8 Jun 2000 : Column 1231

House of Lords

Thursday, 8th June 2000.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Guildford): The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Criminal Law of Self-defence

Lord Ackner asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are contemplating amending, or otherwise altering, the criminal law of self-defence, and, if not, why not.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, it is well established in English law that a person may use reasonable force in self-defence or in the defence of his or her family or property. What is reasonable in a particular case is ultimately best left to a jury to decide in the light of the circumstances. We remain unconvinced that a change to the law on self-defence is required.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I do not take time dissembling gratitude for a wholly unsatisfactory Answer. The Minister is no doubt aware of the decision of this House in the case of R v. Clegg, the soldier who shot dead the occupant of a motor car that went past a checkpoint in Northern Ireland.

Does the Minister recall the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, which was agreed to by all his fellow Law Lords, in which he said that the recommendations for a change in the law were all one way and entitled to great weight? The recommendation to which he referred was, principally, the recommendation of the Criminal Law Revision Committee in its 14th Report in 1980 in which it stated:

    "Where a person kills in a situation in which it is reasonable for some force to be used in self-defence or in the prevention of crime but the defendant uses excessive force, he should be liable to be convicted of manslaughter not murder if, at the time of the act, he honestly believed that the force he used was reasonable in the circumstances".

That recommendation--

Noble Lords: Too long!

Lord Ackner: My Lords, that recommendation was approved by your Lordships' Select Committee which considered murder and life imprisonment, of which I was a member, in 1989. How can the Government leave the position in the state it is now?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I did not think, for a moment, that I would satisfy the noble and learned Lord with my response. I have listened carefully to what he said, but we remain of the view that what we have is about right. It has to be a

8 Jun 2000 : Column 1232

judgment taken on what is reasonable, necessary and proportionate in the circumstances. We think it is right that a jury should decide in the light of those circumstances. We believe that that is the best way to conduct such matters. That would also appear to have been the view of much of the judiciary, much of the police service and of many Members from the party opposite, both in government and in opposition.

We fully understand the case and circumstances which have given rise to this extensive debate. However, we believe that we need to stay where we are, and be reasonable, proportionate and sensible in the circumstances. I well understand the fears and concerns that lie behind the Question.

Lord McNally: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the most worrying aspects of the recent publicity is not so much the matter of self-defence but the lack of what every citizen expects as of right; that is, proper police protection? That applies particularly to rural areas. It is quite clear that people who live in isolated communities are not given what is their civil right; namely, proper police protection. How do the Government intend to address that problem?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I well understand the point made by the noble Lord. It is for that reason that in setting up the crime fighting fund we added an extra sparsity factor which will benefit the more rural areas. However, we are all subject to the problem of the time that it takes for the police to arrive at an incident. I well remember having exactly the same problem when I was burgled for the fourth and final time in an 18-month period some five or six years ago. I was obliged to apprehend the burglar myself--

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am no "have-a-go hero", but I was somewhat enraged. He spent two years behind bars and had 60 other offences taken into consideration. I hope that he is now recovering from his heroin addiction as a consequence.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, is the Minister aware that we on this side of the House believe that the law on this should be reviewed?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am intrigued by that. The Leader of the Opposition may have been of that view, but it certainly does not appear to be shared by the Shadow Home Secretary. She made it plain on the "Today" programme that she believes that the law is entirely adequate.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, is this not another example of the desirability of getting rid of the mandatory life sentence for murder so that the sentence can be tied to the seriousness of the offence?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am aware that this runs as a debate, particularly in legal circles, and has done since the sentence of hanging was

8 Jun 2000 : Column 1233

abolished in the mid-1960s. However, there is considerable discretion within the term "life" and in mandatory sentencing. I think it is best to leave things as they are. Successive generations of the judiciary have been happy with that. I believe that the system works well as it is.

Lord Monson: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is less burglary in rural New England than there is in rural England, and that that is mainly because in rural New England householders need have no inhibitions about defending themselves, their families and their property?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that may well be the case. However, I believe that by and large we live in a civilised society. The murder rate in the United Kingdom is admirably low. I have little doubt that that has much to do with our very tight and restrictive laws on such things as guns. Not everyone shares that view, but I hold it firmly.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, can my noble friend explain why a mandatory life sentence is not mandatory?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is mandatory, but there is a tariff set. I think that that point is widely understood.

Rice Genome Project

3.9 p.m.

Lord Taverne asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What United Kingdom involvement there is in the International Rice Genome Project; and when it will be completed.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the John Innes Centre in Norwich has been involved in planning the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project, through membership of the steering committee, since its inception in 1997. The centre, together with European Union colleagues, has undertaken preparatory work to sequence part of the rice genome.

Subject to funding, the international project is due to be completed by 2006. The bulk of the work is being carried out in Japan, although the USA, China and other countries are also contributing significantly. The John Innes Centre is co-ordinating a consortium of European laboratories to sequence a considerable part--10 to 15 per cent--of the genome.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, will the Government give every possible support to this vitally important project? It should lead to the development of improved rice with increased nutritional content and much less demand on scarce resources such as land and water. Does the Minister agree that an important breakthrough in the programme was the recent

8 Jun 2000 : Column 1234

decoding of the genetic sequence? Incidentally, that was carried out by Monsanto--a company with which I have no connection--which is often reviled. Does the Minister also agree that on this occasion it should be congratulated on setting an example to other companies in making the benefits of the genome information freely available?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we are giving every encouragement to that project and shall continue to do so. The noble Lord is quite right that Monsanto made available a working draft of its decoding of the genome. But that is only a working paper; there is still a great deal of work to be done. However, those who are taking part in the sequencing project appreciate Monsanto's gesture in making that information available free of any copyright or patent restriction.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Select Committee on Science and Technology recently drew attention to the splendid speech made by a Brit--Professor Gordon Conway, currently president of the Rockefeller Foundation--which he addressed to the Monsanto board last July? At that time he pointed out that by genetic modification of rice, the yields were already rising dramatically (a 40 to 50 per cent increase) and the nutritional quality improved greatly. Is not the message that if real advantage can be seen, as the third world countries certainly do see, there is nothing to fear from this technology?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page