Howard demands sympathy for the 'have-a-go heroes'

Police chiefs' conference: Light sentences attacked in call to support victims of crime
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Crime Correspondent

"Have-a-go heroes" who use violence to defend themselves against burglars and vandals should be treated more sympathetically by the police and the criminal justice system, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said yesterday.

Mr Howard implied that some police officers were being over-zealous in charging people defending their property with offences such as assault. "The impression is sometimes given that the victim is treated more harshly than the villain," he said.

He also made a thinly veiled attack on magistrates and judges for giving short or lenient sentences to criminals, particularly in the cases of domestic burglary. He said he was "surprised" to discover that only 10 per cent of first-time burglars are given a jail sentence when convicted at magistrates' courts.

Speaking at the Police Superintendents' Association annual conference in Market Bosworth, Leicestershire, Mr Howard announced that he had asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to review the standards needed for charging someone with assault. He said he was particularly concerned with cases in which someone defending themselves is charged, but after further investigation has the charges dropped.

The issue was highlighted earlier this year with a number of cases that caused public outcry including that of 82-year-old Ted Newberry, from Ilkeston, Derbyshire, who was ordered to pay pounds 4,000 after he fired a 12- bore shot gun at Mark Revill, an intruder trying to break into his garden shed. In June Major Roy Bannistre-Parker, a retired war veteran, who allegedly broke the nose of a youth who broke into his house, was arrested and charged with assault.

Mr Howard suggested that if in doubt the police should consult the Crown Prosecution Service about a case before arresting or charging the suspect. "We must bear in mind the needless worry caused and anxiety to people who have already had their home or property violated, if they then have to wait several weeks to discover whether they must face court proceedings when they themselves are the real victims."

Mr Howard denied he was encouraging people to use violence. "I am not suggesting people should take policing into their own hands, or 'have a go'," he said.

Chief Superintendent Brian Mackenzie, president of the Superintendents' Association of England and Wales, said: "There is something wrong in our approach to victims when a pensioner who tackles two heroin addicts burgling his home finds himself complained about by the burglar and arrested for assault.

"It seems to me that we need to look again at the concept of self-defence and reasonable force."

Mr Howard also took a swipe at sentencing policies, some of which "still cause public dismay". "There is no point in Parliament providing the powers if the courts do not make full use of them," he argued.

He was "surprised" that a recent survey showed that the average sentence length for first offenders in burglary convictions at magistrates' is 3.7 months - the maximum is six months - and that the average for 10 or more convictions (not necessarily all for burglary) is about four months. In the Crown Court, where the maximum sentence for domestic burglary is 14 years, the average for first-time offenders convicted for a break- in was 14.4 months. The average for those with 10 or more previous convictions was 17.6 months.

"Maximum penalties are there to be used in the most serious cases," he said. "It is the courts' job to make full use of these powers."