Baroness Shirley Williams, one of the country’s most senior Liberal Democrat politicians, visited a Watford community centre this afternoon.

The former Labour MP, who co-founded the now defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981, addressed an audience of residents and party activists at the Meriden Community Centre, in Garsmouth Way.

Baroness Williams, a long-standing friend and supporter of Watford Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Sal Brinton, chatted with elderly residents, discussing issues of healthcare, education, crime, youth unemployment, and the electoral bounce provided by party leader Nick Clegg’s recent TV debate performance.

After praising Ms Brinton’s hard work and dedication to the town, she reminded voters of the crucial role they will play in the coming general election.

She said: “You in Watford carry a heavy responsibility. This is precisely the kind of seat that we need to win. You have got more than just Watford to vote for here because this is a real bellwether seat – what happens here will impact on what happens all around the country.”

Responding to complaints of crime and antisocial behaviour in the area, Baroness Williams told the Watford Observer that educational opportunities and old-fashioned style apprenticeships were preferable to more prison sentences.

She added: “First of all, one of real tragedies of the last few Conservative and Labour governments is that the entire apprenticeship system has been left to go into a state of desuetude.

“Compared to 20 years ago there is no comparison, most kids going on in education don’t get the work experience they need to get a job at the end of it. The great thing about apprenticeships was not just that they offered training, but a guaranteed job at the end.”

The former prisons minister also argued passionately that an increase in custodial sentences was not the way to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour – an issue of concern to many local residents.

She added: “We already have the largest prison population in Europe apart from Russia. We know that when young offenders have been taken into a supervised community system, with tight discipline, the level of re-offending is less than two thirds what it is in the prison system.

“Prison is a university for more crime.”