Right to Silence

Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th June 1991.

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Photo of Mr Graham Riddick Mr Graham Riddick , Colne Valley 12:00 am, 6th June 1991

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he has any plans to change the right to silence for an accused person.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The opportunities available for an accused person to state his position and how far the courts may draw proper inferences from his failure to take advantage of them will be among the matters to be considered by the royal commission on criminal justice and we should await its findings.

Photo of Mr Graham Riddick Mr Graham Riddick , Colne Valley

May I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend has set up the royal commission and that it will be able to consider this issue, especially as the police are becoming increasingly worried about the way in which criminals abuse the right to silence? Is it not the case that the right to silence helps suspects who have something to hide? Should not courts and juries be able to draw an inference from the fact that a defendant is not prepared to say what he was doing or where he was at a given time?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

There are many views about the right to silence. Some representations that we have had claim that it should be kept as it is, but I agree with my hon. Friend that the police believe that the right to silence is being abused in certain cases. Courts cannot draw to the attention of the jury the fact that, in excercising his or her right to silence, the accused may not be answering any questions during the whole process of the investigation. Nor can the court make any comment on that. The royal commission will have to address those matters and I assure my hon. Friend that I shall draw his question to the attention of the royal commission.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan , Caithness and Sutherland

Does the Home Secretary accept that an abridgement of the right to silence would be an attack on the presumption of innocence which, for a very long time, has been the foundation of the criminal law and the protection of the individual in this country?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The royal commission must address that issue. There are two clear views about it—the hon. Gentleman's and that expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick).

Photo of Mr Nicholas Budgen Mr Nicholas Budgen , Wolverhampton South West

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government should be deeply ashamed that although the right of silence in England has properly been subject to detailed scrutiny before any consideration has been given to taking it away, in Northern Ireland it was taken away without proper discussion or inquiry under the Order in Council procedure?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland explained, the Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1988 was introduced to meet the urgent and special circumstances of Northern Ireland. I agree with my hon. Friend that the issue must be considered, and it is right that the royal commission should do so.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble , Upper Bann

Does the Home Secretary recall that when the right to silence was modified in Northern Ireland under the legislation to which he referred, an undertaking was given that parallel legislation would be introduced speedily in England and Wales? Has any study been made of the effects of the modification of the right to silence in Northern Ireland? I am confident that if such a study were made, it would show that the modification has not had the alarmist effects that have been mentioned, but has proved to be a modest and useful measure. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the longer equivalent legislation for England and Wales is delayed, the more opportunity there will be for ill-intentioned people to suggest that some major, unacceptable change has been made in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

We have certainly observed what has happened in Northern Ireland and I agree with the conclusion that the hon. Gentleman has drawn from the practice there. As I said, this is a matter for the royal commission and I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to its attention.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Hind Mr Kenneth Hind , West Lancashire

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the 1967 royal commission report recommended the amendments that have now been made in Northern Ireland. His predecessor commissioned a report on the right to silence and possible alterations to it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we cannot wait for the commission's report and that it is time that victims of rape giving evidence in the Crown court should not be confronted with allegations of consent from an accused who refused to say anything in the police station when questioned six months earlier?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

That is one aspect, and an example of the way in which the right to silence can be abused. Another is that the accused can simply stare at the wall and refuse to answer any questions of any sort for months on end, yet that fact cannot be drawn to the attention of the court. Those are matters of concern and are covered by the terms of the royal commission. I shall draw to its attention the views of my hon. Friend, who has taken a great interest in the matter for some years.