Early release from prison to be made more difficult

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John Reid will unveil more legislation next month in an attempt to ensure serious offenders are not released from prison too soon.

Despite criticism that Labour has already brought in 43 criminal justice laws since 1997, the Home Secretary will respond to what he regards as public concern over lenient sentences and people serving life imprisonment who are then freed after five or six years.

But Mr Reid's attempt to calm the row over sentencing suffered a setback last night when Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, warned politicians and the media not to turn judges into "whipping boys".

He defended the judge who gave paedophile Craig Sweeney a minimum tariff of just over five years for the life sentence he received for the kidnap and sexual assault of a three-year-old girl.

Although Tony Blair has defended Mr Reid for criticising the "unduly lenient" sentence, Lord Falconer sided with the Attorney General, who was unhappy about the Home Secretary's intervention.

Speaking on BBC1's Question Time programme, Lord Falconer said: I am absolutely sure the problem is not with the judges; it is with the system overall."He added: "The judge in that case was just as concerned as everybody else that it should be properly dealt with. Everybody agrees that the sentence wasn't what we would have wanted. It wasn't the judge's fault. If we attack the judges we attack an incredibly important part of the system when it is not their fault."

Mr Reid will change the system under which the Parole Board decides whether prisoners should be freed. In future, prisoners will be released only if there is unanimity on the three-strong panel. At present, they can be freed on a 2-1 majority verdict. Victims' groups are expected to be represented on the board.

The Home Secretary has also ordered a wider review of the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, which took effect only last year, to see whether it needs to be strengthened to protect the public. His legislation, to be enacted in the parliamentary session starting in November, may also address the problem highlighted by the release of more than 1,000 foreign prisoners who were not considered for deportation.

Mr Blair hinted at yet another law during heated exchanges with David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions in which both men claimed that prisoners were being released as a result of measures brought in by the other's party. Mr Blair accused the Tories of "talking tough in the media" but "voting soft in Parliament" on criminal justice. He said under Labour's laws, 1,000 criminals had been given " indeterminate" sentences and none had been let out on parole. The Prime Minister said the "vast bulk" of the 53 prisoners who have been jailed for life since 2000 but already released had been given automatic life sentences under a 1997 law enacted before Labour came to office.

The Conservative leader accused Mr Reid of blaming judges and civil servants, and trying to "blame the public" for shortcomings at the Home Office. "Will you tell him to stop trying to blame everyone else and get on with his job?" he asked Mr Blair. Mr Cameron added: " Why don't you understand the reason criminals aren't let out two-thirds of the way through their sentence now is because under your legislation they are let out halfway through."

That was dismissed as "completely wrong" by Mr Blair, who said offenders sentenced to more than four years were no longer granted automatic parole at the two-thirds point under the 2003 Act.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "The Government needs to correct the errors and problems it has created in the avalanche of laws it has visited on the Home Office in the past nine years. However, it should be careful not to overburden a department that has had more laws in the past nine years than in the previous 90."

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said ministers were using "panic legislation" to "get themselves out of a hole".