Howard gets tough on theft

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Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, will today announce a new sentencing drive against persistent burglars and violent sexual offenders as part of a tough new law-and-order package that he will unveil in the wake of a series of populist initiatives on education, health, social security and housing and transport.

Mr Howard is expected to call for life sentences for rapists who have a previous conviction for the same offence. His new regime is likely to mean more burglars with multiple convictions being tried in crown courts which can impose a maximum sentence of 14 years.

The Home Secretary's plans, which are bound to be received enthusiastically by the conference, will test Labour's commitment to law and order in the new parliamentary session.

Peter Lilley won loud applause yesterday when he announced cuts in social security benefits for asylum seekers, aimed at saving pounds 200m and reducing the growing number of would-be immigrants applying.

Mr Lilley's announcement came after a barnstorming speech by the Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine, which was the highlight of conference's second day. He excoriated the "nauseating hypo- crisy" of Labour's education policy and said the Tories were the party to modernise Britain and transform the inner cities.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, won the day's second longest ovation with a speech in which she announced a campaign to improve the use of English and a new qualification for headteachers aimed at raising school standards.

Meanwhile, the Transport Secretary Sir George Young gave a green light to the pounds 2bn flotation of Railtrack next spring.