Has Chris Grayling actually read the law on household defence?

The law already provides a robust defence of those who used what they considered to be"reasonable force".

Confirming his status as the darling of the Tory right, Chris Grayling will announce in his speech to the Conservative conference today that the law will be changed to allow householders to use "disproportionate force" against burglars. The recently appointed Justice Secretary will say:

Being confronted by an intruder in your own home is terrifying, and the public should be in no doubt that the law is on their side. That is why I am strengthening the current law.

Householders who act instinctively and honestly in self-defence are victims of crime and and should be treated that way. We need to dispel doubts in this area once and for all, and I am very pleased to be today delivering on the pledge that we made in opposition.

But populism aside, it's hard to see why Grayling believes that a change in the law is either necessary or desirable. The current law, which allows householders to use "reasonable force", supports them provided that:

- they acted instinctively;
- they feared for their safety or that of others, and acted based on their perception of the threat (emphasis mine) faced and the scale of that threat;
- they acted to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained; and
- the level of force used was not excessive or disproportionate in the circumstances as they viewed them (emphasis mine).

Section 76.7 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 requires the court to take into account that "a person acting for a legitimate purpose may not be able to weigh to a nicety the exact measure of any necessary action", and that "evidence of a person's having only done what the person honestly and instinctively thought was necessary for a legitimate purpose constitutes strong evidence that only reasonable action was taken by that person for that purpose".

In other words, the law not only defends householders' right to use "reasonable force" but their right to use what they perceived to be "reasonable force" at the time. A Conservative source tells the Guardian: "This is not about letting people go on the rampage. There is a difference between grabbing a bedside lamp and whacking an intruder because you are worried about the children and hitting someone and then stabbing them 17 times". Yet the law, as it stands, already makes this distinction.

Indeed, as Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has previously noted: "There are many cases, some involving death, where no prosecutions are brought. We would only ever bring a prosecution where we thought that the degree of force was unreasonable in such a way that the jury would realistically convict. So these are very rare cases and history tells us that the current test works very well."

Since, under Grayling's proposals, "grossly disproportionate" force will still be outlawed, it is unclear what will actually change. The danger is that his rhetoric will lead householders to falsely believe that they have an unqualified right to kill or maim a burglar and, ironically, increase the risk of prosecutions.

Grayling is right when he argues that "the public should be in no doubt that the law is on their side" - it already is. And the suggestion that is is not, will only spread dangerous and unnecessary confusion.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said "the public should be in no doubt that the law is on their side". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.