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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): I have learned this morning that speeches in the House are just as good on a Friday morning as they are at other times of the week.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on his success in the ballot. The first slot is a considerable prize. Indeed, my predecessor as MP for Wythenshawe, Alf, now Lord, Morris of Manchester, famously gained a similar place in the ballot in the late 1960s and succeeded in introducing the private Member's Bill that became the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. It remains to be seen whether the hon. Gentleman's Bill manages to survive as well as that piece of legislation. It is not, of course, the first Bill to be introduced on the issue. The House will recall that last April, the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) introduced a Bill that ultimately ran out of time. The present Bill is not quite the same as that Bill, but it addresses the same issues. We all recognise the legitimate concerns of a householder who has to defend himself or his property against intruders.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull) (Con): It has been my experience as a former Government Whip and as a Back-Bench sponsor of private Members' Bills that such Bills run out of time, as euphemism has it, only if the Government do not try to help them. That is very much in the Minister's gift this morning, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) would be pleased to receive reassurance, especially as a general election may not be far off, that the Government will back the Bill and get it on to the statute book.
As the Minister responsible, it is vital that I set out clearly the Government's response to this important Bill. It is important that I set out the Government's position, and I shall do so as quickly as possible, although I welcome the intervention by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor).
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We all recognise the legitimate concern of a householder who has to defend himself or his property against intruders. A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have made it clear that that is a dreadful prospect for anyone to face, particularly when they are isolated or vulnerable, or if they live in remote areas where help may not be close at hand. Whatever the differences between us over the Bill, the Governmentindeed, all of usrecognise that those concerns are real and should be dealt with seriously and sympathetically. We all have a legitimate right to expect that our families should be able to feel safe and secure in their own homes.
David Davis: As always, the Minister is taking a constructive approach to the Bill. Given that, as he says, there are real concerns about this issue, that a very high percentage of the public believe that such a Bill is necessary and that members of all parties, including distinguished members of his party, think that the Bill is a good idea and has serious merit, if he is not going to support it, will he tell us clearly what he thinks its demerit is? As far as I can see, it has no downsides and only advantages. I would like to hear from the Government what they think the disadvantage is.
Paul Goggins: I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will listen carefully. He always does, and is very gracious in doing so. I hope to have the opportunity to explain why the Government have come to the conclusion that it is not the law itself that is the problem, but perhaps the public misunderstanding how far they can go in defending themselves reasonably in the face of an intruder in the home. I hope that I will be able to persuade him and his colleagues of the merits of our argument. I shall equally listen to him.
Chris Bryant: Will my hon. Friend also point out some of the anomalies that the Bill would introduce? For instance, someone in a house or a building would have one defence under the law, but someone who tried to do the exactly same thing in the garden of their home would not have the same defence. Such anomalies are likely to lead to greater uncertainty, rather than less.
Paul Goggins: My hon. Friend asks me to point to some of the difficulties with the Bill, and the right hon. Gentleman asked a similar question. Who knows? In due course, I might reach the point at which I am able to do that. I look forward to being able to offer an explanation.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) made a very impressive speech. At the same time, he brilliantly gave his support to the Bill and to the Government. His contribution was very telling, and I agreed with the central thrust. We must have greater community confidence if we are to take on and defeat crime more generally. I did not agree with his comment that the police are broken backed, but he advanced a powerful argument.
There is considerable public anxiety and uncertainty about how far an individual can go to defend himself. Prompted by particular cases and widespread media coverage, people have asked a perfectly understandable question, "If I do come across an intruder and I try to defend myself, could I find myself on the wrong side of the law?" Faced with an intruder in his home, at dead
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of night and with family and vulnerable young children to protect, it is perfectly understandable that a householder will feel threatened. His first thoughts must be of defending all that he holds dear. Of course, in such circumstances, the right to self-defence is incontrovertible.
An intruder's first thought may be flight, or it may be to continue their crime. The householder very probably will want to remove the potential threat from the premises quickly. In truth, the householder, already surprised, has no way of knowing what the intruder may do. Lashing out with a fist or whatever comes to hand against a threat, perceived or real, is likely to be a common and understandable reaction.
Tom Levitt: I appreciate that the Bill and the law in question are not just about people being killed, but that is where the headlines are concentrated. I understand that the Home Office is conducting a review of the law on murder and, presumably, illegal killing of any sort. Will my hon. Friend comment on that review? Perhaps he feels, as I do, that it would be inappropriate to push ahead with the Bill while that review is still in progress.
Paul Goggins: My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Home Office is conducting a review of the law on murder and manslaughter. Self-defence will be an important issue in that review, but it relates to incidents that end in the loss of life. This Bill may also be talking about other incidents that do not lead to the loss of life, so we are having a legitimate discussion now. However, he is quite right to point to the review.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): The Minister has just told us that the Home Office is conducting a review after seven yearswe congratulate it. Will he tell us how many other reviews the Home Office is conducting?
Paul Goggins: Given the earlier comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), I am tempted to say that I will write to the hon. Gentleman. I certainly could not give him a precise figure at the moment, but in a Department such as the Home Office, responsible as it is for a wide range of issues, it is not unreasonable that a number of reviews should be going on at any particular time.
Under the law as it stands, a person is entitled to use "reasonable force" in self-defence or to protect another person or their property. What constitutes that reasonable force will depend on the circumstances of each case, and Members on both sides of the House have speculated about those different circumstances. Faced with an intruder who is a grown man of 6 ft 4 in, the threatperceived or realwill be different from the threat posed by an immature 12 year old. The circumstances in each case will lead to a judgment about what is reasonable. The nature of the threat and what it would take to counter the threat must be taken into account when judging what is reasonable in the circumstances.
The law also takes account of the fact that a person under attack or being robbed may be frightened and confused. Woken by an intruder at 3 o'clock in the morning, a person cannot be expected to judge to a fine
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nicety the level of force that might be required to defend themselves against the threat posed. What the law asks is that the person act instinctively and honestly. So we must be clear: the law itself, and every part of the criminal justice system, must and does support the right to self-defence.
Many Members have made that comment this morning, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, and it bears repeating: the law is on the side of householders. Being burgled is a frightening experience and householders who react instinctively and attack intruders will be prosecuted only if they use very excessive force. Only in the most extreme circumstances are householders prosecuted for violence against burglars. The Director of Public Prosecutions made it clear on 12 January that only in those extreme circumstances would prosecution be considered.
What the law does not permit is an act of retaliation. The punishment of criminals is rightly a matter for the courts; it is not for victims, vigilantes or anyone else to take the law into their own hands. People should support the police and the courts so that they can do their job effectively. People can defend themselves, but they should not seek to punish an offender for a crime or trespass committed against them. Prevention and self-defence are one thing, retaliation is quite another.
The Government continue to judge that the law as it stands represents a fair balance between the need for householders to defend themselves and their property and the need for society at large to have confidence in the rule of law. The Director of Public Prosecutions said that prosecutors recognise that householders confronted by intruders are entitled to use violence to protect themselves and their families. He continued:
"We routinely refuse to prosecute those reacting in the heat of the moment to finding intruders within their homes. So householders who have killed burglars in this situation have not been prosecuted. Householders who have shot burglars have not been prosecuted. Householders who have stabbed burglars have not been prosecuted. Householders who have struck burglars on the head, fracturing their skulls, have not been prosecuted."
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) referred to remarks that I was reported to have made when I was in a television studio with the hon. Member for Newark on Wednesday afternoon, at exactly the same time as the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister were discussing the same issue. The point I was making in that interviewI am sure that the hon. Member for Newark will back me upwas that it is the burglar who is in the wrong when they have entered somebody else's house. It is the householder who is in the right and who has the right to expect the full force of the law to support them. There is sometimes in debate a sense that the threshold has been lowered to the point at which the burglar has greater rights than
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the individual householderthat is completely wrong, as the current law indicates. A burglar entering somebody's house is absolutely in the wrong. A householder, in defending himself, is absolutely in the right.
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