How a Norfolk MP toppled a minister

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Norfolk no longer has a government minister, but it does now have the Commons "backbencher of the year" - South Norfolk Tory MP Richard Bacon.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Norfolk no longer has a government minister, but it does now have the Commons "backbencher of the year" - South Norfolk Tory MP Richard Bacon.

And these facts are connected.

It was Mr Bacon who began the trail of questioning that led to Charles Clarke losing his job as home secretary in May over the debacle concerning the release of foreign prisoners.

And this was formally cited when he was awarded his 'top backbencher' accolade this week after a ballot by fellow MPs.

Soon after succeeding Lord (John) MacGregor as the MP for his constituency in 2001, Mr Bacon was appointed to the Commons public accounts committee.

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And it was on that committee last October that he asked a question that eventually cost Mr Clarke his position, gave the government one of its nastiest frights and led to this week's announcements of a big shake-up in the Home Office.

He asked the then permanent secretary of that department, Sir John Gieve, how many failed asylum applicants had been released from prison into the community because their removal could not be arranged.

Having been given a figure, "around 500", he then asked for a note with detailed information about the number of criminals who were failed asylum seekers and had been released from prison: "How many there are, where they are, what type of crime they have committed, what sentences they were given and how long they served."

A partial answer came in March. It failed to say where the relevant people were, what crimes they had committed, what sentences they were given and how long they served.

So Mr Bacon pursued the matter with a letter to Sir John's successor, Sir David Normington.

A month later, Mr Clarke made a written statement to the Commons and apologised to the public accounts committee for giving incomplete information. It was revealed that "between February 1999 and March 2006, a total of 1,023 foreign national criminals, who should have been considered for deportation or removal, completed their prison sentences and were released without any consideration of deportation or removal action".

Just over a week later, Mr Clarke ceased to be home secretary.

His purpose had not been to bring Mr Clarke down, Mr Bacon, 43, re-emphasised yesterday. His aim on this, as with other matters investigated by the PAC, was "to ensure that we have honest and sound government".

Stressing that he was honoured that his colleagues had chosen him for the award, he continued: "As MPs we represent constit-uents who pay tax and want effect-ive and efficient public services, including prisons that protect the public rather than making the streets more dangerous.

"The more I see of public life, the more I am convinced we should spend slightly less time on new policies and rather more time injecting large doses of common sense into how public services are run."