Peers may force change on right to silence

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MICHAEL HOWARD, the Home Secretary, is contemplating watering down controversial plans to restrict the suspect's right of silence in the face of mounting opposition from rebel peers.

The proposal in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill would allow a court or jury to draw adverse inferences from an accused's refusal to answer police questions or from his failure to enter the witness box.

Under an amendment tabled for the Lords committee stage on Monday by Lord Ackner, the cross-bench former law lord, the provision would not apply unless the accused's lawyer was present and he or she had the opportunity of consulting the lawyer prior to questioning, or had stated in writing that a lawyer was not wanted.

Tory peers and cross-benchers are poised to join Labour and the Liberal Democrats in supporting the amendment.

Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, is not expected to back it. But the impending revolt has prompted Mr Howard to summon Lord Ackner for a discussion.

Mr Howard has already warned the Lords that they risk bordering on the unconstitutional by seeking to unpick a Bill which MPs have already scrutinised in detail.

The amendment will not be pressed to a vote on Monday but it will be reactivated at the Bill's report stage if the Government does not offer a concession.