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Mr. Flello: Does my hon. Friend accept that many burglars commit burglaries to fuel a drug habit? If a burglar is high on an illegal substance, the last thing they will do is sit down and analyse whether there is a deterrent, be it a baseball bat or whatever. They will commit the crime to fuel the drug habit. The Opposition's argument that the measure will be a deterrent is nonsense.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes the point clearly. If someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the mental faculties and the ability to discriminate between right and wrong are inevitably impaired. We all know the phrase "Dutch courage". In those circumstances, the deterrent effect of the Bill would inevitably be significantly reduced.
The Bill sits uneasily with the existing offence of aggravated burglary under section 10 of the Theft Act 1968. A person is guilty of aggravated burglary if he commits a burglary and at the time has with him any firearm or imitation firearm, any weapon of offence or any explosive. "Firearm" in those circumstances includes an airgun, air pistol or imitation firearm. "Weapon of offence" means any article made or adapted for use for causing injury to or incapacitating a person. If a burglar commits an offence while tooled up for violence, he is liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for life. The reason given by the criminal law revision committee for the creation of this offence is that burglary when in possession of the articles mentioned is so serious that it should be punishable with imprisonment for life.
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The Bill would lead to more offences under section 10 of the Theft Act because more burglars will go around more heavily armed. There will be a significant ramping up of the risk to householders from burglary.
Mr. Khan: Will my hon. Friend comment on the practice of Wandsworth police, particularly in Tooting, who spend much time advising residents about locks on their windows and installing panic buttons and explaining to the elderly how to prevent burglary? That has led to crime figures, especially burglary, going down. Surely that is the advice we should give local residents, rather than telling them how to defend themselves with cricket or baseball bats.
For another reason why the Bill defeats its own object one simply has to look at the Bill's long title. It is called the Criminal Law (Amendment) (Protection of Property) Bill. It is not the Protection of Householders Bill, as I think the previous Bill was entitled, or the Protection of Victims Bill. That gives it away. The Bill is about property, not about people, which is one of its most serious weaknesses. The Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Newark was specifically aimed at trying to help the domestic householder, whereas this Bill is aimed at protecting property.
Mr. Ian Austin: On the question of property, will my hon. Friend give me his assessment of the position? As I understand it, one would be covered by the Bill if someone broke into one's house to steal a television, but if someone was trying to steal a car parked outside the house, one would not be covered. It seems to me that there are also grey areas in the Bill's definition of property.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Bill is riddled with anomalies. If it has the fortuneor, rather, the misfortuneto pass its Second Reading today, those anomalies would have to be explored in great detail in Committee. If the Bill were passed in its present terms, it would create significant anomalies in the law and leave victims or those who face crime in the impossible position of not knowing where they stood. I hope to say a little more about that later when I debate the detail.
Dr. Palmer: I apologise for having had to leave the Chamber temporarily. I want to check a point with my hon. Friend about the definition of "building" in the Bill. If one family were in a caravan and another in a tent on a campsite, the family in the caravan would be allowed to use the unreasonable force provision, but the family in the tent would not, because buildings cover caravans and not tents. Is that not another anomaly?
The problem of the Bill being a protection of property measure also sits uneasily with the existing offence, which has developed over the years, of burglary in
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respect of a dwellingit is set out fully in the eighth edition of the seminal work "The Law of Theft" by Professor Sir John Smithfor which a much more serious penalty is imposed.
Mr. Ian Austin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. On my understanding of the Bill, if one were out shopping and someone tried to steal something while one was in a covered shopping mall, using greater force would be justified because it is a building, but it would not be justified if one were in the high street. People would be covered in an indoor market, but not in an outside marketyet another anomaly on which I would be grateful if my hon. Friend would comment.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no doubt that a shopping mall or department store, such as those in Oxford street, or at Brent Cross in my constituency, counts as buildings. Someone walking in the concourse area, even if not actually in a shop, would be covered by the provisions, but if they were in an outdoor market in my constituency, they would not. I believe that that is an anomaly.
Mr. Khan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so generously. He has already explained that the powers are not limited to houses or homes, but to any building. Does he agree that the person who uses force does not have to be the owner or even a legitimate resident and that the person using unreasonable force could himself be a trespasser?
I was making a point about burglary in respect of a dwelling. The law already recognises a distinction whereby burglary from a dwelling is a more serious offence. Those who commit such offences are subject to much more serious penalties under the law. It is regrettable that the original formulation proposed by the hon. Member for Newark has not been maintained in the present Bill, which attempts to stretch it way beyond what was initially intendedperhaps beyond what was intended by the people who voted in the listeners' poll on the "Today" programme. That is a problem not helped by the additional anomalies in the Bill.
Reference was made earlier to the Oklahoma law, which it is important to look further into, particularly in respect of what happened as a consequence of that law. It provides an object lesson in what might happen here if the Bill were to find favour with the House.
Mr. Flello: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing so many interventions, which is welcome on the Government Benches. Before he moves on to discuss the Oklahoma law, will he say whether he believes that the Bill could provide an incentive to in-store security guards to be much more aggressive in stopping potential thieves before they leave the premises? It could lead to a disproportionate, but obviously not a grossly disproportionate, response by security guards in apprehending offenders before they pass through the door of the shops and go into the street outside.
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Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes an entirely correct and very good point. Currently, if a shoplifter tries to leave the premisestechnically, they are committing a burglary under theft legislationthe security guard can use reasonable force to detain them. In other words, if the shoplifter is trying to escape, the guard can grab hold of them and detain them, pending the arrival of the police. Under this Bill, if the shoplifter tried to escape there would be nothing to prevent them from being beaten half unconscious, simply because they had tried to walk out with stolen goods. Of course, the problem is even greater for people who leave the shop by mistake, having picked up an item and forgotten to pay for it. Such people may appear to be shoplifters, but in fact they have made a genuine mistake. By the time the mistake comes to light, however, they could be lying on the floor in a pool of blood.
Mr. Dismore: Elderly and confused people in the early stages of Alzheimer's sometimes making such mistakes is a well-known phenomenon. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: they could face physical violence from security guards who may go a little over the top, knowing that, under this Bill, they would not be prosecuted.
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