The former head of the Prison Service launched a withering attack yesterday on Tony Blair's law-and-order record, accusing the government of lacking 'the guts' to admit that thousands of imprisoned children, mentally ill people and petty offenders did not belong behind bars.
The extraordinary broadside from Martin Narey, who ran the service for seven years before leaving to head the children's charity Barnardo's last October, will increase pressure on the Home Secretary, John Reid, ahead of a major speech this week laying out plans to overhaul the criminal justice system.
Narey said he hoped Reid would have the courage to cut prisoner numbers by up to 10,000 from their present level of 78,443, which threatens to breach the service's 'safe' upper limit of 81,150. If he didn't, he would have no choice but to build more jails - something Labour had resisted since coming to power in 1997.
Government sources said Reid was likely to announce plans to expand capacity and build new jails, rather than pledge any early cut in numbers.
Narey told The Observer he was speaking out because the jails had reached crisis point. 'It takes guts for politicians to recognise that for some people, prison isn't the appropriate place,' he said. While criticising mistakes going back two decades, he turned his main fire on Labour: 'The only Home Secretary brave enough to point out the reality that prison is an ineffective way of dealing with petty offenders was Douglas Hurd, when he was working for Margaret Thatcher, for God's sake! He drove the prison population down by 4,000.'
Reid will also face fresh questions on the success of the government law-and-order agenda this week as new figures show a surge in the number of robberies over the last year, while many police forces have also recorded significant increases in violent crime generally.
The number of robberies - chiefly muggings - committed in England and Wales is expected to have risen by almost 10 per cent, according to Home Office figures to be published on Thursday.
An Observer survey of police forces across the country shows that, although overall levels of crime are falling, many forces are struggling to curb street crime and violent offences.
In London, robberies are up eight per cent year on year while violent crime has risen by two per cent, according to Metropolitan Police' figures. In West Yorkshire, violent crime is up nearly 10 per cent and robberies have risen by more than 15 per cent. In the West Midlands the number of violent crimes recorded by police is up almost 3 per cent, while figures to be released by the Gloucestershire force will show robberies up by 24 per cent and violent crime up by nearly 10 per cent.
Narey said that when he took over the running of prisons shortly after Blair's first election victory, about 65,000 people were locked up. The figure rose steadily due to the imprisonment of petty offenders, children and people with mental problems.
'Care in the community has become custody in the community,' said Narey. Ninety per cent of prisoners now had some mental health-related problem: alcoholism, drug addiction, psychosis, neurosis or personality disorder. About 5,000 were 'profoundly mentally ill'.
By the time Narey left, he said, he was 'frankly sick of running prisons absolutely on the edge' and writing 'a note a month to ministers' warning of the consequences. Narey was particularly concerned about the number of youngsters in jail, many due to Antisocial Behaviour Orders which 'were never intended to be applied to children'.
Last night, it emerged that Reid could be preparing to approve the first independent public inquiry into the treatment of children in jails - triggered by the case of a suicidal teenage girl with a history of abuse and drug problems, first brought to national attention by The Observer.
(c) The Observer