Last April, the Home Office said that it would see if each jail in Britain could measure how many inmates would reoffend once they had been released. In the Prison Business Plan for 1993/94, the Prison Department said that a central aim was 'developing possible performance measures on reconviction rates . . . key performance indicators that measure the service's contribution to
reducing the rate of reconviction'.
About 80 per cent of inmates reoffend within two years of release.
Senior Home Office sources said that the research had been dropped because publication of figures on how many criminals from each jail went on to commit more crimes 'would reflect very badly on the department and show the prison system in a very bad light'.
There were also problems in deciding how success in rehabilitating different classes of criminals in different parts of a prison should be measured. No indicators would be produced this year, the sources said, and the whole idea had been buried.
An official Home Office spokesman conceded that reoffending indicators had been shelved until 1995, because of 'technical difficulties', but said they may yet be produced.
At last year's Conservative Party conference, Mr Howard made prison the central plank of his tough crime strategy. 'Let us be clear: prison works,' he said. 'It ensures that we are protected from murderers, muggers and rapists, and it makes many who are tempted to commit crime think twice.'
Mr Howard maintained his position during a series of rows with senior judges who were astonished that the Government had abandoned its policy of diverting minor criminals from jails - which the Conservatives had previously seen as universities of crime - in the words of a White Paper, 'an expensive way of making bad people worse'.
Joan Ruddock, Labour's home affairs spokeswoman, said the failure to try to prove that 'prison works' discredited the Government's whole crime policy. 'Prison is at the heart of their strategy, their only real policy,' she said. 'They have to be able to deliver proof that it is having an effect.'
A second plank of the right- wing law-and-order policies which emerged last year also appears to be crumbling. Managers in Group 4 confirmed a report from the trade union- based Prisons are Not for Profit Campaign, which yesterday leaked the news that the Home Office feared security firms were getting cold feet about building six new private jails.
The companies fear that the Tories will lose the next election and Labour will avoid sending prisoners to private jails, which the party regards as immoral. The pounds 40m to pounds 70m cost of building a jail and the pounds 5m- pounds 15m annual running expenses require a 10-15-year binding contract to ensure that the firms get their money back.
Sources in Group 4, which runs The Wolds, Britain's first private jail, said no such contract had been offered by the Home Office and, until there were cast-iron guarantees, financial institutions would not invest in private prisons.