Labour hits at 'cynical' pledge on self-defence

Party leaders accuse Hague of 'naked opportunism' over his promise of protection for home-owners following the Martin murder case
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Labour and the Liberal Democrats accused William Hague of "naked opportunism" yesterday over his call to give greater protection to homeowners who use self-defence against burglars.

Distinguished judges, lawyers and ex-offender groups also attacked the Tory leader for his controversial pledge to overhaul the law in the wake of the jailing of the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin.

Lawyers acting for Mr Martin confirmed yesterday that they would appeal against his conviction and sentence on the basis of the judge's summing-up. Nick Makin, Mr Martin's solicitor, said that an appeal would be lodged tomorrow based on the fact that the judge "failed to properly advise the jury on the law of self-defence."

Mr Hague triggered a wave of criticism when he declared yesterday that he would put the state "on the side of people who protect their homes and their families against criminals".

Mr Hague's comments placed David Payne, the solicitor representing the family of the murdered burglar, Fred Barras, and his injured accomplice, Brendon Fearon, in a difficult position.

Mr Payne has been a Tory councillor in Nottinghamshire for 25 years. But yesterday he was unable to follow his leader's call for a change in the law. He said: "Each case is judged on its circumstances and the jury takes a view about it on those facts." He added that he saw no need for even a clarification on law of self-defence.

Tony Blair accused Mr Hague of "cynicism" in using the Martin case in the local election campaign and pointed out that crime had soared during the years of Conservative rule. "I remind the Conservatives that when they were in power, crime doubled and in all their 18 years in office they never once introduced the rather vague measures they are now proposing," the Prime Minister told an audience of local councillors.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, said he could not comment directly on the Martin case as it may go before the Court of Appeal, but he did attack Mr Hague for the Tory record on crime.

"I am not going to take advice on law and order from the Tories. Crime doubled under the last Conservative government and the number of people convicted dropped by a third," he said.

He defended the Government's record, saying that the number of domestic burglaries had dropped by 20 per cent in the last three years.

Mr Straw said that he personally understood the need for a justification of selfdefence but he was "yet to be persuaded" that the existing law was at fault in the case.

Crispian Strachan, the Chief Constable of Northumbria joined the debate yesterday, warning that any shift in the legal position over use of reasonable force in favour of the public would lead to a "serious increase in violent crime".

Unveiling a drop in the force's crime figures for a record eighth consecutive year, Mr Strachan told a news conference that he would not want to see Britain become like the United States, with high rates of murder and violent crime.

"I've heard comparisons to America where there is a slightly lower rate of domestic burglary but a very high rate of violent crime and murder. I think that is because they have a right to defend themselves at all costs. I would not want to see that introduced here," he said.

Peter Bradley, head of the rural group of Labour MPs,accused Mr Hague of promoting a "lynch-mob mentality".

"I'm not quite sure what reform William Hague is promoting unless it is a move to a gun law that we are of course very familiar with in the USA and we are glad we don't have that kind of lynch mob mentality that they have there," he told Radio 5 Live.

The Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs spokesman, Simon Hughes, accused the Tory leader of "ill-considered populism". He said: "What the Tories are suggesting - more people taking more of the law into their own hands - is not just foolish but almost certainly dangerous."

* There were further claims of jury intimidation in the Tony Martin trial last night, after a second member of the public telephoned a Norfolk radio station. The caller alleged that jurors felt threatened by people staring at them from the public gallery and felt frightened as they left Norwich Crown Court during the trial.

A producer from BBC East TV said he had made contact with a relative of a male juror - who made the claims - following the call from a friend to BBC Radio Norfolk.

Last week a woman claiming to be a juror called another Norwich radio station and told a presenter that the trial had "changed her life".

However, a spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department, which yesterday refused to investigate the allegations, emphasised that there has been no such complaint from a jury member made to any of the appropriate authorities.