Blunder by Tory MPs kills Bill meant to protect householders

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Indy Politics

Tory attempts to introduce a new Bill designed to strengthen protection for householders who tackle intruders have run into the sand after three MPs failed to turn up for a crucial committee hearing.

Tory attempts to introduce a new Bill designed to strengthen protection for householders who tackle intruders have run into the sand after three MPs failed to turn up for a crucial committee hearing.

The blunder by Chris Grayling, Andrew Mitchell and Hugo Swire - seen as deeply embarrassing for the party leader, Michael Howard - means the Householder Protection Bill will have no time to become law before Parliament is dissolved for the expected general election on 5 May.

Labour mocked Mr Howard, who had made the legislation a key campaign issue after it was put forward as a private members' Bill by the party's security spokesman, Patrick Mercer.

The Tory leader personally fronted a high-profile launch of the Bill, using it to challenge Tony Blair to prove he was tough on crime. But Mr Howard tried to shrug off the issue, insisting Labour would have blocked the legislation in any event.

The Bill would have replaced present law stating that homeowners may use "reasonable force" against burglars, and instead allow all but "grossly disproportionate" violence. The Tory leader ordered a three-line whip on the Bill, when it passed its first hurdle in the Commons with a majority of 130. Advertising posters declaring "the law should protect me, not burglars" have been put up across Britain.

Frank Cook, the Labour chairman of the committee debating the legislation, waited 20 minutes for the Tory MPs, but was forced to abandon the session because Mr Mercer could not muster the six members required to start the debate.

He said he would try to reschedule the meeting, but warned that a slot was unlikely before the Easter recess. Mr Blair is expected to dissolve Parliament when MPs return from their break. Mr Cook said: "I will try to get a new date but this week is hardly possible, and next week is very difficult. Then we are into the Easter recess."

Labour immediately attacked the Conservatives, claiming the Bill was merely a pre-election stunt, and Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, demanded the Tories remove their campaign posters. He said in a letter to David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary: "It is now absolutely clear that you are not concerned about this issue at all. Your party is just trying to prey on people's worries as a cynical election ploy without having any real commitment to doing anything about it."

Mr Davis replied: "Despite an undertaking ... that this Bill would be disccussed in one day Labour MPs filibustered during committee stage thus forcong the Bill to a second day ... I will take no lessons from a home office which used parliamentary procedures to delay this Bill."

Paul Goggins, the Home Office minister responsible for the Bill, said: "The Conservatives are all bluster on law and order. Michael Howard is always more interested in one day's headlines than in doing anything positive. His leadership is a mixture of opportunism and incompetence in equal measure."

Mr Howard dismissed the attack as "most absurd", insisting the Government was always certain to prevent the measure reaching the statute book. He pledged to legislate to increase protection for householders if the Conservatives win power.He said: "The Government has, all the way through, set out to block the Mercer Bill and we are extremely keen to get it on the statute book."

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