Blair's plan to drive out criminals draws fresh fears for civil liberties

TONY Blair faced fresh attacks over his human rights record yesterday as he unveiled plans to impose unprecedented civil liberties restrictions on individuals suspected of being involved in crime.

MPs and pressure groups criticised the Prime Minister's push to widen police powers to seize cash and limit the movements of suspected, rather than convicted, criminals.

The clampdown would affect individuals even if there were not enough evidence to convict or try them.

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"In fact, I would generally harry, hassle and hound them until they give up and leave the country," Mr Blair said as he pledged to drive out criminal gangs.

However, Professor Rod Morgan, the government's adviser on youth crime, warned that Labour's obsession with anti-social behaviour was "demonising" a generation of British children. He called for an alternative strategy to deal with unruly teenagers and said children as young as ten were being labelled with "the mark of Cain on their foreheads".

More than 2,000 anti-social behaviour orders have been served since 1999, a record the government is proud of as it underpins its law and order credentials.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister hit back at his critics, who he admitted included Labour MPs, insisting that the political and legal establishment was wildly "out of touch" with public concerns.

While anti-social behaviour measures had "disturbed the normal legal process", they allowed police to take action against what was a real menace on many estates, he said in an e-mail debate with a newspaper columnist.

"Where these powers are being used, the law-abiding no longer live in fear of the lawless," he said.

The Human Rights Act had allowed the courts to "strike down" the laws made by the sovereign parliament, he added.

That claim was seized on by Liberty, a human rights pressure group, which accused the Prime Minister of peddling a myth. Shami Chakrabati, the director of Liberty, said the Prime Minister was "complacent" about rights and freedoms.

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"The factual inaccuracies with which his comments are riddled are rather more troubling," she said.

Courts could not simply strike down primary legislation using the Human Rights Act, she added.

David Davis, the shadow home secretary, dismissed Mr Blair's law and order vision as a "headline-grabbing initiative".

"The Prime Minister may talk tough but under his premiership violent crime has soared, gun crime has doubled and hard drugs continue to pour in through our porous borders," Mr Davis said.

Mr Blair's Cabinet allies were deployed to defend his law and order credentials.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said Mr Blair was on the side of the "majority" while Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, will today argue that it is a myth that the Labour government has assumed police state powers. He will contest the suggestion that the government does not value civil liberties and wade into his own debate with another newspaper columnist who has attacked the government's record.

The Prime Minister's renewed rhetoric came as a poll suggested that disillusionment in Barking and Dagenham in east London could drive voters to choose the British National Party during the 4 May local elections in England.

The poll of constituency residents put the BNP on 45.5 per cent of those certain to vote, with the Tories and Labour trailing. There are also fears working class voters feel disillusioned with Labour and ignored by the Tories, whose high-profile campaign on the environment has little resonance on urban estates.

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Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, accused politicians of failing to debate asylum or immigration properly and took a thinly veiled swipe at party leader David Cameron for being "politically correct".