Cabinet ministers have been canvassed for their opinion on an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, now going through Parliament, that would compel literal life sentences for those who murder the agents of law and order.
Mr Howard's proposal, which will dismay prison reformers but is already delighting police organisations, was circulated a week ago in the wake of a defeat in the Commons last month of moves to reintroduce capital punishment for such offences.
He wants to address the fears and anxieties of the public and MPs as violent and armed attacks on the police become more common, and he has told ministers there is still time to table a Government amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill in April.
The proposal was warmly welcomed last night by the Police Federation, which insisted: 'We have always said that for people who are convicted of the murder of a police officer, a life sentence should mean what it says. We would certainly be very pleased with such a change in the law.'
But reformist opinion was outraged. Paul Cavadino, spokesman for the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro), said the idea was wrong in principle and would create 'great difficulties' in the prison service.
'It would mean that prison officers would be catering for a number of prisoners who had absolutely no hope whatever of being released. They would have to care for people who had nothing to lose, and that is a very sombre prospect.'
At present, all murders carry a mandatory life sentence, and the trial judge makes a secret recommendation on the length of time a killer should serve. The Home Secretary is then free to vary it. Since the mid-Eighties, the murder of a police officer has invariably attracted a minimum sentence of 20 years.
The number of policemen killed in the line of duty fluctuates annually from low single figures to 15 or more. Since 1965, 54 police officers have been murdered. Two have died in the last five months. London remains the most dangerous beat.
Despite the common public perception that 'life doesn't really mean life', in fact the Home Secretary has powers to order the continuing imprisonment of any murderer whom he judges to be a threat to the public.
Nacro believes that public opinion, while superficially attracted to a 'life means life' policy, would find a rigid policy of mandatory term-of-natural- life sentences 'indefensibly harsh' in practice because it would not distinguish ringleaders and followers.
'It would mean that however much their attitudes changed and reformed, however much they matured, however much remorse they expressed, whatever happened to their health, they could never be released,' said Mr Cavadino.
The Opposition had mixed feelings about the proposal. Alun Michael, Labour's front- bench spokesman on law and order, said: 'We would have to see the precise terms.'
The biggest problem leading to violence against the police was the easy availability of guns, and the growing willingness of criminals to use them, he added.
Yet during the committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill, the Home Secretary had rejected tough new measures against illegal possession and trading in firearms that Labour had tabled.Reuse content