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Mr. Khan: There is another safeguard in the event that a case slips through the net and is prosecutedthe common sense of the jury who will consider all the circumstances. My hon. Friend will be aware from his experience in a previous life that juries are very sensible. I am sure that the jury would acquit in a case where a householder had used force that was reasonable.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend is right. Juries have common sense. Most of the few cases that did reach trial resulted in the acquittal of those involved, and I believe that those that did not reach trial would have resulted in convictions under the proposed law.
Why change the law? There is no support to speak of from those involved professionally, who actually have to deal with the problemalthough I know that the Conservatives like to ignore professional advice, as we saw in relation to terrorism. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) mentioned police on the beat, and we could cite more senior police.
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Perhaps however we should start with the example of an extremely eminent QC who is a Member of this Housethe Leader of the Opposition, for a few more days. When he was Home Secretary, he said:
"Specifically on the law on self-defence, I am satisfied that the individual should always be able to defend himself, his family and his property, as long as he only uses force that is both reasonable and necessary. I am not currently persuaded that there is a need to change the law."[Official Report, 14 December 1993; Vol. 234, c. 533W.]
Mr. Khan: Until now I have been with my hon. Friend, but my basic rule has always been that if the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) believes that something is right, I believe that it is wrong.
Mr. Dismore: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. We must wait and see what attitude is taken by the forthcoming Leader of the Opposition. The candidate in question may well believe in consensus politics and working together, and will decide that the existing law is satisfactory. That might assuage my hon. Friend's concerns.
Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): It is not for me to defend the Leader of the Opposition, but several of his colleagues are here to put the case for the Bill, whereas only one Liberal Democrat Member has been present all morning.
Mr. Dismore: That has been remarked upon before.
The hon. Member for North Thanet challenged me to say why I do not agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead and my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall about the Bill. Perhaps I could ask him why he does not agree with the Leader of the Opposition, who made his position absolutely clear.
Mr. Gale: My right hon. and learned Friend expressed a point of view in 1993, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but changed his view in the light of subsequent experience. That is why he and the Conservative party supported the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark.
Mr. Dismore: I am pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman confirm a U-turn on the part of the Conservative party, although it may have been in the wrong direction, as was reflected in the local elections earlier in the year. Perhaps that provides my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting with the reassurance that he no longer runs the risk of finding himself in the same Division Lobby as the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe.
Mr. Khan: That allays the minor concern that I had, and I can now confidently, positively and happily support my hon. Friend's stance.
Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying his position.
The position of the Association of Chief Police Officers has not changed since the hon. Member for Newark introduced his Bill. When the leaflet that I mentioned was launched, Chris Fox, the then ACPO chair, said:
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"We want everyone to clearly understand that they can use force to protect themselves or others. The force used should be reasonable force."
Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan police commissioner, gave his support to the ACPO position after the problems that he had had on the "Today" programme on his first day. The Metropolitan police have since indicated that that remains their position. We already know that the Director of Public Prosecutions is of the same view.
Mr. Anthony Scrivener QC, who was Tony Martin's barrister, has said on several occasions that he believes that the law is right. On 14 December 2004r, he said in the Eastern Daily Press:
On 15 December 2004, The Times quoted him as saying:
"Even if the suggested test of grossly disproportionate force had been used it is likely that the jury would still have convicted."
Mr. Khan: One of the reasons why weight should be given to Mr. Scrivener's comments is that he was the leading counsel for Mr. Martin. Is not another reason why his comments have gravitas the fact that he is a former chairman of the Bar Council?
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. My only difference with Mr. Scrivener was when he decided to take Lady Porter's shilling and to defend her in the House of Lords. We parted company at that point; up till then, I had had a lot of respect for him. That slightly took the edge off my admiration for him in terms of the briefs that he took, although obviously it did not detract from his advice in this particular case.
Mr. Khan: I am sure that my hon. Friend recognises the cab rank rule. I am sure that he understands that Mr. Scrivener's decision to take that case was based on that rule rather than on any personal views he may have had.
Mr. Dismore: I am sure that is so, but perhaps some cabs are more expensive than otherslet us put it that way.
I should now like to examine the Bill in detail, because the problems really start to emerge when we try to construe the consequences of the provisions in their present form.
Mr. Flello: Before my hon. Friend moves on from quoting notable individuals, will he tell me his reaction to the point that it is okay for the Leader of the Opposition to have changed his view, but not, it would seem, for the incoming chief constable to have done so?
My hon. Friend has made a good point. I suspect that Sir Ian Blair was caught unawares during a long interview on the "Today" programme, that he took the earliest opportunity to correct the impression that he may have given, and that he then fell in line with
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ACPO. Unfortunately, it seems to have taken the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe more than a decade to change his position. One can draw whatever conclusions one wishes from that.
Clause 1(2) would introduce a new subsection (1A) to the Criminal Law Act 1967. The very first words in that proposed new subsection create problems. They are:
What is meant by "person" in these circumstances? It could be anybody. The provision is not confined to a householder, as it was in the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Newark. It is not confined to a legal resident, or even to a security guard. "A person" could be anyone at all. It could be a squatter taking action against the lawful owner of the property who had come to try to remove his possessions or repossess the property. Under the Bill, a squatter would be entitled to use disproportionate force, so long as it was not excessive, against the legal owner of the property. Is that how the alleged party of law and order believes the Bill should be interpreted?
Dr. Palmer: Could not the person be another criminal, seeking to steal the same property, attempting to deter his rival from getting there first? Would not he be entitled to use disproportionate force in those circumstances?
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We might see some further examples as the debate progresses.
What would happen when the police turned up and found the body on the carpet, Agatha Christie-style, and drew their chalk line round it? What would happen then? The attacker/householder might say that the victim was a burglar, an intruder, or a trespasser. How could the police check that, especially if both parties had a criminal history, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe suggested? For example, both might be drug dealers. Such a possibility was highlighted in the ACPO leaflet, which stated that the police had to investigate such cases because things were not always as they seemed.
Alternatively, to give a more innocent example, let us suppose that there was a dispute between two neighbours. We have all had to deal with those in our constituency surgeries. Let us suppose that two neighbours have fallen out and one is found dead on the kitchen floor of the other. The householder says, "Well, he may be my neighbour, but he was coming to pinch my belongings." The neighbour might have come round to argue about the ball going over the fence or the noisy stereo, but we have no way of knowing that, and disproportionate force would have been used. The risk of revenge and pursuit attacks is created by the Bill.
The Bill states that a person can pray in aid the defence provided by the Bill if they are in a building, but also refers to protection of personal property. One of my problems with the Bill is that the person might forget that the law changes the moment they leave the front door. Different rules apply if someone chases a burglar down the street as opposed to when the burglar is inside the property.
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