Chief Justice launches bitter attack on Howard's 'get tough' crime plan

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Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was last night locked in an unprecedented public confrontation with Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, after announcing tougher sentences for burglary and violent offences in a draconian new Crime Bill.

He delighted the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool by proposing life sentences for second-time violent and sexual offenders, and minimum sentences for third-time burglars and dealers in hard drugs. The Bill would also bring drastic cuts in sentence remission.

The package was immediately condemned by Lord Taylor as "inconsistent with doing justice according to the circumstances of each case". The angry public denunciation by the Lord Chief Justice, the country's most senior judge, marked the lowest point in relations between the Government and the judiciary over penal policy.

The measures will mean a significant shift of control over sentencing from judges to Parliament. Last night, other judges joined the battle. Lord Denning, the former Master of the Rolls, said: "This could be a contest between Parliament and the courts which would be most undesirable." The nature and length of sentence had been entrusted to judges, he said. "This is a cardinal point of our constitution. Parliament should hesitate long before it interferes with that discretion."

Lord Taylor launched his scathing attack in a statement issued only two hours after Mr Howard announced his latest law-and-order initiative. The Lord Chief Justice said that the way to fight crime was to provide the police with greater resources - not simply to lock up the few who were caught. "Long sentences, sometimes very long sentences, are necessary in some cases to protect the public. But I do not believe that the threat of longer and longer periods of imprisonment across the board will deter habitual criminals. What deters them is the likelihood of being caught, which at the moment is small."

On the threat to judicial power and independence, he said: "Judges ... must be free to fit the particular punishment to the particular crime if justice is to be done. Instead of limiting judicial discretion by introducing unnecessary constraints on sentencing, the police should be provided with the resources they need to bring criminals before the courts in the first place."

But Mr Howard - buoyed by the longest conference ovation of the week, and confident of electoral popularity - dismissed the criticism out of hand, saying it was Parliament's job to decide the law, not the judges'.

However, Lord Taylor and his judicial supporters are powerful opponents. They led the mauling that Mr Howard's last Criminal Justice Act received in the Lords. While forcing change and amendment, his support became vital to the success of some of its other more controversial clauses, such as eroding the unfettered right to silence.

Others in the criminal justice system, including probation officers and penal reform groups, said the proposals were "ill-thought out", could exacerbate jail overcrowding, and, without remission as an incentive for good behaviour, could encourage riot and disorder.

The measure, preceded by a White Paper and designed to have its Second Reading in the Commons before the general election, is likely to present Labour with an unwelcome dilemma of whether to back it or oppose it, thus risking the electoral ground it has won in the law-and-order battle. Jack Straw said Labour would take a final decision when it had examined the detail.

Mr Howard told the conference that the Bill would "send shock waves through the criminal community ... put honesty back at the heart of sentencing, and help build a safer Britain".

This latest populist law-and-order drive, which the Government intends to make a centrepiece of its electoral platform, will be reinforced today when John Major confirms the disclosure in the Independent that MI5 will be brought in to assist the fight against organised crime. He will tell the conference: "We will be stepping up the war against crime and will hit it harder and harder."

Howard's plans

t All those convicted twice of a serious violent or sexual offence that already carries a maximum life sentence would automatically be given life.

t Burglars convicted three times would be subject to a minimum sentence yet to be fixed.

t Prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less would serve them in full. Instead of automatic early release of up to half a sentence, model prisoners would be freed after serving around 85 per cent of their sentence; others would serve their full sentences.