Slimmed down Home Office still too big

ALL is not well with the Home Office. This “not fit for purpose” department - as it was dubbed by one time Home Secretary Dr John Reid - seems to be semi-detached from the rest of the Government and blunders its way from one crisis to another.

Graham Dines

ALL is not well with the Home Office. This “not fit for purpose” department - as it was dubbed by one time Home Secretary Dr John Reid - seems to be semi-detached from the rest of the Government and blunders its way from one crisis to another.

Having grown over the decades to be responsible for elections, law and order, crime and punishment, prisons, border controls, and immigration policy, Tony Blair took the brave but right decision to split it into two, hiving off constitutional and judicial matters to a new Ministry of Justice under a Secretary of State who also holds the ceremonial role of the Lord Chancellor.

But the Home Office, which has now moved to plush newly built offices in Marsham Street near Westminster Abbey, is still a mammoth undertaking. Sections cover policing and security, community safety - anti-social behaviour, violent crime, domestic violence, firearms and combating drugs and alcohol abuse - immigration and asylum, nationality and citizenship, identity and passports, and prostitution strategy.


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It was the downright despicable breach of parliamentary privilege by the police when they arrested opposition security spokesman Damian Green which renewed public concern over the Home Office. Scotland Yard, which sent the boys of the anti-terrorist squad into the Commons without a warrant, were investigating a series of embarrassing leaks of Home Office information to opposition parties on behalf of the Home Office's permanent secretary.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith says she knew nothing about the raids in advance and we have to believe her. But she refused to apologise to Green and it appears that the Government was privately pleased that the rozzers had duffed up a Tory.

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That's forgetting, of course, all the leaks to Labour politicians during previous Conservative administrations which were used to full impact by Gordon Brown and others.

However, Smith this week did apologise for the premature release of data on knife crime which had been capaciously spun by the Prime Minister the previous Thursday during a photo call with England soccer captain John Terry and Richard Taylor, the father of murdered by Damilola Taylor.

Ms Smith said the Government was “too quick off the mark” when it released figures showing an apparent fall in the number of teenage stab victims.

The row over the release of the knife crime data blew up last Friday when the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar, spoke out publicly against the Government's “premature, irregular and selective” use of the statistics, accusing ministers of breaching the code of conduct which they had themselves approved to fend off accusations of spin.

The Home Office figures were fed to the media suggesting that a crackdown on knife crime in 10 hotspot areas, including London, Manchester and Birmingham, had prompted a 27% fall in teenagers being taken to hospital with stabbing injuries.

The Home Office and Number 10 faced sharp criticism from the opposition parties and senior Labour backbenchers over the weekend. Tory leader David Cameron has called for an apology from Gordon Brown over the matter and Keith Vaz, Labour MP and chairman of the Commons home affairs committee, said the early release of figures "greatly undermined' public trust in the Government.

Smith was challenged in the Commons by her Tory counterpart Dominic Grieve: “Isn't one of the reasons why there are so many unauthorised disclosures in the Home Office, the fact that your department sets the example by engaging in authorised leaking when it suits your party's political purposes?

“In this context did you authorise the leak last week of partial and selective knife crime statistics in breach of the Government's own rules and against of the UK's own statistical authority, or was that all down to the Cabinet Office and Downing Street?”

“You have not apologised to the House for this gross and deliberate breach of its own rules. Sir Michael Scholar said the decision to release the spun propaganda was corrosive of public trust. If you were involved, why should you be trusted in future on what you say? If you weren't, doesn't it show yet again that you are not in charge of your department and you are in fact incapable of discharging your responsibilities properly?”

CARSWELL KEEPS UP THE PRESSURE

UNBOWED by criticism from senior Conservative colleagues, Harwich MP Douglas Carswell is pressing ahead with his localism agenda to have directly elected police chiefs.

However, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's woes increased yesterday when plans for the smaller reform of introducing directly elected members to the 43 police authorities in England and Wales were withdrawn from the Police and Criminal Justice Bill because of constabularies' fears they were being politicised.

Writing in the influential Tory magazine The Spectator this week, Mr Carswell and Euro MP Daniel Hannan use the raid on Damian Green's Commons office and home to suggest its time for voters to have greater control over chief constables.

“Even in hot countries where the leaders wear sunglasses, it would be considered disproportionate to send 20 anti-terrorist police against a middle-aged opposition politician, his wife and one of their teenage daughters,” they write.

“What we've seen is a political arrest - a political arrest, for heaven's sake. It may well be that, as ministers claim, they didn't authorise the action - though their denials have been carefully phrased and lawyerly. But that isn't really the point.

“L'affaire Green was hardly a one-off. It came after the overt lobbying by police chiefs of MPs over ID cards and 42-day detention.”

Mr Carswell and Mr Hannan say “the respectable classes, brought up to believe that the police were broadly on their side,” have felt increasingly alienated. “Every time they read of a blackguard going unmolested while a law-abiding citizen is arrested for being in possession of a penknife, or of street crime spiralling while money is channelled into hiring more diversity advisers, they feel less inclined to support the rozzers.

“This is not the fault of police officers themselves who, for the most part, do their jobs bravely and professionally. The trouble is that certain of their chiefs judged, correctly, that they would be promoted if they appeared to be more interested in condemning racism than in biffing malefactors.

“Sir Ian Blair, in particular, drained the reservoir of public goodwill towards the boys in blue. It became obvious some time ago that the (Metropolitan Police) Commissioner had lost the support of Londoners. Yet it became equally obvious that he didn't mind in the slightest, provided he retained the support of the government.

“In the aftermath of the raid on Parliament Andy Hayman, who was until recently the senior anti-terrorist officer at the Met, wrote a furious article in The Times. What bothered him was not the crassness of the incursion itself, but the presumption of London mayor Boris Johnson in opposing it.”

They accuse Hayman of condemning Johnson for “'nothing less than political interference in operational policing.”

If so, they argue, “let's have more of it. Boris is one of the few figures to emerge from the wretched business with credit.”

Three weeks ago, Mr Carswell introduced a parliamentary Bill calling for greater police accountability, only to be challenged by fellow Tory MP Sir Patrick Cormack: “This is an awful lot of populist claptrap.”

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