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Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): To clarify the point, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) made an intervention in which he suggested precisely that it was wrong that there should be any investigation when it was the intruder who was the victim.
Tom Levitt: Further to that point, several Opposition Members have suggested that the investigations themselves have been so harrowing to the householders involved that they should either not take place or not be taken as seriously as they have been in the past.
Different Members have sought to emphasise different views. What the House should be clear about, however, is that there will be an investigation whenever such an incident happens. The burglary will be investigated, and there will also be an investigation where there is any suggestion of excessive
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force or a death occurs. I am grateful to my hon. Friends for making that clear, in case there were any doubts that investigations will always be carried out in those circumstances.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): As the Minister said, burglary is a serious offence. My constituents are enraged when a derisory community service sentence is handed out by the courts, particularly for repeat burglaries. As he says that burglary is a serious offence, does he believe that the sentence should also be serious?
Paul Goggins: That takes us slightly wider, but I am happy to say that the Government are clear that for serious, dangerous and persistent offenders, prison is the appropriate punishment. The fact that, since 1997, we have provided 17,000 additional prison places with 3,000 more on the way is testimony to our belief that prison plays an important role in our criminal justice system. However, we also believe that community service sentences are appropriate for less serious, non-dangerous offenders. It is of course for the courts to decide on the appropriate punishment in each case.
Mike Gapes : My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) referred to this earlier. We recently had experience in Redbridge of people being given bail, much to the regret of the police and, no doubt, the local community. Will my hon. Friend consider talking to his colleagues elsewhere in the Government about giving guidance to magistrates courts on the circumstances in which persistent offenders are given bail?
Paul Goggins: My hon. Friend will remember the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 almost as well as I do. It was one of the first pieces of legislation that I had to deal with as a newly appointed Minister. He will remember that in that legislation we created the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which is responsible, under the chairmanship of the Lord Chief Justice, for issuing guidance on precisely the sort of matters that my hon. Friend mentioned. It is important that magistrates, and sentencers generally, have the whole range of powers and penalties available to them so that they can use the appropriate penalties in the right circumstances.
My hon. Friend referred to bail, which, backed up with electronic tagging or tracking, might be an adequate form of supervision; alternatively, an offender may need to be in prison. It is for magistrates to determine the appropriate course of action in each case. We must empower them to make those decisions in the right way so that my hon. Friend's constituents are safe from the crimes that those offenders might otherwise commit.
The 2003 Act introduced a measure, which we have discussed to some extent this morning, to ensure that people who commit burglary and serious offences cannot take the victims of their crimes to court to claim damages from them. It would be outrageous if a victim of crime were then turned into a perpetrator of crime and made to pay a financial penalty. We made it clear that that should not happen and we countered the
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possibility of any unjustified claims for damages where someone had acted reasonably and proportionately in self-defence against a perceived or actual threat. Provided that the householder was acting reasonably and proportionally in self-defence, there could be no question of a criminal taking them to court to claim damages.
That new provision came into force on 20 January 2004. It covers cases in which a person who has been convicted of an imprisonable criminal offence takes civil action for damages against the victim of that offence or a third party who has intervened, for example, to protect the victim, or to protect or recover property. In other words, in an area of the law that was previously unclear we have confirmed that the law is on the side of the victim, and we have made it crystal clear that we will not tolerate a situation in which a victim of crime is, in effect, turned into the perpetrator.
Any claim can now proceed only in strictly defined circumstances with the express permission of the court and would not succeed unless the court was satisfied that the householder's actions had been grossly disproportionate. However, the use of the term "grossly disproportionate" in the context of the civil law does not mean that it can or should be used in the criminal law. In addition to the burden of proof, there are several other differences between civil and criminal law. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon for making that clear on several occasions this morning.
The test of whether force is reasonable in the circumstances is already well established for self-defence. It is used throughout the criminal law for deciding culpability when violence is used against another person. The test of reasonableness applies whether the act of self-defence occurs in the home, the workplace or on the street, although the location may have a bearing on assessing the level of threat that the victim faced. For example, the threat may well be greater for an individual in their home at night than for a member of a group in the street in the middle of the day. However, the law is applied clearly and consistently. We believe that the law is right as it stands, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Newark will not be pleased to hear that we shall resist the Bill. We do not believe that a change in the law is necessary.
We recognise the need to clarify the law so that people can be more confident about the steps that they can legitimately take in self-defence but we should not put householders beyond the reach of the law. The hon. Member for Newark doubtless believes that the Bill would produce greater clarity. However, I do not believe that that would be the result.
The Bill would create anomalies. Earlier, I was asked to comment on them. Although the measure is described as a householder protection measure, it is not limited to houses or homes but applies to any building. The person who uses the force does not need to be the owner or even a legitimate resident. He could even be a trespasser. Whether an assault takes place in a building and whether the person is a trespasser may be important and relevant factors.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. Someone who lives in a caravan may believe that
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that is their home and that the Bill protected them. However, a caravan is not a building and they would be confused if the Bill were passed.
Chris Bryant: Although the measure is called the Criminal Law (Amendment) (Householder Protection) Bill, it does not give any greater rights to a householder. It does not specify whether someone is a householder or a tenant. The measure simply refers to "a person".
The Bill would apply to a householder who woke in the night to find an intruder menacing his family. However, it would also apply to a security guard who found a potential thief attempting to enter a warehouse, a farmer who found a child in a barn eating his apples, or a squatter who attacked another squatter who was trying to steal some money from him. The Bill would cover all those examples. That would be its effect, although the hon. Member for Newark may not have intended that.
Tom Levitt: The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who is not in his place, talked about scrumping. Will the Minister confirm that scrumping would not be covered because it happens in an orchard, not a building?
Current law is based on what is reasonable in all the circumstances and allows the court to take them all into account. Moreover, the term "grossly disproportionate" does not clarify the law. To amend the law so that a person is not guilty of an offence unless
does not provide a clearer test than that of reasonable force. How are we to define disproportionate? How will the courts interpret it? "Reasonable" is often used in criminal law and the courts are used to interpreting it. Introducing a new test will also introduce uncertainty. Introducing a new test would introduce a new area of uncertainty, because a judgment would still be required, whichever measure was in the law. It has been suggested in this debate that a test of gross disproportionality would somehow be no test at all. Well, there is a test, and there is still a judgment to be made.
We have had a wide-ranging discussion, and I think that we all agree that there is more that we can do to make sure that the public understand the law and the measures that they may legitimately take to defend themselves, their family and their property. That is why the leaflet and the reassurance that it offers are very helpful.
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