Leading article: A case of incompetence and distorted priorities

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It is unlikely that Charles Clarke is savouring the irony. In the same week that the Home Secretary decides to launch an attack on the liberal media for daring to criticise the Government's record of knee-jerk authoritarianism, it is revealed that the same minister has been failing to perform one of his most basic duties. This is unfortunate timing for Mr Clarke's crusade against "lazy" journalism, to put it mildly.

It turns out that in the past seven years, just over 1,000 foreign nationals convicted of serious offences have been released from British prisons without being considered for deportation - something now required by the Home Office's own guidelines. Around 100 have been tracked down, but the rest have disappeared. Mr Clarke blames a breakdown in communication between prison chiefs and immigration officers. That is no doubt true enough. But the roots of this affair lie in the way this Government goes about its business.

Even after being warned of a major problem last summer, Mr Clarke failed to prevent a further 288 foreign prisoners slipping through the net. The Home Secretary defends this slow response by claiming that changing procedures in Home Office agencies is like turning around an oil tanker. This would be more credible if Mr Clarke had not personally spent much of the past year pushing through grossly illiberal legislation, such as a national ID card scheme and outlawing the "glorification" of terrorism. If only some of this energy had been spent on sorting out glaring administrative problems.

But then, such work does not attract enough "tough on crime" headlines. The Prime Minister and successive Home Secretaries have been pumping out an average of three crime and security Bills every year. Each has been proclaimed as a revolutionary new method for keeping us safer. Yet basic administrative incompetence, rather than a shortage of legislation, may have been the greater threat to public safety.

A sense of proportion is necessary. We should remember that all these individuals concerned served their sentences - and a foreign criminal released into the community is not necessarily a greater danger to the public than a British one. We should also acknowledge that not all of them would necessarily have been deported.

We must also be very careful about the wider lessons we draw from this fiasco. The passions aroused by this case have already begun to feed some nasty forces in our society. The right-wing media has used it to bolster its tirades against "our porous borders" with the vicious implication that all immigrants are potential criminals. And lurid headlines featuring "missing" foreign criminals could easily help the BNP, already benefiting from a surge in publicity, in the coming local elections. The general sense of panic about crime has been regrettably stoked by this whole business too.

This is, however, a serious administrative blunder. And it reveals something disturbing about the way this Government works. Mr Clarke appears to regard the Home Office as primarily a political base and a pulpit from which to lecture the press, rather than a department of government that needs direction and leadership. The public is entitled to demand that he now devote more time performing his basic duties as Home Secretary - however mundane he may find them.

The real lesson of this affair is that ministers should busy themselves with making sure that existing systems function properly, rather than spending all their time dreaming up eye-catching initiatives and playing petty party politics. Ultimately, it would be a travesty if we allowed the incompetence of Mr Clarke to be used as an excuse for yet more repressive legislation or to add to the mindless hysteria over foreigners.

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