How much force is reasonable to stop a burglar?

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The Independent Online
According to the Tories, despite the Government's new guidelines, there's still confusion about what you're allowed to do with a burglar. For example, suppose I disturb an intruder, whack him with a tree stump, microwave him, blend him, sell the liquid as soup to cannibals and use the proceeds to buy a flame-thrower with which I incinerate his sister, as the law stands I'm the one who ends up in trouble. And what if you handcuff him to a wheelbarrow and film him being forced to commit acts of indecency with a squirrel, which you post on the internet? After all, any one of us might behave like that, in the heat of the moment with our loved ones threatened. But study the Government's new leaflet as thoroughly as you like and you'll be none the wiser.

The Tory MP Patrick Mercer is leading the campaign for the law to be changed, because as it stands you're only allowed to use "reasonable force". Apparently that's not enough force, and you should be allowed to use unreasonable force, which, in the circumstances, is surely only reasonable.

Already, there's hardly anything you're not allowed to do, which is why there have only been 11 prosecutions in 15 years for attacks on burglars. They include the man who, as the Daily Express admits, "laid in wait for a burglar, caught him, tied him up, beat him, threw him into a pit and set fire to him". So would the Tories make that legal? Or would they just clarify it, with an "immolation clause" that said: "If you burn your burglar in a built-up area, remember the smoke could be anti-social, so we recommend an enclosed oven for 45 minutes at gas mark 7."

According to the new leaflet, if the burglar has taken your property, you're allowed to pursue him down the street, and use whatever force you need to retrieve it. William Hague dismissed this, saying: "In the dark at night, how are you supposed to know whether they've got your property?" But if the leaflet said you could attack the burglar even if he didn't have your property, Hague would say: "But in a traumatised frame of mind, at four in the morning, how are you supposed to know which one was the burglar? According to this leaflet, if you set fire to the milkman by mistake, you, the victim, will be the one in the dock."

The whole nation is supposed to be in a state of anxious puzzlement as to what they're allowed to do. But until the Tories made it an issue, hardly anyone was bothered. Now they've unleashed an army of these people with squeaky voices who ring phone-in shows to make comments such as: "I tell you what Dave, if any burglar comes in my house, they'd regret it, I can tell you. In my spare room, there's a pride of lions, trained to maul burglars. I don't care what it says on the leaflet. And I keep 'em hungry an' all."

They're interspersed with the ones who go: "I don't know why we give them the dignity of calling them burglars. They're scum, that's what they are. So let's stop calling them burglars and give them their proper name: dirty filthy septic gangrenous toxic dirty scum. And if any of 'em want to come in here, under my pillow I've got a real life Dalek. I'd exterminate 'em whether Tony Blair says I can or not."

For the Tories, their strategy represents the usual attempt to scare people into thinking we're submerging under an epidemic of violent crime, unlike the respectful days of old. Because it's only since Labour got in that we've had the Krays and the Richardsons and the Great Train Robbery and razor gangs and highwaymen and Jack the Ripper. Whether crime goes up or down makes no difference to the Tories' strategy. If someone says that by every accepted figure it's dropped by half, they just say: "Tell that to the old age pensioner who's been dangled from the top of a lighthouse until her pension book fell out of her pocket, and left there for three months being pecked by seagulls.'

They want a country addled with anxiety over crime. It helps them if we're sat trembling behind bolts and chains, muttering stuff like: "Have you heard what they're doing now? Apparently, they're crawling through the sewers, and when you stop your car at the lights, they come up through the drains with a giant corkscrew, unscrew your chassis and sell it for scrap. Then you go to drive off and fall straight through the floor and land on the road."

As usual, instead of pointing out the absurdity of the Tory claims, the Government has backed down, issued this leaflet and appeared to agree. The Tories don't need to win the general election, they set the social agenda anyway.

But there are a couple of points that still need clearing up. Does the same set of rules apply to corporate burglars? For example, if a multinational pays a minuscule amount of tax by shuffling their accounts off to Jersey, can you break into their office, blow up the safe and take a couple of million back? Or would you end up being the one arrested, shaking your head in disbelief and moaning: "It's ridiculous. They care more about the criminal than they do about the victim"?