Tough household defence law is ruled out rejected

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The Independent Online

The Government ruled out toughening the law to allow the public to use extreme force to protect their homes against intruders yesterday.

The Government ruled out toughening the law to allow the public to use extreme force to protect their homes against intruders yesterday.

Calls for changes intensified last year after the murder of two householders who confronted burglars, prompting Tony Blair to announce a review of existing legislation on self-defence.

In his first significant policy announcement since becoming Home Secretary, Charles Clarke said he had concluded the current right of the public to use "reasonable force" to protect their property was "sound".

But he conceded that the law needed to be explained better and promised a publicity campaign to spell out householders' rights. He said he had reached his conclusions after consulting the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The Conservatives have demanded a change of policy so that homeowners would only be prosecuted if they used "grossly disproportionate force" against an intruder.

The outgoing Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, has also argued that the public should be allowed to take whatever steps necessary to defend themselves against criminals. Polls have shown most of the public believe the law is weighted in favour of burglars.

Last month the Prime Minister said that he understood the concern on the issue and promised that police and the prosecuting authorities would be consulted.

He told MPs: "If we get the right response back from those people, then of course we will support a change in the law."

But Mr Clarke said yesterday: "I have concluded the current law is sound, but needs to be better explained to all concerned, especially for householders."

In an interview with the BBC, Mr Clarke said: "People haven't understood well enough what their rights were, which is why the concerns have been there." He said he had wanted to get the issue completely sorted out so that people "know exactly where they stand".

A spokesman for Mr Blair said: "We don't legislate for the sake of satisfying opinion polls. What we do is listen to the professionals in the area."

Details of the publicity campaign have not yet been worked out by the Home Office.

Mr Clarke's announcement suggests he is preparing to strike out in a different direction from his predecessor, David Blunkett, who was unashamedly populist in his instincts.

It was welcomed by Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, who said: "What we would not want to do is extend that so you actually feel it's your responsibility to go down the stairs and actually attack the burglar." But David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "We are disappointed Mr Clarke has chosen to fly in the face of so much compelling evidence that the law needs to be changed.

"Police officers, the public and even professional burglars have said they think a change in the law would shift the balance towards the victims and away from the criminal."

Mr Clarke's statement came as a Conservative MP, Patrick Mercer, introduced a private member's Bill in the Commons proposing that the law be strengthened in favour of the householder.

Mr Mercer said there was overwhelming public support for his proposals. He said: "This is public opinion, this is democracy. I'm amazed the Home Secretary is choosing to ignore this." Mr Mercer claimed that Labour was treating his Bill as a political football.

Malcolm Starr, a spokesman for Tony Martin, the farmer jailed for shooting dead a teenage burglar, said: "Mr Clarke should be telling the police to give householders the benefit of the doubt and instead get out there and give the criminals hell.

"The Government should wage war on the criminals and parasites of society. It should ensure the criminals are afraid not of being injured by a householder but fearful of the police, courts and prisons."

HIGH-PROFILE CASES

When Tony Martin shot dead an intruder and wounded another in 1999, it sparked a debate over the rights of householders to defend their property.

The Norfolk farmer, right, became a cause célèbre after he was jailed for murder and found himself facing a compensation claim from the burglar he injured. His conviction was reduced to manslaughter and he was released 18 months ago.

Shortly afterwards, a BBC poll found the public wanted legislation to allow people to use "any means" in defence of their homes.

Last year, Kenneth Faulkner, who had endured a spate of break-ins at his Derbyshire farmhouse, shot and wounded a burglar. He has not faced any charges, and the intruder was jailed.

Calls for stronger protection for the public were given impetus in November when a teacher, Robert Symons, was stabbed to death by a burglar in his home in Chiswick, west London. And last month City financier John Monckton, was murdered during an attempted robbery in his home in Chelsea. His wife, Homeyra, was badly injured.