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Socialist Review, March 1994

Notes of the Month


Howard’s way

From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

If anyone needs confirmation of just how nasty the Tories can be as they hit out in an effort to cover their weakness, take a look at the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.

Home Secretary Michael Howard has suffered a number of well publicised reversals on both this and his Police and Magistrates’ Bill.

At the time of writing, a combination of Tory lords, chief constables, the Police Federation – even the Lord Chief justice – appear to have forced a climbdown from the plan to pack police authorities with Tory appointees. But the most disgusting elements of Howard’s bill remain. Labour will not even vote against it.

First, there is the crackdown on children. The bill will give judges the power to lock up those as young as ten – while still criminalising 16- and 17-year-olds for gay sex. It will also launch a new generation of private borstals for 14- and 15-year-olds. Second, there is the criminalisation of squatters, ravers, travellers and hunt saboteurs.

There will be new police powers against ‘public assemblies of trespassers’, aimed at New Age travellers and young people attending raves. These will allow a chief constable to issue a blanket ban against ‘assembly’ if the police consider there is ‘a threat of disruption’.

It will be a criminal offence for ten or more people ‘to gather to play loud music during the night’ and fail to comply with a police order to leave. Having served a ban, police will have the power to turn away everyone within a five mile radius and seize all vehicles and equipment.

There will also be a new offence of ‘disrupting lawful activity’ – directed at hunt saboteurs, but also ready for use against trade unions and pickets. Councils will be forced to evict travellers. Police will get new powers to stop and search drivers and their vehicles.

However, the red meat of Howard’s bill is in a third area – the new powers of police questioning and abolition of the right to silence.

At present, officers are not supposed to interview anyone until they get back to the police station and the suspect has a chance to obtain a solicitor or – if under 18 – a parent or social worker. The bill will allow police to stop and question people anywhere.

This directly contradicts the recent Royal Commission on Criminal justice, set up in the wake of all the headline cases of miscarriages of justice such as the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six.

At the same time, Howard’s bill will replace the right to silence with a new police warning that, ‘If you do not mention something which you later use in your defence, the court may decide your failure strengthens the case against you.’ According to the Law Society, ‘This will increase what is already a highly pressurised situation and could lead to false confessions.’

People will feel compelled to speak and risk incriminating themselves before they have had a chance to get a solicitor. As it is, 80 percent of police interviews take place with no solicitor present.

The scope for miscarriages under the new system will be enormous. To be pulled in and say nothing will be considered an admission of guilt.

The police will pressurise teenagers they pick up regularly, threatening the kids that they will be found guilty anyway if they do not talk. The police will have a whole new range of tricks to play on people caught up in public order offences – maybe after a demonstration like Welling. They may say, ‘We know you did nothing. But say nothing and the court could find you guilty. Better to tell us what happened.’ Someone who merely admits to shouting could find themselves on a charge of ‘incitement’.

Howard has also included a clause to make constructing a defence more difficult. Lawyers will be compelled to disclose their clients’ defence to the police.

Where this happens already – when solicitors have to give advance notice of a defendant’s alibi – the police routinely go round to pressure the alibi witness.

The whole point of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is not to ensure a better chance of justice. It is to secure more convictions and send more people to jail. For all his liberal image, Lord Chief Justice Taylor backs Howard’s abolition of the right to silence because he knows it will guarantee more convictions. So does Labour.

The party leaders’ refusal to oppose the bill in parliament is not mere spinelessness. On the contrary, more convictions fit shadow home secretary Tony Blair’s policy of ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ quite happily.

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