Steve Richards: The saga of Charles Clarke and the foreign criminals is a salutary tale of our times

He opts for humble candour and a sense of urgency now. But why did he not act earlier?
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The Independent Online

What a tale of modern politics, a narrative for our times: At the weekend, Tony Blair wrote in an e-mail exchange with a journalist that he would hound criminals until they leave the country.

Now it emerges that foreign murderers and rapists roam free in the country. Earlier this week, Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, set aside time to warn the media about its deliberate or inadvertent incompetence in reporting pivotal political issues. Now he fights to save his own career after a colossal cock up in the Home Office.

There is a link between Mr Blair and Mr Clarke rushing to the media to defend their positions and the crisis that engulfs the Home Office. At any time, day or night, Mr Blair and Mr Clarke stand ready to respond to the media. The newspapers hold them to account relentlessly and persistently. When a front page makes a startling assertion ministers fume restlessly. Seconds later, they respond. Sooner or later, they shape policy partly on the basis of demands from the media.

I understand why they do this. The media is too powerful in this country. Parts of it spin stories more artfully and destructively than those who speak for politicians. Most recently, a bunch of cautious ministerial policy makers, of which Mr Clarke is one, have been portrayed in some quarters as deranged totalitarians. Not surprisingly they seek some balance.

My point is a different one. Imagine if last summer a powerful newspaper had run front- page stories about foreign criminals being mistakenly released into the community when they should have been deported. Downing Street would have been on to the Home Office within moments of the first editions landing on its doorstep: Do something now! An urgent internal inquiry would have taken place and if necessary, Mr Clarke would have personally accompanied foreign criminals to Heathrow airport to wave them off, thereby guaranteeing their deportation and a photo opportunity. Not another foreign criminal would have gone free.

Instead as his political opponents pointed out yesterday, Mr Clarke was alerted to the situation and failed to stop it. A further 288 prisoners were released. Indeed the rate of release accelerated and was only brought under control this month. This is the area where Mr Clarke is vulnerable. He opts for humble candour and an energy draining sense of urgency now. Home Office officials will not be sleeping for days as they try to get a grip. But why did he not act earlier?

I assume part of the answer is that the media was not on the case. The systemic breakdown at the Home Office surfaced through other means. There were warnings from the national audit office and pressure groups. MPs on the Public Accounts Committee posed persistent questions. The media did not notice and the Government's antennae were less alert. Mr Clarke invested more cash in the system last summer. He made a start. Admittedly parts of the Home Office are slow to respond and Mr Clarke was dealing also with the nightmare of the 7 July bombings. (Note how quickly Mr Blair met the media demands over that issue with a series of populist security proposals most of which have not been implemented).

But at the top there appears to have been no urgency over the deportation of foreign criminals, a story that obviously contained explosive ingredients for a government gripped by the need to appear tough on crime. If a right- wing columnist writes a wildly tendentious column about the Government's approach to civil liberties Mr Clarke heads for the word processor to compose a detailed response within seconds. Yet over the deportation of foreign criminals Mr Clarke appears to have taken his time.

He raised some more cash and began to make changes to the system. Evidently this was an inadequate response. That is why this is a narrative for our political times. It is about accountability and ministerial priorities in an era of a powerfully distorting media. The lessons are obvious too.

Ministers must learn to leap more quickly to attention when Parliament is on their case. The Public Accounts Committee that exposed the current drama is not alone. Other parliamentary committees have produced reports with forensic criticisms of the current "choice" agenda being promoted by Downing Street for health and education. The reports were informed, considered and evidence based. They were largely ignored.

But accountability is multi- layered. While ministers are obsessed with the media, the media is preoccupied to excess with the activities of relatively powerless ministers. Many unelected officials wield significant power without any light being shed on their activities.

In this latest example, the Home Office is vast and run by civil servants across a range of complex policy areas. Home secretaries come and go. They cannot transform the culture of the department single-handedly. They do not have time to do so.

Soon after this government came to power in 1997, ministers expressed, privately, alarm about elements of the Whitehall machine, from its antiquated computer system to the indifference in some cases to the delivery of services compared with the process. I was told then that the Home Office was particularly culpable. From Tony Blair downwards, the Government resolved to change the Whitehall culture, but was attacked in the mighty media for being control freaks and seeking to challenge the glorious neutrality of the civil service. It did not dare to do very much. Predictably the debate has been turned on its head. Yesterday, Mr Clarke was asked in some interviews why the Government had not done more to change the culture in the Home Office after nine years. The answer is, that it tried and was torn apart for doing so.

If a minister crosses the road he or she is inundated with interview requests about the significance of the action. Yet officials are protected by near anonymity. Ultimately Mr Clarke is responsible, but who were the officials in the prison service who failed to alert immigration officials when foreign prisoners were reaching the end of a sentence? Even when the procedures were improved why could the Home Office not cope? Which officials failed to realise the implications of an ability not to cope? Ministers are scrutinised to the point of tedium. Unelected wielders of power become complacent because they are not scrutinised enough.

Mr Blair and Mr Clarke are too bothered about proving to the media that they are tough on crime. Some of those responsible for delivering the services on the ground are not bothered enough about proving to a wider public that they are up to the job. In the vacuum arising from these contrasting priorities murderers and rapists are free and possibly innocent suspects are held without charge.