Blair goes on offensive over prison row

Tony Blair was on the offensive for the first time in weeks today as he dealt with yet another prime minister’s questions dominated by rows about law and order.

He has been forced onto the back foot in recent weeks as Conservative leader David Cameron drew from a rich supply of scandals on immigration and asylum, prisons and the government’s attempts to tackle crime.

But while today was no different, with the Commons session coming after the Home Office admitted 53 people sentenced to life had been released within six years, Mr Blair appeared to have regained his confidence.

Mr Cameron wasted no time in listing the string of rows in the past week, and asked whether the new home secretary, John Reid, was going to be any better at coping with them than his sacked predecessor, Charles Clarke.

But rather than leaping to the defence of his minister, as he has done before, the prime minister launched an attack on his political opponents for introducing the law that led to these 53 people being given life sentences in the first place.

The Crime Sentences Act of 1997 meant an automatic life sentence for certain serious offences, Mr Blair said, but this was changed by the Labour government through the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to allow indeterminate sentences.

Since this came into effect in April last year, 1,000 such sentences had been handed out, six people had been considered for parole, and none had been given. “When the Criminal Justice Act came before this House the Conservatives voted against it,” he declared.

However, Mr Cameron pointed out that it was new sentencing guidance introduced under Labour that recommended shorter prison terms for those who pleaded guilty, and that the 2003 act allowed an offender to be allowed out halfway through their sentence.

Mr Blair hit back: “My right honourable gentleman is speaking absolute rubbish. The Sentencing Guidelines Council was supported across the House.

“Before the 2003 act, someone who was sentenced to over four years in prison would be automatically paroled at two-thirds point, but under the act the right to automatic parole would be taken away. He and his colleagues voted against that as well.

“If we’re going to talk about facts, I am happy to talk about anti-social behaviour and the assets recovery agency, in fact, I am happy to talk on any of these issues [on which] he and his honourable friends talk tough in the media and vote soft in parliament.”

Mr Cameron was unimpressed, however, and to much cheering from his side of the House, said: “Why doesn’t the prime minister understand that the reason criminals don’t get let out at two-thirds through their sentence is because they’re let out half way?”