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Howard acts to cut numbers given bail

MEASURES curbing the use of bail for those awaiting trial were announced yesterday by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, as part of his 27-point law and order reform package.

But they were immediately condemned by penal reform groups for putting an extra burden on already overcrowded prisons and because they were likely to result in the jailing of people subsequently found to be innocent.

While Mr Howard accepted his action would put a 'significant' extra number behind bars, he said this would be off-set by plans to speed up the court process. Strong action was needed to prevent offences being committed on bail, he said.

In some instances, victims will be consulted before a decision is taken about whether or not to allow bail. Those accused of serious offences who commit crime while on bail will no longer automatically get a second chance; police will have powers to impose restrictions on bail, like curfews; and courts will have greater powers to revoke bail.

Mr Howard said that one in 10 people on bail committed further offences. 'That is 50,000 offences every year - burgled homes, property stolen, assaults - committed by people awaiting trial. That cannot be allowed to continue.'

The measures are likely to form part of a Criminal Justice Bill, to be announced in the Queen's Speech, and unlikely to come into force until next summer. Mr Howard argued that the delay would provide more time to find extra jail places.

Paul Cavadino, of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said Mr Howard's message could make courts more reluctant to grant bail. The 'get tough' message had prompted magistrates and judges to send people to prison in droves - a 7,000 increase so far this year.

He welcomed plans to give police powers to impose restrictions, but said: 'It is an equal scandal that every year many thousands of people are unnecessarily remanded in custody. Sixty per cent of those refused bail are later found not guilty or given non-custodial sentences.'

Harry Fletcher, representing the country's probation officers, said: 'Mr Howard would be better off paying attention to bail support, employment opportunities and crime prevention.'

But Chief Constable John Hoddinott, chairman of the crime committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers, welcomed the proposals: 'The measures . . . are common sense and will stop a major abuse of the system.'