Mark Thomas writes a letter to Michael Howard

The government will charge prisoners "bed and board" if their appeals succeed. That's the spirit. Th

Earlier this week Mark Thomas was abducted by a group of extremist English teachers, the Syntax Liberation Front. In place of his column, the editor has decided to publish a letter, intended for Michael Howard, leader of the Conservative Party. This was misdirected to the New Statesman office.

Dear Mr Howard,

I write to you from a nursing home in Kent where I am recovering from a stroke, brought on by years of apoplexy. The state of permanent rage in which I find myself dates back, almost to the very day, to the invention of the Pill and the introduction of affordable colour television.

I am a lifelong member of the Conservative Party and so, naturally, voted for Ukip at the last elections. I speak as I find and judge on merit. I do not regard myself as prejudiced in any way - indeed, many of the staff at the nursing home are black, but pleasant.

So let me get straight to the point. If we are to revive the electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party, we need a man who can lead the party with discipline, unflinching vision, charisma and an iron grip on law and order. That man, Mr Howard, is not you. You have the charisma of a bollard, the vision of a bat and all the dignity and discipline of a brandy-quaffing flamingo.

As a patriot, a Daily Mail reader and a driver with no points on my licence, I must therefore demand that you step aside and make way for the only man fit to lead the Conservative Party into the future, the Right Honourable David Blunkett. Obviously there is a slight problem here, in that he is a member of the Labour Party, a party he is probably loath to leave. I therefore propose that every Tory MP cross the floor, defect to Labour, create a rump of David Blunkett supporters, oust Tony Blair and bring in our man.

Let me give you just one example of why Mr Blunkett is the logical choice.

For some time, the British legal system has been imprisoning people only to release them some years later, on the mere technicality that they are innocent. The Birmingham Six, the Tottenham Three, the Bridgewater Four and all manner of people who appear to have postcodes rather than names are being set free.

This is an outrage.* It makes a mockery of all the work and diligence the police put into these cases. It is difficult enough to convict guilty criminals; imagine how much harder the police have to work to convict the innocent.

Having been freed, these men and women add insult to injury by claiming compensation. So the taxpayer has to stump up once again. Well, the worm has turned, and it is Blunkett who has turned it.

On 29 July, the Home Office won an important case at the appeal court. This gave the government the right to charge these innocent men and women for the "bed and board" they received while in prison.

That's the spirit, Blunkett, say I. That will teach them to be innocent while looking guilty, to sponge off the state, getting free clothes, food, shelter and not even having to think about paying the dreaded Stalinist TV licence fee.

Mike O'Brien (not the Labour minister, unfortunately) was imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit and served 11 years and 43 days in prison. Blunkett is charging him a mere £37,158 for having received bed and board throughout this period. I should note that O'Brien intends to take his case to the House of Lords. However, I am sure that centuries of appropriate inbreeding will deliver the right verdict and he will be slung out on his ear.

Once more our nation can hold its head up high as, I am proud to say, Britain is the only country in Europe to do this. I have now had the nursing staff erect bunting to celebrate this fact.

However, why stop at charging the innocent? If students can get loans to pay their way through so-called university, why not introduce prisoners' loans? Then they could pay for their own imprisonment. The better prisons would be able to charge higher fees and operate a "selective prison service", thus introducing an element of prisoner choice in their destination. Naturally, they would leave prison with thousands of pounds' worth of debt, but what better incentive to go and find a proper job?

I would be surprised if Mr Blunkett has not already thought of this.

Yours in vein-popping

anger, Mr Reginald Arsemelt

* I apologise for the omission of the necessary exclamation mark at the end of this sentence. I am afraid that I broke this key on my typewriter while writing my previous letter to you regarding the euro.