The Home Office has been forced to deny claims that plans are being drawn up to release thousands of prisoners early if Britain's jails become too full.
The so-called administrative release system would, according to The Times, see inmates serving sentences of under a year freed early if the prison population became unmanageable.
"We do not need this measure to deal with immediate worries over prison population. We need it as a safety valve in the medium term when there is concern about how prisons will manage," a Whitehall source is quoted as saying.
There are currently 61,000 people who fall into this category each year. If released early, they would be placed under the supervision of the probation service.
The revelation is a major embarrassment for the Home Office, coming in the wake of the foreign prisoners scandal and a number of high-profile cases where offenders released early went on to commit horrific crimes.
Last week, new home secretary John Reid said: "People want serious crime treated seriously. We must make sure offenders don't always have leniency on their side."
However, the Home Office has this morning firmly denied the claims, saying: "No such policy proposals have gone to ministers on this issue. This is not something ministers are currently considering."
There are currently 77,640 people held in jails in England and Wales, an increase of more than 2,600 on the previous year and 25,000 in the past decade.
England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe at 143 per 100,000 of the population, compared to just 88 per 100,000 in France and 97 per 100,000 in Germany.
Plans for administrative release, which was used by the Conservative government in the 1980s, were reportedly included in a bill to overhaul the probation service. The legislation was abandoned but The Times claims the plans were not.