Tough talk masks end of 'prison works' policy

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JOHN MAJOR will tomorrow sweep aside the objections of the judiciary and promise a tough new line on sentencing of persistent sex offenders, burglars and drug dealers.

In what is being described as a pitch for the high ground on law and order, Mr Major will, for the first time, back moves by Home Secretary Michael Howard to stiffen sentencing policy.

But as the Government uses law-and-order rhetoric in public, the first signs that Mr Howard's "prison works" policy is crumbling are visible in Whitehall.

Mr Howard, faced with the twin pressures of Treasury cuts and an explosion in the prison population, is preparing to order that minor offenders should be electronically tagged instead of being sent to jail. A Home Office spokeswoman confirmed that a Whitehall policy review was focusing on how to stop 22,000 petty offenders - who include a disproportionately large number of women - being jailed each year for failure to pay magistrates' fines for poll tax and TV licence default, shoplifting and motoring offences.

The working party of Home Office and Lord Chancellor's Department officials is reviewing softer punishments for fine defaulters. Alternatives to prison likely to appear in a white paper on sentencing at Easter include community service orders and the placing of offenders under electronically- monitored house arrest.

No mention of the climbdown will be made in Mr Major's address to Tory activists at the Conservative Political Centre Jubilee Lecture in London.

Conservative strategists were emphasising yesterday that the white paper would also include plans to ensure prisoners serve a greater proportion of their sentences, as well as proposals for mandatory life terms for people convicted of more than one violent sexual offence.

In response to judges' criticism that the move would concentrate yet more power in ministers' hands, Mr Major will emphasise that it will be the Parole Board, a Home Office quango, rather than the the Home Secretary, that decides when, if ever, the lifers are released. However, the white paper is expected to reduce judicial discretion by imposing minimum prison terms on repeat burglars and drug dealers.

But for all the talk of tougher sentences, ministers are becoming acutely aware of the growing crisis in the prisons.

The news that the Home Office is planning electronic tagging for minor offenders infuriated probation officers, who will be responsible for criminals punished outside prison.

All previous attempts to make tagging work in Britain have failed. The first trials, in 1989, saw just 49 defendants tagged by the courts. All but 11 ran away, ripped off their tags or committed further crimes. A second set of pilot projects, now been carried out, has resulted in only 24 suspects being tagged by the courts - at an average cost of pounds 40,000 per tagee.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the probation workers' union, Napo, said: "The relevance of house arrest for not paying TV licences is beyond me, but it's consistent with the off-the-wall ideas we get from the Home Secretary."

'Unlawful' jailings, page 6