Howard takes off kid gloves: Home Secretary plans to end 'right to a caution' as drive on crime faces new criticism

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The Home Secretary yesterday signalled his intention to curb severely the use of police cautions - even for children and teenagers.

His announcement on the first of 27 points in the tough criminal justice programme which he outlined at the Conservative party conference came as the political debate over law and order intensified.

John Major again supported Michael Howard's policies, saying: 'People want to see us go back to basics in our attitudes towards crime.'

Last night Tony Blair, Labour's Home Affairs spokesman, also went on to the attack, saying that in concentrating on jailing people, Mr Howard was ignoring crime prevention. The Government had not increased the numbers of police on the streets; it had cut down on drug education and closed homes for disturbed teenagers.

Speaking in Richmond, North Yorkshire, he said: 'Where Mr Howard and Mr Major err is not in saying that those who are a danger to the public should be sent to prison, but in saying as the centrepiece of their strategy 'prison works', so that simply by increasing the prison population you solve the crime problem.'

Announcing the new restrictions on cautions, Mr Howard said: 'Too many cautions lead too many people to think they can get away with crime. That is something we should never tolerate. No one should ever believe or be led to believe that they have a right to a caution.' Speaking in Wokingham, Berkshire, he said: 'It is totally unnacceptable to have persistent offenders thumbing their noses at authority or, worse, bragging about the experience of being cautioned.'

The move follows public concern that record numbers of violent and serious offenders were being released without charge. Last year 216,000 - of whom 40 per cent had admitted crimes including burglary, robbery, and indecent and violent assault - had been cautioned. The numbers so far this year are even higher.

Although the use of cautioning, known to have been effective in deterring young and petty offenders, has saved millions of pounds, Mr Howard - with government and Treasury backing - is not concerned that his reforms will send the prison population soaring and consequently cost billions to house them in his six new jails.

But the need to be seen to be acting swiftly and decisively on his package of reforms - designed to re-unite the party grassroots and reclaim the law and order high ground in the face of spiralling crime - appears to have been taken because his 'prison works' arguments have already run into strong opposition.

First Lord Woolf, the Law Lord who conducted the inquiry into the Strangeways riots, said Mr Howard's policies were 'shortsighted and irresponsible' and that prison was a 'shocking waste of resources'.

Now they have been called into question again by the Home Office's own research, which concludes that the prison population would have to increase from 47,000 by about 25 per cent or 12,000 people in order to reduce crime by about 1 per cent. 'Research suggests that is not a cost-effective solution,' it concludes.

The research reinforces similar work in 1986, which formed the basis of previous government policy enshrined in the 1991 Criminal Justice Bill and abandoned after only seven months - that 'prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse'.

But Mr Howard yesterday denied that those statistics undermined his assertion that prison prevented crime. While his advisers pointed out that to cut the crime rate by 1 per cent amounted to preventing over 50,000 crimes, Mr Howard put it more simply: 'If you hold a burglar in prison for a year, then between three and 13 further burglaries will be prevented. That is a much more relevant statistic and reinforces what I have said.'