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13 Jan 2003 : Column 449—continued

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I congratulate the shadow Home Secretary on his excellent speech. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who made a thoughtful and well-informed contribution.

A lot has been said about the comments of Lord Woolf and the Lord Chancellor, both of whom have shown that they are completely out of touch. Burglary is never a victimless crime. It often involves the threat or fact of physical attack, and many victims are permanently traumatised. Many move home because, once their home and their prized possessions have been violated, they feel unable to stay in the same place. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary made clear, the figures are rising at an alarming rate. In the year to September, burglaries were up by 8 per cent. to nearly 500,000. Robberies were up by 13 per cent., and firearms offences by 35 per cent. Handguns are now used in 5,800 crimes—a rise of some 46 per cent.

We must have proper deterrents, and I really do feel that the statements by Lord Chief Justice Woolf and the Lord Chancellor are totally at odds with public opinion. The shadow Home Secretary made it clear that there is overwhelming evidence that custodial sentences for burglary do indeed deter. In looking at the new guidelines, we should note that a couple of cases have already shown clearly how much damage is being done. In an intervention, I referred to the case of Gary Callaby, who lives in west Norfolk. He admitted to three offences, including one of burglary and one of theft, and asked for four other offences of burglary to be taken into consideration. They were not minor burglaries. The first involved stealing a quantity of food and compact discs from Park lane, in Helhoughton; the second involved a break-in and the theft of #1,500-worth of property in West Raynham; the third, occurring four days after the second, involved the theft of a jewellery box and jewellery worth #1,500 from Weasenham. A few weeks later, Gary Callaby stole a number of fittings and other equipment from West Raynham farm.

That person committed three burglaries and one theft; in court he admitted four other offences of burglary which he asked to be taken into consideration. Judge Darroch made it clear that he felt a custodial sentence was the only answer. However, he said:

This man was a painter and decorator; he used insider knowledge of the particular homes and the families whose trust he betrayed when he burgled them. That case rightly gave rise to a great deal of local and national coverage.

Another case since then involved the Crocker family who live at Bedlington in Northumberland. A burglar broke into their house and tried to stab Mrs. Crocker with a kitchen knife. Fortunately, he was overcome and the police were called. He came up in court two or three days ago and has escaped a prison sentence, much to the dismay and anger of the victims.

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Damage is being done, and I feel strongly, as do many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, that Lord Woolf must move into the real world. An overwhelming number of people in my constituency believe that he is out of touch; I have had very many letters on the subject.

I have had even more letters on the case of my famous constituent, Tony Martin, who is due to come out of prison next week. The facts of his case are well documented. He was a victim of crime; what happened was an appalling tragedy for him and for the people who were killed and injured. He has made it clear that when he comes out of prison, he will campaign for the victims of burglary. He will also push very hard for changes in the law on exactly what householders can do to defend their property.

Rural police forces up and down the country are overstretched. Burglars know this and they are targeting homes in my constituency and in those of my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and for Stone (Mr. Cash). People in rural areas feel particularly vulnerable. Their natural instinct is to protect themselves. The law clearly states that one can use reasonable force, but recent cases have resulted in total confusion. Tony Martin fired at someone who was facing away from him and shot him in the back. A man was recently convicted for repeatedly stabbing a burglar who had broken into the flat where he believed his children were sleeping. However, when a householder stabbed to death one intruder and seriously wounded another, the Crown Prosecution Service found that the force used was reasonable and did not prosecute. Clearly the CPS cannot decide where the boundary between reasonable and unreasonable force lies and what the law actually is.

How can it be right to prosecute people when the law is confused and contradictory? If lawyers, safe in their offices, cannot work out what is right, how can the householder be expected to weigh up the pros and cons in the middle of a violent struggle in the dark? Is it reasonable to expect that same householder, during a few fearful seconds on the stairs when he is being menaced by broken bottles, to guess what the law would say when lawyers themselves do not know?

We do not want new, over-prescriptive laws; we certainly do not want a firearms free-for-all, but we need a much more sympathetic approach by the police and the CPS towards householders who defend themselves. There needs to be a presumption in favour of their innocence rather than the other way round, which appears to be the case at present. There needs to be a presumption against further prosecutions. I am not suggesting that the Government should immediately change the law, but we should have a report from the Law Commission. It should be tasked with examining whether we need a new law whereby the relevant test is not based on the Xreasonable man" but a new, subjective test of what the householder believes to be appropriate at the time. That would allow for the fact that every case is different and every set of circumstances unique. As a result, householders would not be prosecuted unless they were launching revenge attacks on burglars.

There is a strong feeling in west Norfolk in particular that burglars who enter properties should leave their civil rights outside. That, too, needs to be addressed by the Law Commission. At present, burglars and robbers can profit from their crimes if injured, which is

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ludicrous. Brendon Fearon, who was injured during the burglary of Tony Martin's property, applied for legal aid, and tried to sue Tony Martin for damages and loss of earnings.

I am not advocating American-style laws with people being shot for trespassing into gardens to retrieve footballs. However, homeowners and householders need to know that they can defend themselves. That would send a clear message to members of the criminal fraternity that if they enter other people's property, they do so at their peril. That would be a significant step forward in the fight against crime, which every party is rightly determined to win.

6.6 pm

Vera Baird (Redcar): The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) talked about the dangers of trying to understand crime by headlines. I suggest that this debate has been brought about by headlines, and misunderstood headlines at that. No sooner is there a headline about burglary and a difference in emphasis about what should happen to burglars than there is a debate demanding that the whole criminal justice system be saved from what is perceived as the brink of collapse.

Even the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) could not sustain his scream of outrage at the outset of his speech. He concedes that there must be guidelines on sentencing and that judges must individualise the sentence in the specific case. In that situation, it is inevitable that some burglars will not go into custody. The right hon. Gentleman would not, I am sure, send to prison a 12-year-old who entered an empty house to steal scrap. He would not sentence a man of 16 or 17 who had committed that kind of burglary to prison, particularly if he had a drugs problem that could be dealt with far more adequately by a drug treatment and testing order. So the scream of outrage cannot even be sustained by the Conservative Front Bench.

The criminal justice system is not just about burglary, important as that is, but about many more offences. Let us consider what the Conservatives did regarding two offences in which I am particularly interested. Home Office figures for 1985 showed that convictions for rape stood at 25 per cent. By the mid-1990s, the figure was 9 per cent. The Tories were firmly at the helm for all that time. What did they do about that? After all, it is of great concern to women. The evidence shows that one in four or five women is raped or sexually assaulted. With the Tories firmly at the helm, the conviction rate hurtled down a banana slide to next to nothing. What did they do?

The Tories had the perfect opportunity to legislate in the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996. It has been well known in many circles for many years that the admission of previous sexual history is a massive deterrent for women to come forward and a huge block on them sustaining a prosecution when they have started. This is not about upping conviction rates but about the core of what the criminal justice system should do for victims—giving them support so that they have the confidence to come to court, do themselves justice and let a jury decide.

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The admission of previous sexual history put the complainant on trial instead of the defendant, and women were discouraged. It is in all ways irrelevant to the issue before the jury in 90 per cent. of cases. Research shows that in so far as previous sexual history comes into a trial about a complainant, the jury's conception of the guilt of the defendant declines. That is true even if the woman or man complainant denies every bit of it. In other words, it contributed to wrongful acquittals.

The Tories had the opportunity to legislate in the 1996 Act. Did they make any attempt to help with the vast decline in rape convictions at that stage? Was there any mention of it in any aspect of Tory debate on the matter? None whatever. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, then in Opposition, introduced an amendment to that Bill to limit the admission of previous sexual history and to exclude it from being introduced to show consent. She and the then shadow Home Secretary, now my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, had, unlike the Tory Government, consulted survivors and practitioners, of which I was one, and they know of the importance of that amendment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport set out then everything that I have said now, but the Conservative Government simply voted it down. They were not interested in stopping the decline in the conviction rate.

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