Woolf attacks Blunkett over failure to cut jail numbers

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The Independent Online

Lord Woolf will open a second front against the Government next month when he tackles the Home Secretary over his failure to curb the rising prison population.

The Lord Chief Justice, in a speech to lawyers and academics, will call for a rethink on penal policy in an implicit criticism of David Blunkett's efforts to reduce the number of people being jailed. The prison population in England and Wales reached a record 74,453 last month, a rise of 24 per cent since Labour came to power in 1997.

Lord Woolf, who warned the Government on Wednesday that its plans for immigration reform threatened the rule of law, will train his sights on Mr Blunkett again when he delivers the annual Mishcon lecture at University College London next month. In a speech entitled: "Do we need a new approach to penal policy?" Lord Woolf, Britain's senior judge, is also expected to question the wisdom of using "quick-fix" initiatives to tackle specific crimes such as street robbery.

He is understood to be concerned that ministers have become too willing to switch resources from one offence to another for short-term political gains. He wants to encourage courts to make greater use of community punishments.

He is also expected to address the issue of sentencing and the workings of the new Sentencing Guidelines Council, which is to meet for the first time today. Lord Woolf favours an all-judge membership guided by a separate panel of lay advisers. The Government has opted for a mix of judges and lay people sitting together on the council. On Wednesday, Lord Woolf said ministers' plans to bar courts from reviewing asylum cases would be a "blot on the reputation of the Government" which could trigger a campaign for a written constitution.

Lord Woolf said proposals to reform the asylum appeals system, in clause 11 of the Asylum and Immigration Bill, were "fundamentally in conflict with the rule of law".

A Home Office spokesman said: "We respect the views of the Lord Chief Justice. But it is important he respects our desire to deliver the radical reforms we were elected to get through.

"If we had been cowed by previous criticisms, we would never have halved asylum claims or got life meaning life for murderers."