Lord Woolf, who conducted the 1990 prisons inquiry following the Strangeways riot, said as a result of 'a change of climate' the importance of avoiding custody when appropriate had been forgotten.
'A factor which has contributed to this climate is that the Government, which gives a lead in these matters, has abandoned the need for restraint in the use of prisons.
'The message which is being received loud and clear by all those involved, and in particular magistrates, up and down the country, is that it is necessary to get tough with crime. It is this policy which has resulted in the bulk of the increase in the population of many of our local prisons.'
Baroness Mallalieu, a Labour peeress and part-time judge, was more direct: 'A party which is desperate to regain favour with the electorate has seized on genuine fears about rising crime and thrown itself wholeheartedly in support of the ill-informed prejudice of the 'lock 'em up' brigade within its own ranks for a bit of popularity.'
The prison population declined to a low of 40,444 in the wake of the report by Lord Woolf warning of the dangers of overcrowding. But as politicians have talked ever tougher on sentences the numbers have soared by almost 7,000.
Baroness Hilton of Eggardon, for Labour, said there was a clear relationship between Mr Howard's speeches and the increase. 'Our Home Secretary is effectively governing by tabloid press. It is irresponsible if not immoral to follow the dictates of the media and the public's desire for revenge.'
The former Tory Home Secretary, Lord Carr of Hadley, urged the Government urgently to develop alternatives to jail. 'All the evidence . . . indicates that prison is not the best way of deterring crime and reforming criminals.'
Defending his boss and the 'prison works' policy, Earl Ferrers, Minister of State at the Home Office, said that while it was good to have an intellectual argument, 'out there in the countryside people are in fact terrified about the increase in crime'.
It was for the courts to decide the sentence in the light of all the circumstances. Tough community penalties were a key part of the sentencer's armoury, but some people ought to be locked up. Over half the men sent to prison last year were violent or sexual offenders.
Disagreeing with the Bishop of Lincoln, the Rt Rev Robert Hardy, Lord Ferrers said the Government had never given the message that punishment would cure long-term (social) ills. 'If anyone knows the way to cure long-term ills, we would be delighted to hear it.'
Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, faced contrary advice at Question Time on Britain's future role in Bosnia. Jack Cunningham accused him of 'vacillating' over whether to withdraw the troops after the winter. Humanitarian aid had to be maintained at the very least, and that would be impossible without troops on the ground, the Labour spokesman said.
But Harold Elletson, Tory MP for Blackpool North, said many believed humanitarian aid was simply fuelling the war. 'Isn't it time to ask ourselves what on earth Britain is doing in Bosnia?'
'What we are doing is keeping people alive who might otherwise be dead,' Mr Hurd replied, but he none the less made plain that countries involved in the UN aid effort may decide the obstacles and risks are too great to carry on.
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