HL Deb 08 June 2000 vol 613 cc1231-3
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 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 lie 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 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.

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