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Leading Article: Prison of the Tories' making

ON CRIME, imprisonment and policing, British political parties seem to reverse their normal philosophical positions. On these subjects, the left suddenly becomes suspicious of the state - or, at least, that section of it represented by the police and the prison service. Nurses, teachers and social workers command instinctive sympathy from the left; for the most part, they are accepted unquestioningly as professionals who, though they sometimes fall short, struggle to do difficult jobs with the best of intentions. Police and prison officers, by contrast, are assumed to be up to no good at all. They are, in the left's view, inclined to corruption, falsehood and thuggery - hence Labour's reputation, which its leaders are striving so hard to shake off, for being on the criminal's, not the victim's side. "Young man wrongfully arrested by police" is a good Guardian story; "old lady wrongfully mugged" is one for the Daily Mail.

Likewise, the right, normally so anxious to restrain public spending, has no difficulty with the idea of fleecing the taxpayer for the fight against crime. Tories instinctively like the idea of building more prisons, just as they like the idea of buying guns, tanks and bombers. Even on his own estimates, Michael Howard's proposals for new sentencing policies, presented in a White Paper last week, will eventually cost as much as pounds 435m a year - or nearly 5 per cent extra on the cost of the whole criminal justice system, including policing. And that is on top of the pounds 1.2bn it will cost to build 12 more prisons. Most serious criminologists think these figures are absurd underestimates, largely because Mr Howard has assumed that his policies will lead to a sharp fall in crime and convictions. But such arguments are unlikely to impress the Home Secretary. "We simply cannot afford not to take this action," he said last week. Imagine a Tory minister using similar words about the need for smaller classes in schools, for better pay for nurses or for measures to alleviate poverty.

Nobody should be in any doubt that a hard line on crime is expensive. California, in the vanguard of the tough American policies that are so admired by the Tories, already spends 11 per cent of its state budget on prisons - nearly four times what it was spending in 1982, and significantly more than it now spends on higher education. On present projections, prisons will eat up 18 per cent of the Californian budget by the turn of the century. There are other considerations. The criminal justice system will almost certainly become more costly (and probably slower, too) because, if they are facing long prison sentences, fewer of those charged will plead guilty. The prisons will become more difficult to run if parole, conditional on good behaviour, is abolished.

This is where Labour, without running the risk of reviving its reputation as the criminal's friend, ought to be challenging the Tories. How does Mr Howard propose to find the money? By cutting the courts or the Crown Prosecution Service or the police or the probation service? By raising more money from fines? (Unlikely, since the declining use of the fine since 1990 has already led to a serious loss of revenue.) By cutting other public services, such as schools and health? By increasing taxes? And why does Mr Howard's party keep changing its mind on crime? After all, the present system, and particularly the parole provision, is based largely on a law passed only five years ago when the prevailing consensus, apparently accepted by the Tories, was that prison didn't work. There has been no time to evaluate whether the system is working or not; indeed, penal policies have been changed so often in the past decade or so that it is doubtful in the extreme that any criminal has sufficient understanding of them to weigh accurately any deterrent effect.

The truth is that Mr Howard has no answers to these questions for the simple reason that his White Paper is not a serious proposal at all. There is no prospect of the proposed Bill reaching the statute book before a general election is called. The Bill's real purpose is to set a trap for Labour so that Mr Howard can appear as Clint Eastwood in a pin-striped suit during the campaign. Labour is rightly anxious to avoid the trap. But it risks walking into a bigger one: that it will be saddled with a huge and unworkable public spending commitment when it gets into government.