Leading Article: Banged up for watching telly

IN THE midst of mortar attacks, street shootings and the discovery of so many bodies, it is reassuring to have some confirmation that Mr Michael Howard's resolute approach to lawbreaking is being rigorously implemented: 845 people, we learn, many of them single mothers, were sent to jail last year for watching television without a licence. This is a good idea. If we are to reintroduce respect for the law, it is important to start with the basics. And, as any early Victorian could have told you, if you cannot pay, you go to jail. We shall all sleep easier knowing that those tenacious employees of Mr John Birt, the men and women of the BBC TV Licensing Unit, Bristol, will press for the maximum penalties to ensure that Mr Noel Edmonds, Mr Terry Wogan, Mr David Dimbleby and Miss Gillian Taylforth are adequately rewarded for their services. Once, as Voltaire noted with awe, we used to hang admirals to encourage their colleagues; now we jail people who can't pay or won't pay for Crimewatch.

Alternatives to custody? Some way of preventing them from watching, such as removing the set, or preventing them from renting one? Some way of introducing them to more profitable ways of passing the time than sitting in jail watching Birds of a Feather, the morally dubious activities of Mr Derek Trotter, or Mr 'Mad' Frankie Fraser telling us yet again how he and Mr and Mr Kray did it? Some kind of community service? No, that sort of thing is much better left to the likes of Mr Roger Levitt, the well- known fraudster. But, if there is so much spare capacity in our jails, perhaps we could suggest some other practices which should be punishable by imprisonment. Dog fouling, for example, or, perhaps, lying to Parliament.