Hague calls for overhaul in laws of self-defence

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The Independent Online

William Hague will seek today to harness the public outcry over the jailing of the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin with a controversial pledge to overhaul the laws of self-defence in favour of homeowners.

In his first public reaction to the Martin case, the Tory leader will claim it proves that Tony Blair and Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, have failed in "their most basic duty" to protect the public from criminals.

Martin was sentenced to life imprisonment last week after a jury found him guilty of murdering a burglar who broke into his home.

But Mr Hague will effectively lay the blame for the case at the door of the Government, claiming that cuts in police numbers and weak sentencing of burglars has left the criminal justice system on the point of "collapse".

In a speech in Warwickshire today, the Conservative leader will put the case at the heart of his party's local election campaign and take the controversial step of attacking the dead burglar, Fred Barras, 16, and his accomplices.

Mr Hague will point out that the three men who broke into Bleak House farm near Emneth, Norfolk, had 114 convictions between them, but were "fined paltry sums" or given community service.

He will say that he understands and shares the public outcry over the case and will promise at the general election to revise the law of self defence to put the burden of proof on the burglar not the homeowner.

"The Tony Martin case lit a touch-paper that has led to an explosion of anger and resentment among millions of law-abiding British people who no longer feel the state is on their side," Mr Hague will say.

"Vigilantes have no place in a civilised society. But there is all the difference in the world between a career criminal who sets out deliberately to burgle a house and the terrified home owner who acts to protect himself and his home."

Mr Hague, who will give further details of the new policy at next month's Police Federation Conference, will claim that Labour's decision to cut 2,500 police officers sent the wrong message to "career criminals".

"Tony Blair and Jack Straw are failing in their most basic duty, that of protecting the public. That is why the outcry over the Martin case has reverberated far beyond a small village in Norfolk. The Conservative Party has heard the outcry and is responding," he will say.

"Unless our laws reflect natural justice, then they fall into disrepute. The next Conservative Government will overhaul the law with a strong presumption that, in future, the state will be on the side of people who protect their homes and their families against criminals."

Ministers are already wary of the public reaction to the verdict and spent the weekend stressing that some £10m would be channelled towards rural policing.

With members of the public jamming telephone poll lines to complain about the Martin verdict, Tory strategists believe that Mr Hague's proposal will strike a chord with voters, as his plans to set up prison camps for asylum seekers did.

Court officials said yesterday they would not be launching an immediate investigation into allegations that jurors in the trial of Mr Martin were intimidated. Norwich Crown Court said it was up to the Court of Appeal to give directions as to any further investigation if they felt it appropriate. Michael Ballinger, one of Martin's lawyers, said the team would ask the Court of Appeal to order an investigation into the allegations.

Martin, 55, of Emneth Hungate, Norfolk, was found guilty of murdering Barras, of Newark, Nottinghamshire, at Norwich Crown Court last week, after an eight-day trial.