HC Deb 25 November 1993 vol 233 cc568-9
6. Mr. Riddick

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he will have considered all the recommendations of the Royal Commission on criminal justice and made decisions on them.

Mr. Howard

I have already announced decisions on some 30 of the royal commission's recommendations. Other recommendations are still under consideration; but I cannot yet say when conclusions will be reached.

Mr. Riddick

The right to silence, which the commission examined, has been the criminal's friend for many years now. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his decision to end it has been widely welcomed by police and public alike? Does he agree that, for the change to be effective, we need to end the right to silence not just in court but in police cells? Will he seek clarification from the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who is mysteriously absent today, and who was wriggling all over the place during Tuesday's debate?

Mr. Howard

I agree with my hon. Friend. The hon. Member for Sedgefield has informed me of the understandable reasons for his absence today; but the substance of my hon. Friend's point is absolutely right. For some time now, I have sought to elicit the Opposition's stance on the matter. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) has made his position clear: he appears to agree with me that the innocent have nothing to worry about. I wish that the hon. Member for Sedgefield and others on the Opposition Front Bench would agree with the hon. Member for Brightside.

Mr. Ashton

Is the Home Secretary aware that the trial of the murderers of James Bulger, which ended yesterday, might not have taken place? There were strong submissions from defence counsel that an impartial trial was impossible because of media speculation, hype and investigation before the trial started. The judge had to give serious consideration to their plea, which he eventually refused.

Is it not the case that, sooner or later, a trial will be refused because the media have carried out their own investigations? Will the Home Secretary ensure that, in introducing the Criminal Justice Bill, he takes another long look at what the media are now doing? Offenders can often get off, because the media have queered the pitch.

Mr. Howard

The case to which the hon. Gentleman refers has caused us all to reach deep into the recesses of our hearts, and to ask ourselves whether anything could have been done to prevent it—and whether anything could be done to prevent any recurrence in future. I do not propose to rush into any snap judgments. I shall study very carefully what the judge said, and what has been said by others closely connected with the case, including the police superintendent who led the investigation. I shall take all those matters into account, including the point raised by the hon. Gentleman. If there are any lessons to be learnt from this unspeakable crime, we must certainly learn them.

Mr. Heald

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that many lawyers welcome the abolition of the right to silence, believing that it will lead not to any loss of civil liberties, but to a better criminal justice system—a system focused far more on the pursuit of the truth, and far less on the adversarial cat-and-mouse games that are so bad for our courts today?

Mr. Howard

I entirely agree. This proposal should not give rise to any concern. The innocent have nothing to fear from answering questions; they have nothing to hide. It will be for the prosecution and the judge to invite the jury to draw whatever inference they think fit from answers, or failures to answer. Those inferences will, of course, vary from case to case; but this is a sensible proposal to improve the efficiency of our system of criminal justice, and to make it much more likely that the guilty will be convicted and the innocent acquitted.