How bad must it be before they go?

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor He's still there. Much to my surprise, home secretary Charles Clarke is still in office. And as a demonstration of defiance of political gravity it is very impressive.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

He's still there. Much to my surprise, home secretary Charles Clarke is still in office. And as a demonstration of defiance of political gravity it is very impressive.

Deputy prime minister John Prescott is still in office too. Each is helping the other in shifting attention at key moments. But as day after day passes without resignations, one senses that the concepts of personal and ministerial responsibility are being substantially redefined.

When I was reading politics at university, the Crichel Down case of 1954 was repeatedly cited as an example of what ministerial responsibility meant. Agriculture minister Sir Thomas Dugdale resigned over a dispute about his department's use of land purchased by the government in 1938. It was generally accepted that he was not personally culpable at all, but he carried the can for his department. Fifty years on, we seem to be a million miles away from such thinking. These days ministers don't resign. Ruth Kelly didn't. Tessa Jowell didn't. And the only one who has even offered to go is Mr Clarke. (Just how serious his offer was, is one of the things I haven't been able to establish.)

Two other questions I have not been able to get answers to are: When exactly was Mr Clarke put fully in the picture about the debacle concerning foreign prisoners who were released without being assessed for deportation? And when he did know everything he needed to, what rectifying action did he order?

A point we can be certain of is that the Norwich MP was in no way responsible for the rape case the Sunday Times splashed on this week. A Somali, Abulrahman Osman, raped a woman in Sheffield in September 2004 after being released from prison in 2003.

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On both dates Mr Clarke was education secretary - he didn't become home secretary until December 2004 - but the Sunday Times saw fit to carry the rape victim's call for his resignation without mentioning that salient fact.

But just how long was it after he took over at the home office that he became fully aware of the horrific shambles it had got into with foreign prisoners?

I heard him suggest last week on the Today programme that he learned everything last autumn. Since then it has been repeatedly claimed that he has been completely in the know since last June. Of the 1023 foreign prisoners freed between 1999 and 2006 without being considered for deportation, 288 were released since last summer.

On Sunday, however, it was alleged that Mr Clarke had kept the prime minister in the dark for over three weeks after being informed, on March 30, that the foreign prisoners released without assessment for deportation included some convicted of serious offences such as murder and rape.

Obviously, if Mr Clarke discovered this only at the end of March, he could not have been fully aware last autumn let alone last June. So what was it?

The degree to which he was personally responsible for his department's failings remains a matter of dispute (not least because of the difficulty in finding basic factual information). But there can be little argument that the level of incompetence uncovered there is so basic as to be almost unbelievable. Even Mr Clarke has agreed that the home office is "dysfunctional".

How difficult can it be for the department to know how many of the inmates of Her Majesty's prisons are foreigners? A system whereby foreign prisoners who have committed serious offences are automatically considered for deportation ought overall to be easy to operate. And once it was found it wasn't working, it should have been simple to put it to rights. I just don't buy this 'turning round an oil tanker' stuff.

The ineptitude is so elementary that one does have to wonder whether it could really have been that. What about the conspiracy theory - that people due for consideration for deportation were deliberately released because it was feared many of them would claim asylum and therefore push up figures the government was trying to get down? Isn't this hypothesis worthy of scrutiny?

While the argument about Mr Clarke and Mr Prescott rumbles on towards some sort of messy resolution, I was struck by the report of a 66-year-old woman from Bournemouth being arrested, and spending a night in the cells, after confronting a gang of youths who had been troubling her and giving an 11-year-old boy 'a clip round the ear'. It and the foreign prisoner releases summarises much of what is wrong with law and order today.

By the way, if there is a cock-up in this column, I shall employ it as an argument for carrying on. It's a potentially useful maxim.