Senior Tories attack Howard's jail plans

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The Independent Online

Legal Correspondent

A former Conservative prisons minister yesterday joined the growing chorus of criticism of Michael Howard's plans for automatic life sentences for habitual violent criminals and rapists.

Sir Peter Lloyd, a former junior minister at the Home Office, dismissed as "cumbersome" the plan to give life sentences to repeat offenders whether they posed a continuing threat to society or not. He said it would be better to introduce new medical or judicial grounds to hold inmates who still posed a threat at the end of the sentences.

He said of Mr Howard: "I don't think he has convinced the judiciary or myself yet that his approach for dealing with this point is the right one ... I'm not convinced there is a need for a mandatory, automatic life sentence for the second offence to catch the comparatively few cases that I think need to be caught.

"What is needed is a judicial-cum-medical mechanism by which they can be held until they are no longer seen as a special risk. That's what we ought to be debating - how we can ensure we don't release back into the community criminals who are still very violent and are almost certainly going to commit a violent crime again."

Last week, a High Court judge, Lord Justice Rose, warned that rapists would be more likely to kill their victims if the sentence was the same for rape as for murder.

Mr Howard also came under fire yesterday from Lord Hailsham, the former Lord Chancellor, who signalled growing opposition in the House of Lords to Mr Howard's proposed minimum sentences for habitual criminals.

Lord Hailsham, 88, chairman of the Tory party under Harold Macmillan, and Lord Chancellor under both Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, said during a television interview on GMTV: "One shouldn't, if one is Home Secretary, seek to impose one's views either on colleagues or on the legislature."

He went on: "This business about mandatory sentences must be held in very grave suspicion."

Lord Hailsham has already attacked Mr Howard's plans to reduce judicial discretion on sentencing, announced at last year's party conference, but the fact that he has chosen deliberately to re-state his annoyance in a recorded television interview shows that opposition is hardening, rather than weakening as Mr Howard must have hoped.

Mr Howard, though, made it clear in a speech at the week-end that he is intending to press ahead with his White Paper unchanged, despite the opposition.

He met senior judges and others on Saturday under the forum of the Criminal Justice Consultative Committee and had what he described as a "very vigorous" exchange behind closed doors.

He said after the meeting: "I have not heard any arguments which have persuaded me my original arguments were wrong. Some of the judges have views which are different from mine but these decisions are for those who are accountable to Parliament and the public."

Three of the most senior judges, Lord Donaldson, a former Master of the Rolls, Lord Ackner, a retired Law Lord, and Lord Taylor of Gosforth, the Lord Chief Justice, have already publicly attacked the proposals.