Prisons row gets personal

Blair and Cameron get het up over prisons
Blair and Cameron get het up over prisons

David Cameron and Tony Blair waged a war of words today on who was tougher on crime during a prime minister's questions dominated by yet another Home Office row.

The Conservative leader accused the government of putting the public at risk by failing to build enough prison places, as the jail population reached capacity this week.

Home secretary John Reid last night urged the courts to send only dangerous offenders to jail, as part of his desperate attempts to find places for 80,000 prisoners.

In the House of Commons this lunchtime, Mr Cameron demanded a guarantee that his efforts would not see criminals released early, and ensure instead that all other options, including using police cells and prison ships, were exhausted first.

The prime minister replied that "all options are of course kept under consideration" but insisted the government had done all it could on prisons, having built 20,000 more places since it came to power, with plans for a further 8,000 by 2012.

Mr Blair said the problem was not prison places but the increase in inmates, largely because of tougher and longer sentences - he claimed there were 40 per cent more dangerous offenders in prison than under the Tories.

Mr Cameron asked whether the proposals to split the Home Office in two, as mooted by the home secretary and lord chancellor this weekend, would improve the situation - and crucially, whether they had the support of chancellor Gordon Brown.

The prime minister said the issue had nothing to do with prisons, as the proposals were designed to improve the Home Office's work on national security, and continued attacking the Tories for opposing investment in jail places and tougher sentences.

"In respect of prisons, whatever the different structures in the Home Office there is only one way we are going to deal with problems in our prisons is to build more prison places and make sure we have violent and persistent offenders behind bars," he said.

"All of that investment, all of it, has been opposed by him."

But Mr Cameron continued to ask whether Mr Brown - the expected future prime minister - agreed with the changes to the department, and took Mr Blair's silence on the matter as a statement that he did not.

"We've got prisoners on the run, we've got prisons overcrowded and all the government can do is float half-baked schemes for breaking up the Home Office that they can't even agree about," the Tory leader declared.

"Hasn't this government now become like the ship stranded off the Devon coast, it's washed up, broken up and they're just scrambling over the wreckage?"

But Mr Blair was on a roll about prisons, and insisted he would not take lessons from a Conservative party that "used to be the party of law and order [but] now votes against the tough measure and investment".


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