Bash burglars, says Widdecombe

Ann Widdecombe last night said householders should not be prosecuted if they attack and injure intruders.

The Shadow Home Secretary called for a change in the way the law was applied, saying it was unacceptable that people are taken to court for "hitting a burglar over the head". Political opponents immediately rounded on Miss Widdecombe for sanctioning what amounted to a "cosher's charter".

A senior Labour party source said: "There is a sense the Tories are willing to jump on any populist bandwagon at the moment to shore up their support."

There has been widespread sympathy for Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer convicted of murder last week for shooting a teenage burglar, with many people believing in a householder's right to defend property with force.

Miss Widdecombe told the Independent on Sunday that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service should not take legal action against people who used violence against intruders, apart from in the most extreme circumstances.

She said: "In a case where there's a dead body on the floor there would have to be a trial. But if you go down to what is far more common, which is people who are hitting a burglar over the head, then my view is that it is unacceptable that a person is at risk of prosecution. There needs to be a much greater presumption on the part of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service that force is reasonable in those circumstances and, therefore, there won't be a case to answer."

Her remarks caused instant controversy as Labour politicians accused Miss Widdecombe of cashing in on public sympathy for Martin.

Paul Stinchcombe, Labour MP and a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: "We have already got a law on this: you are allowed to use reasonable force to protect your home and yourself and that seems to me to be the right position. To give people carte blanche to commit violence is the wrong way forward."

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, declined to comment on the issue last night. But last year he called for an end to the "walk on by" culture in Britain, urging people to tackle criminals.

Miss Widdecombe said: "I think it's quite right to say have a go as long as one is responsible about it. But one of the reasons why people don't intervene is because they are afraid they will end up on the end of a prosecution."

Miss Widdecombe's stance was supported by Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust. He said: "When you are confronted at 2am by an intruder, your rationality for dealing with someone is going to be a lot different than in the cold light of day."

Yesterday an 84-year-old woman suffered a fractured skull when she was attacked by a burglar in her home in Devon.