Spin, scaremongering and the facts about burglary

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair announced yesterday that the Government will consider changing the law to protect householders from prosecution if they tackle burglars.

Tony Blair announced yesterday that the Government will consider changing the law to protect householders from prosecution if they tackle burglars.

Mr Blair clashed with the Tory leader, Michael Howard, in the Commons over an issue creating alarm across Britain: the fear of being attacked in one's own home. Mr Blair said it was important to send a "very, very clear signal to people" that the Government was on the side of the victim, not the offender.

It was an adept piece of political manoeuvring that turned the tables on Mr Howard at Prime Minister's Questions and strengthened Labour's credentials to be tough on crime.

Figures show, though, that the risk of being burgled is at its lowest for 20 years, with recorded cases falling 8 per cent over the past year in England and Wales.

Signalling the about-turn, Mr Blair said the Government would consult chief police officers, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney General on whether there should be new protection in the statute book for householders. Mr Blair said: "If we get the right response from those, we will support a change in the law."

He said he shared the views of the outgoing Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, who called for change, saying: "People should be allowed to use what force is necessary and they should be allowed to do so without any risk of prosecution". Mr Blair's remarks contradicted the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who said 48 hours earlier that the existing law which allows "reasonable force" to be used by householders did not need to be changed.

Caught out by the speed of the switch, Mr Howard called the Prime Minister "Mr Bandwagon". He taunted: "Once again, where we lead, you follow." Indeed, there was a sense at Westminster that Mr Blair had given a further demonstration of his ability to steal Tory policies to cut the Opposition's chances of making political capital.

Many police chiefs are privately uneasy that security in the home is becoming a political football ­ with less regard paid to the facts than to the

opinion polls. One chief constable ­ who asked not to be named ­ described the latest calls for a change in the law as a "typical knee-jerk reaction".

Many police would instead prefer to see minimum new guidelines and clarification of the existing law to reassure the public. While they know first-hand how traumatic burglary can be to those on the receiving end, they point out the figures paint a different picture to the impression left by headlines.

Police say the killing last week of the City financier, John Monckton, and the stabbing of his wife at their Chelsea home, was very unusual. The number of break-ins is falling ­ and has been for years. In 2003-04, recorded cases fell by 8 per cent in England and Wales to 402,000. The Home Office has stressed the risk of being burgled is at its lowest for 20 years.

In 2002-03 across the 21 million homes in England and Wales, there were 3,399 burglaries in which the offender was recorded as being armed. That type of offence has risen by 75 per cent in the past 13 years. But the figures still suggest that fewer than one in 100 burglars carries a weapon. Burglaries in London are at a 30-year low, with 212 burglaries of homes per 10,000 households. That compares with 361 in Greater Manchester, 344 in West Yorkshire, 372 in Nottinghamshire, and 255 in the West Midlands.

The Tory MP Patrick Mercer, announced last week that he would be introducing a private members' Bill on household protection, under which homeowners would be prosecuted only if they used "grossly disproportionate force" against an intruder. Mr Howard, launching a campaign for the Bill on Tuesday said: "If a burglar breaks in and attacks you, and you defend yourself, you can find yourself in the dock. Most people think that is absurd, and typical of the topsy turvy world in which we live."

But Lord Falconer, scorning the move, pointed out that, if the change now being demanded had been in place when the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin shot dead a burglar as he tried to escape, the farmer would still have been prosecuted. He explained that the law as it stands already provides householders with legal protection to use "reasonable force".

There will be suspicions that the proposed law change will become another component of Mr Blair's strategy to win the election with a campaign based on fear. Prosecuting officials point out that there have been very few cases of action being taken against a householder confronting a burglar. In October, the CPS dropped charges against a farmer, Kenneth Faulkner, who shot a burglar who had broken into his home three times. In another case, Antonio Caeiro grabbed a bread knife and wounded a burglar who allegedly had a metal bar. No action was taken against the householder.

Last night it was reported that the Director of Public Prosecutions had joined the debate. The Daily Telegraph said Ken Macdonald believed that any change to the law on self-defence would be up to Parliament. He added: "If people do not feel safe in their homes, we are all in a very serious situation."

A spokesman for Victim Support, Andrew Buckingham, said: "Very few people know what reasonable force means, including the police, and we welcome the call for greater clarity. New legislation, however, is likely to leave people confused and will allow some householders to interpret the change in the law to their own ends."