Plans to abolish right to silence criticised by police

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PLANS to abolish the right to silence have been criticised by the Police Federation, which has been among the strongest advocates of the change.

Under the proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill, judges will be able to comment to a jury if a defendant raises a defence at trial which they had not previously mentioned when questioned or charged - a procedure known as the 'ambush defence'.

But the federation, which represents 120,000 lower-ranking officers, believes the clause is too widely framed and could apply to all occasions when a suspect is in police custody from the moment of arrest and does not simply apply to a suspect's silence during formal, tape-recorded questioning.

Michael O'Brien, the Labour MP who is also an adviser to the federation, told the committee considering the Bill last night that officers were concerned that they could be accused of 'non-verballing' - falsely claiming that a suspect had said nothing at any point to explain themselves, thereby allowing the judge to draw the jury's attention to the matter.

He said the proposals would place police under a great burden to record everything from the moment of arrest, otherwise it could later become an important issue at trial. The federation believes that further safeguards are needed for both defendants and police officers and supports a Labour amendment modifying the clause.

During the Committee Stage yesterday, a Labour amendment which would have changed the basis of the Government's proposals was voted down. Labour had put forward a system of pre-trial reviews in which the defence would be obliged to state its position after the disclosure of the prosecution case, or risk adverse comments from the judge that it had not done so. But a defendant would be able to maintain his or her silence in a police station under questioning.

Alan Michael, the shadow home affairs minister, told the committee the Government's proposals would not increase the number of guilty people being convicted, but could result in more innocent people going to prison, particularly the vulnerable. He said: 'The right to silence has been an important principle in law and justice for many centuries.'

David Maclean, the Home Office minister, said the legislation was needed because experienced criminals exploited the current rules. He emphasisedthat the proposals contained safeguards. No person would be compelled to answer questions, there would have to be other evidence before a prosecution was brought and the drawing of an inference by the judge was dependent on the circumstances surrounding the suspect's arrest.