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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.
Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con):
The right hon. Gentleman is speaking to the House with the
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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.
Mr. Field: The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well why those on the Front Bench are behaving as they are. As I said, before the election, we will clarify our position. Naturally, as we are the governing party, we want the credit for it.
Chris Bryant: 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.
Mr. Field: 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.
Mr. Field: 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.
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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Newark (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. GentlemanI say this from the offis 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 saysthis is my opinion, and I shall go on to develop it a little furtherbut 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.
David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): 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.
Mr. Heath: 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.
Mike Gapes: I tried to make this intervention on the promoter of the Bill. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is grossly disproportionate to capture someone, beat them up, throw them in a pit, and then set fire to them?
Mr. Heath: I think that that would be grossly disproportionate and I suspect that any court would find it so, but I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman takes the argument much further by that intervention.
Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con):
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
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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?
Mr. Heath: 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.
Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): 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?
Mr. Heath: 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.
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