The political survival of the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, lies on a knife-edge as he prepares to disclose today how many of the 1,023 offenders freed over the past seven years without deportation hearings have been tracked down.
As police and probation officers worked into the night trying to locate the "missing" offenders, Home Office officials conceded that Mr Clarke could be forced to quit if foreign criminals who should have been deported reoffended after release.
The impression of chaos in his department was underlined as it emerged that 1,500 more foreign prisoners than previously believed are in jail in England and Wales - 915 inmates of unknown nationality and 600 who falsely claim to be British.
The publication of crime figures showing a rise in robberies and drug offences piled further pressure on Mr Clarke. Violent crime rose by 1 per cent in the final three months of 2005, robbery by 6 per cent, sexual offences by 3 per cent and drug crime by 21 per cent. The statistics appeared to show that a long-running trend of declining overall crime levels may have ended.
Labour had planned to put the fight against crime at the heart of its local election campaign. Party chiefs had earmarked yesterday for a "Labour campaign event" in which Tony Blair would challenge the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats over their law and order policies. In the end, Mr Blair made a low-key visit to Newham, east London, where he met police officers and community support officers.
Mr Blair insisted that the Home Secretary should be allowed to get on with the job. He said: "To be fair to him, he is actually sorting it out now. I think he should get on and sort it out."
The names of 900 of the "missing" offenders have been forwarded to the Association of Chief Police Officers, which is feeding their identities through the Police National Computer. Senior probation staff have been checking their records in an attempt initially to find the 80 most serious offenders.
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "This combination of ignorance and incompetence on the part of the Home Office compounds even further the Home Secretary's inability to carry out his first duty of protecting public safety."Reuse content