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2 Dec 2005 : Column 555
Dr. Palmer: Most of us are not legal experts, unlike my hon. Friend. Even so, we have been able to identify many ambiguities and problems in the Bill. In the current state of affairs, the position is intuitively clear when a case comes to court. Would it therefore not be a retrograde step to create a haze of legal ambiguities? The ensuing lawyers festival would make today's debate look like peanuts.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend is right. I do not practise as a lawyer any more, but the only people to gain from the Bill belong to the legal profession. I expect lawyers to make a great deal of money from the obtuse arguments whose surface we have only scratched today.

I have dealt with the position when property is owned illegally, but what is the position when property cannot be owned legally in the first place? For example, what if there is cache of drugs in a crack house? A drugs gang may be about to sell drugs to an addict who has entered the property legally at the invitation of his dealer for a fix. The junkie finds that he does not have enough money, and tries to grab the drugs. The drugs gang could use disproportionate force against the junkie to prevent him from seizing the illegal drugs that should not be in its possession in the first place. The junkie could argue that he was trying to prevent crime by seizing drugs from the dealers. Theoretically, both parties could deploy the argument that they were entitled to use disproportionate force.

Similarly, a drugs gang may wish to use disproportionate force against another gang whose members are trying to collect payment or steal the drugs. That is not an infrequent occurrence, as we know from the leaflet produced by the CPS and ACPO, which says that burglaries are often used to conceal the fact that nefarious activities such as drug dealing are under way. The law is bad enough without introducing legalised gang warfare between tooled-up drugs gangs in a shoot-out. Each gang could use their Uzis to mow the other down—the Opposition might think there is nothing wrong with that—with disproportionate force. That is perfectly legal for both gangs under the Bill, because one is entitled to shoot someone if one faces the threat of force. One drugs gang is trying to prevent crime, and the other is trying to commit it. However, both are trying to defend their property, and the net result is legalised gang warfare. Surely, that is not what we are attempting to achieve in the Bill.

Chris Bryant: To be fair to the Opposition, those gangs would not be able to go out and do that. They would only be able to do so in a building.

Mr. Khan: Or part of a building.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting is right. What about a shoot-out in the staircase in the common area of a tower block—a not uncommon location for drug dealing or, for that matter, a crack house? Machine Gun Kelly could stand outside the lift shaft to mow his opponent down. It would be perfectly
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legal for each of them to use disproportionate force against the other in a fight over a drugs cache or money, which is surely an unintentional consequence of the Bill.

Mr. Flello: It is a little unfair to accuse the Opposition of supporting such a thing, given that there are unfortunately only two Opposition Members present.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes a caustic comment about the Opposition's interest in their own Bill. I am pleased to see so many of my hon. Friends present to make their views known through interventions or, if there is time, through their own speeches. I regret to say that there is still an awful lot more to say about the Bill. We must give it proper scrutiny. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, were he in his place, would expect nothing less of me.

Mr. Khan: Can my hon. Friend reassure me that he will talk about the Bill's compatibility with the European convention on human rights?

Mr. Dismore: Of course I intend to do that. It is a little way down my list of subjects, but I hope there will be time to get to the Human Rights Act and the implications of the convention.

Let us consider the definition of "building", a subject that has already tested the House today, and rightly so, as this is one of the particularly weak points of the Bill. Clause 1(2) introduces in section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967 a new subsection 1A referring to anybody

"Building" is defined in new section 3(1C) as having

So we must refer to the Theft Act. Unlike the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Newark, this Bill deals not just with domestic premises, but with all buildings, with no distinction between domestic and commercial premises. On burglary, section 9(1)(a) of the Theft Act 1968 states:


We have considered the meaning of "trespasser", and I should say that the penalties for invading a domestic property are rather higher—a sentence of up to 14 years—than for any other property, for which the sentence is 10 years. The definition of "building" is cross-referred in subsection (3), which states:

about which we need not worry at the moment, and references to a building that is a dwelling—

The problem is that that does not define what a building is, so we have to go to the case law to find out how a building is defined. I must resort to my old bible, "Archbold: Criminal Pleading". The 2005 definition states:

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That includes houseboats and caravans which are regularly inhabited, even if they are empty at times. It goes on to say:

That is about all that "Archbold", the bible of criminal law, has to say about it, except that, I am pleased to say, the editor of "Archbold" helpfully cross-refers us to the excellent book by emeritus Professor Sir John Smith, "The Law of Theft", 8th edition, in which a little more guidance is given.

Jim Dowd : It must be a bestseller.

Mr. Dismore: Indeed. It is even available in paperback.

Jim Dowd: Are there plans to turn it into a musical?

Mr. Dismore: I think not, but the book provides helpful guidance as to what a building is in law.

Professor Smith says:

That is, perhaps, self-evident, unless one is, for example, a railway worker or a roadman.

Mr. Flello: A number of my constituents enjoy the happy hobby of caravanning, and my hon. Friend has mentioned caravans. At the moment, if a caravan sits in the front garden of a property in my constituency and somebody tries to take or burgle it, the householders can rightly and legitimately use reasonable force to stop them. What would the situation be under this proposed vigilante Bill? Would a caravan count as a building? What if the householder uses their caravan only once a year? Where would the Bill leave my constituents?

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend has raised a very interesting question. I think that a caravan would probably count as a building, whether or not people live in it and even if it is just parked on a front drive. A difficulty would arise if one of his constituents owned a Dormobile, which complicates the situation, and I hope to refer to the difficulties created by Dormobiles very shortly, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Khan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having done the reading, which has saved me from having to do it. What about the position of those of my constituents who enjoy going camping in a tent? Would a tent be classified as a building? And what about those of my constituents who have the good fortune, like many of the constituents of official Opposition Members, to own large properties that contain a big wall, a garden or piece of land and a bricks and mortar building? Would such householders receive the protection of the Bill on the piece of land between the wall and the bricks and mortar building?

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