Ending the right to silence 'is breach of human rights': 'Hanging and flogging charter' condemned. Heather Mills and Terry Kirby report

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MICHAEL HOWARD yesterday stood accused of breaching human rights and bringing the United Kingdom into line with Iraq, Kuwait and China when he announced the abolition of a defendant's right to silence.

The announcement came in a package of proposals - some old and some new - that he said would lead to more children in custody, reduce the number of people allowed bail and create new offences of witness intimidation and jury nobbling. New police powers for anti-terrorist roadblocks and wider DNA testing were also criticised on civil liberties grounds.

The right to remain silent under interrogation was adopted as a constitutional safeguard after the oppression of the 17th- century Star Chamber. Under Mr Howard's proposals, any future decision to keep quiet could lead to judges drawing an inference of guilt, leading to allegations that instead of the principle of 'innocent until proved guilty', the onus is now on a defendant to prove his innocence.

Yesterday, Liberty said the speech amounted to a 'hangers' and floggers' charter' which amounted to a breach of human rights governing the right to a fair trial. Listing other countries with poor human rights records, Pam Giddy, of Charter 88, said: 'If Mr Howard succeeds, Britain will have the dubious privilege of being one of the only nations in the world stepping towards tyranny. It makes the safety net of a bill of rights all the more urgent.'

Michael Mansfield, the leading QC, said the Government was ignoring the fact that the abolition of the right to silence had been rejected by three Royal Commissions and most legal and professional bodies. 'The presumption of innocence should be across the board - I do not think anyone should have to prove their innocence or we will be going towards an inquisitorial system.'

Yesterday, Mr Howard not only chose to ignore the earlier Royal Commissions - 1929, 1981 and this year's - which said the right to silence should stay, but also performed one of the swiftest and biggest U-turns in recent criminal justice history.

He put the final nail in the coffin of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, once heralded as the most forward-thinking piece of Home Office legislation. Based on Douglas Hurd's philosophy that prison was an expensive way of making bad people worse, it promoted longer sentences for serious and violent offenders while seeking to divert petty criminals from custody. Yesterday it became a seven-month experiment.

While Mr Howard received a two-minute standing ovation from the grass roots, his critics warned of a return to poor conditions in overcrowded jails - the volatile mix that sparked off the Strangeways riots.

Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said Mr Howard had abandoned the Government's policy of punishment in the community and returned to the harsh penal attitudes of the early 1980s. 'It is a very bleak day for the prison system.'

However, the police - which have been pressing for an end to the right of silence and tougher restrictions on reoffending on bail - were delighted. Many saw the moves as designed to improve relations with a body deeply apprehensive about the Sheehy report and the White Paper on police authorities. Police see greater use of DNA testing as an important step in improving crime investigation.

John Hoddinott, Chief Constable of Hampshire and chairman of the crime committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said it was a promising beginning.

'They will help redress the balance in favour of justice for victims, witnesses and the mass of law-abiding citizens,' he added.

Dick Coyles, chairman of the Police Federation, which represents lower-ranking officers, said Michael Howard's proposals were 'first class'. 'It will help tremendously in the fight against crime.' Mr Coyles said it was important for the Cabinet to give Mr Howard the resources to implement his plans.

It was the release of the Birmingham Six which led to the Royal Commission. But yesterday, after three months' consideration of its 352 recommendations, Mr Howard's only concession to concerns about injustice was the setting up of an independent body to investigate allegations of wrongful convictions. However, he said he needed more time to consider its other findings.