I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am grateful for this opportunity to bring to the House a Bill in which I passionately believe. I start by quoting the case of Brett Osborn from Romford. In 2003, he stabbed a drug-crazed intruder who was threatening a pregnant woman in the house in which he found himself. It turned out that the stabs that Brett Osborn had inflicted killed that intruder, and he is now serving five years for manslaughter because, apparently, he failed to warn the intruder that he was armed and that he intended to strike. Was that reasonable force? I do not know.
The second case, perhaps less dramatic, is of Charlie Mayall, a 59-year-old ex-soldier living in my constituency, who in August 2004 was struck on the patio in his garden by an intruder with a piece of wood. Charlie retaliated, and in trying to defend himself he broke the intruder's jaw. He was arrested, and over the last six months he has appeared in court three times; he has been involved in countless police interviews; and he has suffered all the trauma, stress and lack of earnings that due process involves. Very recently, the case was dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service owing to lack of evidence.
What is fascinating is the other side of the coin, because not only is Charlie Mayall thoroughly confused by what is going on, and thoroughly put upon; the police believed the CPS advice that there was a good chance of the prosecution proceeding. Indeed, when guidelines were issued to the police just before Christmas they were reinforced in their belief. Then suddenly the case was dropped. Where does the definition of reasonable force lie? Clearly it is vague. The law is difficult to enforce. Charlie Mayall came away delighted. The police came away bemused by this law that simply does not make sense and in which the public have lost confidence. I suggest that a law in which there is no confidence must be changed.
My Bill consists of two simple amendments. The first would replace "reasonable force" with the idea of force that is not "grossly disproportionate". Those words are not mine—they already exist in civil law. They were designed by the Government to make sure that civil law started to work, and were enshrined in 2003. Currently, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition said the other day, we have two wholly different tests in the same area of law. The first is "grossly disproportionate" in civil law and the other is "reasonable force" in criminal law. Civil law was not working, so it was changed. Now, I suggest, criminal law needs to be brought into line with civil law so that the two tests make eminent sense and can be compared easily and comprehensibly.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a difference between criminal and civil law, in that the standard of proof in civil law is the balance of probabilities, whereas in criminal law it is beyond all reasonable doubt? In looking at enforcing the law, one has to bear in mind the standard of proof that has to be applied. If one has a definition, like that in the hon. Gentleman's Bill, which is not referred to or inscribed in law in any way, that can create significant problems in trying to enforce the law.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
The fact remains that this is a question of public confidence. Public confidence in civil law clearly failed, so the law was changed. Public confidence in criminal law is failing, and the law needs changing. To my mind, that is extremely simple.
Mr. Dismore said that the criminal law uses a standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt, yet courts are being asked to assess whether some action is reasonable. It seems to me that the action must be clearly proved to have gone well beyond reasonable force if the test that he described is to apply.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her clear and helpful intervention. Later in my speech I shall answer her point much more clearly than I can now.
I believe that use of the phrase "grossly disproportionate" raises the threshold and makes the matter clear to householders, shop owners, burglars, intruders and, indeed, juries who have to try to interpret the law. Let us be clear: the 12 good men and true of a jury need simple guidelines, but the present guidelines, revolving as they do around "reasonable force", are vague.
The hon. Gentleman talks about simple guidelines, but is it not a fact that, whichever formula is chosen, uncertainty at the edges is inevitable? He has done his homework, so he will know that very few cases have proceeded to trial. Can he give one example of a case that did proceed to trial that would not have done under his test?
The definition of reasonable force has had to be clarified—that is clear from the issuing of a leaflet this week. If the law is a good law, if it is working, why is an A4 leaflet necessary to clarify it? Why do the Government need to indulge themselves in trying to explain that wholly obscure phrase? I wrote to the Crown Prosecution Service to discover its definition of reasonable force; I have yet to receive a coherent answer. We contacted the Home Office and several police stations to test them on what the phrase means. We asked whether keeping a baseball bat by the bed was reasonable. The reply from Home Office was,
"I am not qualified to interpret the law", and we were asked to refer our question to the Department for Constitutional Affairs—but that Department referred us back to the Home Office. A police constable in the Home Secretary's Norwich constituency thought that the baseball bat was reasonable, but another officer in Durham thought that it was
"an offensive weapon—you've obviously got a bit of premeditation about using it."
Clearly, if a leaflet is necessary, there is huge confusion through which we must try to force some beam of light, some kind of common sense.
I, too, noted the issuing of the leaflet. One of the things it said that struck me was that one must not lay a trap for anyone. Let us suppose that a person has been consistently targeted by burglars. Does the rule mean that as long as that person goes to sleep, wakes up in time—before he is attacked—and then uses reasonable force on a burglar, it is all right, but if, because he has previously been targeted, he stays up at night and then uses reasonable force on a burglar, he can be convicted because he laid a trap?
I simply do not know. The law does not make it clear. Despite the fact that a scrap of A4 paper has been issued—albeit only 100,000 copies—I cannot give a clear answer to my hon. Friend's question. Interestingly—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
On Tuesday this week, Sir Ian Blair, the new Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, appeared on the "Today" programme. Apparently, hard though it is to believe, he had not yet seen the famous leaflet when he said,
"I'm not sure that the wording does go far enough. I mean I'll, I'll wait and see. I haven't actually seen the leaflet yet but I did say on your programme"
—the "Today" programme—
"that I thought reasonableness was quite a difficult concept at four o'clock . . . in the morning in your kitchen. Whereas something as stark as gross disproportionality"—
"gross disproportionality did seem to me to be clearer."
At 12.30—presumably, in the intervening hours, he had a couple of phone calls or perhaps an interview at No. 10—Sir Ian said:
"The guidance I have seen uses the words very excessive and gratuitous, that's pretty strong".
At 4.10, Scotland Yard made this statement:
"Sir Ian has seen the guidance and is happy it makes clear that only when very excessive or gratuitous force is used will someone be prosecuted".
The new Metropolitan Police Commissioner did not use the phrase "reasonable force" in any of those statements: either he talks about "gross disproportionality", or he uses the phrase that is used in the scrap of paper, "very excessive or gratuitous".
I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. He is far too decent a human being to try to mislead the House and I do not suggest that he would ever do so, but is he unaware that Sir Ian Blair made the first statement at about twenty past 8 in the morning, whereas the leaflet was not issued until 11 o'clock that morning? Would it not, therefore—[Interruption.]
As always, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. His intervention is courteous, proper and, I am sure, designed to be helpful. The fact remains that I find it almost impossible to believe that the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner had not seen a leaflet of such importance on his first day in the job. Furthermore, whether or not he had seen it, the fact remains that he used the words "gross disproportionality". Given that the phrase "grossly disproportionate" is enshrined in civil law, the case seems clear to me.
My hon. Friend is advancing a forceful case. Anyone listening to his argument would think that if the current law is not correct, it must be amended. Can my hon. Friend think of any other equally important piece of legislation for which a leaflet has been issued that does not clarify the law?
No, I cannot. However, the Government have an interesting habit of issuing explanatory leaflets: for example, in summer they issued a leaflet to explain the threat of terrorism—although 1.5 million households have yet to receive it. I suggest that the issuing of a leaflet indicates that something is seriously wrong.
I was not going to refer to the hon. Gentleman's personal grief—[Hon. Members: "Oh, go on!"]—but if my hon. Friend is patient, he may find that the subject crops up later in my speech.
Interestingly, The Times newspaper also tried to explain what was going on. It published a little series of cartoons along the lines of Cluedo. Even my hon. Friend Mr. Malins—an eminent recorder—could not agree with at least one of those cases. There is utter chaos, utter confusion and an utter inability to understand the law as it stands. The need for a leaflet is clearly wrong, and I suggest that a bad law must be changed.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue in the Bill. May I take him back to the first case that he cited? The jury—12 good men, as he puts it—will have heard all the circumstances of that case and formed a judgment about what was reasonable. Is he saying that they got it wrong?
I have no doubt that, when the appeal comes to court, we will see who was right and who was wrong.
A number of Labour Members have already referred to the paucity of cases that have been brought. One of the figures that has been talked about is that only 11 cases have been quoted in 15 years. The Sunday Telegraph carried out some research into that very figure. Chris Bryant is rolling his eyes, but the fact remains that this is true. In one hour's research, seven further cases came to light that ought to have been on that list. I have had correspondence—a number of emails and texts—about cases that I believe also ought to be on that list. I do not think that there are 11 cases; dozens, if not hundreds, more ought to be on that list.
Of course, it is true that there is some dispute, certainly on the part of the Government, about the number of cases, but the point is that law is meant to boost the public's confidence, which is what has been lost by the muddle that the Government have made. That is what my hon. Friend's Bill is designed to put right.
My right hon. Friend is clear, as always. I add that the Bill is designed not just to rebuild the public's confidence, but to erode the confidence of burglars, who get away with far too much.
As a result of those spurious numbers, I have written to the Crown Prosecution Service to try to explain the position. The Sunday Telegraph also followed up that very list of 11 cases in 15 years with the CPS, which described the list as "an informal trawl". When the new cases were disclosed to the CPS, it said:
"It is not a particularly accurate list and we never said it was. It is quite possible that there are other cases."
How can anybody base an argument on such faulty research? Just because the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister, the CPS and the Director of Public Prosecutions continue to quote those figures does not mean that they are true. That is inaccurate, unhelpful and thoroughly misleading.
Does my hon. Friend agree that all our constituents are concerned about not simply the cases that come to formal prosecution, but the fact that, whenever a burglary takes place and a householder tries to defend their person, property and family, the police may start to interview them after the incident and suggest that they might be in the wrong, when all they were doing was defending their own property, person and family. That is wrong in itself. There should be a presumption in favour of the law-abiding householder, and we should get back to the concept that an Englishman's home is his castle.
My hon. Friend encapsulates perfectly, and probably much better than I can, the second amendment to the Bill, which I shall move on to in a moment.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Hawkins a moment ago, does my hon. Friend also accept that there are cases where householders are offered the choice between accepting a caution or having the due process take place, so many householders who have been affected by such circumstances have chosen a lesser exit route for fear of what might happen further down the road?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and for his support as a sponsor of my Bill. He is absolutely right: many people will be daunted by the due process of the law and will seek exactly the course that he describes. Despite that fact, unnecessary pressure is still put on honest, ordinary people, and I resent that and believe that it is wrong.
I will be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman in future if he stays alert. I believe that, under the new law, whatever happens must be tested against the test of gross disproportionality, not against that of reasonable force. That will give much greater latitude to the police, the CPS and to a jury, all of which will be helpful.
Above and beyond everything else, this is a question of public support. That is why in all the opinion polls—every one that I have seen anyway, and I acknowledge that polls are not always reliable—the percentage of people who constantly support what the Bill is saying is in the high 80s or low 90s. It is also clear, as Mr. Pound knows, that the Bill came top in the "Today" programme poll. As a former employee of the "Today" programme, I am free to criticise, of course. We may criticise or we may have our thoughts about who listens to the "Today" programme, but the fact remains that, even among its listeners, this is a very popular issue, and I suggest that, as democratically elected individuals, we cannot afford to ignore that.
Every hon. Member would agree that there has been public concern about this issue over the past few years—we hope that we will manage to rectify that with this political debate—but may I clarify something with the hon. Gentleman? We all accept that the CPS says that there were 11 cases over the past 15 years, on top of which there are seven cases to which The Sunday Telegraph has referred. He says that there might be dozens of cases, but in our evaluation of whether this is a good Bill to pass, we need to assess how many of those cases would not come to prosecution if his Bill was passed. How many cases does he think would not come to prosecution?
The hon. Gentleman asks about a proportion of an unknown number. I do not know what that number is, and I will not pretend to do so, any more than the CPS could furnish a comprehensive list at short notice. I do not intend to go down that path because it is not helpful. The fact remains that confidence was lost in civil law—the law was changed. Confidence has now been lost in the criminal law, and it has yet to be changed.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the vast majority of ordinary, law-abiding people have not the faintest idea how they will react if they find an intruder in their homes, particularly in the middle of the night and if they were asleep. That is a moment of panic, and they will react out of fear, anger, instinct or a mixture of those things. It is not a moment to start calculating the reasonableness of how they are reacting. The law needs to be clarified, and the presumption must be in favour of the householder, not the burglar.
I thank my hon. Friend for her extremely clear and common-sense intervention. She is, of course, only echoing the words of the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner—a professional police officer, in whom we must all have huge confidence. I have had support for the Bill from the police up and down the country. First and foremost, Sir John Stevens supports it. I think that Sir Ian Blair supports it—certainly, as we have heard, he supported it a couple of days ago. I have also had texts from Nottinghamshire police—my constituency is in Nottinghamshire—not only telling me that they support the Bill, but making the point that if the householder and the shop owner are more confident about the law, the converse will be true: the burglar, the intruder, the lout and the thug will be that much less confident. As a result, there will be fewer burglaries and therefore fewer opportunities for bloody confrontation in the household.
The name Brendon Fearon might be known to the House. He was the boy who was shot and wounded by Tony Martin in Norfolk. Brendon Fearon is a constituent of mine. As a result of an outstanding piece of journalism by the Newark Advertiser, he was interviewed and clearly said that he supported my Bill. He believed the Bill would deter the sort of activity in which he had been involved in the past.
I have professional police officers supporting me. I have convicted criminals supporting me. At one stage I thought I had the Prime Minister supporting me. I find that extraordinarily compelling, and I believe it means that the law must be changed.
My second amendment is simple and will not detain the House for long.
With reference to the confidence of burglars, my constituent, Robin Baker-White, whose house was broken into by two large thugs, fired a shot over their heads as they ran away, in clear contravention of the current guideline leaflet. It was widely reported in the papers that his shotgun had been confiscated by the police. The thugs came back a couple of weeks later and viciously beat him up. Under the existing law they had the confidence to do that.
I favour any force short of grossly disproportionate force. It is a simple test. It has been established by eminent lawyers who know much more about the matter than I do—[Interruption.]
The second amendment is simple. Far too many people are arrested, charged and tried as a result of violence against an intruder in the home or in a shop. Far too many people go in front of a jury and a judge and are told, "You are as innocent as the day you were born. You have not contravened the law. Get out of my court. You're wasting my time." That sounds like justice. It sounds like someone being accused and found innocent. The fact remains that that length of time— in Charlie Mayall's case, six months—is a period of enormous stress, trauma, loss of earnings, break-up of families and all sorts of other pressures on individuals. That must be wrong.
In the second amendment to the Bill, we would make the judgment about those who come in front of a court the business purely and simply of the Attorney-General. Only on his say-so would someone come up in court. This is a powerful point. Too many people suffer needlessly at the hands of the Crown Prosecution Service.
The Bill is not designed to be party political. A cursory glance at the names of its supporters will reveal that Members of all parties have signed up to it. Dr. Taylor, a respected general practitioner, wrote to me yesterday:
"This is not merely a Tory political Bill. It is a genuine cry from confused people represented by MPs of all parties who want some clear answers."
The hon. Gentleman has no axe to grind. He does not support any of the major parties in the House, yet his voice is clear and I find his view compelling.
Sadly, others have chosen to confuse the issue. On
The Bill stands above party politics and attacks the nonsense of political correctness. It will restore people's confidence in the law while destroying the confidence of burglars. It will empower ordinary people—our constituents—against criminals and thugs. I commend it to the House.
I congratulate Patrick Mercer on his success in being No. 1 in the ballot. I am pleased to say that I support the Bill. I shall briefly explain why.
Most of my constituents think the balance of the law is wrong, and that it needs to be changed radically in their favour and against those who break the law. If I have any criticism of the hon. Gentleman's Bill, it is that it does not go far enough. As most of my constituents know, when we have been burgled none of us is in a totally rational state. As Angela Watkinson said, none of us knows how we will behave in those circumstances. However, a climate has built up in this country leading most people to feel that whatever they do in those circumstances, the law is more likely to doubt their word than the word of those who are breaking the law.
I was therefore disappointed when the Lord Chancellor weighed in on the debate to remind us, as he thought, that burglars, too, have rights. Those were his words. I was surprised that, given his closeness to the Prime Minister, he was not more on message, for the Prime Minister is right always to have stressed that duties come before rights. Most of us in this country believe that we should be allowed to go about our business peacefully and without being interrupted violently or otherwise by other citizens, but that if we should decide to break into somebody else's property, the rights that have to be respected are negated. It is with regard to that balance that I support the change that hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve in the Bill.
Of course, the hon. Gentleman is very lucky to have come high in the ballot at this time of the parliamentary calendar, because it is at this stage, in the last few weeks of a Parliament, when voters become more powerful than they usually are and when, if there is such a thing as sovereignty in this place, it leaves here and goes back to voters. I therefore have no doubt whatever that my party will clarify its position on immigration before we face the electorate again. I am quite sure that, as a result of the Bill, whether it is passed or not, the debate has now been changed for the better and the law will be clarified in a way that is advantageous to our constituents.
I view the opportunity that we have today thanks to the choice of this Bill as a chance to have a slightly wider debate on how our constituents regard the criminal justice system. I therefore regard the Bill as almost the barium meal of an X-ray. I represent constituents who feel that the police force that they pay for has largely lost confidence in enforcing the law and is broken backed. They feel that the police themselves believe that, if they try to enforce the law as they believe it should be enforced, the weight of authority will again be against them.
It is deeply disturbing to look at the numbers involved, not of people who commit crime, but of those who are brought to justice. All the interventions from both sides of the House have assumed that the police force in this country works as we would like it to work and that the police keep turning up and taking evidence or are at least on hand. That is not my experience. The figures for London show that each police officer successfully helps to prosecute an average of three people a year. In Merseyside, the figure is six.
Including those figures as well, this is an alarming state of affairs.
While we are discussing a very narrow but immensely important issue today, I do not want to conclude my comments without setting them in a wider context. I know that the Government are much concerned about the issue and that it is not an easy one to deal with. We are dealing with a much wider issue, as the community itself is ceasing to control and govern itself. In those circumstances, the law and the police have a part to play, but only a small one. It is in that wider context that the Home Office has tried to be pioneering in dealing with the collapse of decent behaviour in our community, which goes way beyond the Home Office brief and which we need to bear in mind in discussing the very narrow but important topic that we are discussing to today.
The right hon. Gentleman is speaking to the House with the measured and thoughtful method of argument that has given him the commanding presence that he has in our Chamber. Hon. Members in all parts of the House would recognise that. Given the logic that he has applied to the Bill, which I hope most people would support, why are those on his own Front Bench being so obstructive in these matters? I cannot think of anybody, Tory, Labour or Liberal, who would disagree with a word that he has said, apart from those on the Labour Front Bench.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, although perhaps not just after that sentence. He was making an important point about the respect and confidence that people do or do not have in the police force and the criminal justice system generally. There is significant work that we need to do in that regard. He was making a less nuanced point, however, about the rights and responsibilities of the trespasser entering somebody else's property. He seemed to be suggesting that, at the moment when somebody trespassed, they surrendered the right to life. I am sure that that is not what he meant, but that seemed to be where he was going. That is why I disagree with him about the Bill, because I think that that is where the Bill leaves us.
My hon. Friend exaggerates slightly. The Bill does not surrender the right to life, but it does surrender the privileges that the rest of us naturally expect if we are law-abiding citizens. It is that difference that one wants to emphasise.
A lot of people want to get in, but I want to make just one final point. Although we are dealing with this narrow but very important topic today, I also wish to make another plea on behalf of my constituents, as some of them have asked me to make it. As somebody who has been burgled, I know what they mean and I am happy to do so. Sometimes, it is natural that we present these debates in a very technical manner. Perhaps that is inevitable, but there are huge human consequences in respect of the actions in question.
Some of my constituents who have suffered burglaries, sometimes with violence, but sometimes without it, still feel affronted by what has happened to them. They believe that the burglars have stolen something about their lives that they possessed before and which they could not put into words, and that their position as citizens has been changed. While we may have technical and clever points to make against the Bill, I hope that Labour Members will not vote against it, and that we will also look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister, who is sitting patiently on the Front Bench, stepping forward at some date soon to clarify our position, and likewise to claim the credit.
I, too, congratulate Patrick Mercer, although I find it odd that we need to congratulate an hon. Member on winning the ballot rather than on using the winning of the ballot wisely. I think that he has introduced a very important measure that raises many issues that need to be addressed.
My difficulty with the hon. Gentleman—I say this from the off—is that I do not believe that he has acknowledged the fact that he has won the argument. By clarifying the law as they have, the Government have accepted the fact that there was a lack of clarity not so much in what the law says—this is my opinion, and I shall go on to develop it a little further—but in the way in which it has been implemented by the investigatory and prosecuting authorities. If that is improved as a result of the clarification, which he has consistently described as a scrap of paper, although I think that it is rather more important and that he should recognise what he has achieved, he will have achieved his purpose and some of the inevitable difficulties in his alternative proposition on the formulation of the law, which I shall go on to describe, will become less important.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for intervening so early in his speech. He is making a very good point in saying that much of the argument has already been won. I think, however, that he is resting too much on a leaflet that has no force in law and which may change over time, as the law in question has done over many decades. Also, he does not take account of the fact that, in explaining the leaflet, the Government used terms such as "grossly excessive force", which were almost the same as those used by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark in the Bill.
I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but I think that he will run into the same difficulties as the Government. Whatever formulation one uses, one has to define what is a disproportionate, excessive or unreasonable degree of force. That is incapable of clear legal definition because it will ultimately be a judgment for a jury.
We need to be clear about the guidance that is given to the investigating and prosecuting authorities as regards what they are prepared to put before a court. That is the critical element.
I agree that the hon. Gentleman's intervention did not take things much further. Is not the key point that many cases that make it to court should not, because the presumption about the rights of the householder is wrong? Why should many householders have to go through the trial of being placed before a jury given that they were merely acting in defence of their own home?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman to a certain extent, but I would dispute whether a great many offences that fall into that category reach court. The far more pernicious mischief that we need to address is that far too many offences are investigated to the point of the police appearing to be about to bring charges. That can have a devastating effect on the householder, who has already gone through a traumatic experience.
Of course the hon. Gentleman is right that whatever the guidance, a court of law will make a judgment according to the law of the land, but that is to miss the point of the Bill. As I understand it, the Bill shifts the fulcrum and applies a qualitatively different test. It is not trying to redefine words, but to shift the point at which the balance of probability interacts with everyday life. There will obviously be some ambiguity that will be decided in a court of law, but it is a qualitative shift, not a matter of definition. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I think that that is the intention of the Bill, but I am not sure that it would be the outcome were it to be passed. That is my difficulty. I am not sure that we have a term here that is incapable of being construed in precisely the same way as "unreasonable force". That repays greater debate and our careful consideration. The Law Commission has a role to play in its further work on partial defences to murder, which we await and would do well to understand.
The hon. Member for Newark has been honest enough to admit that his Bill would not provide a defence for Tony Martin. I have heard him say that when flatly asked that question in radio interviews. He is right to do so, because it would not. Nor would it in the great majority of instances where such a case has been prosecuted and where the person has been found guilty.
My hon. Friend says that the Bill would not have made a difference in the Tony Martin case. Does he agree that it would make an awful lot of difference to those people who have been arrested and subsequently charged, and then had the case dropped but nevertheless had their lives destroyed by police action? The Bill would prevent that from happening.
My hon. Friend is right. That mischief needs to be addressed, but I am not convinced that the Bill would change the situation. Far more important is the guidance that is given to police officers in the execution of their duties and to prosecution authorities in cases that are brought forward.
I am still on the first section of my speech, and I should make progress.
The Government's guidance is more important than it has been given credit for, and I hope that we will have the opportunity to debate it further.
The difficulty with the law as it stands is that there is clearly a misunderstanding as to what is reasonable force. That misunderstanding lies not solely with the householder but with jurors, police and prosecution authorities. The latter two are the most problematic.
There is also the problem of what constitutes reasonable force in the circumstances—the test of the reasonable man. The Law Commission drew attention to that in its report of July 2003 on partial defences to murder, stating:
"We acknowledge that such a person, though genuinely acting in fear, might not always act 'reasonably' so as to attract the full defence of self-defence."
That acknowledges the fact that the householder whose home has been intruded upon and is in genuine fear for their own safety or that of their family may not act as a reasonable person who is devising a statute in this House or construing it in a court of law, because they are afraid and angry; they have a mixture of emotions that may cause them to act in a way that might appear unreasonable in the cold light of day but is entirely reasonable in the context of the circumstances in which they find themselves.
There is a further difficulty that applies in many of our constituencies. I represent a very rural area. In many parts of my constituency, someone who disturbs an intruder in their house will not, with the best will in the world, get a police response for some time. They are very frightened about that. My constituents often say to me, "If they come to me, sir, I will have a shotgun ready." I reply, "I should be very careful about the way you use that shotgun, but I understand your fear." People fear that they no longer have the protection of a police force. That applies particularly in rural areas, but also, I am sure, in many urban areas. It is perfectly reasonable for someone to be unreasonable in those circumstances because they are genuinely in fear of what will happen to them, and particularly to their loved ones. People in such circumstances sometimes act with a greater degree of force in protecting their loved ones than in protecting themselves; that is understandable.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very sensible speech and drawing attention to some of the Bill's practical difficulties. One that concerns me is that it applies only to trespassers. What about a situation, for example, in which a woman is defending herself against a rape by another member of her household? Under the Bill, she would be covered only by "reasonable force"— she would not be allowed the same latitude in deciding how to respond to the attack as someone defending themselves against a burglar.
I am not a lawyer, so I will not go into that. My recollection of common law on defence is that it would cover that. Trespass of the person, which includes assault and sexual offences of that kind, gives latitude for defensive measures. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to make the point, which we debated in the context of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. We have to be very clear about what constitutes reasonable force in those areas as well. However, the hon. Gentleman is wrong to expect a private Member's Bill, which deals with a different subject, necessarily to apply in all circumstances.
The key point is the correlation between disproportionate and reasonable force, and whether "grossly disproportionate" has an effectively different meaning in law from what a court would hold to be unreasonable in the circumstances.
Let me help the hon. Gentleman. He is arguing that "grossly disproportionate" will not really affect the way in which the courts and the police work. However, is he aware that one of the standard directions from judges to juries in the circumstances that we are considering under reasonable force is that the householder should use force
"no more than reasonably necessary to defend himself."?
Does not the hon. Gentleman understand that "grossly disproportionate" would mean that the guidance would have to be rewritten? That would be a real change.
I am not sure—I am willing to be persuaded—whether it would have any greater effect than the guidelines to the prosecuting authorities that we have already heard. We had a short debate earlier when we considered whether a baseball bat under the bed was disproportionate or reasonable. The answer is the context in which it was used. If it was used on a 10-year-old scrumping in the orchard, that would be an unreasonable use of a baseball bat. If it was used to defend oneself against an attacker with a knife in one's bedroom, that would constitute reasonable use. I do not believe that we can make easy constructions. All the definitions carry a great deal of difficulty.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good speech that goes to the core of the issue: whether someone should be dragged before the courts and often end up being exonerated by the jury in an hour. I can cite examples of that if he wishes. We are considering whether gross disproportionality moves the margin in favour of the victim in the unique case where his home has been invaded while he is present. That is the change, which Mr. Field raised earlier. We are considering changing the behaviour of the Crown Prosecution Service. It is precisely analogous to the Government's action in trying to prevent unnecessary law suits. They used the same word, with the intervention of the Attorney-General, if necessary, to prevent law suits. The Bill would prevent people from suffering the misery of going to court when they do not deserve to do so.
I agree with the intention that the right hon. Gentleman expressed in his last sentence. I am pleased that he mentioned the analogy with the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I was involved in considering the measure and we made it clear that we believed that it was extraordinary that a trespasser or burglar could bring a civil court action for damages, apart from in exceptional circumstances where somebody had acted disproportionately. People were rightly upset about the prospect of that. It was outrageous.
No, I shall not give away again.
Earlier, Mr. Dismore made a serious point, although it was slightly mocked at the time, about the fact that the Criminal Justice Act 2003 deals with civil actions. There is a difference because of the standard of proof that is required and because we are dealing with a prosecution that is brought by one individual against another rather than the state—that is where the lock of the Attorney-General comes in. It is not unreasonable—indeed, I strongly supported the view—that when a civil court action is brought, it should be clear that it is an exceptional circumstance, not anything that could fall within the sphere of reasonable behaviour. The phrase "grossly disproportionate" is relevant in that case.
If David Davis looks at the Criminal Justice Act 2003 again, it contains a further qualification that does not appear in the Bill. It provides that the defendant
"believed that the act was necessary to . . . defend himself or another person . . . protect or recover property . . . prevent the commission or continuation of an offence, or . . . apprehend, or secure the conviction, of the claimant after he had committed an offence".
There is a second lock that does not exist in the Bill, and it would be helpful if it included a tighter definition.
Although I understand the objective of the hon. Member for Newark, I am concerned about interpretation. I do not like legislation that is intended to send messages—I find it abhorrent because it normally sends perverse messages rather than what is intended. Law exists to provide for criminal convictions in the case of wrongdoing. We might be on safer ground if the hon. Gentleman further qualified the definition to make it clear that the Bill does not give a licence to shoot anybody who trespasses on one's property because that would be unreasonable and grossly disproportionate and that it does not encourage people to tangle with the burglar on their property in ways that might be to their huge disadvantage, given the disparity in the resources available to them.
I am not sure whether proposed new section (1B), which would require the intervention of the Attorney-General, is appropriate. The Director of Public Prosecutions is there precisely for that purpose. It would be perfectly proper to provide that a prosecution should not be brought without the express agreement of the DPP, but I do not believe that it is a matter for the Attorney-General because we are considering the criminal prosecution authorities rather than an individual who may have been misguided in the advice that he received.
There are other reasons for viewing criminal law and civil law differently. First, civil cases are tried separately by a judge alone rather than a jury. More complex legal questions are more easily tackled in those circumstances. Secondly, the purpose of civil law is to allow an individual to bring a claim, on advice from private lawyers, who, through a conditional fee arrangement, may have an interest in the case. That might act as a deterrent to taking on the case. Criminal proceedings are brought by the state prosecution authorities—a very different set of circumstances.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, I was attempting to make the latter point before giving way to him.
We need to be clear in the guidance that we give the police and the prosecuting authorities. I agree with the hon. Member for Newark that it is abhorrent when someone who has acted in good faith and properly to protect themselves, their loved ones and their property is subsequently harassed by police investigation and potential prosecution. That applies far more widely than to the few cases that come to court. I am not yet convinced that that is a difficulty with the formulation of current law. I believe that it is a difficulty with the interpretation of the law by the investigating authorities.
I would not be happy if a person lay dead on somebody's property and the police did not conduct a proper investigation of the circumstances. I do not believe that anyone would argue that that should happen. I am not convinced whether the definition in the Bill is more robust in providing a framework than existing law. To some extent, the Law Commission shares that view. I suggest that the hon. Member for Newark and I might learn from the Law Commission's comments on that.
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue and the Government have reacted to it appropriately. The guidelines will require closer examination, and might still be deficient in some areas. However, the most important message that we must give is that people whose homes are broken into have a right to protect themselves and their property. They have a real fear that the police are not providing the support that they need, which is a concern for all of us. We must redouble our efforts to provide that protection. Whatever happens, the law must be as clear as possible. At the end of the day, it will be for the jury to determine what is reasonable and proportionate. That will be a matter for the courts to determine, whichever definition we use.
I congratulate Patrick Mercer on his powerful and entertaining speech. I particularly liked his reference to the Prime Minister being like the character in "Little Britain" who says, "Yeah but no but yeah but no." Actually, that reminded me of the Conservatives' position on the war. Yes, they voted for the war. No, they did not like the consequences. Yes, they would still have voted for it despite the consequences. No, they do not want to be tarnished by it.
"the individual should always be able to defend himself, his family and his property, as long as he only uses force that is both reasonable and necessary."—[Hansard, 14 December 1993, Vol. 234, c. 533W.]
Is this not an example of Tory opportunism, and the same kind of flip-flopping backwards and forwards that my hon. Friend has just described?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but I should not have given way so early. I had not even finished congratulating the hon. Member for Newark on coming first in the ballot. I have never even got into the top 20 in 21 years of entering the ballot, so that is an achievement in its own right. His Bill has had a response from his party, which has adopted it as party policy. Indeed, many Conservative Members are here today to cheer him on.
The hon. Gentleman has also had a response from the Government, in that there has been a thorough review and clarification of the law. A succinct leaflet has been issued, and clear statements have been made by the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. The leaflet offers guidance to householders, and the statements from the police have made it clear that people are unlikely to be prosecuted provided that they have acted "honestly and instinctively". They may use a weapon, if one comes to hand, but they may not use
"very excessive and gratuitous force".
The police and the CPS have both said that they are determined to deal with these cases as swiftly and sympathetically as possible.
Provisions relating to reasonable force already apply, as the leaflet shows, and I do not think that there is any need to change the law. It is already on the side of the householder. Anthony Scrivener, who was Tony Martin's barrister, said in the Eastern Daily Press on
"The law is simple and weighted overwhelmingly in favour of the householder".
The hon. Gentleman has just said that the leaflet refers to reasonable force. No. The law refers to reasonable force. The leaflet refers to "excessive and gratuitous" force. That is not enshrined in law.
If the phrase "reasonable force" is adequate, why is it not in the leaflet? Why is another phrase used, which seems to me to set the threshold higher? Why was that phrase used, and why did the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police continue to refer to it?
The hon. Gentleman is making more of this issue than it deserves. "Gratuitous" force is unreasonable force, so it is precisely the opposite of reasonable force.
For clarity, let me quote from the leaflet and the CPS statement. The leaflet states:
"As a general rule, the more extreme the circumstances and the fear felt, the more force you can lawfully use in self-defence."
That is pretty self-explanatory. A CPS spokeswoman has said:
"The leaflet gives some guidance on what might be regarded as reasonable force."
The guidance in the leaflet, which appears in a question and answer form, tells readers:
"You are not expected to make fine judgments over the level of force you use in the heat of the moment. So long as you only do what you honestly and instinctively believe is necessary in the heat of the moment, that would be the strongest evidence of you acting lawfully and in self-defence. This is still the case if you use something to hand as a weapon."
The leaflet also asks:
"What if the intruder dies?"
The answer is:
"If you have acted in reasonable self-defence, as described above, and the intruder dies, you will still have acted lawfully. Indeed, there are several such cases where the householder has not been prosecuted. However, if, for example . . . having knocked someone unconscious, you then decided to further hurt or kill them to punish them; or . . . you knew of an intended intruder and set a trap to hurt or kill them rather than involve the police . . . you would be acting with very excessive and gratuitous force and could be prosecuted."
That is very clear. Indeed, it answers the point made earlier about setting a trap, rather than going to the police when there is a distinct possibility. Those statements are crystal clear.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could enlighten the House. When a court takes a decision on a particular case, should it use the exact words of the law as the basis on which to make its judgment, or should it use the guidance leaflet?
Obviously, the exact words of the law will be used initially, but we know that guidance notes are used by counsel on both sides, and it is now pretty well established that judges also use them in their interpretation of a case. I think that the hon. Gentleman made far too much of that point.
Is it not the crux of the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Newark that a decision whether to prosecute someone should depend on whether the law, and the law alone, provides a compelling case for a prosecution, and not on someone's interpretation of a leaflet? That is why the hon. Gentleman's case is so powerful. He wants the law to be changed so that it is unambiguous.
The hon. Gentleman says that the leaflet clarifies matters. To me, it does not. It says that it would be reasonable to
"use something to hand as a weapon."
What if someone had put a weapon to hand? Would they then be free to use it? The leaflet talks about what happens
"in the heat of the moment", but what would happen if someone who had been disturbed one night put a weapon to hand ready for the next occasion? Would that be reasonable, or would it be deemed unreasonable, because it was done with forethought rather than in the heat of the moment?
That is an interesting question that would have to be interpreted according to the circumstances of each individual case. I think that the law would allow someone who had already been assaulted or who was genuinely fearful to have a weapon to hand—but perhaps the Minister will be able to clarify that.
Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend. The leaflet is quite clear in saying:
"the more extreme the circumstances and the fear felt, the more force you can lawfully use in self-defence."
To take the point slightly further, is it not true that people who have shot, stabbed or hit burglars over the head have not been prosecuted under the existing law because they were using reasonable force to defend themselves in a circumstance that was threatening to them?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. I made the point in quoting the CPS spokesman that some people have not been prosecuted even for killing a burglar.
I had better make progress. The Bill has been introduced during a pre-election period when election fever is already building up, and it is certainly an aspect of that. I do not think that this is a proper climate in which to make good law, especially in such a complex and important area. If we are talking electorally, let me quote what Mark Steel wrote in The Independent yesterday:
"For the Tories, their strategy represents the usual attempt to scare people into thinking we're submerging under an epidemic of violent crime, unlike the respectful days of old. Because it's only since Labour got in that we've had the Krays and the Richardsons and the Great Train Robbery and razor gangs and highwaymen and Jack the Ripper. Whether crime goes up or down makes no difference to the Tories' strategy. If someone says that by every accepted figure it's dropped by half, they just say: 'Tell that to the old age pensioner who's been dangled from the top of a lighthouse until her pension book fell out of her pocket, and left there for three months being pecked by seagulls.'
They want a country addled with anxiety over crime."
I think that this Bill is feeding into that electoral aspect, which is a shame.
The hon. Gentleman should not steal lines from my speech. If he really thinks it such a terrible thing to raise a matter of law and order at this point, can he explain the entire Queen's Speech, most of which was about law and order, raising fears in people's minds, and which contained far too many Home Office Bills to get through the House before
I shall do that, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I should first say, "Touché!" That is a fair point in some ways. I do not want this climate of fear over crime to be built up.
I have concerns about the Bill, but also about the policy that has been clearly enunciated by the Government, the CPS and the police. For a start, although this would be exceptional, some unscrupulous or cunningly dangerous individuals may think that the interpretation of such a law would facilitate their getting away with murder. They might think that they could lure the victim to their home, or maybe even take the body there after they had killed someone, and set it up as though that person were a burglar. They might say that they thought that person was a burglar, that a dreadful accident had happened or that they had overreacted through fear. Judging by the statements that have been made, they would hope that the police and the CPS would not investigate for long unless they had clear cause to do so. In that respect, the Bill could stretch existing law so that it became a charter for getting away with murder.
The police would have difficulty in saying that they would not investigate, because if a victim's family demanded an investigation the police would have to look at the matter properly.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. May I invite him, after he loses his seat on
First, I am not going to lose my seat on
Nothing in the Bill would amend the Coroners Act 1988. Whether there would otherwise have been a criminal prosecution or not, if someone dies in suspicious or even unexpected circumstances there has to be an coroner's inquiry if there is no criminal prosecution. Enabling the coroner to investigate requires a police investigation to collect the evidence for that purpose at least.
Again, that is a point well made.
I return to the point made in an intervention by my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, which was also rubbished as though it was not relevant. I think it is relevant. There was a case in which an intruder was tied up, thrown into a pit, set alight and done to death. That involved unreasonable force. The danger of the Bill is that it risks making such unreasonable force legal. That is why it should go no further in that way.
Brendan Fearon was found guilty of involvement in burglary. He rightly suffered under the law. He supports the hon. Gentleman's Bill, but he is not a good character witness.
I had better make progress. Again, some hon. Members might think this obscure, but the next point—stereotyping—is genuine to me. I do not want this to be misinterpreted. I know that the hon. Member for Newark and his supporters would not say that white householders should be treated differently from black, or that white burglars should be treated any differently from black, but I am a little concerned that racial stereotyping could influence this process under the law.
There was an element of racial stereotyping in how the press treated the Tony Martin case. He was the farmer who killed a young burglar, and the court said he used excessive force. He was considered a martyr by a lot of the press and the Tory Opposition. Indeed, the Bill is a follow-on from that.
I have in mind an interesting comparison, although it is not quite exact, because this happened on the street rather than in the home. Soon after the Tony Martin issue was making the headlines and being campaigned on, there was a case involving two Asian boys in London who were suddenly attacked by two white boys. Something was stolen from them and they chased after the two white boys, one of whom got away. They captured the other and beat him up. That white boy died. The Evening Standard ran the headline, "Asian youths kill white boy," which was quite inflammatory. I am sure that those Asian youths used excessive force, as they killed the boy, and I am sure that justice will have taken its course in that case.
Interestingly, the Evening Standard and the rest of the press subsequently dropped that case completely, because it did not suit their Tony Martin agenda. If Tony Martin could use the defence of, "I am about to be robbed so I can use excessive force," so could those two Asian lads. They had been robbed, so they could have used excessive force—but that did not fit the stereotype. I am therefore concerned that the press could run campaigns that could influence the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, and perhaps get differential justice. That could be even more the case were the Bill to end up on the statute book.
That leads me to the issue of self-defence. I presented to the House a long while ago my Homicide (Defence of Provocation) Bill, of which I am proud, in relation to battered women, or women who had suffered domestic violence, who reacted in self-defence and killed their violent partner. Such women received a life sentence, and that is the problem—we have an automatic life sentence. As part of that campaign, a number of such women were eventually freed, and I was delighted with the success of that. The automatic life sentence still remains a problem, however, and my view is that it should go. Self-defence should be a mitigating factor, and the defence of "reasonable force" should apply in those cases as well as in cases of burglary—and it should apply in the street as well as in the home. It should also apply in cases of assault on the person, so that there is not undue emphasis, or discriminatory emphasis, on property. It should apply across the board.
My fourth point is that there is a risk that the Bill will lead to the United States situation in which householders routinely arm themselves out of fear of burglars, whether mythical or real. The danger is that such weapons could be used in non-burglary situations, so arms would be used more regularly. Alternatively, we could see situations in which a burglary takes place, the weapon comes out, and the burglar captures the weapon and uses it against the householder, which has happened in a significant number of cases in the United States. Even worse, that could result in burglars increasingly coming armed to commit robbery. At the moment, the official figures show that aggravated burglary, in which the burglar comes armed, happens in less than 1 per cent. of domestic burglary cases. It would be a retrograde step if, as a reaction to the Bill, burglars increasingly armed themselves.
I agree with every Member of the House that burglary is horrid for the victim. I have some better suggestions for tackling it than those in this Bill, however. For example, enforcement must be improved. I have had occasion in the last month to write to a couple of courts that operate in my area. In one case, a burglar who had committed 20-odd burglaries got bail, after he had already been on bail for another 20-odd burglaries. I want the justice of the peace concerned to explain himself, as I think that that was wrong. In another case of aggravated burglary, a gang of burglars made the victim lick their boots and humiliated him in all sorts of ways, and they got bail and community service. Again, I have asked the local justice of the peace to explain the policy in such cases.
There must be harsher penalties, but that does not mean that the law has to be changed. Such penalties are already available in these cases, and the court should implement them. Perhaps there is a case for the Minister to speak to his legal counterparts and ask them to exert greater pressure for effective enforcement of the existing law when burglars have clearly been caught by the police.
My second suggestion, which I admit is really innovative, relates to the fact that many burglars are "industrial" burglars who have been involved in 20 cases or more. Often, the police are infuriated because such burglars are ruining their crime figures—when they are getting crime down, just a few burglars can destroy that record. My innovative idea is that proven burglars should be referred to the Inland Revenue for tough, rigorous tax assessment of their affairs. In those circumstances, we should say that burglars better have a receipt for everything that they have in their homes, or they could be liable for tax on the income with which we would assume that they had bought it. If the Inland Revenue and the tax system put paid to Al Capone, it could be an effective tool against burglars. That idea is better than what is in the Bill.
Burglary has come right down—it has fallen by 42 per cent. since 1997 and is at its lowest for around 20 years.
I know that my hon. Friend is an extremely modest man, but does he accept that the Government have listened to his innovative suggestion, because the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 does precisely that? At this stage, however, tax exemption for tools of the trade does not normally cover jemmies and crowbars.
I take my hon. Friend's point.
Crime has come down. We have record police numbers, which will be increased again next year, with 4.8 per cent. extra for police nationally next year, and 5.8 per cent. extra funds for police in London. We will have safer neighbourhood teams, with eight in each London borough and six dedicated officers in each team—one sergeant, two PCs and three community support officers. I am delighted that in the wards of Wanstead, Snaresbrook, Cann Hall, Cathall, Leyton and Leytonstone in my constituency there will be safer neighbourhood teams, which will have an impact on burglary as well as other sorts of crime.
One aspect of this Bill is that the Tories fear that they are losing on crime—which they are—and they hope that it will revive their fortunes. It is a red herring. It might influence a few, but it will not succeed electorally, because the facts are there—crime is down 30 per cent. since 1997, we have record police numbers, and the popular antisocial behaviour orders, safer neighbourhood teams and community support officers. It is a success story, and the Tories' only response is to try to spread anxiety and fear of crime.
The existing law is clear: it allows the use of reasonable force. In response to my intervention, the hon. Member for Newark seemed to make a distinction between unreasonable force and grossly disproportionate force. That was a false distinction. The distinction is clear and simple: force is either reasonable or unreasonable, and unreasonable force should not be accepted.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Patrick Mercer on his Bill and on the succinct and extremely impressive way in which he presented it. He has significant public support in the country, as this is a very big issue.
I became involved in this whole debate as Tony Martin's local MP. I believe that had it not been for all the debate about and interest in that case, it is highly unlikely that we would be here today. My hon. Friend said that his Bill would not have represented a defence to Tony Martin. I do not want to get distracted by going into the details of the Tony Martin case, but what happened was that we had a wide-ranging debate about householders' rights and exactly what a householder could and could not do and, as Tony Martin's local MP, I was able to play a small part in that debate. It is ironic that, as my hon. Friend said, his constituent, Brendan Fearon, who was one of the burglars who broke into Tony Martin's home and was shot by Tony Martin, supports the Bill. Tony Martin also supports the Bill.
I have had a chance to look at the details of numerous other cases, and of all the conclusions that have flowed from the Tony Martin case and the in-depth discussion of those many other cases, the conclusion that most people have drawn is that the law is currently weighted against the householder. Most people take the view that there is a presumption of guilt against the householder who takes any action at all, and there is some evidence for that in the way in which householders whose homes have been burgled have been treated.
My hon. Friend drew attention to the paucity of the cases that have actually reached court, and he is absolutely right, but what about all those householders who have been arrested and questioned, and suffered trauma, stress, loss of earnings and, in some cases, the break-up of marriage, even though their case never came to court? I wrote to ask the Minister how many cases there had been in the last eight years of householders being arrested for taking action against intruders, and I was told that there are no statistics or facts on that. What about all those other cases where the householder who has suffered a burglary or an intrusion on to their property has decided that they cannot take any action against the burglar or intruder?
What about the attitude of various police forces? How often have we heard statements from police forces, grudgingly announcing that no action will be taken against the householder, after the householder has been through hours of questioning and may have spent a good number of days in a police cell?
We have had a significant and lengthy debate about the reasonable man test. This was one of the areas that I looked at very carefully in the wake of the Tony Martin case and the subsequent debate and discussions. I took a detailed look at the reasonable man test and at how it applied in other parts of the law and in other countries. We are talking about someone who takes action at four in the morning, perhaps completely petrified and standing at the top of the stairs. His judgment may have been warped by fear, by being woken up and by loss of sleep. That person is not judged subjectively in terms of what he felt was an appropriate response, but is judged many weeks later by the police and the prosecuting authorities, according to what a reasonable person would have done.
The test is completely inappropriate, because one is applying different values, at a different time, to a situation where that individual was probably petrified, in the dark, at the top of the stairs, and confronted by something that was unbelievably terrifying. Only people who have had a break-in at their home—I guess that many people present or their family members have had a break-in—know the sense of violation.
Apart from the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark proposing his Bill, one of the best speeches that we have heard was that by the very wise right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who talked a great deal of sense. He said that when people are broken into there is a sense of violation, not just of their property but of their space, their person, their family and their possessions, which leads to emotions and reactions that may not be totally rational. Therefore, applying the reasonable man test many months later is in no way appropriate. It is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue. It certainly has not given confidence to the public.
How often we hear people argue that the jury should decide whether a person was reasonable and used reasonable force! My whole point is that these cases should not be going to court. Indeed, the Lib Dem spokesman walked right into that trap; he said that it was up to the jury to decide whether or not the force used was reasonable. We do not want these cases to be prosecuted. Those people should be arrested only in extreme circumstances, when the force used was grossly disproportionate. That is why I thought that the argument used by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark was spot-on.
My hon. Friend is very generous in giving way. He is setting out to the House how victims of burglary feel, and I am sure that his constituents would absolutely support his measured contribution. Does he agree that his constituents in Norfolk would be equally perplexed by the statement of the Lord Chancellor, who said that burglars have rights as well? Does he think that his aggrieved and robbed constituents think burglars are entitled to rights?
I am grateful for that intervention. I take the view that, 99.9 per cent. of the time, people who break into property or houses, who know that they are committing a criminal offence, should leave those rights outside that door. The Lord Chancellor completely misjudged the mood of the country, as did the Home Secretary—who, after all, is a Norfolk MP and ought to know how strongly people in East Anglia feel about the lack of policing. People who live in rural areas feel incredibly vulnerable, so when people such as the Lord Chancellor say that burglars should have rights, it is incredibly surprising. In the most extreme cases—
I was extremely encouraged by that. On the other hand, one does not know what happened later that morning at the ministerial team meeting, after the Minister returned to the Home Office. I suspect that words were said, because we are getting badly confused signals from the Government. One Minister says one thing; another says something completely different.
I am drawing my remarks to a conclusion.
Then there is the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner. It is not as though he has just arrived from Northern Ireland or from a secondment in the Bahamas; he has been the No. 2 man in the Metropolitan police. It beggars belief for him to say on the "Today" programme that he does not know the contents of a very important Home Office leaflet. Let us face it: that was a political leaflet. That was the leaflet that was put together at the last moment, to try to take some of the sting out of the Bill, after the Government changed their mind. Originally, the Government had said that they would support the Bill. They then decided to give in to their politically correct friends in the Home Office and elsewhere, and the liberal intelligentsia, and said that they would not support it after all, but would bring out a leaflet. The idea that the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner did not know that that leaflet was going out, and had not read it, beggars all possible belief.
No, I am not saying that he is a liar. I am just saying that the guy has been got at. He was put in a very tricky position. He spoke his mind; he spoke common sense. He got a telephone call from No. 10, probably, and was told that he must sort himself out and toe the Government line. I hope that I have not overstepped the mark, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark because if one talks to any member of the public—I talking not about the liberal intelligentsia, the beltway media or Home Office civil servants, but about normal, ordinary people, and there are millions of them out there—one finds that they feel very strongly indeed that the current law is unclear, their rights are uncertain and something should be done about it.
I have looked carefully at my hon. Friend's Bill. He has put a lot of time and effort into it and, although it may be short, it has two key arms. He has put forward an incredibly convincing, very strong case. He deserves to get his Bill through Parliament and I hope that all hon. Members will support it.
I am glad to have the opportunity to add my voice to this debate. The Bill has been the focus of some impassioned language in national newspapers, broadcast media and the House, so it is vital that we look at the facts as they stand and not at the welter of hysterical material that has attached itself to the Bill.
First, I wish to address the issue of the clarity of the law. I think that the law is clear to Sir Ian Blair, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Tom Lloyd, the chief constable of Cambridgeshire police, and every national newspaper, even those that do not always support the Labour Government. There have been bad headlines on certain front pages, but the body of the coverage in the inside pages makes it clear that those papers have no difficulty understanding the law. Because of the intense publicity surrounding the case of Tony Martin, a bad myth has sprung up suggesting that anyone who defends themselves against unwanted and unwarranted intrusion will swiftly find themselves behind bars. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Daily Mail has provided three useful case studies showing how the law operates in practice. The first case study deals with farmer Frederick Hemstock, who endured a three-day trial after shooting and injuring a man he found trespassing on his land. Mr. and Mrs. Hemstock had already been the victims of three break-ins and an arson attack in the previous four years. When Mrs. Hemstock's 999 call to the police was unsuccessful, Mr. Hemstock left the house carrying his shotgun. He found 40-year-old Gary Smith at the wheel of a jeep on his land. Mr. Hemstock opened fire and the pellets hit Smith in the stomach. The jury, however, dismissed the charge of unlawful wounding against Mr. Hemstock in the short space of just one hour.
The second case study details the story of former railway fireman John Lambert, who killed a burglar high on drink and drugs who threatened to kill his wife Carol with a 12-inch knife. Mr. Lambert swiftly grabbed a bread knife and fought Taylor—the burglar—in the garden of his home. He said:
"He made this noise—then the fight stopped."
Mr. Lambert's lawyer later said:
"He was given no choice but to act as he did."
An inquest verdict declared the killing lawful, and Mr. Lambert was not even prosecuted.
The final case study concerns village postmaster Richard Watkins, who stabbed a masked gunman to death with a knife that he used for opening bundles of newspapers. The robber, 28-year-old heroin addict Scott Griffiths, was armed with a sawn-off shotgun. Police called 50-year-old Mr. Watkins "a victim", and no charges were brought. The assumption that underpins the Bill—namely, that defending yourself results in a criminal sentence—is simply not true. Of course, some people are convicted after attacking intruders. For example, we have heard several times about a Cheshire man who lay in wait for a burglar on commercial industrial premises before beating him up, throwing him into a pit and setting him on fire. The case of that individual, who was rightly convicted, is light years away from the situations in which Mr. Watkins, Mr. Hemstock and Mr. Lambert were unfortunate enough to find themselves.
We do not need a change to the law, but we must ensure that all citizens, wherever they live, understand that they have the right to act in self-defence against an intruder on their property. There is a very clear distinction between reasonable force, as described in the excellent case studies in the Daily Mail, and the unreasonable force demonstrated in my final example. The law as it stands does not expect the householder to make fine judgments about the level of force that they use. As long as the householder acts honestly and instinctively in the heat of the moment the they will have a strong case of lawful self-defence.To illustrate that point, an individual suddenly woken from sleep at 3 am by an intruder climbing the stairs, may push the intruder down the stairs, causing them to break their neck. The householder would surely be regarded by all concerned as acting in self-defence.
I pay credit to the amount of research that my hon. Friend has done. The Wolverley case involving Richard Watkins concerned events that took place in a post office. Does she think that anything in the Bill introduced by Patrick Mercer would aid, assist or even cast light on such cases? The Bill applies to householders, but Mr. Watkins was in his place of work, so would it assist him?
I do not think that it would help in any way, so my hon. Friend's point is well made.
Critics of the Bill have said that there is a strong scent of opportunism, and the measure tries to play on people's fears, as my hon. Friend Harry Cohen said. It does not, unlike the Labour Government, appeal to people's common sense. Most of our constituents, in fact, have much more common sense than many politicians give them credit for. I am certain that my Peterborough constituents would have no trouble understanding the Government's new guidelines or going to a library to research them. As far as I know, they have never worried about the issue in any case. If there had been serious concerns, I am sure that they would have popped up either in my surgery or in my postbag by now. Seven and a half years down the line, I am still waiting.
My constituents know that when the circumstances are taken into account, the distinction between reasonable and unreasonable force is clear and easy to demonstrate. The amendment to the law that we are discussing would not make any difference in practice. We have more important things to do in the House than quibble over semantics. Finally, people who propose amendments to the law should ensure that their amendments actually amend.
It is a pleasure to follow Mrs. Clark. While I do not agree with many of her conclusions, to her credit, she expressed her point of view forcefully.
I was a little puzzled about the reason why my hon. Friend Patrick Mercer chose to introduce the Bill. I share the despair of Harry Cohen, because I have put my name into the ballot for private Members' Bills since 1983, without any success whatsoever. I am not scoring terribly well on the national lottery either, so I am not very good at ballots. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark, however, who entered the House at the last general election, has already come top of the ballot. He has been rightly congratulated on that unusual distinction. As hon. Members, but perhaps not many people who are casually acquainted with our activities, will know, it is tempting for the half dozen Members who come top of the ballot to introduce a nice tidy Bill already drafted by a Government Department. The machinery of the state will back the hon. Member—this happens with Members on both sides of the House, not just Government Members—so they can introduce a ready-made Bill that the Government will support. The power of the Whips Offices will fall in behind them, and they will have the joy of seeing their Bill on the statute book.
That is the temptation facing many hon. Members in their political vanity. My hon. Friend, however, resisted it, and I hope that his constituents will take note. He could have put his name to an easy, simple and straightforward, uncontroversial piece of Government-handout legislation, and he would have joined the list of people who can claim to have changed the law. I fear that his Bill, which I support, will probably not reach the statute book, because the flip-flop Prime Minister has made sure that his Whips will block it. My hon. Friend knows what he is up against, but the fact remains that there is growing frustration outside the House, and his excellent speech will have a resonance not only among his constituents in Newark but across the country.
I thought that our debate would be a lawyer fest, as often happens on these occasions. I expected many of my right hon. and hon. Friends and Members on both sides of House with a legal background to explain why my hon. Friend, who is not a lawyer, had got it completely wrong. It is tempting in the House to become hidebound by legal niceties. I am glad, however, that that has not happened, and we have heard about the strength of feeling and, sadly, of confusion in the country.
Although some hon. Members have tried with courage to defend their Government's position, the fact is that even the Government must feel that there is doubt; otherwise they would not have put out this curious leaflet to try to clarify the matter. I read it and, being a fairly simple Geordie, it did not really make a lot of sense to me. I am not sure that I was not more confused when I finished reading the leaflet than I was when I started it.
The purpose of the leaflet was to set out to people how to judge their reasonable actions. However, as we have heard from my hon. Friend and those who have contributed to this brief debate, the actions that people take are not in reasonable circumstances. If I, as a burglar, were to invade the constituency home of a man called Colonel Mercer, I would probably expect a good hiding. By nature of his extensive military background, he, as a young man and throughout his professional career, was trained—and, I hope, reasonably well paid—to kill. Some 30 years ago, in my own small way, I was also trained to kill by a very patient arms instructor. However, that was not terribly successful and the real training to kill did not happen until I became a Government Whip, under the tutelage of my right hon. Friend David Davis.
Those who have had experience of military training or the police force will also have had training in controlling their emotions while they exercise what, I hope, would be reasonable force. However, we cannot expect most people to feel that and, in fact, most of our constituents think that they should be allowed to use quite unreasonable force if they have the wherewithal.
The hon. Gentleman used the phrase "quite unreasonable force" when the Bill talks about "grossly disproportionate" force. Does he, like me, object to the use of the word "grossly"? Most people would accept that some disproportionate use of force may be acceptable, but grossly disproportionate force seems excessive.
I cannot lawyer-quibble with the hon. Gentleman, and it is difficult to know in the heat of the moment what would be the response. However, I feel that if I had the opportunity to meet, even in a cool moment, the two young men who burgled my 80-year-old mother, I am not sure that I could exercise the control that the law requires of me, except to say that I would wish to help them not to father more children to pursue their lives of crime.
Part of the danger with this place is that we try to be reasonable and that leads to frustration building among our constituents. They do not think things are reasonable at the moment.
I am very grateful to the simple Geordie from Kent for allowing me to intervene. He mentioned the physical skill and military prowess of Patrick Mercer, and both sides of the House would concur with that description. Is not the point that if one is young, fit and trained to kill, these sanctions are available? However, if one is elderly, frail and incapable of lifting a baseball bat, let alone taking the top of somebody's head off with it, the Bill would not be of any help at all.
The hon. Gentleman is actually supporting what I am saying, so I am grateful for his intervention. Given his history in these matters, perhaps I should stay out of the Chamber. I am sure that the "Today" programme will carry a full report of our deliberations, and the hon. Gentleman will feature in that because of his outstanding achievements last year.
The point that the hon. Gentleman tempts me into making slightly earlier than I wanted to is precisely about the messages that the Bill sends. Of course, a fit man with military training and a baseball bat will have a serious go, but the hon. Gentleman would not expect an elderly widow to have a go. Therefore, how do we prevent people from coming into such circumstances? We do that by making sure that the burglar understands that the balance has swapped from the perpetrator to the victim. The frustration that people in Old Bexley and Sidcup and many others—including even readers of the Daily Mail—elsewhere in the country feel is that the balance is wrong. That is why my hon. Friend's Bill is before the House today, and that is why confusion still reigns.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although it would not be unreasonable for a baseball player to have a baseball bat in their house and even to keep it under their bed, it may be seen as unreasonable if someone who is not a baseball player keeps a bat under their bed as a defensive weapon? Does that not suggest that the higher level of force provided for under the Bill might mean that more people will keep articles for use as weapons, and that that might mean that there is a greater use of violence in burglaries? At the moment, only a tiny proportion—I think that it is about 1 per cent.—of all burglaries include violence. I am very worried that, under the Bill, there could be more violence in burglaries.
If there were more violence towards burglars, that would not make me an unhappy man. If anything, my hon. Friend the Member for Newark should amend the law to make it a requirement to assault a burglar when they come into a house. Most of us are trying to rein in our more unreasonable instincts on these matters. The hon. Gentleman is a very reasonable man and makes a very reasonable point, but he is making a very reasonable point about circumstances that are in themselves inherently unreasonable.
I know that the hon. Gentleman made a flippant remark, but is it wise for Members of the House to encourage a climate of vigilantism that could lead to increases in crime and death and destruction? Should we not give more support to the police who are doing a very good job in many areas in solving crimes and reducing the numbers of burglaries?
The hon. Gentleman probably makes a very good point, but it is not for this debate. It does not apply to my hon. Friend's Bill, because he is not saying that people can run out of their homes with a proverbial baseball bat and chase burglars down the street and assault them. Nobody is arguing for that. The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point about vigilantes, but he is wrong.
Does my hon. Friend find it as confusing as I do that Labour Members keep suggesting that the Bill says that everyone must confront a burglar? This Bill says that if one confronts a burglar, there should be the highest standard of evidence before one is even charged. That is the point that we are talking about.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and it is the one that the Government are absolutely missing. On this issue, they have completely lost the mood of the country.
I thought that I just heard the hon. Gentleman say that he wanted every householder to attack every burglar who came into their home. If he is seriously advocating that, the problem is that it is sometimes difficult to know whether someone is innocently in a property or is a burglar. On the whole, it is best for the courts to decide that rather than others. Have-a-go heroism is probably one of the most dangerous things to be encouraged for householders.
If I found the hon. Gentleman uninvited in my house in the middle of the night, I promise him that I would not consider him innocent. I do not think that those who enter properties uninvited can consider themselves innocent.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the natural extension of the comments of Tom Levitt is that someone who was not a member of a baseball team and who had previously been burgled, who was terrified out of their wits and who then took the decision to put a baseball under the bed, would be acting in a criminal fashion? Therefore the response to fear would be to criminalise them.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point.
I now wish to move on to the issue of confusion. We talked earlier about the statement by the Lord Chancellor, who said that burglars have rights. Of course, as Lord Chancellor, he would have to say that, having put the Human Rights Act 1998 on the statute book. However, in an interview, the Minister said that, in his opinion, burglars did not have rights. I do not know what the Government's position is, and I am sure that the Minister will helpfully clarify matters.
The point that I was making in the interview is that it is the burglar who is in the wrong and it is the householder in their own home who is in the right.
I am grateful for the Minister's intervention, but I am not sure that it makes matters any clearer. If he had stuck with the original line in his interview, I would have applauded and supported him. I understand that he has probably had a good talking to from the Lord Chancellor. The Government must try to get their act together, and the trouble is that their act is completely confused. If the Government, Law Officers and Ministers are confused, why is it unreasonable for us to think that the electorate, our constituents and the wider world are utterly confused about what is going on?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. There is one sense in which burglars have rights. Under civil law, if they are the victims of grossly disproportionate violence, they are able to claim damages from a perpetrator such as a householder. By giving the same measure of what is allowable under the criminal law as in the civil law, the Bill will mean that anyone who is convicted under its provisions will automatically be liable for damages to a burglar who makes a claim. Is the hon. Gentleman happy about that?
I am not; I do not believe that burglars should have any rights whatever. In this matter, I go along with the Minister and a lot further down his route. Once burglars have perpetrated and been found guilty of a crime, any opportunity they have for restitution should have gone long out of the window with the jury's verdict. The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, but this is not a matter for reasonable thoughts.
I have always voted in the House for the restoration of capital punishment. For those who commit premeditated murder, I have always advocated and still advocate capital punishment—
If the hon. Gentleman would calm down for a moment, he could listen to my response. Of course I am not advocating, nor is anyone on the Conservative Benches, the reintroduction of capital punishment for burglars—although many of the hon. Gentleman's constituents might be tempted. If he still wants to have a go, I am happy to let him.
The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. I am not on the have-a-go side—I think he is. He seems to be advocating not only capital punishment and that burglars should have no rights, including the right to life, but furthermore that the person who decides whether they lose that right is the householder, not a court.
The hon. Gentleman is clearly trying to put words into my mouth. Earlier on, one of his hon. Friends made the point that someone who kills a burglar may not be charged under existing legislation. Burglars risk their lives if they burgle someone's home, and they should understand that. What we are talking about, in the Bill, is the level of probability of their facing trial, and going through all the horror of that, when they take the action they take.
The time has come for the House to recognise that people outside this Chamber are quite fed up. They are fed up with the sort of semantics that Chris Bryant has been dancing around this morning. They are fed up with politicians in our fairly safe environment thinking that what happens to us does not need to happen to people outside, when we know that it is going on all the time.
This matter is utterly confused in the mind of the Government. It is certainly confused in my mind, in the mind of the courts and even in the mind of our new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who will be targeting smart dinner parties rather than the more serious crime that concerns my constituents. There is a degree of confusion on the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark has rightly and honourably set out a way forward to take care of it. If the Government had thought of it first, they would have tried to do so too but they were slow off the mark. Because of the impending election, they will kill my hon. Friend's Bill. That is shameful, because the public are fed up with the victim having fewer rights and fewer opportunities than the perpetrators of crime. My hon. Friend seeks to send a clear message to the perpetrators of crime that their time is well and truly up.
Given my hon. Friend's frequent appearances on the "Today" programme at unearthly hours of the morning, does he think that the listeners subjected him to either grossly disproportionate or reasonable force to prevent him from intruding in their homes early in the morning in the way that they voted for the listeners' Bill that he promised to promote?
Vinnie Jones once received a red card within three seconds of coming on to the pitch. Once, in the Hammersmith Catholic primary schools league, I was sent off before I had even come on to the pitch, but I do not think that anyone has ever had an intervention, not just halfway through their first sentence but halfway through their first word. Let us record this moment of parliamentary history.
In response to the slightly premature ejaculation of my hon. Friend, those who subjected me to what was, I think, a rather gross form of violence were in fact not the honest listeners of Radio 4—as far as I can gather, they were all on the slopes at Chamonix at the time—but a group of website gun fanatics, headed by an organisation called Cybershooters, who orchestrated a campaign against me.
Having responded to that intervention, I shall try to remember precisely what I was going to say when I stood up. First, like other Members, I congratulate Patrick Mercer not on the turn of the dice, the piece of good fortune that gave him No. 1 in the ballot, which anyone of us could have achieved—although few of us did and few of us will—but on raising an issue that clearly resonates with the public far beyond this place. He has his finger on the pulse and he is right to raise the issue. Where I diverge from him is to say that his response, I fear, is wrong. Macaulay famously said that evil was the root but bitter was the fruit, and in this case I think that the evil root has, unfortunately, corrupted the hon. Gentleman's argument.
Nobody on either side of the House would attempt to make the case that everything is sweetness and light in the streets of suburbia or in the farmlands of Norfolk. People are afraid. There is no question about that. There are two responses that we can make to address that fear and concern. The first, which would be intellectual treason, would be to try to ramp up that fear, to engender a climate of even greater fear, knowing full well in our hearts and minds that the responses proposed—the baseball bat solution, the pit, the petrol-covering, the ignition solutions—will not solve the problem, but will make it worse. The second response would be to ask what is the nature of the fear and what can we best do to address it, calmly and less dramatically. That genuinely is the issue we face.
We have heard from my hon. Friend Mrs. Clark of a case where a postmaster killed someone breaking into his post office and was not charged. Members may be familiar with the case of Nick Baungartner who was a householder in a fight with a 6 ft 2 in intruder, Robert Ingham, who was 22-years-old. That happened in Ockbrook in Derbyshire in December 1995. Mr. Baungartner claimed that Mr. Ingham, armed with a shovel, had ambushed him like a madman. A fight ensued and the heroic—I use the word judiciously—Mr. Baungartner defended himself, breaking the bones in both his hands as he did so. Ultimately, Mr. Ingham, a redundant apprentice joiner from Derby, died from a neck injury. Mr. Baungartner suffered considerable psychological damage, but he was not prosecuted. Quite rightly. He was a householder in his own home, a 60-year-old man who was attacked by a 22-year-old thug with a shovel. He was not prosecuted. However, the Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Newark would go further than that. He says that Mr. Baungartner should not even have had his case investigated. The presumption should have been so overwhelmingly on the side of the householder that there should not even have been an investigation.
My hon. Friend Mr. Dismore rightly pointed out that that would mean the abolition of the Coroners Act 1988, because at present there is a statutory duty. Mr. Brazier raised the case of a former high sheriff of Kent and two incidents with a shotgun. In neither case was the gentleman charged, but the cases were investigated. Before we turn to other aspects of the Bill and the apparent simplicity—
May I finish my sentence first? I have already suffered enough from interventions.
The apparent simplicity of the Bill's proposals, which, sadly and tragically, appear to imply some protection, in fact unravel quickly as soon as we cast any light on them. The reality is that those proposals would not make a difference.
To clarify the position, Robin Baker-White may not have been prosecuted, but the police did take away his firearms, and every burglar in Kent now knows that that house is wide open.
I have been in correspondence with Robin Baker-White. He is a very moderate, intelligent gentleman who has felt considerable pain during these events, and I entirely understand how he feels. The point that I made in my last letter to him was that if a person discharges a shotgun in this realm, surely there has to be an investigation, even a basic one. Are we really talking about a situation in which a citizen can fire a shotgun at another citizen, and the police simply stand back, without analysing or investigating, making notes or undertaking any forensic examination?
It is the other end of Derbyshire from that to which my hon. Friend referred to earlier.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. Patrick Mercer would have a police constable attending the scene of an incident in which a death or serious injury had occurred, and deciding whether the action had been grossly disproportionate. That is wholly wrong. In those circumstances, the police constable's first duty must be to secure evidence, making sure that none is removed, and ensure that anyone who may be a witness is alerted to that fact, so that if an investigation is needed later, it can take place. It is then for the CPS to decide whether there is sufficient evidence of grossly disproportionate force being used to proceed with a prosecution.
I admit, with some pride, that I am not a lawyer. Although another profession claims to be the oldest, I rather suspect that on the very first day in Pleistocene times, when human beings tried to order their affairs, somebody came up with an example of why a particular law would not work. If we are talking about individual cases, I must point out that for every Kenneth Noye, there is a Robin Baker-White. My hon. Friend's point is absolutely right. Let us not forget that the pump-action shotgun that Tony Martin used to kill 16-year-old Fred Barras was an illegally held weapon. Robin Baker-White's shotguns were entirely legitimately held. But how do we know that? We know that because the police investigated; the CPS did not prosecute; Robin Baker-White was exonerated. Tony Martin was prosecuted.
I concur with the point that my hon. Friend just made, but will he answer a question? If the Bill made it into statute, and if householders were given carte blanche to let any burglar have both barrels or give him a good hiding with a baseball bat, would not more burglars and intruders be armed, as we see in some states in the United States? That would result in high levels of violence and more deaths than the relatively small number mentioned by Patrick Mercer.
I am grateful for that intervention, but I was made a little nervous by the apparent relish with which my hon. Friend seemed to regard the prospect of good hidings with baseball bats. He has put his finger on one of the crucial points in the whole discussion.
The United States performs many useful functions and services. One of the best of those is to provide us with examples and case law. Among its different states there is different legislation. If a Dodge City, Tombstone, vigilante-type law applied in one state but not in another, and in the first state there were no burglars—certainly no live ones—and in state B burglary was rampant, we could say, with some justice, "Make my day, punk. I've got a Magnum under the pillow," or perhaps, in the Preston parlance, a baseball bat. In reality that is not the case. In some states, such as Alabama and Georgia, where one can carry a concealed weapon about one's person, they have just as much, if not more, assault and burglary as in states such as New York, where one cannot carry a concealed weapon.
The hon. and gallant Member for Newark spoke of his discussions with police officers in Nottinghamshire. Every police officer to whom I have spoken said that absolutely the last thing they want is an arms race in Acacia avenue. They do not want more and more weapons being matched by bigger and bigger weapons. They do not want Granny Smith to have a shotgun and the scrote to have a Kalashnikov. My hon. Friend Mr. Hendrick makes a very good point.
In a typically entertaining speech, the hon. Gentleman is trying to cloud the issue, divert the argument and bring up a number of red herrings. He implies that someone today has suggested, although Patrick Mercer did not, nor has anyone else within my hearing, that any of the laws relating to a person's death in any circumstances—if a person is killed as a result of someone defending their home—will be changed by the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman has heard or read something that states otherwise, will he explain it to the House? If he has not, will he stop using that red herring?
I have always respected the hon. Gentleman, whichever political party he is in at the time, but I have to say that he is being a little audacious. The hon. Member for Newark is proposing precisely that
In his interesting dissertation on the American position, the hon. Gentleman—deliberately or otherwise—moved the argument to the type of gun rather than to what is going on in the room when the burglar enters. Is he aware of the Oklahoma test? In a nutshell, it states that if a person has any reason to be concerned that they will be assaulted, they may take such action as they think fit—in other words, they can use all necessary force. Does he support that position? On balance, I have a lot of sympathy with it, even though I totally support my hon. Friend the Member for Newark.
The hon. Gentleman brings his fine forensic brain and his wide knowledge to bear on the subject. I believe that the Oklahoma test was struck down by the state legislature, although it was reintroduced in slightly different form, so the general point is relevant.
I do not see the difference between the Oklahoma test and what Kenneth Macdonald, director of the CPS, meant when he spoke of the presumption being on the side of the victim. Who, in the peace and calm of Lincoln's Inn, can look at a piece of law and say, "This should apply," or, "That should not apply," in the case of an attack at 4 o'clock in the morning? The Oklahoma test arose from specific circumstances in a moment of extremis. We recognise that, which is why the Government, the CPS and ACPO all say that the law is on the side of the victim, not on the side of the burglar. Beyond that, however, we cannot say what a person should do if he is awoken by an intruder at 4 o'clock in the morning. Rationality often disappears with consciousness—that is, when one falls asleep. How can a person be rational when he is awoken at 4 o'clock in the morning?
I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman's comments on many subjects and I accept what he said on the "Today" programme in respect of the Bill, but the question is whether the Government seriously suppose that their guidelines could somehow be handed to the burglar, or that what they contain could be in the mind of either of the people who were facing each another at that moment. The real problem is not what is going on in Lincoln's Inn that matters, but what is going on in that room. That is why the Bill is so important and why it will, no doubt, be discussed further in Committee.
I say with some reluctance that the hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point and I agree with most of it. The question is whether a burglar who is likely to commit a serious assault or attack is acting rationally. Do burglars stop outside the house that they intend to burgle and say to themselves, "I shall consult the law to see exactly where I stand—oh good heavens, section 27B of the 1967 Act prohibits me from doing this. I'd better find some other country that will." The hon. Gentleman is right: they do not behave in that way. That is why we use words such as "gross" and "reasonable"—we have to legislate for the broad spectrum of human activity and human response. People do not act robotically—often, they do not act rationally or logically—so the hon. Member for Stone is absolutely right, but does that make a difference?
Before I come to point made by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak, the real point was touched on by the hon. Member for Newark when he talked about signals. Although this proposition may be attractive to many of the lawyers and soi-disant lawyers in the House, a lot of the debate is not about nit-picking at the minutiae of the law, but about how the law, how legislation and how Parliament appear to the people of this country.
One thing that, surely to God, we can all agree on is that we want not just the householder, but the innocent citizen to feel not just safe, but that the law is on their side. The inevitable corollary of that is that we want the person in the balaclava mask or carrying the shotgun, as we heard in an earlier case, to feel that not just the householder, the shopkeeper and the local community, but the full weight and majesty of the law is against them. That is what we want. We all agree on that.
We have two propositions before us, one of which is that we use the existing law, stick with it, work with the police, make it stronger, enforce it harder and perhaps follow the confiscatory suggestions of my hon. Friend Harry Cohen. The other proposition is that we somehow think that we can solve the problem with a two-clause Bill.
My hon. Friend, who represents the most beautiful seat in the whole of Ealing, continues to make a powerful speech and he will be pleased to know that my mother-in-law has lived in his constituency for some 60 years crime free, but I should like to put to him a point that I made in an earlier intervention: if the Bill were to become law, a householder, lying in his bed and woken up by a noise, who goes into another room in his house to intercept a burglar who does not have any violent intention and attacks him could get greater protection under the law than a woman who is woken up in her bed in the middle of the night by a rapist and is in fear of her life. She would not receive the same protection under existing legislation as the householder who attacks the burglar in the other room would have under the Bill. What message does that send to women?
Perhaps unknowingly, my hon. Friend makes a point that resonates very strongly with me. Yesterday morning, as some hon. Members will be aware from reading the papers today, a young single mother was brutally attacked in Northolt in my constituency. Hon. Members will understand why I will not go into further details, as the incident took place 24 hours ago. In that case, the man who knocked at the door pretended that he was coming to read the gas meter. What he then did he did in front of that woman's two young children, and I cannot even begin to imagine the trauma and consequences of that awful act. However, she could not look to Newark for aid because she is not a householder; she is a tenant. That is one of the problems and anomalies that we face with the Bill.
I may be able to help my hon. Friend. Under the Newark Bill, the issue is whether the person who attacks is a trespasser or has been invited into the property. The problem with the Bill is that it only protects people from trespassers, so following the point made by my hon. Friend Tom Levitt, what happens if the assailant is known to the person, is invited in and is not a trespasser? That is the key to the case.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am reluctant to be thought too oppositional, so for the record of the House, I wish to say that the hon. and gallant Member for Newark has acted out of the best possible motives. Some people—thankfully, not in the House—would build a political platform and use the bones of a 16-year-old boy as part of the foundations. The hon. Gentleman is not one of those people; he is responding to widespread public concern. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon is absolutely right, and the point that he makes leads us to the anomalies that we are talking about. What about tenants? What about squatters? What about someone who invites a person in?
Before I give way, may I give an example? Four years ago, at 1 am, somebody was hammering at my front door. I naturally assumed it was the bailiff. I went down and, with a chain on the door, looked out and found on the doorstep a person in a considerable state of agitation and extremely worried. Fortunately I had a cricket bat to hand, which happened to be propped up in the hall. I do not claim to be as good a cricketer as many Opposition Members, particularly Mr. Redwood, but I happened to have a cricket bat handy.
I rang the police and when they came round, they found that the man was suffering from severe mental illness who was in Milton road, Hanwell, when he should have been in Milton road, Acton. Should I have let that confused but angry and threatening man into my house, should I have dealt him a swift blow on the back of the head with my Duncan Fearnley, or should I have done as I did, and as I would counsel most people to do—assess and ring the police? I appreciate that in moments of panic, calm assessment is not always an option, but could I have lived with myself if I had killed that man?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generous words. In the case that he cites, he was able to make a judgment, stand back and take himself out of the heat of the moment. I do not know whether he has been involved in bloody affray in the middle of the night. I have. It is very difficult in those circumstances to know exactly what to do. I believe a tenant is a householder, and if I am incorrect, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I can joust over the matter in Committee in due course.
I do not disagree with what the hon. Gentleman says. In some ways, although we debate these issues in the daylight of a Friday morning, in our minds all of us are in the darkness of 4 am. That is when such events will happen, and that is when the life and death decision will have to be taken. It may be difficult for us to make that leap, but we must put ourselves in that position.
If one thing emerges from the debate, it must be that clarion call—that one emblazoned sentence: the law is on the side of the householder, the law is on the side of the victim, the law is against the aggressor, the law is against the burglar. Be it at 4 am or at 10 am, that is the loudest message that must be blazoned out and that is the clarion call that must come from this place today.
I think I have the answer to my hon. Friend's predicament. If he had whacked the intruder with his cricket bat, the law would still have been on his side. "Archbold: Criminal Pleading", which is the bible of criminal lawyers, states clearly:
"The reasonableness or otherwise of the mistake is a factor to be taken into account when determining whether the mistake was or may have been a genuine one. Thus where a defendant is neither under threat nor actual attack but honestly believed he was", that is a factor that would chime in his defence.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I did not have a copy of "Archbold: Criminal Pleading" in the hall at the time, but had it been to hand, I rather suspect I could have done more damage with it than with my well wrapped cricket bat, which has more Elastoplast than red circles on it.
The hon. and gallant Member for Newark has identified—it is not the hardest thing in the world—a real area of concern, but by proposing the Bill in its present form, I respectfully suggest to him that he does not move us forward. He does not solve the problem. There are probably three people in the world watching us live on television. There were 6,500 before I stood up to speak, but the numbers went down a little. They are no doubt wondering why we are talking about iotas of legislation, when everybody knows what the problem is. I understand that, and I understand the emotion that drives the hon. Gentleman.
Nevertheless, we in this House have a wider and deeper responsibility, and a greater duty. It is not our job to write tabloid headlines; it is our job to attempt to legislate, or scrutinise legislation, and to ensure that in whatever we do in this place, even if we do not do a great deal of good, at least we do not make matters worse. What desperately worries me is that the hon. Gentleman's Bill will make matters worse.
I have mentioned squatters. What about security guards in commercial premises? What about someone trying to defend a young woman from being raped in a park? They will have no defence under the Bill. The idea that only the householder and the householder alone has the right worries me greatly. Let us suppose that the Bill becomes law—stranger things have happened; high hedges are now on the statute book, although they are still sprouting slowly in the Department—and people think that they have the right to intervene in the course of a crime and assault the person committing it, to the point, ultimately, of death. Somebody who is driving down the road and sees somebody attacking somebody else may decide to drive their car at that person, because that is their immediate reaction—but they will not be covered by the Bill. If someone sees a child being attacked in the street and attacks the attacker, they will not be covered. They would think, however, because the tabloid headlines would tell them so, that "Mercer's made life better for us, and now we're all safe." That is the problem, because that is how people would perceive the Bill.
Let me give my hon. Friend another more concrete example. Let us suppose that the great train robbery took place after the Bill had been enacted. If the people in the mail train—although unfortunately, we do not have mail trains any more—tried to defend themselves, they would not be protected by the Bill, because a train is not a building. The two conflicting and different tests might make those people think that they had full protection, although they would only have the protection of the lesser test already set out in the Criminal Law Act 1967.
My hon. Friend makes as good a point as many that he made when he was charging several hundred guineas for appearing at the inner London sessions while also being a respected councillor in the City of Westminster. He said that he would raise a concrete example, and as he has already mentioned cricket bats and Archbold, I was afraid that he was about to move on to some other means of self-preservation to be retained in the hallway. It is difficult to talk about the great train robbery, because in the 42 years since it happened, its perpetrators have almost become an example of lovable rogues, and we forget that the train driver was brutally beaten and subsequently died of his injuries. There was nothing roguish or forgivable about that crime.
I say that I am a lawyer not with shame, but with some pride. Having read the Bill and discussed it with those who ply their trade in that profession, I think not only that the anomalies are so vast that they would overwhelm and subvert the good instincts in the Bill, but that in an increasingly litigious society, the weight of those anomalies would be such that the Bill would become not only unworkable, but completely unenforceable—and, worst of all, utterly and desperately confusing.
That is not the only problem, however, and neither is the fact that the Bill does not provide a solution by proposing a nostrum, much as we would like to see a silver bullet, if that is not an unfortunate simile, to resolve the problem. Derek Conway referred with some admiration—and I trust without too great a knowledge—to the physical prowess of the hon. Member for Newark. The point has been made quite a few times, but it bears repeating: who is going to defend the defenceless? Who will protect the weak? If we create a system whereby young, fit former officers of Her Majesty's service armed with whatever—baseball bats, cricket bats or whatever else; it could be Archbold on criminal law, for all I care—are allowed to do as they will, carte blanche, that is a wonderful situation for a small percentage of the population.
If we are to allow the high sheriff of Kent to have a shotgun to defend himself, will we allow every person in every street, on every estate and in every tower block, to have one to defend themselves? If we abdicate from law and order and denigrate the police as being incapable of performing their basic function, we must substitute a different form of protection. The logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument is, instead of a chicken in every pot, a shotgun in every house, and unfortunately, that logic leads us to lunacy.
My hon. Friend has embellished my earlier intervention. If gross disproportionality becomes the norm, we will see gross disproportionality from burglars and intruders, with an escalation of the arms race in Acacia avenue, as my hon. Friend put it, and an escalation of the amount of force used by the police. Perhaps in future all police will carry arms. That is not the case today, and is certainly not what I want in my constituency.
I do not know whether I am unique in the House—I suspect not—but I have had several conversations with convicted criminals. There are no no-go areas for new Labour. I have visited a number of prisons, including Wormwood Scrubs, which is close to my constituency. I have asked burglars the obvious question: "Why do you do it?" They say that they want to grab as many electrical goods, credit cards, cash, cameras and so on as possible, and get out.
The agony at the heart of our discussion is epitomised by the Monckton case. Can there be a more horrific, foul, murderous or sadistic case than that in which a decent, honourable man is slaughtered in his own home during a burglary? Yet for every such case, there are 99 in which the burglar just wants to get in and get out. If burglars think that when they get in they may be killed before they get out, they will inevitably start to consider the situation in terms of mutual antagonism. If the householder is to have a gun, as sure as eggs is eggs, the burglar will want a gun. If the householder has a bigger gun—guess what?—the burglar will have an even bigger gun.
My hon. Friend will be aware that burglary is down by 42 per cent. since 1997, and I am certain that that trend will continue. A high proportion of the burglaries that take place these days involve people trying to acquire the wherewithal to purchase drugs. Clearly, there must be continued vigilance in drug treatment and therapy to ensure that that demand does not exist. There is also evidence, certainly in my region, that burglars are burgling household sheds rather than homes. That is because the law has fewer and lower penalties for such crimes. Those trends and that anecdotal evidence suggest that disincentives to burglary are getting better, which is why burglary will go down.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Is not it strange that although we in this House can refer to a reduction in burglary of 41 per cent. and a reduction in most household crimes of 31 per cent., people outside do not believe us, because everyone has their own perception of crime? The more we talk about the reduction in crime on a statistical basis, the less we are believed. One of the problems with the hon. and gallant Gentleman's Bill is that he feeds that fear.
I would never imply that there is no cause for concern. However, let us balance legitimate fear with the reality of the reduction in burglaries and street robberies. That reduction has not happened in a glamorous Clint Eastwood world, but through good, old-fashioned, hard-working, honest coppering by police officers, of whom we have more, and who are better paid, than at other any time in this country's history. I would like to support police officers, rather than try to replace them with a shotgun or a baseball bat.
Are not putting proper locks on windows and chains on doors, and taking advice from the local police about how to make property more secure, far more effective ways of dealing with burglary? Many burglars act on impulse because they see an open window or an unsecured area. To continue the reduction in burglaries that the Government have achieved, we need to give far more advice about such matters.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for rightly making the point that we all have some responsibility for ourselves. Just as we do not walk around with bank notes pinned to the outside of our jackets but put them in wallets in our pockets, we should also be aware of the threats to our homes. I hope that no hon. Member would be so puerile as to imply that we are saying that burglary is the householder's fault. I cannot believe that anyone would suggest such a thing, and my hon. Friend is right. Working with the police is far better than trying to replace them.
My hon. Friend mentioned additional locks and security methods. Let me make a case for Battersea dogs' home. For many years I had a wonderful mixed-breed dog called Trotsky. [Interruption.] Indeed, he was permanently revolting! He was extremely useful. A guard dog is one of the best possible aids. However, we are straying into peripheral areas. Let us revert to the Bill.
We must not forget that we are considering life and death. It is that important.
No, Hazel Grove. The hon. Gentleman is straying into discussing the Bill that I promoted and which was passed last year. It deals to some extent with the security of the home. In his eulogies for the police, will he bear in mind the fact that some of us will have fewer police on the streets this year, due to the reduction in police grant for the Greater Manchester police authority?
Obviously, I accept your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise profusely for confusing one Liberal Democrat with odd socks with another who shares his sartorial sense—although today Mr. Stunell is rather restrained. I sincerely apologise. Were I a Minister, I would say that I would write to the hon. Gentleman afterwards. Sadly, I am not, and am never likely to be, but I will send him a note about the extra police officers whose presence we are enjoying in west London.
I wanted to comment on my hon. Friend's earlier points about the Lord Lieutenant being able to defend himself. Of course an Englishman's home is his castle, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend keeps a cricket bat, in good English tradition, rather than a baseball bat for self-defence. However, there is gross disproportionality in someone's ability to defend themselves. I suspect that the Lord Lieutenant may find it easier to get a shotgun or an ordinary firearms licence than someone who lives on the Burnt Oak estate in my constituency. Is that not disproportionate?
It is certainly inegalitarian. In fact, I now have a hurling stick at home—my son plays the game—which is probably even more lethal.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove introduced an extremely well argued Bill on this subject, which commanded a lot of support and respect—
Indeed it was. It touched on exactly this point: how do we prevent these situations from arising in the first place? Yes, it is absolutely right to have an element of security in the home, but surely the best way to prevent that from happening is not to create an artificial situation in which a burglar is not going to break into a house. We could be talking about some crack-fuelled lunatic who is certainly not going to be thinking about Archbold's studies on criminal law. It is not the fear of death that stops such people but the certainty of arrest and imprisonment. I give credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead for the point that he made earlier about that.
We cannot realistically countenance a situation in which the strong are safer than the weak, or in which physical strength brings the corollary of domestic security. We have to look to the weak. A frail elderly grandmother in my constituency is not going to react warmly and positively to being told that she can use a baseball bat or a shotgun. That simply is not an option, and such people need better from us. They need better than tabloid headlines and they deserve better than having these situations ramped up to create even greater fear. We do not need to exaggerate the fear; we do not need to over-egg that pudding. The fear is real, and it is the response to that fear that we have to address today. It is regrettable that the hon. Member for Newark is unconsciously contributing to the expansion of that fear while not providing any easement of it through legislation that would work.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The person who would have benefited most from this Bill is Kenneth Noye. He was a convicted gangster who killed a police officer who happened to be on Mr. Noye's property without Mr. Noye's permission. Mr. Noye said in court that he had a reasonable suspicion that this figure coming through the shrubbery in his garden was going to do him harm, so he killed him. Kenneth Noye could be prayed in aid in support of this Bill just as much as Brendan Fearon could. Brendan Fearon was mentioned earlier, as was Fred Barras, the 16-year-old boy killed by Tony Martin.
Every politician says that hard cases make bad law, and I understand that the case of Tony Martin is the most extreme case in many ways. However, we cannot avoid the fact that many people out there will see this Bill not as the Kenneth Noye law but as the Tony Martin law. We have a responsibility to place on record that Tony Martin killed a 16-year-old boy with an illegally held pump-action shotgun. I said earlier that we were talking not about legal niceties and trivialities but about life and death. Fred Barras will never have the opportunity to mend his ways or to become a worthwhile contributing citizen of this country. He will never have the opportunity of redemption, because he died at the age of 16. I hold no brief for those who break into other people's homes, but I cannot, with anything other than great sadness, look at a situation in which a 16-year-old boy in bad company is shot once and then again, in the back, as he flees the home of Tony Martin.
I think that we have to look in our hearts and ask, "Was that 16-year-old boy so incapable of redemption that he deserved death?" I suggest that he did not deserve death, and that any implication in the Bill that anybody who breaks into someone's home deserves death would be a step too far—one that leads us into very dangerous waters.
My hon. Friend has referred to this as the Tony Martin Bill, but I understand from what Patrick Mercer has said that the Tony Martin case would have been decided in exactly the same way under this test as under the existing test. One of the problems we have here is that people are being given a false impression of what the Conservative party is up to with the Bill, rather than the real and accurate position. In practice, that use of force by Tony Martin would be grossly disproportionate, because he was not trying to defend himself at all. He was seeking revenge, which is not permitted under either the existing law or the Bill.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a rather good and telling point. Much as I have enjoyed jousts in the television studios with the hon. and gallant Member for Newark, I have also appeared on a number of programmes with Mr. Martin. It is not for me, as an unqualified person, to comment entirely on his intellectual analysis of the situation, but he was described by a near neighbour of his as being as mad as a box of hot frogs.
Perhaps we should put Tony Martin aside. Let us not forget that his lonely farmhouse, Bleak House, had been broken into some dozen times. I look to Mr. Bellingham for confirmation or denial of that. The fact that he had suffered in that way does not excuse what happened. Is not the absolute heart—the crux—of the debate what should happen when a person is being victimised? Are we seriously talking about a world of elephant traps, shotguns—illegally held or otherwise—and the arms race, or are we saying that the law is on the side of the victim? The law is on the side of the householder, and the presumption of innocence will always rest with the householder, never with the intruder.
I will not be the only person in the House to be glad to hear me say that I shall now bring my remarks to a close, if I may.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He has been speaking for 50 minutes and I know that he has said quite a lot about this, but I want to return to the key point of the burden of proof when a defence of self-defence is used. In such circumstances, the law is definitely on the side of the person who has been charged with the offence, because the burden of proving that the defence of self-defence does not apply is on the prosecution, which is trying to gain a conviction, not on the person defending himself.
My hon. Friend makes that point extremely well. I wish I were more familiar with the law—although I have to say that by the end of a few more Fridays like this I might be, if not approaching qualification in it, at least a little better educated, if not more intelligent.
I am acutely aware of the fact that others wish to speak and I will bring my remarks to a close. I repeat what I said at the beginning, which is that I respect the emotion—the motives—of the hon. and gallant Member for Newark. However, we hear one phrase over and over again every time this issue is debated, whether in the great debating halls of the Palace or on television or radio—I shall not even mention Radio 4. The expression prayed in aid is archaic and anachronistic, but often repeated: "An Englishman's home is his castle." I suggest that one can make a case for saying that the Englishman's home is his castle, but whether a person's home is a castle or not, they do not have the right to pour boiling oil over somebody coming up the front path. I rest on that point.
I note that the final remark of Mr. Pound on the Englishman's home being his castle is rather different from the Government's aim to make it his dungeon, as it would appear. I hope that I can speak in rather less time than he took on his speech.
Most of today's debate has been extremely good, despite the frequent appearance of Aunt Sally on the Government Benches. I congratulate my hon. Friend Patrick Mercer not just on obtaining the first position in the private Member's Bill ballot, but on putting it to such good effect? He made a brilliant speech this morning, and I agree with the Liberal spokesman, who is not in his place at the moment, that what he has done has already had an effect—a constructive one.
I also congratulate Mr. Field on a courageous and clear speech in support of the Bill, and on his honesty in describing what he saw as the Government's beliefs. It is rare that I congratulate Liberal spokesmen, but Mr. Heath made a speech that went right to the core of the issue in terms of the balance of proof and the balance between the victim—the householder, in this case—and the burglar. We have heard some extremely important speeches in support of this important Bill.
The Conservative party supports this Bill, as do so many others. Sir John Stevens, the recently retired Metropolitan Police Commissioner, supports it. The new commissioner Sir Ian Blair signalled initial support, but I shall draw a veil over what happened thereafter. The listeners of BBC Radio 4's "Today" programme voted for a similar Bill to be brought forward last year, as the hon. Member for Ealing, North has painful reason to remember.
I shall do so in a moment, even to some of the most dismal interventions.
As has been pointed out, even a former burglar supports the Bill. For a moment, the Government appeared to support the Bill, too. Then they changed their mind. The Lord Chancellor said that he was not sure that changing round the legal test would make the difference. The former Home Secretary was said to be "relaxed" about a change in the law. The Prime Minister said,
"we will, of course, support a change in the law."—[Hansard, 8 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 1160.]
Finally, the Home Secretary decided that a leaflet was the answer—perhaps he had forgotten the question. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Paul Goggins, broke ranks and said, if I remember him correctly, "The burglar has no rights. The burglar is in the wrong." That is simply another example of the chaos at the heart of the Government's policy making in this area.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, albeit in a qualified way.
In relation to this Bill, several Opposition Members have prayed in aid quotes from Ian Blair's interview on the "Today" programme. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the same interview, Mr. Blair, referring to existing legislation, continued:
"I really do want it to be clear that people are not at risk of prosecution if they resist somebody coming into their home."
"I don't really mind whether it's a change in the law or a change in the guidance. I don't mind which of those two it is as long as everybody is clear that it is the intruder who is at risk not the householder."
That is hardly categorical support.
The Government have offered neither—they have offered a leaflet, which is not a change in guidance. It has no standing in the law, as he of all people should know. What we are talking about is a proper change in the law to make this clear, constant and a defence for the victim, not the villain, which is generally the burglar.
The hon. Members for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), for High Peak (Tom Levitt) claimed that burglary has fallen. They did not point out that there were still nearly 820,000 incidents of burglary last year. Home Office researchers recently interviewed burglars, asking them to describe the decisions that they had taken when planning and carrying out a domestic burglary. The Home Office published that report last year, with which I am sure the Minister is familiar, and it was clear that the need for drugs money was the main reason that offenders gave for burgling property. That was another issue raised by the hon. Member for High Peak.
One of the main findings of the report, which will not surprise many people, was that burglars considered their criminal activities to be "virtually risk free". Sixty-seven per cent. thought that there was little or no risk of being arrested for their crime. The threat of detection during the course of burglary was not a deterrent—hardly surprising, since detection rates under this Government have halved in seven years. Two thirds of the sample said that they had returned to the same property that had been burgled previously, which is relevant to some of the discussions about baseball bats and whether people should be allowed to defend themselves having been attacked once already. All that is hardly surprising either, given that the burglar has hardly any chance of being brought to justice. According to the Home Office's own statistics, only three out of 100 burglaries resulted in a conviction. Out of the 820,000 cases of burglary, 25,000 people were convicted. In addition, since 2002, first-time burglars are likely to be given a community sentence instead of going to prison.
So the judicial system that has been much vaunted today does not actually provide much protection. To compound it all, when the householder faces one or more burglars, he does not know where he stands in the eyes of the law when he tries to protect himself, his loved ones or his property. That is what my hon. Friend's Bill will put right.
In some cases, the Bill will stop people being dragged through the courts on a charge of assault or worse. It will also protect the many more people who, as my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham pointed out, suffer unnecessarily extended investigation, which can wreck their lives. It will give home owners peace of mind that, if confronted with an intruder, they can defend themselves, their possessions and their family, and they can do so with complete freedom from prosecution if the force that they use is not "grossly disproportionate".
As I said, we have had a lot of Aunt Sallys today, but this not an Oklahoma law as people have suggested. It is simply an amendment to criminal law to bring it in line with the Government's own amendment to the civil law. The Government say that the current phrase "reasonable force" is adequate for criminal law. I disagree. If, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newark pointed out, "reasonable force" is a suitable term, why was it changed by the Government in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, under pressure from ourselves and the Liberal Democrats, to "grossly disproportionate"? That term is used for similar purposes in other countries, such as France and New Zealand. As I said before, even the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner said only this week that the term proposed by my hon. Friend
"does make the intruder feel at risk"— a quote that the hon. Member for High Peak did not repeat. That is the point; at the moment the burglar feels less at risk than the home owner. My hon. Friend's Bill will change that.
The Government say that everything is fine—that people just need to be educated on what is acceptable and what is not, so on Tuesday they published 100,000 leaflets to send to householders explaining their rights. The other 700,000 people who were burgled last year presumably will just have to guess.
The cartoonists had a field day, but in short the leaflets have done nothing to clear up the confusion. There were headlines all over the next day, saying that you may kill a burglar but, if you chase him out of the house, "don't dare hit him twice", and "Advice is laughable and silly, say the victims" and many more. Will a householder really remember—a point made, to be fair to him, by the hon. Member for Ealing, North—at 2 am when chasing an intruder down the street that they can only rugby tackle him or land him a single blow?
Two things are notable about the debate that has been engendered by the leaflet. The first was that, in order to explain what was allowable under the law, the language used by the representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers was not very "excessive and gratuitous force"—almost synonymous with not "grossly disproportionate" force. Indeed, spokesmen seemed to find a variety of ways of re-expressing precisely what my hon. Friend the Member for Newark has written into the Bill—ironic, given that the words in the Bill are the Government's own.
A leaflet does not have the force of law, so the leaflet will not do. A range of views was expressed by the people who should know, particularly chief constables: Sir John Stevens believes that a clarification is necessary; and Sir Ian Blair voiced—how can I express this?—a range of views. Others, it is true, have said the opposite. Indeed, I saw on television three weeks ago a chief constable expressing a view of what a householder can do in far more robust terms than are laid out in this leaflet. So if chief constables do not know—indeed, Sir Ian Blair appeared not to on the programme the other morning—how on earth, even with a leaflet, can ordinary members of the public be expected to know?
No, I will not. I am making only a brief speech.
Leaders of our police forces are unclear because the law is unclear. The law is unclear because it involves a great deal of interpretation by the police, by the Crown Prosecution Service and, in the final analysis, by the jury—even those who throw out these cases in half an hour. The fact that interpretation is difficult and uncertain is demonstrated by the changing interpretation of "reasonable force" over the decades. There was even a case in 1924—the hon. Member for Ealing, North will like this—in which the court said that
"in defence of a man's house the owner or his family may kill a trespasser who would forcibly dispossess him of it."
That was considered reasonable force. Nobody would agree with such a stark definition today, but it demonstrates that over the years the interpretation has changed with changes in conventional wisdom and political correctness.
There will always be in the law a margin for interpretation, as we discussed in the speech of Mr. Heath. That is why we have judges and juries. The Bill moves the point at which that interpretation is made in favour of the householder, including those who rent, and away from the criminal. It is as simple as that. All the confusing tactics deployed by Government Members will not drive that fact away. The public deserve better—an evocative phrase from the past—and they deserve clarity, consistency and protection against villains. The Government are not providing any of those. The Bill provides them all and therefore deserves the support of the House.
I have learned this morning that speeches in the House are just as good on a Friday morning as they are at other times of the week.
I congratulate Patrick Mercer on his success in the ballot. The first slot is a considerable prize. Indeed, my predecessor as MP for Wythenshawe, Alf, now Lord, Morris of Manchester, famously gained a similar place in the ballot in the late 1960s and succeeded in introducing the private Member's Bill that became the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. It remains to be seen whether the hon. Gentleman's Bill manages to survive as well as that piece of legislation. It is not, of course, the first Bill to be introduced on the issue. The House will recall that last April, Mr. Gale introduced a Bill that ultimately ran out of time. The present Bill is not quite the same as that Bill, but it addresses the same issues. We all recognise the legitimate concerns of a householder who has to defend himself or his property against intruders.
It has been my experience as a former Government Whip and as a Back-Bench sponsor of private Members' Bills that such Bills run out of time, as euphemism has it, only if the Government do not try to help them. That is very much in the Minister's gift this morning, and I am sure that my hon. Friend Patrick Mercer would be pleased to receive reassurance, especially as a general election may not be far off, that the Government will back the Bill and get it on to the statute book.
As the Minister responsible, it is vital that I set out clearly the Government's response to this important Bill. It is important that I set out the Government's position, and I shall do so as quickly as possible, although I welcome the intervention by Mr. Taylor.
We all recognise the legitimate concern of a householder who has to defend himself or his property against intruders. A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have made it clear that that is a dreadful prospect for anyone to face, particularly when they are isolated or vulnerable, or if they live in remote areas where help may not be close at hand. Whatever the differences between us over the Bill, the Government—indeed, all of us—recognise that those concerns are real and should be dealt with seriously and sympathetically. We all have a legitimate right to expect that our families should be able to feel safe and secure in their own homes.
As always, the Minister is taking a constructive approach to the Bill. Given that, as he says, there are real concerns about this issue, that a very high percentage of the public believe that such a Bill is necessary and that members of all parties, including distinguished members of his party, think that the Bill is a good idea and has serious merit, if he is not going to support it, will he tell us clearly what he thinks its demerit is? As far as I can see, it has no downsides and only advantages. I would like to hear from the Government what they think the disadvantage is.
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will listen carefully. He always does, and is very gracious in doing so. I hope to have the opportunity to explain why the Government have come to the conclusion that it is not the law itself that is the problem, but perhaps the public misunderstanding how far they can go in defending themselves reasonably in the face of an intruder in the home. I hope that I will be able to persuade him and his colleagues of the merits of our argument. I shall equally listen to him.
Will my hon. Friend also point out some of the anomalies that the Bill would introduce? For instance, someone in a house or a building would have one defence under the law, but someone who tried to do the exactly same thing in the garden of their home would not have the same defence. Such anomalies are likely to lead to greater uncertainty, rather than less.
My hon. Friend asks me to point to some of the difficulties with the Bill, and the right hon. Gentleman asked a similar question. Who knows? In due course, I might reach the point at which I am able to do that. I look forward to being able to offer an explanation.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Field made a very impressive speech. At the same time, he brilliantly gave his support to the Bill and to the Government. His contribution was very telling, and I agreed with the central thrust. We must have greater community confidence if we are to take on and defeat crime more generally. I did not agree with his comment that the police are broken backed, but he advanced a powerful argument.
There is considerable public anxiety and uncertainty about how far an individual can go to defend himself. Prompted by particular cases and widespread media coverage, people have asked a perfectly understandable question, "If I do come across an intruder and I try to defend myself, could I find myself on the wrong side of the law?" Faced with an intruder in his home, at dead of night and with family and vulnerable young children to protect, it is perfectly understandable that a householder will feel threatened. His first thoughts must be of defending all that he holds dear. Of course, in such circumstances, the right to self-defence is incontrovertible.
An intruder's first thought may be flight, or it may be to continue their crime. The householder very probably will want to remove the potential threat from the premises quickly. In truth, the householder, already surprised, has no way of knowing what the intruder may do. Lashing out with a fist or whatever comes to hand against a threat, perceived or real, is likely to be a common and understandable reaction.
I appreciate that the Bill and the law in question are not just about people being killed, but that is where the headlines are concentrated. I understand that the Home Office is conducting a review of the law on murder and, presumably, illegal killing of any sort. Will my hon. Friend comment on that review? Perhaps he feels, as I do, that it would be inappropriate to push ahead with the Bill while that review is still in progress.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Home Office is conducting a review of the law on murder and manslaughter. Self-defence will be an important issue in that review, but it relates to incidents that end in the loss of life. This Bill may also be talking about other incidents that do not lead to the loss of life, so we are having a legitimate discussion now. However, he is quite right to point to the review.
Given the earlier comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Pound, I am tempted to say that I will write to the hon. Gentleman. I certainly could not give him a precise figure at the moment, but in a Department such as the Home Office, responsible as it is for a wide range of issues, it is not unreasonable that a number of reviews should be going on at any particular time.
Under the law as it stands, a person is entitled to use "reasonable force" in self-defence or to protect another person or their property. What constitutes that reasonable force will depend on the circumstances of each case, and Members on both sides of the House have speculated about those different circumstances. Faced with an intruder who is a grown man of 6 ft 4 in, the threat—perceived or real—will be different from the threat posed by an immature 12 year old. The circumstances in each case will lead to a judgment about what is reasonable. The nature of the threat and what it would take to counter the threat must be taken into account when judging what is reasonable in the circumstances.
The law also takes account of the fact that a person under attack or being robbed may be frightened and confused. Woken by an intruder at 3 o'clock in the morning, a person cannot be expected to judge to a fine nicety the level of force that might be required to defend themselves against the threat posed. What the law asks is that the person act instinctively and honestly. So we must be clear: the law itself, and every part of the criminal justice system, must and does support the right to self-defence.
As the Director of Public Prosecutions said on
"the law is on the side of householders".
Many Members have made that comment this morning, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, and it bears repeating: the law is on the side of householders. Being burgled is a frightening experience and householders who react instinctively and attack intruders will be prosecuted only if they use very excessive force. Only in the most extreme circumstances are householders prosecuted for violence against burglars. The Director of Public Prosecutions made it clear on
What the law does not permit is an act of retaliation. The punishment of criminals is rightly a matter for the courts; it is not for victims, vigilantes or anyone else to take the law into their own hands. People should support the police and the courts so that they can do their job effectively. People can defend themselves, but they should not seek to punish an offender for a crime or trespass committed against them. Prevention and self-defence are one thing, retaliation is quite another.
The Government continue to judge that the law as it stands represents a fair balance between the need for householders to defend themselves and their property and the need for society at large to have confidence in the rule of law. The Director of Public Prosecutions said that prosecutors recognise that householders confronted by intruders are entitled to use violence to protect themselves and their families. He continued:
"We routinely refuse to prosecute those reacting in the heat of the moment to finding intruders within their homes. So householders who have killed burglars in this situation have not been prosecuted. Householders who have shot burglars have not been prosecuted. Householders who have stabbed burglars have not been prosecuted. Householders who have struck burglars on the head, fracturing their skulls, have not been prosecuted."
David Davis referred to remarks that I was reported to have made when I was in a television studio with the hon. Member for Newark on Wednesday afternoon, at exactly the same time as the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister were discussing the same issue. The point I was making in that interview—I am sure that the hon. Member for Newark will back me up—was that it is the burglar who is in the wrong when they have entered somebody else's house. It is the householder who is in the right and who has the right to expect the full force of the law to support them. There is sometimes in debate a sense that the threshold has been lowered to the point at which the burglar has greater rights than the individual householder—that is completely wrong, as the current law indicates. A burglar entering somebody's house is absolutely in the wrong. A householder, in defending himself, is absolutely in the right.
The Minister is generous in giving way. I do not dispute for a second the fact that that is what he wants, and intends, the law to be. The difficulty is the latitude. The fact that he can cite a number of cases in which the law got it right does not deal with the point made by my hon. Friend Patrick Mercer, which is that there is also a large number of cases in which the law got it wrong. The Government put up a figure of 11 such cases, which they pretended was the result of comprehensive research, but it turns out that there are at least a couple of dozen, including cases that have gone to court and been dismissed by the judge, or within half an hour by the jury. It is the latitude that is the problem. What matters is not that some judgments are right, but that some are wrong.
The right hon. Gentleman questions the figure of 11, which came from a first review. Others have suggested that the number may be greater; the right hon. Gentleman suggests that there may have been a couple of dozen such cases, but that is over 15 years. The point is that whether it is 11 or two dozen, it is a small number over a substantial period.
I was going come on to that later in my speech, but I shall respond to the point now. The decision was not a response to a particular case. The point was forcefully argued during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill, now the 2003 Act, that there was a lack of clarity in the law, and whether or not there had been previous such cases, burglars and other criminals who had committed serious offences could take a legal action for damages against the victim of their crime. There was agreement in the House that we could not contemplate that, so we set out, in civil law, the test of grossly disproportionate force for that sort of criminality in order to stop burglars and others gaining further advantage from their crimes. That issue is different from the one that we are discussing today.
Unless it is the intention of Patrick Mercer to bring in a law that will never convict anyone, is it not the case that with the same test, that of gross disproportionality, in criminal and civil law, anyone convicted under the proposed legislation would automatically be liable for damages? Is not that precisely what the House wanted to avoid when it passed the earlier legislation?
There may be some confusion, but the whole point of the Government introducing the measure in the Criminal Justice Act was to prevent burglars or other criminals who had carried out serious offences from trying to gain a second time from their offending by taking the victim of their crime to court to get damages from them. The whole House recognised that that would have been utterly wrong. The read-across from that new provision in civil law to a proposition for criminal law does not work as simply as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden or the hon. Member for Newark have suggested.
What, apart from semantics and the fact that neither is enshrined in law, is the difference between "very excessive and gratuitous" and "grossly disproportionate"?
The hon. Gentleman is probably referring again to the leaflet, as he has done once or twice. It is convenient that he does so, because I want to make an important point. The leaflet seeks to explain that "reasonable", in the context of a burglar coming into one's house in the middle of the night, has a high threshold of understanding. Perhaps the public believe that "reasonable" is a limiting word, allowing little action to be taken.
The whole point of the leaflet and the explanation that we offer is to make it clear that householders facing a serious threat from an intruder can go to considerable lengths to defend themselves and their family. For example, the householder can strike the first blow—many members of the public did not understand that they could do that if it was reasonable to do so in the circumstances. They believed that if someone who broke into their house was killed or badly injured, they would automatically be prosecuted—that is absolutely not so. The leaflet makes it clear that "reasonable" can cover actions that at one level seem quite severe, but that are important to take in the context of householders' rights to defend themselves. I see no contradiction between the current law on reasonable defence and the terminology of the leaflet. Incidentally, I am glad that hon. Members on both sides of the House have quoted the leaflet extensively, because the more we advertise the message it contains, the better.
The hon. Member for Newark mentioned that 100,000 copies of the leaflet had been distributed, but it is widely available on various websites and I am sure that the whole House will be delighted to learn that, in view of the huge demand, 200,000 additional copies are being printed. If more are required, we shall print more.
Will the Minister take back to the Home Office the suggestion that police authorities should be encouraged to require the levying authorities to enclose the leaflet with council tax demands, which go out in a month or two's time, so that every household in the country receives it? That is one way to ensure better penetration.
I do not know what estimate the hon. Gentleman has made of the cost of producing and circulating so many leaflets, but as we do any suggestion made in the House, we shall consider his carefully. I thought that he was going to make another attempt to draw me on to the subject of the standard of policing in Greater Manchester, in which we have a shared interest.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Conservatives' argument that the leaflet is not law is spurious? The decision on whether to take action against a householder rests with the police and the CPS, who will use the leaflet as their bible in such instances. The leaflet will have an impact on the law, so to say that it is irrelevant because it does not carry the force of law is simply incorrect.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are three levels to the provision: first, we have the law, which the Government believe is perfectly adequate to allow householders to take whatever steps are necessary to defend themselves and their families from an intruder; secondly, the leaflet explains that law in simple, straightforward terms to the general public, so that they can have greater confidence about what they can and cannot do when someone enters their house and poses a threat; and, thirdly, we have the guidance against which the police and the CPS weigh each case. We therefore have appropriate provision in terms of the law, public understanding and professional judgment. In my view, that provision is adequate to ensure that everyone knows that the law is on the side of the householder who takes defensive action when someone breaks into their house.
Several speakers mentioned the comments made by the Prime Minister in the House on
"simple and weighted overwhelmingly in favour of the householder."
The Leader of the Opposition said when he was Home Secretary that he was not persuaded that there was a need to change the law, but that he would look at the public reaction. He has now switched his position because he thinks that doing so suits his political ends. Are not the Opposition involved in blatant opportunism?
We recognise—this is clear from the many voices raised in the debate both this morning and at other times—that there is a pressing need to ensure that householders fully understand the law. Steps have now been taken to address the need for clear information. We have already discussed at some length the leaflet entitled "Householders and the use of force against intruders", published by the CPS and the Association of Chief Police Officers earlier this week. The leaflet sets out in plain, straightforward language what rights householders have and what level of force they can use when confronted by an intruder. It makes it clear that
"as a general rule, the more extreme the circumstances and the fear felt, the more force you can lawfully use in self-defence."
I was struck by the fact that my hon. Friend Mr. Dismore made the point very forcefully in an earlier intervention that the different circumstances that people face will determine the level of force that it is reasonable for them to use.
The leaflet also quite rightly explains, however, that if very excessive and gratuitous force is used by a householder, he could be prosecuted. I am thinking of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, who talked extensively about the use of a cricket bat. If someone used a cricket bat to take defensive action against someone who came into his property, even if he had left that cricket bat conveniently to hand in case those circumstances arose, it would be reasonable to use the bat to defend himself. Clearly, if after hitting the burglar over the back of the head, making him unconscious, he continued to hit him over the head to the point where he killed him, that would go beyond what was reasonable. That would be a very serious matter and the police would need to investigate it. Equally, if householders set traps to hurt or kill intruders, they would be acting with excessive and gratuitous force and could be prosecuted. Dr. Lewis suggested in an intervention that setting any kind of trap by someone who was trying to anticipate a burglary would somehow be wrong. The advice in the leaflet makes it clear that such a trap would have to be intended to hurt or kill a possible intruder.
Unfortunately, the Minister left off the last few words of that paragraph in the leaflet, which says:
"rather than involve the police."
The Minister, above all people, must be aware that someone cannot involve the police until a crime has been committed. The police will not act on the theory that someone may be about to commit a crime.
I am deeply grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who keeps explaining to the House—and, I hope, the wider public—the merits of the leaflet and the extensive advice that it offers. He is right: of course, any householder who is sufficiently in fear of someone entering their house, perhaps because they have been burgled before or because they have specific information that leads them to believe that someone will burgle their house, should share that information with the police. The police and the law are on their side. They have every right to expect the police to support them in those circumstances. I am very happy to take any other intervention that any hon. Member wants to make that draws out further information from the very helpful leaflet from the CPS and the police.
The Minister suggests that it is not unreasonable for someone to make the police aware of what is happening. Many hon. Members have told us about the failure of the police to respond either quickly enough or positively enough to give confidence. What would the Minister suggest is a reasonable response from the police if a telephone call for help or assistance is made when someone suspects that they are being burgled?
I would expect the police to turn up as soon as it was possible for them to do so. Mr. Heath pointed out that in some remote rural areas the situation may be different from that in the centre of an urban area, but with record numbers of police officers and community support officers provided by the Government, the chances of an officer coming to someone's aid are all the greater than they were or than they would be if police numbers were cut.
We have discussed the leaflet extensively. It is widely available from Citizens Advice and from a number of websites, including the Home Office website. As I said, in addition to the original 100,000 copies, a further 200,000 have been printed, and if more are required, they will be provided.
My hon. Friend will be interested to know that I intend to make sure that those of my constituents who have a particular interest or experience in this field receive a copy of the leaflet. It is extremely helpful. We should recognise the professionalism of the police in these circumstances. On the comment from Mr. Gale, I hope the experience will lead people to use the 999 service better. People can call 999 when they are in fear of a crime or an injury being committed. They do not have to wait until the crime has been committed, but they should not do what one of my constituents, unfortunately, did the other day—ring 999 when someone had damaged the wing mirror on his car, thus perhaps stopping the police attending a real emergency where life and limb were at risk.
Anybody who uses 999 in such circumstances can only be criticised by any sensible person and by hon. Members across the House. The 999 service is for emergencies. Householders who feel that they are about to be burgled or who are being burgled should immediately dial 999 and should be able to expect the full support of the police.
"knew of an intended intruder and set a trap . . . rather than involve the police", the householder might be in trouble. That is the important point. If someone knows a crime is going to be committed, that is the time to call the police, rather than set a trap. That is not the impression that was given earlier.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who always speaks with great clarity on these issues. I draw his attention and that of the House to the fact that in circumstances where it may be judged that the householder has acted with excessive force and there may be an investigation and a potential prosecution, infrequent as such cases are, the leaflet makes it clear that those inquiries will always be conducted by senior and experienced members of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service and will be dealt with as quickly as possible. A number of hon. Members have noted that in the past such cases have dragged on for a long time, but there has subsequently been no prosecution or appearance in court. Those matters should be cleared up as quickly as possible. I hope that with the assurance received this week from the CPS and the police, not least in the leaflet, people will have confidence that such matters will be dealt with expertly and quickly.
My hon. Friend spoke earlier about a Home Office review. About a year ago the Home Office was considering another telephone number to supplement 999, or perhaps designating 999 for emergencies only and the other line for non-emergencies. Is that subject to review? Has my hon. Friend any information to pass on to the House?
I reassure my hon. Friend that the Home Office is looking very carefully at that issue at the moment. Clearly, that is another review that the public and Members of the House will think important. We are conducting it at the moment and many issues will obviously have to be addressed, but the aim is to ensure that members of the public who need the help of the emergency services can expect them to be at hand as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend referred to the fact that the police and Crown Prosecution Service would investigate swiftly, which is what the leaflet says. It also says, however, that they will investigate sympathetically. That is an important point, and the leaflet refers to it twice, emphasising that cases will be investigated both as swiftly and as sympathetically as possible. That may correct some of the public's misapprehensions about how they may be treated.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is quite right that the cases will be dealt with sympathetically. Of course, the sympathy will all be on the side of the householder, who will not have invited the intruder in and will be the victim. Even if there are difficult questions to be addressed, there will always be great sympathy as well as great skill in the way in which any such investigations are carried out, few in number as they are.
I referred earlier to the number of burglaries. Of course, we all want fewer burglaries, which has to be an objective for all of us. Domestic burglary is a terrible crime, and it is vital that we do all we can to prevent it from occurring. Where it does occur, we want to see the offender caught and prosecuted. The good news is that burglary has fallen by about 31 per cent. since 1999, so that the chances of being burgled now are lower than for about 20 years. Recorded crime figures show that domestic burglary in the 12 months to June 2004 was down by 13 per cent. compared with the same period in 2002–03. They are gains that we should all celebrate, but none of us should be complacent and no one can guarantee that the unthinkable will not happen. When somebody enters somebody else's house, the householder must be confident that the law is on their side. They have every right to expect that the incident will be investigated quickly and sensitively—something that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon mentioned—and that all the facts of the case will be taken into account.
A number of suggestions have been made from the Opposition Benches that the police should somehow not investigate such cases where somebody has died. Does my hon. Friend agree that that has to be nonsense, and that cases in which serious injuries occur or people are killed have to be investigated properly, at the very least because there will have to be a coroner's inquest?
My hon. Friend is right that there will need to an investigation when somebody is killed and that information will be needed for the coroner. Of course, there will need to be an investigation of any such incident, because there will have been a burglary, which is the crime.
Just for the record and to help the Minister, the only suggestions that there should be no investigation came from his own Benches; none came from this side of the House.
Whoever raised the issue of investigation, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon has made it clear to the House that there should and will always be an investigation, as is completely right.
Further to that point, several Opposition Members have suggested that the investigations themselves have been so harrowing to the householders involved that they should either not take place or not be taken as seriously as they have been in the past.