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Local elections Wednesday, 26 April, 2000, 20:31 GMT 21:31 UK
Hague branded 'saloon-bar' politician
Hague
Hague: Martin case "lit a touch paper"
Conservative leader William Hague has faced a barrage of criticism from all sides following his demand for a radical overhaul of the law on self-defence.

As well as coming under attack for "populism" and "knee-jerk opportunism" from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, a police chief and lawyers joined in criticism of Mr Hague's proposals.


The worst kind of immature saloon-bar politics

Lib Dem Charles Kennedy
Chief Constable of the Northumbria Police Crispian Strachan warned that the Tory leader's plans could lead to a massive increase in violent crime.

He said he feared that giving greater legal protection to people who physically took on intruders could produce US levels of violent assault and killing in Britain.

Other senior legal and police figures also questioned the wisdom of Mr Hague's call to change the law following the Tony Martin case in order to create a "strong presumption" in favour of the householder in such situations.

In a controversial speech, the Opposition leader, campaigning in Warwickshire for next week's local elections, said the Norfolk farmer's life sentence for shooting dead a burglar who broke into his home had "lit a touch paper", triggering an explosion of anger among law-abiding citizens.

'Legal minefield' warning

Under Mr Hague's plans the police and Crown Prosecution Service could be issued new guidelines to exercise "greater restraint" in taking self-defence cases to court, Tory sources said.

Tony Martin
Jailed for life: Farmer Tony Martin, convicted of murder last week
The law could be changed to remove the need for people to prove their life was in danger before using "reasonable force" - allowing them to act if they simply believed their life was threatened.

People who kill in self-defence could also be charged with manslaughter allowing judges a range of sentences instead of the mandatory life term.

Tory sources also said there could be a need to "move beyond" the three-strikes-and-you're-out rule for burglars where they are jailed after their third offence, possibly by giving automatic prison sentences to those who reoffend soon after release.

But Chief Constable Mr Strachan, whose force covers one of the most sparsely populated areas of the country, said attempting to change the law would create a legal "minefield".

'Hard cases, bad law'

Law Society president Robert Sayer compared present debate over the Martin case as "the Dangerous Dogs Act again" adding that "hard cases make bad law".

And former High Court judge Sir Michael Davies backed the attacks on the Conservative leader, asking: "Are people going to be encouraged to have guns, to have an electric fence with killing power round their back garden, to have a pair of man-eating tigers tied up to be released if there is a burglar about?"

But the former Law Lord, Lord Ackner, suggested the current mandatory life sentence for murder could be abolished to give judges greater discretion in sentencing.

He also said that in some cases, manslaughter could be a more appropriate charge than murder where a defendant thought at the time he was using reasonable force, even if it was adjudged to be excessive.

'Ill-judged populism'

Tony Blair: Look at the Tory record
Meanwhile Mr Hague's political opponents accused him of "knee-jerk opportunism" by Labour and "ill-judged populism" by the Liberal Democrats as all parties hit the campaign trail for next week's English council elections.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, campaigning in Watford, sought to highlight the law and order record of the previous Tory government.

"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," he said.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy condemned Mr Hague's use of the Martin case as "the worst kind of immature saloon-bar politics".

"The answer to rural crime is to give the police the governmental support they need and deserve - not undermine them by encouraging vigilantes."

In his speech, delivered at Alcester town hall, Mr Hague insisted he was not supporting vigilantes but responding to genuine public concerns.

"The Tony Martin case lit a touch paper that has led to an explosion of anger and resentment among millions of law-abiding British people who no longer feel the state is on their side," he said.

"The Conservative Party has heard the outcry and is responding."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Carole Walker
"Conservative strategists believe this will prove a vote winner"
William Hague, leader of the Conservative Party
"There's a huge body of opinion that believes it should be changed, it's not just me"
See also:

26 Apr 00 | UK
24 Apr 00 | UK
18 Apr 00 | UK Politics
13 Apr 00 | UK Politics
11 Apr 00 | UK Politics
11 Apr 00 | UK Politics
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