Tory crime claims are disputed in memo leak

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Official crime figures are rising again, according to a leaked Home Office minute which reports that the number of notifiable offences has risen for the most recent six months.

The leak casts a shadow over last week's claim by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, that the "latest recorded crime figures" have fallen for the past three years.

The annual crime figures, which were published last Thursday, showed that crime in England and Wales fell 2.4 per cent in 1995 - figures which the Home Secretary hailed as a "historic fall".

The minute of the "round-up meeting" that was held by Richard Wilson, the Home Office permanent secretary, with his heads of department eight days ago records six successive monthly rises between September 1995 and February 1996. The monthly figures are not usually published.

The minute, leaked to today's Guardian, also reveals that the Director- General of the Prison Service, Richard Tilt, is due to hold talks with Mr Howard this week about the "worrying" prospect of prison overcrowding.

"The prison population now stood at 54,974 and was 1,000 higher than the short-term population projection, with monthly intake 350 higher than that projected," according to the minute.

It goes on: "The situation was worrying and the Director-General of the Prison Service would bring it to the Home Secretary's attention in his bilateral [meeting] with him next week."

Mr Howard's policy of increasing the use of custodial sentences has led to a number of warnings from penal reformers that the prison population will rise too fast for the current prison-building programme to accommodate.

The minute also implies that Home Office officials expected the rise in the most recent crime figures to be even greater, but that the figures for London fell in January and February of this year, thus depressing the national total.

Even so, "recorded crime in January had been 4 per cent higher than in January 1995, and in February 2 per cent higher than in February 1995", the minute says.

The figures undermine the Home Secretary's carefully-worded assertion in the Commons last week that the fall in the annual figures represented "the largest ever continuous fall in the number of annually recorded crimes". Mr Howard went on: "These figures are a testament to the achievements of the police."

The leaked minute also says that an inquiry is due to be launched into the disclosure last week of the Home Secretary's plans to remove in-cell televisions that are used by 2,000 prisoners.

A Home Office official said last night: "We do not comment on leaked documents."