Blair to unveil another justice system overhaul

Tony Blair is expected to outline changes to the criminal justice system next week – despite being told by a former prisons chief to “shut up” and stop interfering.

The prime minister is likely to promise new legislation before the summer recess and also call for changes in the way decisions are made about the release of serious offenders.

However, Lord Ramsbottom, a former chief inspector of prisons, warned the prison and probation services were already struggling with the current jail population – and said a new round of initiatives to lock up more people would not help.

“The staff, particularly, are having to look after far too many people and they have not got time to devote to the real needs of preventing people from re-offending,” he told BBC Two’s Daily Politics.

“I just wish Tony Blair would shut up, frankly. One of the problems there has been recently is announcement after announcement from the prime minister that he is going to do this, that, and the other and that more people are going to come in for longer.”

Mr Blair’s speech will attempt to draw a line under this week’s row over sentencing, which began after a convicted paedophile was told he could be out in five years despite being given a life sentence for sexually assaulting a three-year-old girl.

Home secretary John Reid criticised the sentence as “unduly lenient”, prompting a row with the attorney general, who said he would review the case but on it merits, not due to “public or political pressure”.

Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, prisoners serving a sentence of a year or more can be released at the half way point and spend the rest of time under supervision in the community. If they break their licence conditions, they can be recalled to jail.

Yesterday Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, said he would be looking into the sentencing framework, which includes the early release procedures and also the reduction by a third of sentences granted to people who plead guilty.

But Lord Ramsbottom warned the probation service was already struggling to supervise more than a quarter of a million people without the staff or resources.

“It is no good the government blaming them for not doing what they should do if they are being overwhelmed and not resourced to do what the prime minister appears to want them to do,” he said.

Lord Falconer said judges should not be used as “whipping boys” for failures in the sentencing system, but admitted that public concerns about the way criminals were sentenced did need to be addressed.

However, legal experts have warned against scrapping the reduction for a guilty plea, saying it is the only incentive for offenders to confess, thus ensuring victims do not have to give evidence in court and speeding up the whole justice process.

Human rights campaigners Liberty have also warned that greater use of the indeterminate life sentences introduced under the 2003 act, where people face never being released, could act as a disincentive for prisoners to engage in rehabilitation.