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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.
Mr. Bellingham: 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 publicI 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 thereone 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.
Mrs. Helen Clark (Peterborough) (Lab):
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.
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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 Taylorthe burglarin the garden of his home. He said:
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 Billnamely, that defending yourself results in a criminal sentenceis 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
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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.
Mr. Pound : 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 the hon. Member for Newark (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?
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 the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (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.
Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Peterborough (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 the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) chose to introduce the Bill. I share the despair of the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (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.
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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. Memberthis happens with Members on both sides of the House, not just Government Membersso 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 trainedand, I hope, reasonably well paidto 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 the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (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
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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.
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