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British Lords Leap To Quash Bugging

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 27, 1997



LONDON

The ancient adage that an Englishman's home is his castle got a vigorous defense from the House of Lords last week.

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The lords stood up against Britain's law-and-order Home Secretary Michael Howard, who wants police to be able to bug and search private residences without prior legal authorization. He says he will press ahead with a new bill giving them that right.

The opposition Labour and Liberal Democrats have vowed to stop him, however, and say the lords' vote against Mr. Howard's police bill represented the will of most British citizens.

The clash between Mr. Howard and the upper chamber is the latest example of the Home Secretary's apparent failure to gauge the mood of parliament before placing contentious legislation before it.

Senior police officers, meanwhile, insist that if the bill is blocked or significantly watered down, their battle against terrorism and narcotics crimes would be hindered.

The Liberal Democrats traditionally support the safeguarding of civil liberties and opposed the police bill when it was first published last year.

Mr. Howard's bid to "give police the powers they need," as he argued when the bill was unveiled last year, ran into trouble when the lords inflicted two stinging defeats on the measure.

Speaking on TV after the two votes, Mr. Howard called the results "a shambles."

But John Wadham, director of Liberty, Britain's most important civil rights organization, said: "The House of Lords decision is very important. It ensures the protection of a fundamentally important human right."

It is rare for Britain's upper chamber, with its built-in Conservative majority, to take such a strong stand against a government measure. But Howard has clashed with the lords before.

Measures he has proposed for longer jail sentences and stricter interpretation of the law by judges have been regularly challenged.

Significantly, several peers, or lords, who voted down Mr. Howard's latest measure were former Conservative government ministers. Lord Carr, a former Conservative Home Secretary, said: "If we allow the bill to go ahead, in 20 years from now our successors will regard what we did as something of which we ought to be thoroughly ashamed."

Lord Donaldson, a former senior judge noted for his tough approach to crime, also voted against the government. He said: "This House has backed the right of the Englishman to treat his home as a castle unless it is absolutely essential for the police to invade it."

One of the most vigorously opposed provision of the bill would let chief constables decide whether to bug suspected criminals and enter their premises without a legal warrant.

Last week, the opposition demanded talks with Howard with the aim of "finding a way forward." Labour's point man on the bill, shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw, was reported to be prepared to agree with the home secretary that in a real emergency police could enter premises or carrying out bugging without prior authorization. That may offer the basis for a compromise.