Leading article: A flawed attempt to keep the wolves at bay and salvage some dignity

As is apparent from the Home Secretary's demeanour, he is far from being out of the woods

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The desperate scramble for information behind the glass walls of the Home Office yesterday can only be imagined. But the repeated postponement of Charles Clarke's statement on the whereabouts of foreign-born former prisoners offered eloquent clues. As mid-afternoon became 4.30 became 5 and 5.30, and still no statement appeared, the scale of the political crisis was evident.

When a chastened-looking Mr Clarke finally appeared to summarise the letter he had sent to the Speaker of the Commons - Parliament not being in session - there could be no doubt that his career was hanging by a very delicate thread indeed. His language alone showed that he was using up his last vestiges of political credit. But even this could not disguise the fact that the Home Office failure had blown apart the Government's strategy of outgunning - and so neutralising - the Conservative Opposition on law and order.

The details Mr Clarke offered allowed him - just - to remain in office. Of the more than 1,000 prisoners erroneously released without a deportation hearing, all the most serious offenders had been identified. So far five of these had been re-convicted: for serious offences, but not for murder, rape or child sex offences - crimes that would have conclusively required the Home Secretary to fall on his sword.

As was apparent from the Home Secretary's demeanour, however, he is far from being out of the woods. We do not know how many of those who were released may have re-offended but not yet been convicted. We do not know how many of those convicted of lesser offences may have subsequently committed more serious crimes. The investigation is so far from complete that the Home Office will be working flat out over the holiday weekend.

Indeed, the more closely Mr Clarke's statement was examined, the more it appeared to be a holding exercise, framed in such a way as to keep the wolves of the weekend media at bay and salvage what remains of the Government's frayed dignity. Which, it has to be said, is precious little.

Mr Blair had come to power pledging, in effect, to match the Conservatives in his intolerance of crime. After the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, and with a new sense of urgency after the bombings in London, he added anti-terrorism to the mix. Swathes of new and repressive measures were adopted in an effort to make the country feel safer. Yet all the while, it transpires, the Home Office was dismally failing to use the well-established and generally uncontentious law and order powers it already possessed.

For a government that had prided itself on its professionalism - to the point of presenting itself as more technocratic than ideological - this was evidence of culpable incompetence. In a week that saw the Health Secretary shouted down by the Royal College of Nursing, revelations about the Deputy Prime Minister, and a new claim about the possible misuse of peerages, the débâcle only compounded the impression of a government in power too long. And with crime and immigration high on voters' list of priorities in the local elections, the timing could hardly be worse. If the Government was worried about the British National Party before, as it was, it has every reason to be doubly scared now.

But there is another, equally pernicious, danger here. In the concern to chase down and deport foreign felons, the risk is that inquiries will be rushed and mistakes will be made that are, in their own way, as damaging as those already made. Whatever the mitigating circumstances, it must never be forgotten that in Britain the foreign-born deserve justice, too.

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