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Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West) (Lab):
My hon. Friend is much more skilled and learned in these matters than
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I, but as I read the Bill, it would apply to any building or part of a building. As I understand it, therefore, the law would change when a person went through the front door but was still on someone's property, let alone on a public highway.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend is right. When we come to consider the Bill in more detail, we will need to spend some time on the definition of "building", because it creates a series of additional anomalies beyond the obvious one that my hon. Friend has rightly and quickly spotted.
Mr. Khan: The problem with the lack of definition is compounded by the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd). The Bill refers not only to a person in the property that he occupies or owns, but to any person in any building or part of a building. What happens, for example, to a person who happens to exit a property on an estate? If, in exiting the front door, that person is still within the building, let us compare and contrast that with the position for someone who exits a terraced property on to the street. Does not my hon. Friend agree that the position is absurd?
Mr. Flello: Would it not be possible to have a bizarre, cartoon-like nonsense with someone running from building to building, and it is okay to use disproportionate force when they are in a building, but not okay when they are not. The perpetrator might do everything to avoid running into a building so that he cannot have disproportionate force inflicted on him. He will run for the nearest piece of open ground rather than being trapped in any building.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend's suggestion is not as far-fetched as it might seem. When I was a Westminster councillor, my council ward had large blocks of flats that were joined together by walkways. One of the problems experienced by the police was people running from one building along the walkways, which were open and therefore not part of the building, into the next building. They ran round and round the maze of the estate in that way to avoid the police. My hon. Friend is right that if the police or a householder grabbed them in a flat or in the corridor, they could use excessive force, but if they grabbed them on the walkway, they could only use reasonable force. How can that be common sense? That is the consequence of the Bill as drafted, however.
My hon. Friend has given examples of crime statistics, showing that our constituents in urban areas are more likely to be victims of crime than those in rural areas. Is not the lack of definition and clarity in relation to "building" another example of the arrogance
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of Conservative Members who wish to pass a Bill that would only assist, in a limited way, parts of certain constituencies?
Mr. Dismore: I think that my hon. Friend is a little harsh in talking of arrogance; I think that it is probably ignorance of how the other half lives, given the rarefied circles in which Conservative Members might mix. I mentioned earlier that, according to the burglary figures, the most likely victims of burglaries are those living on council estates on modest incomes, rather than the lord in his castle or the detached householder in the country. Conservative Members seem to have overlooked the statistics in favour of a good headline, however.
by referring to section 9 of the Theft Act 1968, under which any inhabited vehicle or vessel is covered. Case law has established that a large freezer standing in a farmyard counts as a building. Does the proposed law not bring us into the realm of the ridiculous, where a struggle will vary in its terms depending on whether one has stumbled into a yard or a freezer, got into a car or whatever?
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We must look at section 9 of the Theft Act later when we consider the question of building in a little more detail. We have seen examples of a number of anomalies so far but we are only scratching the surface. When we start to examine what the Theft Act says and wider case law, beyond the example that my hon. Friend provides, we will see how ridiculous the consequences of the Bill may be.
Mr. Flello: If my understanding is correct, a thief running from a building who is desperate not to run into another building will not use a getaway car. He will use a getaway pushbike; otherwise, he could be in a building under the Theft Act and subject to a more disproportionate action.
Mr. Dismore: I think that my hon. Friend is wrong in that respect becausemy hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe may have been highlighting the problemwhen one examines all the definitions of "vehicle", one realises that it may not actually mean a vehicle. It is a little more confusing than that, as will become apparent when I look at the definition of "building" later in my remarks.
Chris Bryant : My hon. Friend seemed to suggest that Conservative Members think that they are creating something that meets the needs of those in rural communities. I used to live on a farm in Stanleytown in the Rhondda. On one occasion, I saw people at the other end of the barn, which was at the end of a field. If one were going to investigate that, which many farmers might want to do, one would not want three different sets of laws to be governing what use of force one could use. Therefore, the Bill fails to meet the needs not just of people living in cities, but people living in rural areas.
My hon. Friend is right. The problem with the Bill is that it creates so many anomalies that
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people will not know where they stand. At the moment, the law is clear. It is common sense, but under this Bill common sense goes out of the window.
Mr. Flello: If my understanding is correct, members of the general public who are not able to have such eminent and knowledgeable friends on their side at the time of a burglary would not know that they could not use disproportionate force, so where is the clarification that the Bill seeks to introduce?
Before that round of interventions, I was construing the term "person" in clause 1(2), which introduces new subsection (1A). The next question I pose is: what if the householderI will use the broad meaning of the word "householder"attacks someone by mistake? What if it turns out that the person they attack is not a burglar but a neighbour returning a lawnmower late at night, or a genuine gasmannot the artificer who has come to nick the money out of the teapotwho has come to read the meter?
At the moment, if there is a mistake of fact, the reasonableness, or otherwise, of the mistake is a factor to be taken into account when determining whether the mistake was or may have been a genuine one. Thus, where a defendant was neither under threat nor actual attack but honestly believed that he was, the jury should be directed to consider whether the degree of force used was commensurate with the degree of risk that he believed to be created by the attack. What that means, if that basic principle of law will still apply, is that the gasman or the neighbour returning a lawnmower could be half beaten to death, but it would be all right for the assailant homeowner to say, "I made a big mistake, I'm very sorry and mortified, but that's life and I'm not being prosecuted." That would not be much consolation to the gasman or neighbour lying in a pool of blood. The Bill effectively encourages that level of violence. At the moment, if a mistake like that were made, the gasman or neighbour might get a punch in the mouth or be pushed over, receiving lesser injuries than might be likely if the Bill were enacted when the householder could use excessive force.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend is right. Some of the language used, the circumstances described and the arguments being prayed in aid of the Bill by the Opposition parties have made that pretty clear. We are looking at the introduction of vigilante law, and law, at that, that is unclear and uncertain and would result in people who believe they are doing the right thing facing prosecution when, at present, they would not.
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