Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Harry Cohen: 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.
4 Feb 2005 : Column 1094

Mr. Hancock: 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.

Harry Cohen: I think that the law is pretty unambiguous. I agree that prosecutions are brought on the basis of the law, but the police and the CPS interpret the law in the first place. They will use this leaflet for guidance when interpreting the law.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): The hon. Gentleman says that the leaflet clarifies matters. To me, it does not. It says that it would be reasonable to

What if someone had put a weapon to hand? Would they then be free to use it? The leaflet talks about what happens

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?

Harry Cohen: 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.

Mr. Dismore: Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend. The leaflet is quite clear in saying:

Harry Cohen: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for dealing with that. I shall take one more intervention. Then I had better get on.

Mike Gapes: 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?

Harry Cohen: 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
4 Feb 2005 : Column 1095
quote what Mark Steel wrote in The Independent yesterday:

I think that this Bill is feeding into that electoral aspect, which is a shame.

David Davis: 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 5 May?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. We had better confine our remarks to the Bill before the House.

Harry Cohen: 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.

Chris Grayling: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. May I invite him, after he loses his seat on 5 May, to allow me to introduce him to a friend of mine who is a good literary agent and who will be glad to take responsibility for promoting his creative skills?

Harry Cohen: First, I am not going to lose my seat on 5 May. With most of my colleagues—in fact, like all my colleagues—[Interruption.] I said "most of my colleagues" because some of them are not standing again. All those who are standing again will win their
4 Feb 2005 : Column 1096
seats. I thought that the hon. Gentleman might make such an allusion, but what I described is a possibility—all right, I said it would be exceptional—and the police would have to investigate all cases where there might be such a suspicion.

Mr. Dismore: 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.

Harry Cohen: Again, that is a point well made.

I return to the point made in an intervention by my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (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.

Patrick Mercer: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. How would he reply to the comments of Mr. Brendan Fearon?

Harry Cohen: 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
4 Feb 2005 : Column 1097
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
4 Feb 2005 : Column 1098
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.

Next Section IndexHome Page