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Dr. Palmer: Before I respond to the hon. Gentleman, will he clarify whether he feels that Tony Martin should not have been convicted?

Mr. Paterson: The use of force was grossly disproportionate. I am trying to get away from the physical action and into the state of mind of a man living
 
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in an isolated farmhouse in a rural area where the forces of law and order were unable to help him. Tony Martin had been burgled 10 times, and I repeat that he was driven to distraction and irrational behaviour. The hon. Gentleman must not underestimate the real fear on that front in rural areas. If the House were sensible enough to pass the Bill, which I wholeheartedly support, I hope that it would lead to less burglaries and people thinking twice before setting out to burgle a lonely farm such as Mr. Martin's.

Dr. Palmer: I will not correct the hon. Gentleman's grammar. [Hon. Members: "Go on."] We all support the new literacy drive.

We all accept that the more isolated the property, the more people worry that they will not get an immediate response from the police. If we are honest, that worry will always exist, regardless of the level of policing. We will never have a policeman within immediate reach of every isolated farmhouse.

Mr. Flello: Does my hon. Friend agree that the way to make sure that the good people in rural areas are protected in the same way as the good people in more built-up areas is to ensure that we have proper and full policing in this country, which we have achieved thanks to the investment in policing under this Government? And does he agree that the greatest harm that we could do to people in rural communities would be to introduce the £35 billion of cuts suggested by the Conservative party?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that hon. Members will concentrate their remarks on the Bill.

Dr. Palmer: I shall follow your instruction, Madam Deputy Speaker, and draw a veil over the matter.

Because I was asked directly about policing, it is probably in order to say that I agree that part of the solution that people want is a reasonable level of policing across the countryside. However, people are not unrealistic about that matter, and they do not expect a policemen to be within a couple of minutes of every isolated farmhouse, which is why we must accept that increased policing is not the whole solution. If we are treating the Bill seriously, it is probably not a complete answer to say that we should not worry because we have got more police, and I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) probably agrees with that point.

Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen) (Lab): The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) has mentioned the alleged deterrent effect of the Bill. Did my hon. Friend notice that when the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) introduced her Bill, she prayed in aid two tragic cases—that of Marian Bates, who was shot by a burglar, and that of the Monckton family? Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Vale of York provided no evidence that her Bill would have prevented either of those tragedies?

Dr. Palmer: Yes, I do agree. That is one of the fundamental difficulties about the Bill. Frankly, it is an example of gesture politics. If the Conservative party were in government, we would be sitting on the
 
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Opposition Benches saying that it is an example of the Government trying to be seen to do something. However, there is no evidence that it would make any concrete difference. I do not believe that a British jury would make this very fine distinction between unreasonable behaviour and grossly disproportionate behaviour. In a case such as that of Tony Martin, the jury would convict in either event. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley described his experience with a shoplifter. In a case such as that, the jury would acquit in either event. Indeed, I do not think that the Crown Prosecution Service would attempt to prosecute in such cases. As I understand it, it was not only the hon. Gentleman's immunity that protected him from prosecution.

Mr. Paterson: It is most important that the hon. Gentleman address the question of deterrence. We will never have enough police to cover remote farmhouses in rural areas, so it is in the interests of the police and of the general public that before burglars set out they have a really hard think. Is it worth it? Is the risk higher? Surely if the Bill deters burglars, that is in all our interests, and the hon. Gentleman must agree that it will have a deterrent effect.

In response to the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson), my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York mentioned those violent cases merely as evidence that violence is increasing. My point is that there is a much broader public good to be gained from the Bill if burglars think twice and stay at home watching the telly, or preferably reading a book and doing something constructive.

Dr. Palmer: There are two tests of the Bill: first, whether it would have the effect that the hon. Gentleman hopes, and secondly, whether the incidence of mistaken injury done to innocent people would increase. It is reasonable for the House to consider both those issues. So far I have concentrated on whether it would have an effect.

Mr. Flello: On deterrence, does my hon. Friend agree that there is a possibility of the said burglar sitting at home and thinking, "Hang on a second. If I go burgling, I may get shot or stabbed—I had better arm myself."

Dr. Palmer: That is right. There is a real risk of an arms race. That takes us back to the argument, which is outside the scope of today's proceedings, about whether we should arm the police. It is traditionally argued that if we arm the police we are likely make it more probable that criminals will also be armed.

Mr. Paterson: That is irrelevant, because all the statistics show that violent crime is increasing. We all know that, regrettably, the vast majority of guns are held and used illegally.

Dr. Palmer: Despite the citing of several examples of violence, we are primarily discussing not violent crime but burglary. Under every form of measurement, the incidence of burglary has been falling since 1995. To make a non-partisan point, it started to fall under the
 
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last Conservative Government, because the sky-high rates of unemployment that had been reached were just beginning to come down, and it has been falling ever since. It is important that we do not give the public the false impression that they are more at risk of burglary than they were before, because everyone who has considered the issue seriously knows that that is not the case.

Mr. Khan: Is not the intervention by the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) a classic example of leading people astray in a partisan way? Aggravated burglary—that is, where the burglar has a weapon—accounts for less than 1 per cent. of burglaries. Furthermore, the chance of someone being burgled is at its lowest point for 20 years.

Dr. Palmer: Yes, that is right. It is not a question of reported crime. It is generally accepted that burglary is usually reported, if only to get a crime number for insurance purposes. We are comparing like with like—police statistics with police statistics and the recorded crime survey with the equivalent survey. If we are having a serious discussion, we should accept that burglary is becoming less common. That is not only because of Government action, although that has a great deal to do with it, but because people are getting better at ordering their security—alarm systems and so on. It is also because some criminal gangs are diversifying into activities such as smuggling where the pay-off is higher and the risk is lower.

Mr. Khan rose—

Dr. Palmer: I shall give way to my hon. Friend once more, and then I should like to make some progress.

Mr. Khan: It is asserted that the figures are inaccurate because fewer crimes are reported. What about the British crime survey, which asks people about their actual experiences and so gives a more accurate picture of crime levels and trends across the country? Even according to that survey, the number of burglaries is the lowest for 20 years and aggravated burglaries represent less than 1 per cent. of all burglaries.

Dr. Palmer: I agree.

In order to make progress, perhaps hon. Members will accept for the sake of argument that the issue is not that the number of burglaries is going up—it has been going down for some time—but that people are still concerned about what they should do and what their legal position would be if a burglary were to occur.

I want to move on to the risk of injury to innocent persons. I gave the extreme example of the tourist in America who was shot dead. There are obviously many other possibilities that are much milder. In our densely populated cities, there is every chance that trespass, in the formal legal sense of the term, will happen many times a day in every city. We all have constituents who complain that youths whom they do not know have wandered into their garden. They are worried by it because they do not know what those youths, who have perhaps kicked a football over the wall or are just being insolent, have in mind. They feel uncertain and uneasy—and who can blame them? It is entirely
 
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reasonably that they should. The problem is that under the hon. Lady's Bill any response that was not seen as grossly disproportionate would become legal.

Let us consider what that means. For example, if a 14-year-old were to wander into the garden of a householder who had a history of being aggravated by local kids, and who then assaulted the child and bundled him off the premises, causing him bruising and minor injuries, would that be seen as grossly disproportionate? I am not sure that it would. Under the present law, it would certainly be seen as unreasonable, because it is unreasonable for someone to use force against a person who has merely strayed on to their property, unless they have first asked them to leave and taken all reasonable steps to get them to do so. Would it be grossly disproportionate? As a householder, I would have great difficulty in deciding whether it would be grossly disproportionate.


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