Leading article: Charles Clarke must go

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We come to the conclusion that the Home Secretary should resign not because we think that he is a bad or ill-intentioned minister. On the contrary, he is one of the genuine political heavyweights of this Government, among the best able to explain and defend its policies. It may be that he should continue to serve in a different capacity. Nor do we take the nostalgic view that ministers used to be more ready to accept the principle of responsibility. As John Rentoul points out on page 31, Cabinet ministers have almost never resigned because their departments have made a mess of things. The last one to do so was Sir Thomas Dugdale, who resigned as Minister of Agriculture in 1954 because his ministry unfairly refused to return land that had been compulsorily purchased in the war.

But that is not how it should be. The case is unanswerable that, if a minister knows of a serious problem that requires urgent action and fails to ensure that such action is taken, he or she should pay a price. Mr Clarke does not pretend, to his credit, that the release of foreign prisoners without considering them for deportation is a minor issue. As he began to concede on Friday, at least five people who probably should have been deported have been convicted since their release of serious offences. Full details of those five crimes have not been given, but they "included drugs offences, violent disorder, grievous or actual bodily harm". In other words, Mr Clarke's failure has had actual bodily consequences for an unknown number of victims.

The Home Secretary has also shown a lack of candour. One of his strengths as a politician has been his openness and his willingness to engage directly with criticism. He has exploited that reputation in his response to this crisis. His approach has been to give every appearance of complete disclosure, abject apology and total dedication to rounding up as many of the wrongly released 1,023 as possible. There are problems with all three elements of this strategy. First, as we report today, he has not been as candid as he could and should have been. He has known about the problem since last July, and should have appreciated its seriousness then. As it became inevitable that the full extent of the problem would emerge, the Government sought to manage the process to try to reduce its impact, delaying the statement in Parliament and the publication of details until late on Friday. When they came, the details were partial - not including the full breakdown of the original crimes committed by the most serious offenders (revealed for the first time in our pages), or their names. The transparent hope of the Government is that the police will find these people before journalists do, so that the clean-up operation can be presented as under way. That is to put saving Mr Clarke's neck before the public interest.

Second, an apology is not enough, not least because the urgency of the third element of the strategy - the hunt for the bolted horses - has exposed the slackness of Mr Clarke's initial response. It is hard to comprehend why the Home Secretary did not simply issue an instruction last summer that no foreign prisoners were to be released until deportation proceedings were completed. Of course, as Mr Clarke has said, making changes in large bureaucracies such as the Prison Service and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate is like turning a supertanker. But since the scandal became headline news five days ago, the entire Home Office fleet has been spinning on a sixpence.

There are good arguments why Mr Clarke should stay. He has a deeper understanding of the Home Office in all its baroque dysfunctionality than John Hutton, his most likely successor. But they are trumped by the simple requirement of accountability. The public is less safe as a result of Mr Clarke's culpable mismanagement of his department. He should go.