Crime Bill `will bring huge costs'

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The Independent Online
Michael Howard's Bill to toughen prison terms for serious and persistent offenders will clear its first parliamentary hurdle tonight, amid warnings that the measure will have "shambolic" effects that could cost hundreds of millions of pounds.

The Home Secretary's Crime (Sentences) Bill is on course to receive its Commons Second Reading with an overwhelming majority following Labour's decision to instruct its MPs to abstain, in contrast to the Liberal Democrats, who have tabled a "reasoned" amendment on why the measure should not be given a Second Reading.

The Labour no-show will exasperate penal reformers, who believe the Bill is misconceived and will prove a failure in practice, while provoking derision from the Government benches.

But Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "We shall ensure the Bill receives a Second Reading. There are a number of key points ... which we positively support and others where the issue is not the aim of the Bill but the method."

Labour supports the imposition of automatic life sentences for second- time rapists and of community service orders or curfews as an alternative to jail for fine defaulters. However, Labour remains opposed toproposals to introduce fixed minimum sentences.

An emerging battleground is the Bill's blueprint for so-called "honesty in sentencing", which Mr Howard believes should be achieved by abolishing the current parole system. But Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said yesterday that the changes could result in spiralling additional expenditure while most offenders would be subject to less supervision after release.

In an attempt to contain the high costs conceded by the Government, the Bill provides that in cases other than those attracting minimum terms, judges should effectively halve current sentence lengths.

But Mr Fletcher said: "Judges would still be able to impose sentences of up to 14 years for burglary and up to two years for under-21-year-olds. This must have resource implications probably running into hundreds of millions in terms of prison costs." Time spent by prisoners on parole would be reduced by two-thirds in virtually every case, putting the public at more risk. "It's a potential shambles," he said.