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Also a softy? Grayling promises to continue Ken Clarke's rehabilitation programe

Chris Grayling will deliver a surprisingly liberal speech on penal reform today which appears to contradict the widely-held assumption he was going to shift to the right on law and order.

He will announce that every prisoner will be given a mentor upon release to help them reintegrate back into society.

"I want [released prisoners] to be met at the prison gate, to have a place to live sorted out, to have rehab or training lined up, and above all someone who knows where they are, what they are doing, and can be a wise friend to prevent them from reoffending," he will say.

"Often it will be the former offender gone straight who is best placed to steer the young prisoner back onto the straight and narrow - the former gang member best placed to prevent younger members from rushing straight back to rejoin the gang on the streets."

But there will be concerns about the feasibility of the scheme, as it will be manned entirely by charities and volunteers. Last year alone, nearly 90,000 prisoners were released.

His speech at the Centre for Social Justice will be his first major policy announcement since he became justice secretary back in September's Cabinet reshuffle.

Having replaced the more liberal minded Ken Clarke, there were fears among Liberal Democrats in the coalition Grayling's appointment would indicate a more hard line on justice policy.

This appeared to be coming into fruition after his announcement at the Conservative party conference last month when he announced he would be changing the law to make it clearer that homeowners could defend their property against intruders – allowing the use of force which might "in the cold light of day appear disproportionate".

But the focus on rehabilitation was been welcomed by Rob Owen, chief executive of the St Giles Trust.

"We salute the opportunity for this revolution to flourish, to become part of the mainstream way things are done, so that those who really do want to change, but don't know how to, will now have a fighting chance," he said.

"This will mean many fewer future victims of crime – an achievement which will bring huge benefits for everyone in society."

Although the announcement was welcomed by Labour, shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan argued that with cuts to the prison service the plan was not realistic.

"Labour supports attempts that truly punish and reform those in prison, and rehabilitate them in order to prevent re-offending," he said.

"But when the Ministry of Justice is losing a quarter of its budget and thousands of prison and probation officers are losing their jobs the numbers simply don't add up."