Today, with many of its functions hived off to the Justice Department, the issue of foreign prisoners is once again proving politically toxic.
The revelation, in this newspaper, that so many foreign criminals are being kept at the taxpayers' expense at Lindholme Immigration Removal Centre in South Yorkshire, when they should have been deported, underlines how this country has struggled to prosecute, imprison and then remove people who come to Britain to cause harm to others.
Such a dreadful waste of public money at Lindholme is an outrage. A slow and unwieldy bureaucratic process is severely delaying the process of deportation, according to the neighbouring prison's independent monitoring board. The removal centre was only designed to house people who attempted to enter the country illegally yet now it is racking up a huge bill – 25,000 a year for each detainee – for convicts who have completed their sentences.
It poses a series of difficult questions for the coalition Government, whose Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, wants to see fewer people go to prison. How can this be achieved when it is taking so long to handle existing offenders? Why is the cost of housing foreign criminals so high? What is being done to speed their departure? A different twist on the same issue ultimately ended the frontline career of Charles Clarke when it emerged, four years ago, that more than 1,000 foreign prisoners had been freed without being considered for deportation. The furore then showed, as it does today, that how these people are handled goes to the very heart of a government's reputation.
As Mr Clarke could advise any new Minister, senior politicians sometimes need to prize competence above popularity. Whether the coalition can resolve problems like those at Lindholme will be integral to how it is judged.