PM defends civil liberties trade-off

The use of summary justice and DNA data are “difficult” because of their impact on civil liberties but they are the only way to solve crime, Tony Blair has declared.

The prime minister also defended his plans to intervene early in the lives of families who may cause trouble in the future but have yet to commit a crime, saying that although it was a “heavy” move, “that’s what it needs”.

He was responding to a grilling by senior MPs on the House of Commons liaison committee, where he was asked why the number of offences being brought to courts has fallen, but there has been an increasing use of on the spot fines and cautions.

There have been concerns that such moves were illiberal, and today Liberal Democrat MP Alan Beith asked the prime minister what tests the government put to any changes to law and order policies to ensure basic rights were protected.

“The basic principles of the criminal justice system must remain intact. What that means is you have a system that convicts the guilty and acquits the innocent,” Mr Blair said.

Mr Beith responded that he was looking for a reassurance that the government tested all reforms against basic values such as presumption of innocence, fair trial and habeus corpus, to which Mr Blair said that “of course” they were.

However, he stressed the “practical problems in decision-making” meant there had to be a trade-off, arguing: “We have to be careful as lawmakers to say we’re not literally living in a different planet from the public out there.

“[They are] saying: ‘Yes, of course people’s basic civil liberties are important, my basic civil liberty not to have my window put in by a gang of hoodlums is also something I want you to protect us from.'”

Mr Blair admitted it was “a difficult thing” for people to accept that everyone who comes into contact with the criminal justice system gets their DNA details put on the national database, but insisted it was crucial to ensure criminals were caught.

Equally, action taken against families who might get into “serious law-breaking” before they actually commit a crime “is a very heavy thing to say.but my view is it’s what it needs”.

The Conservatives today launched an attack on the government for plans to allow police to question terror suspects for 90 days without charge, and for its plans to introduce a nationwide identity cards, warning it was playing fast and loose with civil liberties.

But Mr Blair defended the plans for ID cards, which are due to come into effect in 2010, saying: “The actual information on the ID database is basically what’s on your passport -it’s not a great deal of information.

“The average store card has more information.I think we’re in danger of getting to a situation where we have this view that government is going to develop mass of information on individuals – we’re not.”