Delegates drool over tough line

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The Independent Online
PATRICIA WYNN DAVIES and HEATHER MILLS

Two, or three, strikes and you're out - reflecting the American approach to repeat offenders - served Michael Howard well yesterday, ensuring one of the smoothest rides ever for a Home Secretary at a Tory conference.

Delighted representatives streamed out of the debate repeatedly declaring that the Home Secretary had made a "wonderful" speech, with the only complaint being that he had not yet introduced compulsory identity cards.

One delegate, Alistair Glanville, from Wells, was booed by some representatives for speaking out against them. Mr Howard said later that consultation on the proposal had only finished a fortnight ago.

Yesterday's announcements meanwhile spawned high praise. Daniel Walton, from Broxbourne, said: "It was an impressive speech. I am disappointed he didn't mention identity cards because that would be a tremendous way forward. But the idea of minimum sentences should be extended to magistrates' courts so they are consistent nationally." Like other representatives, Mr Walton applauded the abolition of automatic early release, adding: "There should be corporal punishment and hanging, certainly for planned murders."

Balwant Singh Bahra, from Coventry South, said Mr Howard had made a "wonderful speech. Five years should mean five years," he said. He was unimpressed by the criticisms of Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice. "The Government has to frame the law. The judges follow the law," he said.

But if representatives were inclined to ignore Lord Taylor's call for more money for the police to catch criminals, there were concerns about the costs of a rising jail population. Sophia Taylor, of West Lancashire, said the speech was "wonderful and very necessary" but added: "How will they pay to put them in prison?"

Barbara Couchman, a JP, voiced concerns about a dramatically scaled down remission system. "There must be hope of coming out and incentives to good behaviour."

Despite the favourable reaction of delegates, Mr Howard's anti-crime package was condemned by virtually everyone in the criminal justice system, including judges, lawyers and prison staff - as well as the opposition.

Jack Straw, shadow Home Secretary, said Mr Howard's speech was "a bizarre mixture" of complacency and desperation. "He was complacent about the level of recorded crime, which has more than doubled under the Tories, and desperate because he knows that the Tories are no longer trusted on law and order."

Alan Beith, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said Mr Howard's proposals were "merely window-dressing" for the party faithful. "There was not a word about providing more police officers to tackle crime and catch criminals," Mr Beith said.

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