The Queen's Speech: Criminal Justice: Tougher policies aimed at helping victims of crime

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The Independent Online
AS THE Conservative Party seeks to capitalise on grass-roots support for its tough new law and order policies, yesterday's Criminal Justice Bill was placed centre stage.

Its main provisions reflect the Government's promise to crack down on criminals and redress the balance between victim and offender. It is a complete reversal of the last Criminal Justice Act, which focused on rehabilitation rather than retribution.

In a package of diverse measures - from preventing 'raves' to creating a new offence of selling football tickets on the day of a match - the most controversial proposal is to end the 300-year-old right of defendants to stay silent under questioning. Liberty, the civil rights group, said it would challenge the move in the European courts.

Under the Bill any future decision to keep quiet could lead to a judge or magistrate drawing an inference of guilt, which critics say undermines the constitutional principle of 'innocent until proven guilty'. They say the onus is now on defendants to prove their innocence.

Opponents include Lord Runciman, who headed the Royal Commission set up in the wake of a series of miscarriages of justice. He said more people would incriminate themselves in police stations. Others say that at the very least to balance the move, the Bill should have included a new body to investigate miscarriages of justice. But Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said during last month's Tory party conference the right to silence was a charade which was being 'ruthlessly exploited' by terrorists.

Also under attack is the Bill's new Secure Training Order, enabling courts to send persistent child offenders, aged 12 to 14, to secure centres for up to two years. Labour and penal reform groups have said the relatively small numbers of young children needing detention could have been dealt with by increasing the number of secure local authority homes. Fifteen to 17-year- olds will now be able to be held in young offenders' institutions for up to two years, instead of the previous one-year maximum. But one measure welcomed by those interested in the justice system is that women alleging rape will no longer have to listen to a judge warn a jury, in cases where there is no corroboration, that they are capable of lying.

The Bill also includes a crackdown on 'bail bandits' - the estimated one in ten people who commit offences while on bail and are said to account for 50,000 crimes a year. Victims of serious crimes will be consulted about whether suspects should be allowed bail. Police are to be given the right to attach conditions to bail, such as a curfew. Those charged with a serious offence such as rape or murder who have a previous conviction will not get bail.

Other measures aimed at terrorism include two new offences of possessing items intended for terrorist offences, unlawful collection of information and extra stop and search powers.

Police will also be given powers to arrest traffickers in child pornography or other obscene material without a warrant. The maximum penalty of a pounds 5,000 fine for possessing indecent pictures of children will be increased to include a jail sentence of up to three months.

Any person convicted of a crime will be compelled to give a 'non-intimate' DNA sample such as a hair root.