The Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has insisted that there is no direct link between rising prison numbers and falling crime rates.
In a speech to judges at Mansion House, he suggested that by laying the foundations of the 1990s economic recovery he himself had done more to bring down crime than hardline home secretaries such as Michael Howard.
Last month Mr Clarke angered right-wing Conservatives, including Mr Howard, after he suggested the prison population was too high and that there should be greater emphasis on rehabilitation and community sentences.
Last night he rejected claims that his new approach would lead to more crime being committed. "There is and never has been, in my opinion, any direct correlation between spiralling growth in the prison population and a fall in crime," he said. "Crime fell throughout most of the Western world in the 1990s. Crime fell in countries that had and still have far lower rates of imprisonment than ours.
"Crime has fallen in Britain throughout a period of both rising prison populations and throughout the same period of economic growth, with strong employment levels and rising living standards."
Mr Clarke, who served as home secretary and then chancellor in the 1990s, suggested rising prosperity may have had more effect on crime rates than penal policy.
"No one can prove cause and effect. The crime rate fell. But was this the consequence of the policies of my successors as home secretary or, dare I gently hint, mine as chancellor of the exchequer at the beginning of a period of growth and strong employment? We will never know."Reuse content