Tougher sentences to cost pounds 1.2bn in new jails

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A massive new prison-building programme costing an estimated pounds 1.2bn will be unveiled on Thursday in a Home Office White Paper on minimum sentences for serious crimes, including rape.

The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, is ready to face the wrath of the civil liberties campaigners by making it clear the Government accepts that its proposals for tougher sentences will push the prison population beyond its current record level of 54,000.

The White Paper is expected to confirm that at least 12 new prisons will be needed to accommodate the increase population, which could rise by another 10,000.

Mr Howard's White Paper , which is expected to be published after being approved by the Cabinet on Thursday, will commit a future Tory Government to allocating the resources into the next century to building the extra prisons through private finance.

Each of the new prisons will accommodate up to 800 prisoners and will be in addition to the planned prisons for Liverpool, Bridgend in South Wales, Telford in the Midlands, Salford in Greater Manchester, and Essex. The paper will leave open the option at a later stage to go ahead with a new high security "superprison".

Prison officers have warned that at least 40 new prisons will be needed to deal with the expected increase in the prison population. That claim has been rejected by the Home Secretary, who will propose phasing in the minimum sentences to spread the impact over the next 16 years.

The White Paper is likely to open the Home Secretary to attack for presiding over one of the highest prison populations in Europe. It is also likely to trigger a battle over the Home Secretary's decision to give priority to building prisons.

The plans will be paid for at the expense of other public expenditure programmes, because the Government is also committed to reducing public expenditure as a proportion of gross domestic product.

Labour is keen to avoid the charge of being soft on crime, but will argue the proposals for minimum sentences are flawed and strongly opposed by the judiciary.

There will be automatic life sentences for repeat rapists and armed robbers and other serious sexual offences; these will be introduced first.

The biggest increase in the prison population could be caused by the imposition of a minimum six years in prison for repeat drug dealing offences involving class A drugs, including Ecstasy; and a minimum three years for repeat burgling offences. To enable the prisons to be built in time, these provisions will be the last to be introduced.

The Home Secretary also expects a fresh vote on the return of the death penalty to be brought about by the Criminal Justice Bill, which he is planning to introduce in the next session of Parliament in November, to implement minimum sentences.

The Commons has repeatedly voted against the return of the capital punishment, and there is unlikely to be any change on a free vote, although Mr Howard supported the death penalty for the murder of police officers, but could not vote for it because of the celebrated appeal court decisions to free people sentenced for life for alleged IRA campaigns.