Move to Scrap Britain's Right to Silence Gets Loud Protest

TO boost its flagging popularity, Britain's Conservative government has proposed new laws to support a crackdown on crime. But a proposal that would abolish an individual's right to remain silent under police interrogation is generating controversy.

Michael Howard, home secretary in John Major's government, says the move is designed to ``shift the balance of justice toward the victim and against the criminal.''

But abolishing a suspect's right to silence has been condemned by Tony Blair, the opposition Labour Party's home affairs spokesman, as ``a shameless attempt to grab headlines and win votes.'' Conservative governments traditionally push issues of law and order to the fore when their public-approval ratings are low.

In the week that Mr. Howard published his crime bill, an opinion poll indicated that only 11 percent of voters think the government is trustworthy. Fewer than one in 10 thinks the Conservatives are in touch with ordinary people.

The home secretary's hard-line approach to crime is hitting trouble also from a wide array of lawyers' and civil rights organizations.

The Bar Council and the Law Society, representing attorneys, have both issued statements saying abolition of the right to silence would undermine the fundamental constitutional principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Last year, several people were released from British jails after appeal courts cast doubt on the interrogation methods used by police to obtain confessions.

Liberty, a prominent civil rights pressure group, says the 117-clause Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill contains at least five potential breaches of international civil rights law.

The warning currently given to an arrested person is: ``You do not have to say anything unless you wish to do so, but what you do say may be given in evidence.''

This would be replaced by two separate warnings - upon arrest, and at the police station - stating that silence under interrogation would allow a court or jury to infer guilt in the person being questioned.

At this year's Conservative Party conference, Howard foreshadowed a crackdown on crime.

The bill he plans to steer through the House of Commons converts the rhetoric of his conference promises into a package of measures that he says will ``make it easier to catch, convict, and punish the guilty.''

As well as eliminating a suspect's right to refuse to answer questions under police interrogation, the bill will make it legal to lock up for lengthy periods children aged as young as 10 who are found guilty of serious offences.

Howard also wants parliamentary approval for the creation of a DNA ``genetic fingerprint'' register and the use of barges and ships for the detention of convicted criminals if prisons become too crowded.

EARLIER this year, a government-appointed royal commission headed by Lord Runciman strongly recommended retention of the right to silence, arguing that it protects the innocent from false arrest and imprisonment.

Lord Runciman, a former judge, now says that when the bill reaches the House of Lords, he and several Conservative peers will introduce amendments seeking to restore the right to silence. Early indications show that he will have virtually the entire British legal establishment behind him.

When Parliament reassembles next month, politicians of all parties expect opposition to the Howard measures to focus on the proposed abolition of the right to silence.

The opposition Labour and Liberal Democrat parties say they will try to block the bill's passage, and with a majority of only 17 seats the government may find itself in trouble.

Police in England and Wales have warned Howard that a separate set of measures threatens to undercut the independence of local police forces.

The home secretary wants to make the country's 37 police authorities more amenable to influence from London, to set national objectives for local forces, and introduce performance-related pay for senior officers.

John Smith, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, has complained that if the new laws are passed, it will be difficult for senior police to ``perform independently of political influence.''

``The strength of British policing lies in its sensitivity to local people, their problems, and concerns,'' Mr. Smith added. ``This could be heavily compromised by dictation from central government.''

Anthony Lester, a leading attorney and a Liberal Democrat, appeared to sum up opposition attitudes to the new measures when he called them ``most dangerous'' and warned that the provisions for more centralized control of local police were ``the first steps to a police state.''

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