997.

Mr Straw quoted the constitutional expert Venon Bogdanor, who said the past ten years could be seen as heralding a “quiet revolution” in UK government.

The justice secretary singled out the Human Rights Act and Freedom of Information Act for helping end the culture that said the “man in Whitehall knows best”.

He also pointed to Labour’s achievements in repealing section 28, equalising the age of consent, toughening laws against discrimination, introducing the Disability Discrimination Act, minimum wage and independent investigation and adjudication of complaints against the police.

Mr Straw sought to defend the government’s often controversial counter-terror policies, insisting no constituent had ever complained to him that anti-terror laws are incompatible with their own rights.

He said rights should not just be seen as “freedom to” but also “freedom from”: “The freedoms from fear, crime and terrorism are as important as positive freedoms.”

With the Conservatives leading the charge against Labour’s attempts to extend pre-charge detention to 42 days, Mr Straw hit out at the Conservatives’ liberal image.

He insisted any government would have been forced to strengthen counter-terror laws in the wake of 9/11, but unlike the Conservatives, Labour could offset this with positive legislation such as the Human Rights Act.

Shadow home secretary David Davis yesterday insisted there was not a “shred of evidence” to support government plans to extend the period for which terror suspects can be held without charge.

Mr Davis urged ministers to consider other practical alternatives, such as the use of intercept evidence in court and post-charge questioning.