Tory plans to scrap double jeopardy, the legal principle preventing people from being tried twice for the same crime, were at the centre of a political dispute last night.
As Ann Widdecombe, party spokesman for home affairs, announced the policy change in an attempt to seize the agenda on crime, a minister accused her of "knee-jerk headline-seeking". The Law Commission of England and Wales is examining the issue in the wake of Sir William Macpherson's report on the Stephen Lawrence case, which suggested changes to the principle.
In 1996 Stephen's parents brought a private prosecution for murder against Neil Acourt, Luke Knight and Gary Dobson but the judge ordered their acquittal because of a lack of evidence. No fresh prosecution can now be brought.
Miss Widdecombe said her party was promoting the change because the Government had failed to redress the balance in favour of crime victims. Jack Straw, Home Secretary, had failed to support the police after publication of the Macpherson Report, Miss Widdecombe said. "Where there has been a serious crime and there is genuinely new and compelling evidence, this will be a matter for the prosecuting authorities to decide."
She denied the announcement was a populist move: "What people really mean when they say we are being populist is that we are responding to people's concerns."
Paul Boateng, Home Office minister, said Miss Widdecombe and William Hague, the Tory leader, who speaks to the Police Federation on the subject on Thursday, were behaving irresponsibly in pre-empting the Law Commission report. "William Hague's knee-jerk headline-seeking is yet another example of his poor judgement. The Government accepted the Macpherson report recommendation to consider this issue," Mr Boateng said. "This way forward was accepted by wiser heads in the Tory party when the Macpherson Report was published last year. It is further evidence of Mr Hague's weak leadership that he has seen fit to discard that sensible and moderate approach for the sake of one day's headlines," the minister said.
When the Macpherson Report was released, the then shadow home secretary, Sir Norman Fowler, advised the Commons to be cautious. "There are too many examples of governments of either complexion legislating in anger but living to regret it," he said.
John Wadham, director of the Liberty civil-rights group, also attacked the Tories' proposal. "The protection from double jeopardy is a fundamental part of our criminal justice system and we remove it at our peril."
An initial report by the Law Commission of England and Wales, published in October, backed Sir William's arguments. Final, detailed proposals and a draft Bill are expected next year. Mr Straw is understood to have been concerned that any limitation of the principle might fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights, but the Law Commission inquiry found this would not be the case.
The commission recommended that a second trial should take place only if the evidence could not have been obtained before the first trial, if it was almost certain the defendant would be convicted of an offence punishable by three years or more in jail and if the court was satisfied a retrial was "in the interests of justice".
In a separate development yesterday it was disclosed that Mr Straw is planning day-time custody for hooligans, who will be sent home at night.