Clause 2 - Short title and extent

Criminal Law (Amendment) (Householder Protection) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 5th April 2005.

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Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:30 am, 5th April 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 11, in clause 2, page 1, line 17, leave out ‘only’ and insert ‘and Northern Ireland.’.

Despite the tone of my voice, I have the highest regard for the Minister. I feel very strongly about the measures that we are discussing. The republican ceasefire has been in place for more than 10 years, as has the ceasefire of the loyalist paramilitaries, and in that time there has been a dramatic increase in burglaries—very serious burglaries—across Northern Ireland. Many of those burglaries have been accompanied by extreme violence towards the occupants, in particular elderly occupants.

I told the Minister that that is a serious problem. My father lives on an isolated farm in County Tyrone. He lives in the Mid-Ulster constituency and his MP is a member of Sinn Fein who is not here to speak up for pensioners or farmers, or on any other issue. My father is 88 and lives on his own. He is much more apprehensive now about being burgled in his home than he was about being attacked in the 30 years of a terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland. That is typical of the view of many elderly people across Northern Ireland, particularly those who live on remote, isolated farms. I was therefore disappointed—I chide the hon. Member for Newark about this ever so gently—that the Bill’s provisions do not extend to Northern Ireland. They should do.

I had great respect for the previous Home Secretary. It is a measure of the regard in which he was held in Northern Ireland that, at an Ulster Unionist party conference, the mention of the previous Home Secretary received a round of applause, whereas the party leader did not get a round of applause at a particular point. The previous Home Secretary made it his business to ensure that there was uniformity and certainty in sentencing and in the law across this kingdom. The Belfast agreement is in place, which assured the people of Northern Ireland that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom unless and until they voted otherwise. The people of Northern Ireland expect to be treated just the same as those in Brighton, Newark or north Devon.

During my short time in the House—I entered in 2001—serving as a Member of Parliament has been a privilege and honour. I have loved the job, but I have become increasingly concerned about the lack of joined-up thinking between the Home Office—there is a good Home Office team, something that I would say behind the Minister’s back as well as to his face—and the criminal justice division of the Northern Ireland Office. That is not a criticism of the Minister, but it appears that there is a cadre of officials involved and, when we discuss criminal law—be it on domestic violence or other matters—Northern Ireland lags behind.

Unfortunately, the Northern Ireland Assembly, of which I was hugely supportive, was suspended for various reasons in October 2002, well over two years ago. We have a democratic deficit in Northern Ireland   but, more to the point, even when we had the Assembly, responsibility for criminal law was not devolved and remained in this place.

When we are dealing with a private Member’s Bill on an issue as important as clarifying the law on whether a homeowner would be prosecuted in the circumstances in question, it behoves both the Government and the Opposition—whichever party is in those places after the general election—to bear in mind the responsibility of this Government to the people of Northern Ireland.

When criminal justice legislation is introduced, Northern Ireland should not be shelved by an Order in Council that goes through a Committee where, although I may talk until I am blue in the face, not a dot or comma can be changed. Northern Ireland’s criminal law should instead be dealt with in primary legislation, which should be debated in the House in line with other primary legislation on criminal justice, and it should receive equal scrutiny.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

I have great sympathy with the hon. Lady’s arguments, particularly about the democratic deficit, uniformity of the law and its extension to Northern Ireland. I think that the leaflet could be distributed in Northern Ireland. However, I want to make the point, which I think would be shared by some in the Northern Ireland Administration, that there are special circumstances in Northern Ireland.

We have long been pressing for progress on arms decommissioning in the Province, and surely every hon. Member wants that. If householders were allowed to use force as long as it was not grossly disproportionate, would not there be a risk that they would see that as making it legitimate for them to have arms on their premises? It could be interpreted as arms commissioning by the back door. I think that that point has been made by Northern Ireland officials, but I am interested in the hon. Lady’s view.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am not going to talk about arms decommissioning, but I will respond to the hon. Gentleman by saying that the vast majority of crime and illegal activity has resulted from illegally held weapons, not lawfully held weapons. I am sure that the Minister would confirm that.

The measure would not be a recipe for the use of legally held weapons by householders. However, as a Radio 4 listener who watches scarcely any television—I am pleased that “Doctor Who” has been restored to our screens, because television has never been the same since the last Doctor Who left, however long ago that was, and I have not watched television since—I was fascinated to learn that this issue topped a Radio 4 poll. It was not an orchestrated vote, and it touched the pulse of the nation. People were worried that they did not understand the law, and they felt that the law on protection of people in their homes should be strengthened.

I am curious, as I said in my first intervention on the Minister, about what the evidence is now, post-Home Office press releases on the website, and all the rest: do   people still feel that the law is significantly on their side? Someone in the Home Office should follow that up.

Northern Ireland should not be allowed to fall behind the rest of the United Kingdom. Progress on arms decommissioning can be made separately. The issue is not about legally held weapons, because they are not used routinely at all. The vast majority of crime in Northern Ireland is not caused by legally held weapons. Quite the opposite. Legally held weapons have been held by people who have behaved responsibly for 30 years and who have not risen to the intense provocation of the paramilitaries. That is to the credit of the vast majority of the community on both sides in Northern Ireland who have behaved responsibly.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

Is the hon. Lady saying that because Northern Ireland has one of the highest concentrations of legally held weapons in the United Kingdom, there is a commensurate reduction in burglary or attempted entry into properties?

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

No, that is not what I am arguing. I am saying that in Northern Ireland we have very strict firearms legislation. I emphasise “very strict”. Within the past 18 months, the licensing system for legally held weapons has been tightened significantly more than it has been in the rest of the United Kingdom. During the debate on that legislation, the responsible Minister made the point—as did other hon. Members, including myself—that the crime figures and the paramilitary activity during the past 30 years have been the result not of legally held weapons, but of illegally held weapons. Northern Ireland has very strict legislation on firearms and who can hold them legally. I am not saying that that is a deterrent for burglars. People have behaved responsibly over the years, but the people of Northern Ireland are concerned about vicious burglaries, in which elderly people have died.

When the Bill was first published—the hon. Member for Newark knows my views about it because I conveyed them to him on the telephone—I wanted it extended to Northern Ireland. I hope, after the general election, if there is no progress in Northern Ireland and we are without our Assembly for a considerable time, that feet will not be dragged. This House is responsible for the people of Northern Ireland, especially in criminal law matters, and people throughout this kingdom should have confidence in the certainty and uniformity of sentencing, and the seriousness with which crime is dealt.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

Does the hon. Lady think that if someone in Northern Ireland applies for a legally held weapon and says that their sole reason for doing so is their fear of burglary, that that should be sufficient reason to be allowed to have a legally held weapon?

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

No, I am not arguing that at all. If the hon. Gentleman studies the recent firearms legislation, he will know that that would not be sufficient reason. An application is made in the usual way, and is   scrutinised. A number of checks and balances are taken into account in issuing firearms certificates. The system has been tightened up and I should be happy to pass him the relevant legislation after the sitting. He will see that fear of burglary would not on its own be sufficient reason for issuing a firearms certificate.

I have covered the main points dealing with my desire to see the Bill extended to Northern Ireland. I hope that after the general election, whichever party wins, the Government will regularly pay significant attention to extending Bills with a criminal justice element to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland should not be treated as a tag-on. For instance, antisocial behaviour orders become available in Northern Ireland only recently. That is how far behind we are. Antisocial behaviour is a scourge across the face of Northern Ireland, and it is shameful that ASBOs were not available to local authorities and the Police Service of Northern Ireland until August last year. It is even more disappointing that none has yet been issued. We are falling behind, and that costs people their confidence in the justice system. We must put an end to that.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Shadow Minister (Homeland Security), Home Affairs 10:45 am, 5th April 2005

I am ashamed of myself because, for all the reasons that the hon. Lady so clearly and eloquently expressed, the Bill clearly has a remarkable hole in it. I agree that it most certainly should extend to Northern Ireland. I am ashamed particularly because of my connections with that part of the world. I do not know how many times I have squatted in the hon. Lady’s father’s ditches. I grew up in that area. I do not mean that I was there as a boy, but I certainly came to manhood in a pretty fast and efficient fashion during my 11 tours in Northern Ireland. How I could have framed the Bill and neglected my many friends and others in Ulster, with whom I hugely sympathise and empathise, I cannot imagine.

I shall comment on the interventions so kindly taken by the hon. Lady. The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead does not really understand the situation in Ulster. The possession of a firearm in Ulster falls into two clear categories. It is either legal and therefore extremely hard to get; or it is illegal and extremely dangerous to own. Unlike in this country, a routinely armed police force patrols Northern Ireland. Until recently, tens of thousands of soldiers, all armed to the teeth, would have been only too glad to deprive someone carrying an illegal firearm both of the firearm and of his life.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that distinction. Is he saying that if the Bill’s provisions were extended to Northern Ireland only those who legally owned a firearm would have the opportunity to use a gun if their homes were being burgled, and that everyone else in Northern Ireland would not have a legally owned firearm and therefore would not have the option to use a gun to defend themselves? Is that what the Bill would achieve in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Shadow Minister (Homeland Security), Home Affairs

That has thoroughly confused me, but I will try to answer.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It may help if I tell the Committee that, despite the significant rise in vicious, nasty burglaries of which I spoke earlier, legally held firearms have never been used by householders to defend their homes.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Shadow Minister (Homeland Security), Home Affairs

As always, I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I understand that in Northern Ireland legally held weapons fall into two categories. The first is weapons for sporting or agricultural use—for instance, farmers own shotguns, and there are many because, as the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead knows, it is a rural area. The second is the personal protection weapon—a PPW. Generally speaking, off-duty police officers, off-duty soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment and others are allowed to apply for a licence for a PPW.

Gaining possession of a PPW is enormously difficult. Such weapons are not issued regularly or routinely by the police authorities in Northern Ireland. To physically get one’s hands on a PPW is difficult. If one were serving in the Royal Irish Regiment, it might be a little easier. However, many former regular soldiers from the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Rangers also claim the need for PPWs. Very few of them are allowed to have such weapons and we can understand why.

I recall the case some years ago—sadly, I cannot remember his name or the date—of a part-time UDR soldier who was a farmer and had a PPW in his house. He thought that he detected an intrusion, but was not clear whether it was by a terrorist or a criminal. He outlined to me clearly the difficult decision that he had to make about whether to confront the intruder with or without his personal protection weapon. So concerned was he about the misuse of his weapon that he took a baseball bat or a club of some sort with him rather than a firearm. The hon. Gentleman is sadly mistaken if he believes that the use of legally held weapons is commonplace in Ulster. That was the hon. Lady’s point.

I turn to the comments of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound). It is clear that the deployment of, at times, tens of thousands of heavily armed soldiers in Northern Ireland had its effect on ordinary, decent crime. I know that he knows Ulster well, but the deployment of troops had a huge effect on the amount of crime, particularly more serious crime, in Northern Ireland. With the withdrawal of troops from routine patrolling duties, there has been a concomitant rise in crime, as the hon. Lady says.

Coming back to the point, the amendment reflects an omission from the Bill. Ulster is too often forgotten in our legislative process. I entirely take the point that the hon. Lady makes about the criminal justice division of the Northern Ireland Office and the displacement between it and the Home Office. I believe that the amendment is extraordinarily sensible.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

It was nice to hear the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) gently chiding the hon. Member for Newark. In the context of the   responsibilities that I have had for the past two years, she has often chided me gently, too. She refers to her tone. It is always gracious and I have been grateful for her contributions in Committee and on the Floor of the House. I think of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004, for which she was a member of the Committee. The whole House is grateful for the way in which she consistently argues the connections between the needs and interests of her constituents and the criminal justice system. Although, more often than not, we have had to agree to disagree, I thank her for her contributions to our deliberations.

Having said that and having acknowledged again that burglary is every bit as important to her constituents as it is to mine and to those of other hon. Members, I cannot support her amendment. I hope that my explanation will persuade her to rethink her approach to the issue. The Bill seeks to amend the Criminal Law Act 1967, which does not cover this issue in Northern Ireland. That is done by section 3 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967. It is different legislation, so we would add confusion to the law if we were to amend this Bill, which relates to the 1967 Act pertaining to England and Wales. The criminal law is a reserved matter under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It is important that we maintain the integrity of the legislation that pertains to Northern Ireland and do not allow the confusion that the amendment would introduce.

May I gently persuade the hon. Lady not to press the matter too hard today? If the Bill passed into law, we would need to consider at that point whether to amend the Northern Ireland legislation to ensure that it reflected the same law, safeguards and checks and balances. At the moment, the two pieces of legislation are identical. If the 1967 Act that relates to England and Wales changed as a result of the Bill, we would have to consider whether the Northern Ireland legislation also needed to be changed. My suggestion is to wait and see whether the Bill becomes law. I promise her that, if it does, that issue will be carefully considered. I am trying to persuade her that pressing the amendment to a vote would add confusion to the law, rather than the clarity for which she always argues so coherently.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am most grateful to the Minister for his generous words; I greatly appreciate them. He has given a firm promise, and I take it from his use of the word “promise” that he has accepted the principle that, although the criminal law in Northern Ireland includes in brackets the words “Northern Ireland”, in substance, it is identical to that in England and Wales.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Lest the hon. Lady get too excited by the promise that I made, I want to make it crystal clear that I was talking about the law in relation to self-defence in the 1967 Act for England and Wales and in the Northern Ireland legislation. I confine my remarks and my promise to self-defence. I do not want her to construe my remarks any more widely than that. However, I do promise that, if the Bill becomes law, we   will consider whether we need to make corresponding changes to the Northern Ireland legislation in relation to self-defence.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am most grateful to the Minister for that clarification. That said, I must sound a note of disappointment. A review is being conducted of the law of self-defence, particularly in relation to murder, and it would have been helpful had he indicated how far advanced it is. Can he give me a commitment that the review will extend to a review of the issue of self-defence in Northern Ireland? That would help me to come to a conclusion as to whether to press the amendment to a vote. Will he give me a commitment that the review includes Northern Ireland, where the circumstances may be slightly different?

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Rather than speculate, I will go away and check precisely whether that issue is being considered. I promise to write to the hon. Lady urgently, by which I mean this week, to make clear to her what progress we are making on the review and whether consideration has been given to a read-across to Northern Ireland.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Again, I thank the Minister for that clarification. It would be helpful if he wrote to me. Obviously, I do not want there to be inconsistency between the legislation in Northern Ireland and that in England and Wales. It is enormously important at every stage of our consideration of criminal justice legislation, including this Bill, that the people of Northern Ireland feel that they are part of this kingdom.

I accept the apology—I am sure that it was meant as such by the hon. Member for Newark—for the fact that the Bill did not extend to Northern Ireland in the first place. With the Minister generously having given an undertaking in that regard, it would not be appropriate to press the amendment to a vote this morning. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose at one minute to Eleven o’clock.