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Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): In this lighter mood, does my right hon. Friend think that the new haircut being sported by the Minister of State is part of the Government's attempt to acclimatise society to what we can expect when more and more people are released early?

Miss Widdecombe: I had better let the Minister speak for himself on that score. The hairstyles of Members on both sides of the House have recently come in for some comment.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): My right hon. Friend referred to drugs. Given that--quite apart from statements by the Prime Minister--the Labour manifesto promised a battle against drugs and gave a commitment to tackle the modern menace of drugs in our communities, is it not a particular disgrace that no fewer than 2,767 drug dealers have been let out early on the Government's ridiculous scheme?

Miss Widdecombe: It is a disgrace, and it is proof positive of the utter cynicism that the Government bring to the serious subject of maintaining law and order.

Other aspects of the problem deserve the House's attention. Despite the so-called vacancies in our prisons, and despite the early release of thousands of prisoners, which is the Home Secretary's response to a rising prison population, conditions in our prisons are not improving. Despite the valiant efforts of the Prison Service, overcrowding is up, with an increase in the percentage of prisoners sharing two to a cell designed for one. If the Home Secretary could give them to me, I would be grateful for the numbers sharing three to a cell designed for two, because they are not up to date. Slopping out has reappeared in some of our prisons.

The rate of purposeful activity has declined significantly from more than 26 hours five years ago to around 23 hours today. If one puts criminals in prison, a proper effort must be made to rehabilitate them, or the result is more crime and another sentence. The Government's policy appears to be fewer purposeful hours and earlier and earlier releases. One wonders why the Home Secretary puts people in prison at all.

Distressingly, suicides in our prisons have also increased, alarmingly so--from 59 in 1995 to 91 in the last calendar year. During the debate on the Criminal

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Justice and Court Services Bill on 12 June, the Minister of State said that the early release scheme

However, more than 700 further crimes, which include rapes, burglaries, assaults, threats to kill and drug dealing, have been committed by prisoners released on the scheme while they should still have been in jail. Is that a highly successful implementation? It does not say much for the Government's much-vaunted risk assessment or for the chief inspector's analysis that the scheme works because we can monitor what the released prisoners are doing. No. We can monitor where they are--not what they are doing.

What does the Home Secretary have to say to the 700 victims of crime, who have been subject to what must, in some cases, have been horrendous ordeals as a direct result of his allowing those people to out on the loose when the courts said that they should be in jail? He has taken responsibility for the policy. He must take responsibility for its effects.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): My right hon. Friend has spoken about new victims, but how does she think that old victims will feel when the people sentenced to long periods in prison for the offences that they have committed suddenly appear on the streets after serving only a fraction of their sentences?

Miss Widdecombe: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask that question, which highlights why the Government's policy is such an insult and such a cynical way to treat victims. The Conservative party is pledged to introduce honesty in sentencing so that the sentence that victims hear being given will be the sentence that prisoners serve.

The Home Secretary has betrayed the police. He has also betrayed the victims of crime by letting criminals out on his scheme. He has hit the public with a double whammy, allowing hundreds of criminals to commit further crimes when, but for his policy, they would have been locked up.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way, and I declare an interest as a practising lawyer. Will she explain, to someone as old and tired as I am, why her party when in government was so keen to increase the remission period from one third to one half? That let thousands of people out of prison before their original sentences were complete. What is the difference between that policy all those years ago, and the current policy of trying to get people rehabilitated in the community?

Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman said that he was old and tired. He is living in the past. The policies that I have announced today are our policies now. [Interruption.] If the Government want the Conservative party to justify past policies, let them justify past Labour policies. Let the Home Secretary tell us why he has changed his mind on trial by jury and on the numbers in prisons. Let the Home Secretary tell us why he has changed his policies on illegal working. Let the Government explain why, in the past, they have had policies that they have changed now.

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The fact is that the policies of the previous Conservative Government brought about a sustained and significant fall in crime. All that the Home Secretary has delivered is a rise in crime.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I am always happy to justify any changes in approach that I have adopted when those changes are put to me accurately. As far as I could hear the right hon. Lady's extraordinary rant, nothing that she said could be described as that. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) asked about the remission changes announced in 1989 by Lord Hurd, when he was Home Secretary, and introduced some months later. The right hon. Lady was a supporter of that Conservative Government. Is she saying now that Lord Hurd got that policy completely wrong? If so, will she say why she and the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) never changed that policy when they were in office?

Miss Widdecombe: If we were to go back to 1989, the Government would have some interesting policies to answer for. That was before the Prime Minister decided to change all Labour's policies because the party could not win elections with the ones that it had. The Labour party had lost three elections in a row, and its policies meant that it did not have the confidence of the electorate. I should be quite willing to rehearse all the policies that the Labour party has overturned since 1989--on defence, Europe, and law and order--but the electorate are interested in 2001. The next general election cannot come soon enough for them, as they cannot wait to get rid of this incompetent Prime Minister and Home Secretary.

Mr. Straw: Will the right hon. Lady now answer a simple question, which she has so far refused to answer? If she disagreed so fundamentally with Lord Hurd's approach, why did she not change that approach--[Hon. Members: "She did."] No, she did not. The Criminal Justice Act 1991 stayed in force and the two thirds remission stayed at a half. Why did she not change it?

Miss Widdecombe: We did. The right hon. Gentleman must have the shortest memory of any Labour Member. Does he remember the honesty in sentencing proposals that we introduced and had ready to put into law, and that he overturned in his first few weeks as Home Secretary? I remember asking him from the Back Benches whether the Home Secretary had therefore abandoned honesty in sentencing, and he said yes. So we did change the policy--my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) changed it. It was opposed by the right hon. Gentleman, so we are being consistent, because we will reintroduce it when we are elected next year. We have been totally consistent, and the right hon. Gentleman has not.

Mr. Straw: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: Once more.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady.

Miss Widdecombe: Three strikes and you are out.

Mr. Straw: Three and I am in. Will the right hon. Lady now own up to the fundamental flaw in her so-called

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honesty in sentencing approach? The provisions in the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 would have made no difference whatever to the length of sentence laid down in the 1991 Act.

Miss Widdecombe: If the right hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would know that I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) that the virtue of honesty in sentencing is that the sentence that the victim hears handed down will be the sentence served.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: This is absolutely the last time.

Mr. Hughes: This is a very important point. Will the right hon. Lady give us a simple answer on honesty in sentencing? Does she expect, that if her policy were implemented, longer sentences would be served on average and in total? What would be the effect on the number of people in prison?

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