David Cameron is right again to have raised the issue of householders’ rights to defend themselves when confronted by intruders. It is a debate that has been going on for many years. In 2007 I tried to introduce a Private Member’s Bill, with cross-party support, to clarify the law and provide greater protection for decent and ordinary citizens against intruders.
The Government did not allow the Bill to progress. The Government also blocked similar Bills in previous years from my Parliamentary colleagues Roger Gale, Patrick Mercer and Ann McIntosh. And the Government hasn’t changed its mind since.
This is unfinished business and it will take a Conservative government to deliver on it.
The present test of a householder using “reasonable” force is difficult to define and not easy to enforce. That is why a higher test is required, one of being allowed to use force as long as it is not “grossly disproportionate”. Such a change in the law will not only benefit the general public but also the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, as it will provide them with much clearer guidelines with which to operate. The only people the law will not benefit are the criminals who break it in the first place.
The difficulty with the reasonableness test was summed up by the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair. On his first day in office, when asked for his initial response to the issue, he said:
“I thought reasonableness was quite a difficult concept at 4 o’clock in the morning in your kitchen, whereas something as stark as gross disproportionality did seem to me to be clearer”.
He is right. At 4 o’clock in the morning, a householder confronted by an intruder will be frightened, even petrified, and any use of force in such circumstances will be instant without any thought being given as to “reasonableness” or otherwise.
Sir Ian’s predecessor, Lord Stevens, did not mince his words either, when he said:
“Householders should be presumed to have acted legally, even if a burglar dies, unless there is contrary evidence”.
And for the sake of good order, the present Metropolitan Police chief, Sir Paul Stephenson, has left no doubt as to where he stands on the issue. In a recent article in The Sun he is quoted as saying:
“People should have the right to defend their house, their families and themselves. They should not have to worry about taking common sense actions if they see a crime taking place. We should not be discouraging people from being active citizens. When people take action, our first response should be to applaud their courage and our second response should be gratitude.”
Even Home Office advice has shown the inadequacy of the existing law. In 2005, guidance provided to the police and Crown Prosecution Service to clarify what “reasonable force” meant said that prosecutions should only take place where “very excessive” or “gratuitous” force was used.
There were 284,427 domestic burglaries recorded by police in England and Wales last year. In 20 per cent of these burglaries, householders came face to face with the intruders. 23,000 of these instances resulted in the burglar using violence against the householder.
Given these figures, it is no wonder that many people believe that the law no longer protects them but instead protects the transgressors. At the time of my proposed Bill, a local newspaper, the Cambridge Evening News, conducted a poll in which over 90% of the readers who took part supported raising the level of the test. I suspect the results of a similar poll today would not be much different.
A change in the law is not only necessary but it will send a powerful message. It will tell law-abiding citizens that the law is on their side and not on the side of criminals. It will show that an Englishman’s home is still his castle.