Tory elders slap down Howard

The former Conservative Home Secretaries Kenneth Baker, right, and Douglas Hurd, left, overshadowing Michael Howard, the incumbent whose hardline Bill on crime and sentencing drew their criticism yesterday
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The Independent Online
The Government's drive to "smoke out" Labour on the issue of law and order ran into unexpected opposition from two Conservative former Home Secretaries yesterday, in a new embarrassment for their successor Michael Howard.

Douglas Hurd and, more surprisingly, Kenneth Baker, warned that his attempt to outflank Labour on crime was in danger of going too far.

Mr Hurd, who was Home Secretary from 1985 to 1989, condemned the "race for votes" on the issue and criticised the Crime Bill, which was launched in the Commons yesterday.

He said that the Bill, the centrepiece of the Government's pre-election legislative programme, would add to pressure on judges to hand out longer sentences.

He attacked Mr Howard's plans for "honest sentencing", asking if it was "realistic" to expect judges to give shorter terms which would actually be served. He said he thought the "expectation would prove fallible" because judges are under such pressure from the public and politicians to pass long sentences. Mr Baker, Home Secretary in 1990-92, said that the evidence of minimum sentences in the United States was "at best not proven . . . others would say that they are ineffective and potentially dangerous". He expressed concern at the possibility that second-time rapists might have an incentive to kill their victims rather than risk their being a witness. He said there was a danger that the Prison Service would be diverted from the role of trying to restore criminals to society. The two former Home Secretaries led a sustained barrage of polite doubts from the Tory benches in the Commons, as other senior figures also expressed reservations. about the Bill. Peter Brooke, a former Cabinet minister, said he would vote for it but that he felt "a tinge of scepticism".

He questioned whether the mandatory sentences for drug dealers would be right for a youngster who was just selling on to friends to fund his habit.

Sir Peter Lloyd, a former Home Office minister, questioned the policy on drug dealers. He said funds for building prisons could be directed to "crime prevention, better policing and more effective programmes in prisons than we have already".

He said: "If we don't improve this Bill, the subsequent Act will certainly start to produce the hard, unjust cases which the public most certainly and rightly find unacceptable."

Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, bested Mr Howard in debate, and forced him to admit that prisoners released on parole would be supervised less closely as a result of the Bill.

Labour sources were privately jubilant, saying their tactic of abstaining on the Bill had encouraged Tory opposition to express itself. Mr Straw met Labour backbenchers at the start of the parliamentary session last month and persuaded potential left-wing dissidents such as Chris Mullin and Neil Gerrard that abstention was the right tactic.

But Mr Straw still found himself mocked on both sides of the House yesterday for his failure to oppose the Bill. The abstention of Labour leaders in last night's vote on the Bill marked the death of part of the party's soul, said Brian Sedgemore, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch.

Announcing his intention to vote against the Bill, he said: "This Bill denies many of the basic principles of justice. It is one which will lead to the expenditure of billions of pounds of public money on building and running new prisons whose only discernible purpose is that of vengeance.

"Led by Jack Straw, Labour's front-bench has responded lamentably. This is a shameful night for New Labour, a night when part of its soul died." Voting on second reading was 149-23, a Government majority of 126.

Mr Hurd also mocked Mr Straw's attempt to portray himself as the "terror of the criminal classes". He said: "The benches opposite used to contain a liberal tradition on penal matters - all that has been thrown to the winds."

Mr Howard surprised MPs by telling them that proposals to "name and shame" young thugs and to take away driving licences as a punishment for all kinds of offence would be added at a later stage. The plans had been dropped from the Queen's Speech.