The leaders of the main parties have been sharply criticised for “politicising” the London Bridge terror attack in the run up to the General Election.
Following a series of heated changes over the weekend involving Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, Dame Louise Casey – a former government adviser on community cohesion – said both sides were oversimplifying the issue.
And former Tory justice minister Phillip Lee – who has since defected to the Lib Dems – launched an attack on Mr Johnson, accusing him of “lying and misleading” in the wake of the tragedy.
“The desperate, sort of, politicisation of this by Boris Johnson – not a man who is known for details – wading into something which is actually quite complex is not appropriate,” he told the PA news agency.
The Tories have sought to blame legislation passed under the last Labour government for the early release of Usman Khan, which meant he was let out of prison halfway through his sentence.
Labour in turn accused the Conservatives of starving the prison and probation services of resources, warning that it was impossible to “keep people safe on the cheap”.
Mr Corbyn has also linked the radicalisation of Khan – who was convicted of terrorist offences in 2012 – to the Iraq war.
However, Dame Louise said the issues were more complex than either side was prepared to allow.
“What happened over the weekend, the politicisation of this – Jeremy Corbyn saying this is all about austerity and today saying it’s all about the Iraq War, and Boris Johnson saying this is about being tough on crime and longer prison sentences – the truth is these things are much more difficult,” she told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One.
“It has got very political, very quickly about what is happening in prisons.
“Either you have to say this is all about cuts to the Prison Service and it is all about re-offending or you are saying ‘Actually there is no hope, these people are going to be dreadful when they come out, we should never the let them out of prison’.
“I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Actually I don’t think we are resourced in prisons sufficiently to deal with this.
“At the same time I actually happen to agree that it should never have been an automatic that somebody was released halfway through their sentence for a terrorist offence.”
Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn both attended a vigil at Guildhall Yard in London on Monday to honour Cambridge graduates Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, who died when Khan launched his attack on a prisoner rehabilitation event they were supporting.
Mr Merritt’s family said at the weekend that he would not have wanted his death to be used as a pretext by politicians for introducing “even more draconian sentences” for prisoners.
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said it was important to get the “tone” of the debate right but said protecting the public was the first duty of any government.
“I do think we just need to pause and get the tone of this debate right. But public protection has to be at the heart of the duty of any government,” he told the BBC.
“I have to put that first and foremost by considering first of all existing offenders and secondly the future sentencing regime for terrorism. I make no apology for that.”
Mr Corbyn, campaigning in his Islington North constituency, said convicted terrorists should have to serve a “significant proportion” of their jail sentences, and should only be released when they have been properly rehabilitated and present no threat to the public.
“I do think that continuing with the process allows people to be released ahead of final completion of their sentence if they’ve been rehabilitated and they have been suitably assessed and they are very strictly monitored when they come out – I think that must be the correct way of doing things,” he said.