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Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): As the right hon. Lady knows, I do not always agree with her. However, on that general issue, and before she moves on to address the specific issue of this debate, let me ask her a question. Is she aware that the Prime Minister's announcement to the academics of Tubingen--who might not have been overly interested in that particular bit of ethical, theological or international political reflection--was made without information on it being passed to the Home Office? On Friday, the Home Office said that it knew nothing about the proposal, and, therefore, could not comment on it.

Miss Widdecombe: I do not think that I want to intrude on the private grief of this very unjoined-up Government--let us spare them any more blushes. I notice, however, that no Labour Members have jumped up to defend that ludicrous policy and that ludicrous announcement. They have failed to do so because, of course, they have absolutely no defence. Even those who are in places that we cannot see are falling apart laughing.

The far more dangerous policy, which we should be discussing now, is that of prisoners coming out of jail early. The Home Secretary's special early release scheme has seen more than 20,000 convicted criminals released before serving even half the sentence that they were given in court. Of course, it is likely that the up-to-date figure is substantially higher than that--I would estimate that it is probably about 23,000--but I am unable to say that certainly because, so far, there has been no answer to the parliamentary question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), although he tabled it for answer two weeks ago.

Those who have been released on the scheme may be so-called short-term prisoners, but they are definitely not minor criminals. They are criminals guilty of some of the very worst crimes, such as manslaughter, attempted murder, drug dealing, violent assaults, robbery and burglary. They have been given the "get out of jail free" card by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. Criminals sentenced by the courts to six months are getting out of jail in just six weeks--tough on crime, indeed.

Opposition Members completely support the use of electronic tagging, but not as a substitute for serving the right jail sentence. Indeed, we pioneered tags in the face

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of opposition from Labour Members. What we do not support is the Government's decision to hide behind tagging to let tens of thousands of criminals out of prison before they have served even half the sentence handed down by the courts. We have made that crystal clear from day 1.

When the Home Secretary first announced that ludicrous policy, in November 1997, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) said:

And we did.

When the Bill came before the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) said:

He also said that

Therefore, the Home Secretary's previous attempts to portray this as a policy supported by the Opposition are every bit as bogus as his fiddled pledge on police numbers.

Today's debate is all the more relevant in the light of the recent comments of both the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister's spokesman. During the policing of London debate, 10 days ago, the Home Secretary told the House:

The Home Secretary told the House that he could see no justification for the over-lenient sentences being imposed for robbery in the Crown court. However, he knows very well that he himself has let hundreds of robbers out of prison before serving even half their sentence. What is the point of condemning the courts for over-lenient sentences when, by his personal decree, even those that they give are not served?

When I called on the Home Secretary, in the light of his comments, to stop letting robbers out on his special early-release scheme, he wrote to me saying that his "tough stance on robbers" was not inconsistent with continuing to allow them to serve less than half their jail terms. He said that he saw

from the special early-release arrangements. Indeed, he tried to justify his policy by arguing that he was not really releasing serious robbers--only minor robbers.

The Home Secretary wrote that

However much the Home Secretary tries to wriggle out of the situation that he has created, he has palpably failed to ensure that robbers have faced the stiffest penalties. Some 811 convicted robbers were released on his scheme up to 30 April this year. The average sentence given to them by the courts was 26 months. The average sentence

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served was just 11 months. Far from ensuring stiffer penalties, that is ensuring lighter penalties. The courts are not to blame--he is to blame.

The Home Secretary has made it clear, with considerable effrontery, that the policy will continue. On Thursday, The Sun--a splendid paper, which appeared to have been briefed extensively by the Prime Minister's spin doctors--reported:

No doubt the Home Secretary will explain exactly to the House what these new figures are. If there are 4,000 vacancies and if the Prime Minister really is so committed to seeing violent and serious criminals locked up, why not use half of those spaces for the 2,000 criminals who, even as we speak, are on special early release?

Are there indeed 4,000 spaces? Why are there 4,000 spaces? Where are the 4,000 spaces? I was surprised when I read that story and I will give the Home Secretary every opportunity to tell us whether it was a mistake. Does he want to correct it from the Dispatch Box now? Apparently not.

A spokesman was reported as saying:

Perhaps the Prime Minister's office might like to have a word with the Home Secretary's office, because that has not been the Government's policy up to now. I was under the impression that the Government's thinking on prison sentences was summed up by the words of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), who said:

No doubt the Prime Minister's spokesman will be seeking an early opportunity to have a quiet word with the Under-Secretary and hear his excuses.

The Government's actions in releasing thousands of violent criminals early fly in the face of the Prime Minister's personal promises and those of his Ministers. Perhaps the Prime Minister--who promised in his manifesto to support the police--took time today to explain to the chief constables attending his so-called crime summit exactly why his Government have allowed out more than 100 criminals convicted of assaulting police officers on his special early release scheme, and why he ordered Labour Members to troop into the Lobby on 12 July to support that policy and to vote against the Opposition's amendment to stop it? Perhaps he will now order them to present themselves within seven days at their local police stations to explain their actions. That was yet another kick in the teeth from the Labour Government for the men and women of our police service.

Did the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), tell the chief constables why, after he called over the new year for dangerous drivers who killed to be locked up for life, the Government have allowed more than 100 of them to serve

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less than half their sentences? Perhaps the Prime Minister--who promised to fight the drugs menace--told the chief constables why thousands of drugs dealers and traffickers have been let out of jail on special early release. Or did the Home Secretary explain why, when the Government have in recent days promised--yet again--to crack down on violence and yobbery, hundreds of violent yobs, convicted of affray and even violent disorder, have also been let out early on the special early release scheme?

The Government's prisons policy is a shambles. Far from being tough on crime, they have let out more than 20,000 convicted criminals to the comfort of their own homes. We even heard yesterday of one prisoner being let out on the scheme having been tagged on his wooden leg. He substituted the tagged leg for another false leg and went out drinking until all hours. Home Office business as usual. Dozens of criminals have been tagged and let out early, and have disappeared completely.

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