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A question of competence

Jacqui Smith's tenure at the Home Office has been mired in controversy. The country deserves better,

When John Reid became Home Secretary he infamously described his new department as being "not fit for purpose". Despite shunting off various responsibilities to the newly created Ministry of Justice, his bruising style, like that of his predecessors, failed to get a grip on New Labour’s most dysfunctional ministry. On becoming Prime Minister, Gordon Brown decided to try a new approach and appointed the first female Home Secretary in British political history. After a quietly effective spell as Chief Whip, Jacqui Smith was expected to usher in a softer, less controversial era at the Home Office. In hindsight, that looks optimistic. Since the widespread praise she received for her handling of the terrorist attacks in her first day in office, Ms Smith has failed to live up to that brief.

Once behind the desk the Home Secretary has, like her predecessors, found it easier to peddle the easy answers of authoritarianism. It was she who forced 42 days detention without charge through the Commons in the face of almost universal opposition from all sides and from outside Parliament. Not for the first time, it needed the Lords to stop a Labour Home Secretary from riding roughshod over our hard-won liberties. Jacqui Smith has continued to push ID cards, forcing them on foreign nationals and airport staff, and telling the rest of us that we will have to pay at least £30 for this dubious pleasure. She expressed her disappointment at the unanimous decision by the European Court of Human Rights to remove innocent people from the DNA database, and has her heart set on being able to dip into databases of our emails and phone calls. She has even made it illegal to photograph the police, a provision thankfully ignored at the recent G20 protests. Cannabis was reclassified as a Class B drug despite the contrary evidence provided by her own body of experts.

The growing debate, however, around Jacqui Smith’s position is not just down to her authoritarianism. After twelve years of New Labour, most of us are used to that. It is equally about her competence. She reached the right conclusions about police reform: we needed to jettison centralised targets, and put in place real local accountability. But she has now ditched elected police authorities, having failed to win support from Labour councillors. So we are back to the old model of police governance that New Labour found unsatisfactory when it introduced national targets, and there is no reason to suppose it will work better this time.

Jacqui Smith’s handling of the Damien Green saga was embarrassing: even if we take her at her word that this was an official-level expedition, in which her permanent secretary and the Cabinet Office authorised a police complaint in a highly political area without consulting her, it was surely extraordinary not to put a stop to it as soon as it was out. It is unacceptable for a Home Secretary to invoke national security concerns when none exist to arrest a Member of Parliament. We know no national security concerns exist because no less than the director of public prosecutions said so when reviewing the evidence. In Britain, we simply do not duff up opposition MPs in this way.

The recent terror raids and subsequent lack of charges should also embarrass the Home Office. Ministers have admitted that student visas are the weak link in our border security, but they now seem intent on deporting men who they admit they do not have the evidence to charge. To make matters worse, Ms Smith’s personal affairs are now the subject of negative headlines. The public have every right to be angered about the misuse of MPs' expenses, and the vision of MPs arranging their domestic affairs so as to maximise their take from the public purse. None of this has done anything to bolster Jacqui Smith’s moral authority. It is not good enough for any MP, let alone the person charged with maintaining law and order.

As we suffer the deepest recession since the Second World War, it is highly likely that acquisitive crime will rise sharply. A leaked Home Office paper says so, and this is one forecast the department has got right. The country requires a Home Secretary with a safe pair of hands. Someone they can trust to take action to prevent crime and terrorism and secure our borders and not just spout tough rhetoric for the tabloids. Even a recent poll of Labour members revealed that Ms Smith was viewed as the worst performing member of the cabinet. Newspaper editorials are full of calls for her to go. Sadly for her, there is a reason why so few people feel she is not doing a good enough job. Objectively, she is not. The country deserves better.

Chris Huhne is the Liberal Democrat shadow home secretary