Protection for the silent majority: As the Criminal Justice Bill enters its final stages, Michael Howard, Home Secretary, argues that the Bill safeguards the rights of law-abiding individuals while enhancing police powers in the fight against crime

Click to follow
The Independent Online
EARLY in 1993 it was becoming evident that more and more people were losing confidence in Britain's system of criminal justice. There was widespread concern that youth crime was out of control, professional criminals were exploiting the system, and victims' needs were coming a poor second.

There were the first signs of what normally happens when ordinary people feel the system of law is against them - individuals taking the law into their own hands. The case of the so-called Norfolk vigilantes attracted widespread attention.

As Home Secretary from May of that year, it was my job to take steps to make sure that confidence in the system was restored. The result is the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, which today resumes its final stages of debate in the House of Commons. The Bill takes forward many of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice's recommendations, including abolishing the mandatory warning which judges have to give to juries in rape trials about the credibility of the woman's evidence.

The Commission recommended the introduction of DNA testing, but I am also giving police more extensive powers to take DNA samples from suspected criminals. This will enable us to create the first national DNA database in the world. It should be an enormous help in the speedy elimination from enquiries of innocent suspects, and in apprehending and convicting the guilty.

Another area in which I disagreed with the majority of the Commission was on the so-called right of silence. I found the view of a minority of its members more persuasive.

The Government's proposals do not abolish a defendant's right of silence.

The presumption of innocence remains untouched. The prosecution will still have to prove its case against the defendant beyond reasonable doubt and the court will not be able to convict someone just because they have remained silent. What the Bill proposes is to allow magistrates and juries to decide what inferences, if any, to draw from a suspect's refusal to answer questions and explain their actions.

Research conducted by eight police forces in the South-east showed that suspects with five or more convictions are 3.5 times more likely to exercise their right of silence than those without convictions. As the Association of Chief Police Officers said at the time of the research: 'As criminals become more experienced and 'professional', they also become more proficient at exploiting the weaknesses of the judicial processes . . . Familiarity with the judicial procedures encourages suspects to use any means to thwart the process of law.

'It is often argued that the right of silence is a protection for the weak and the inexperienced. The reality is that it is a protection for hardened criminals.'

Similar legislation has been operating in Northern Ireland for five years now and, according to the RUC, has made a useful contribution to the fight against crime there.

Much has also been made of our proposals to set up five secure training centres for juvenile offenders. The Government has not taken this decision lightly. There is no escaping the fact that a relatively small number of young criminals commit a disproportionate number of crimes.

But there has been a gap in the powers of courts to detain 12- to 14-year-old juveniles who regularly skip school, commit crime after crime and who have failed to respond to community-based sentences imposed by the courts. And although local authority secure accommodation has its merits, it cannot offer the kind of high-quality, tailor-made regime which will be available in secure training centres, where these youngsters will be given much-needed education and training and take part in programmes to tackle their offending behaviour.

The misguided, misunderstanding and downright mischievous claim that the Bill attacks freedom of speech, bans demonstrations and takes away the right to party. It doesn't. It simply safeguards the rights of people to go about their lawful business.

Why should the selfish few be allowed to play music at intolerable levels late at night, keeping others awake? Why should people be tormented by such thoughtless behaviour?

We are not banning raves. Properly organised and licensed events will not be affected, but local communities will be protected from the prospect of mass invasions of land by those who selfishly seek entertainment regardless of the rights of others.

We are not banning the right to protest. And the Bill will not affect those, such as ramblers, who are peacefully enjoying the countryside, but only those trespassers who intentionally disrupt or intimidate others. We are also determined to deal with those who travel and trespass en masse with complete disregard for the rights and properties of law-abiding citizens.

The Bill contains measures to strengthen police powers, but directions to leave a particular piece of land will apply only to trespassers who have ignored landowners' requests to leave and where there are additional aggravating factors which may give rise to disorder.

Nor can it be right for home and shop owners to be frustrated in their legitimate right to gain access to their property. So we are streamlining the procedures for evicting squatters. The Bill does not criminalise squatting, it criminalises those who ignore courts which order them out of premises they have no right to be in.

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill has a common thread running through it: it protects the public and fights crime. A crucial element is the effect crime has on victims. We should all pay greater heed to victims' plight. I will do all I can to help prevent people becoming victims of crime, to give the police the powers they need to catch criminals, and to ensure the courts have the powers to deal with offenders. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is just part of that process.

More still needs to be done, not least the establishment of a Criminal Cases Review Authority, which will investigate alleged miscarriages of justice. I have published a consultation paper which sets out the Government's proposals. This is a complex legal and constitutional area, but one which we will address as soon as parliamentary time allows. But the measures in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill are needed now. That is why it is so vitally important that the Bill receives its Royal Assent and becomes law before the current session of Parliament ends.

(Photograph omitted)