He invited prisoners to bring a legal challenge to his order, so that the courts could give an "authoritative decision" on the the state of the law next week. He also hinted at a top-level row within the Home Office as he admitted his anger that the Prison Service had only told him of their move on Thursday to free the prisoners and ordered an urgent internal investigation into the circumstances.
Attempting to dig himself out of a political hole, he agreed it was an "extraordinary" situation and added: "I think I should have been consulted." Conservative colleagues had been horrified and increasingly incensed by the prospect of convicts, including rapists and violent offenders, being freed from jails across the country and who could win millions in compensation while Mr Howard washed his hands of the matter.
Last night he got the worst of both worlds. By taking political control, he showed what could have been done before the prisons department went on its extraordinary course, thereby indicating his own ineptitude.
In a statement, the Home Secretary said: "The law is not clear. I expect there to be an early challenge to my decision. I very much hope that the courts will expedite that hearing and we will co-operate in any way necessary."
Mr Howard said that if the courts decided the Prison Service's new guidance was correct, the Home Office would immediately release the prisoners concerned. "But if the courts decide the guidance is wrong, then we will not release the prisoners," he went on. He made it clear however that those already released would not be re-imprisoned. The Home Office said this amounted to 80 people, though others claimed as many as 500 had been let out.
Last night's U-turn was swiftly ridiculed by the Opposition. The shadow home secretary, Jack Straw, said: "This morning this was an operational matter - nothing to do with Mr Howard. This evening it's a policy matter, over which apparently he has complete control. Mr Howard could have avoided this humiliating shambles if he had taken proper responsibility for the Prison Service from the start."
Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said the Government had grossly under-estimated the number of prisoners affected and Mr Howard had "acted with urgency to save political face".
Mary Honeyball, secretary of the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, said: "It's a bit late. Mr Howard should have thought about this before 500 prisoners were released."
Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the Home Secretary was "playing politics with people's lives".
The row broke as it was revealed that the prison authorities had miscalculated the length of sentences served by some multiple offenders for the past 30 years. Inmates have been released in the past three days without the normal warnings and preparation. They include a man with a history of drug abuse and violence. Bob Mathers, deputy chief probation officer in Greater Manchester, said earlier: "We will try and provide accommodation for him but because of the Bank Holiday that will become increasingly difficult. We have been told by another prison they are about to release sex offenders and people with a history of violence."
The blunder was unearthed following a court case last year when the Prison Service first suspected they had been misinterpreting the law. It affects prisoners convicted of multiple crimes who given several sentences consecutively.
The time a prisoner spends in jail on remand before he goes to trial is knocked off his final sentence, but according to new legal advice, the Prison Service should have been taking this time off each sentence, instead of just off one. So a prisoner who spent six months on remand and was given three sentences consecutively should have had 18 months knocked off his final stretch behind bars, not just six months. Prison governors were told last week they had until 11 September to examine the files of about 41,000 of the 57,000 inmates currently held in prison.
Over recent months, Mr Howard has slowly been edging up his profile as a contender for the successor to John Major, as a loyalist, but right- wing, Euro-sceptic alternative to John Redwood and Michael Portillo.
In recent weeks the Home Secretary has been playing an exceedingly clever game. Having successfully raised the spectre of ID cards with the European flag, Mr Howard claimed the glory this week for raising the Union flag.Reuse content