Leading article: A saga of failure and grandiose follies

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The Independent Online

An internal inquiry is looking into the fiasco at the Home Office over prisoner records, but we already know that at the root of this problem was a simple failure by the police to process information. More than 27,000 convictions of Britons abroad were allowed to pile up in a Home Office storage room without being entered into the Police National Computer. A similarly mundane oversight lay at the heart of last year's scandal that saw more than 1,000 foreign prisoners released after their sentences had ended, rather than deported as ordered by the courts. It turns out that one department of the Home Office was not communicating with another.

Yet these sort of problems are part of a larger picture. An internal Home Office report this week warned of chaos in the UK's border controls, with immigration officers under pressure to allow foreign travellers into Britain, even when there are doubts over their status. These are problems resulting from official incompetence, and they are classic signs of a poorly managed organisation.

One would have imagined the Government would have its hands full eradicating these deficiencies. Instead, what we get are more grandiose, ill-conceived projects. The latest folly to emerge from the Home Office is legislation to establish Serious Crime Prevention Orders, or "super Asbos", aimed at disrupting and seizing the assets of those involved in organised crime. This comes straight out of the New Labour playbook. It is a "headline-grabbing initiative" designed to distract the public's attention from official shortcomings in other areas. It is also dangerously illiberal, designed to bypass the criminal courts and impose punishments on a lower standard of proof.

Yesterday the Home Secretary, John Reid, challenged opposition MPs to support the legislation or face (presumably) the prospect of being labelled by the Government as "soft" on crime. Yet this kind of political offensive has long since lost its force. Two years ago, the Government hastily introduced a system of control orders after its policy of imposing indefinite detention on terror suspects was thrown out by the Law Lords. Yet now it emerges that the authorities have lost track of three of the 18 people targeted by these orders. Not only was this policy wrong in first place - these men should have been brought to trial if there was compelling evidence against them - but the systems in place to "control" them were deficient. The Government is in no position to lecture others when it comes to matters of criminal justice. It has created more than 3,000 new criminal offences, yet had no significant impact on reducing crime levels.

Indeed, the control orders débâcle sums up this government's entire record in this area. This has been an era of ineffective authoritarianism. This did not begin with Mr Reid's tenure in the Home Office, but he has seized on it with no less enthusiasm than his predecessors. He is still pushing the ludicrously expensive national ID card scheme. And he has done nothing to stop thousands of people who have committed no offence being added each month to the police's DNA database.

The liberal position on questions of technology and criminal justice is often wilfully misrepresented, not least by this government. There is nothing wrong with efficient databases holding the details of convicted criminals. Indeed, they can be a valuable tool for employers to vet those applying to work with children or vulnerable adults. But to jump from this, as the Prime Minister and Mr Reid do, to conclude that the Government also has a right to the details of those of us who have committed no crime whatsoever, is grotesque.

Will this Government ever learn that the solution to its woes lies not in expensive technology or sweeping new powers that trample over our fundamental civil liberties, but in fostering basic managerial competence?