Government policy on sentencing serious offenders was in disarray last night after it emerged that 53 prisoners given life sentences in the past six years had already been released.

While John Reid was criticising judges for an "unduly lenient" prison sentence term given to a paedophile who abducted and sexually assaulted a three-year-old girl, figures from the Home Office showed that increasing numbers of life prisoners were being returned to the community.

It also emerged that the Criminal Justice Act of 2003 required all prisoners sentenced to more than 12 months to be released after half of their sentence.

Sentencing powers introduced in 2000 required judges to take account of early release provisions when setting the minimum term for a discretionary life sentence.

However, Mr Reid, who was appointed Home Secretary six weeks ago, backed criticism of judges for imposing "soft" sentences when he publicly denounced a five-year minimum tariff imposed on the child abductor Craig Sweeney.

While his tough stance was defended by Downing Street, it was undermined by the Home Office, which told MPs that 53 life sentence prisoners who were sentenced from 2000 onwards had been released on licence,

The Home Office also admitted that there were another 23 released "lifers" whose licences had been revoked but were "unlawfully at large" pending their arrest and return to custody.

In a Commons written answer, Gerry Sutcliffe, the Home Office minister, said the main criteria governing the release of the 53 lifers was that they had served the period of imprisonment "necessary for the purpose of retribution and deterrence and that their risk to the public was acceptable".

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, accused Mr Reid of "rank hypocrisy" in blaming judges for sentences that were a direct consequence of recent Government legislation.

"It is bad enough that John Reid gives himself the right to second guess a sentence within hours of it being passed, but it is also extremely cynical when he must know that the possible deductions in Sweeney's custodial sentence results from legislation which only came into effect in April last year," Mr Clegg said.

David Davies, the Conservative MP for Monmouth, whose Commons question revealed that the 53 "lifers" had been released, said. ''It's appalling but not very surprising that over 50 people, including murderers, rapists and other violent offenders have been let loose on the streets at the whim of the Parole Board.

"I hope anyone who is a victim of a offence as a result of this will take legal action against the Parole Board and the Home Office," he said.

Lawyers and MPs backed Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, who had rebuked Mr Reid for "unhelpful" remarks that could be seen as putting him under political pressure to ask the Court of Appeal to increase the sentence. Mr Reid had fired off a letter to Lord Goldsmith on Monday voicing concern over what he described as the "unduly lenient" sentence imposed on Sweeney, a convicted paedophile who kidnapped and sexually assaulted the three-year-old.

The judge at Cardiff Crown Court gave a notional sentence of 18 years, but this was halved to reach the actual sentence. He was then obliged to cut off a third in view of the guilty plea.

Lord Goldsmith, who has the power to refer the sentence to the Court of Appeal, rushed out a statement making clear he would not bow to political or public pressure.

His rebuke was an embarrassment for Mr Reid, who was parachuted into the Home Office in last month's Cabinet reshuffle and is struggling to assert his authority.

Lord Goldsmith made clear to Mr Reid yesterday that it would have been better for his critical comments to have been made in private. While Mr Reid was entitled to his view, he should not have given the impression of appearing to pre-empt the Attorney General's own decision in the case.

Officials said it was a "brief conservation to clear the air" but it was clear that relations between the two ministers remained tense. Downing Street defended Mr Reid's right to "articulate public concern" but also insisted that the Attorney General was carrying out a separate, independent legal process.

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