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David Davis: The Minister is generous in giving way. I do not dispute for a second the fact that that is what he wants, and intends, the law to be. The difficulty is the latitude. The fact that he can cite a number of cases in which the law got it right does not deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), which is that there is also a large number of cases in which the law got it wrong. The Government put up a figure of 11 such cases, which they pretended was the result of comprehensive research, but it turns out that there are at least a couple of dozen, including cases that have gone to court and been dismissed by the judge, or within half an hour by the jury. It is the latitude that is the problem. What matters is not that some judgments are right, but that some are wrong.
Paul Goggins: The right hon. Gentleman questions the figure of 11, which came from a first review. Others have suggested that the number may be greater; the right hon. Gentleman suggests that there may have been a couple of dozen such cases, but that is over 15 years. The point is that whether it is 11 or two dozen, it is a small number over a substantial period.
Paul Goggins: I was going come on to that later in my speech, but I shall respond to the point now. The decision was not a response to a particular case. The point was forcefully argued during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill, now the 2003 Act, that there was a lack of clarity in the law, and whether or not there had been previous such cases, burglars and other criminals who had committed serious offences could take a legal action for damages against the victim of their crime. There was agreement in the House that we could not contemplate that, so we set out, in civil law, the test of grossly disproportionate force for that sort of criminality in order to stop burglars and others gaining further advantage from their crimes. That issue is different from the one that we are discussing today.
Unless it is the intention of the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) to bring in a law that will never convict anyone, is it not the case that with the same test, that of gross disproportionality, in criminal and civil law, anyone convicted under the proposed legislation would automatically be liable for damages? Is not that precisely what the House wanted to avoid when it passed the earlier legislation?
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Paul Goggins: There may be some confusion, but the whole point of the Government introducing the measure in the Criminal Justice Act was to prevent burglars or other criminals who had carried out serious offences from trying to gain a second time from their offending by taking the victim of their crime to court to get damages from them. The whole House recognised that that would have been utterly wrong. The read-across from that new provision in civil law to a proposition for criminal law does not work as simply as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden or the hon. Member for Newark have suggested.
Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman is probably referring again to the leaflet, as he has done once or twice. It is convenient that he does so, because I want to make an important point. The leaflet seeks to explain that "reasonable", in the context of a burglar coming into one's house in the middle of the night, has a high threshold of understanding. Perhaps the public believe that "reasonable" is a limiting word, allowing little action to be taken.
The whole point of the leaflet and the explanation that we offer is to make it clear that householders facing a serious threat from an intruder can go to considerable lengths to defend themselves and their family. For example, the householder can strike the first blowmany members of the public did not understand that they could do that if it was reasonable to do so in the circumstances. They believed that if someone who broke into their house was killed or badly injured, they would automatically be prosecutedthat is absolutely not so. The leaflet makes it clear that "reasonable" can cover actions that at one level seem quite severe, but that are important to take in the context of householders' rights to defend themselves. I see no contradiction between the current law on reasonable defence and the terminology of the leaflet. Incidentally, I am glad that hon. Members on both sides of the House have quoted the leaflet extensively, because the more we advertise the message it contains, the better.
Paul Goggins: The hon. Member for Newark mentioned that 100,000 copies of the leaflet had been distributed, but it is widely available on various websites and I am sure that the whole House will be delighted to learn that, in view of the huge demand, 200,000 additional copies are being printed. If more are required, we shall print more.
Will the Minister take back to the Home Office the suggestion that police authorities should be encouraged to require the levying authorities to enclose the leaflet with council tax demands, which go out in a month or two's time, so that every household in the country receives it? That is one way to ensure better penetration.
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Paul Goggins: I do not know what estimate the hon. Gentleman has made of the cost of producing and circulating so many leaflets, but as we do any suggestion made in the House, we shall consider his carefully. I thought that he was going to make another attempt to draw me on to the subject of the standard of policing in Greater Manchester, in which we have a shared interest.
Harry Cohen: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Conservatives' argument that the leaflet is not law is spurious? The decision on whether to take action against a householder rests with the police and the CPS, who will use the leaflet as their bible in such instances. The leaflet will have an impact on the law, so to say that it is irrelevant because it does not carry the force of law is simply incorrect.
Paul Goggins: My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are three levels to the provision: first, we have the law, which the Government believe is perfectly adequate to allow householders to take whatever steps are necessary to defend themselves and their families from an intruder; secondly, the leaflet explains that law in simple, straightforward terms to the general public, so that they can have greater confidence about what they can and cannot do when someone enters their house and poses a threat; and, thirdly, we have the guidance against which the police and the CPS weigh each case. We therefore have appropriate provision in terms of the law, public understanding and professional judgment. In my view, that provision is adequate to ensure that everyone knows that the law is on the side of the householder who takes defensive action when someone breaks into their house.
Several speakers mentioned the comments made by the Prime Minister in the House on 8 December. He acknowledged that there was public anxiety about the issue and made it clear that he was prepared to consult chief police officers, the CPS and the Attorney-General to discover whether there was a problem with the law, or a problem with the way in which the law was operating and with public understanding of the law. Having heard from them all, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has concluded that the law itself is sound. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) reminded us of the comment made by Anthony Scrivener, Tony Martin's barrister, last year: he stated plainly that the law as it stands is
Mr. Dismore: The Leader of the Opposition said when he was Home Secretary that he was not persuaded that there was a need to change the law, but that he would look at the public reaction. He has now switched his position because he thinks that doing so suits his political ends. Are not the Opposition involved in blatant opportunism?
We recognisethis is clear from the many voices raised in the debate both this morning and at other timesthat there is a pressing need to ensure that
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householders fully understand the law. Steps have now been taken to address the need for clear information. We have already discussed at some length the leaflet entitled "Householders and the use of force against intruders", published by the CPS and the Association of Chief Police Officers earlier this week. The leaflet sets out in plain, straightforward language what rights householders have and what level of force they can use when confronted by an intruder. It makes it clear that
I was struck by the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) made the point very forcefully in an earlier intervention that the different circumstances that people face will determine the level of force that it is reasonable for them to use.
The leaflet also quite rightly explains, however, that if very excessive and gratuitous force is used by a householder, he could be prosecuted. I am thinking of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North, who talked extensively about the use of a cricket bat. If someone used a cricket bat to take defensive action against someone who came into his property, even if he had left that cricket bat conveniently to hand in case those circumstances arose, it would be reasonable to use the bat to defend himself. Clearly, if after hitting the burglar over the back of the head, making him unconscious, he continued to hit him over the head to the point where he killed him, that would go beyond what was reasonable. That would be a very serious matter and the police would need to investigate it. Equally, if householders set traps to hurt or kill intruders, they would be acting with excessive and gratuitous force and could be prosecuted. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) suggested in an intervention that setting any kind of trap by someone who was trying to anticipate a burglary would somehow be wrong. The advice in the leaflet makes it clear that such a trap would have to be intended to hurt or kill a possible intruder.
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