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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
Home Office 'damaged' by scandals
John Reid
Mr Reid was appointed home secretary three weeks ago
The Home Office's top civil servant has said recent controversies, including over foreign criminals, have "inflicted immense damage" on his department.

Sir David Normington told a police chiefs' conference recent events had "undermined confidence" in the Home Office's ability to protect the public.

Earlier this week Home Secretary John Reid told MPs the immigration service was "not fit for purpose".

Mr Reid also said the Home Office could be "dysfunctional" from time to time.

He was forced to apologise to MPs after quoting incorrect figures on foreign prisoners, supplied by his department.

He had said four murderers, as well as 23 other "most serious" offenders, were being detained.

Later he admitted one murderer, one rapist and one child sex offender had actually already been released on bail by the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal.

Sources close to Mr Reid said he only discovered the mistake after asking specific questions of Home Office staff.

A senior civil servant was moved from his current role pending an inquiry.

Sir David - who took up his position on 1 January - was speaking at the Association of Chief Police Officers' annual meeting in London.

He described recent months as being like a "tropical storm" and the past few weeks as a "hurricane".

'Customers to blame'

Meanwhile Commons leader Jack Straw has claimed the "fundamental problem" with the Home Office it is the people it deals with, rather than its staff.

He described many of its "customers" as "dysfunctional individuals" who proved to be a "burden" and a "challenge".

Commons leader Jack Straw
Mr Straw blamed difficult 'customers' rather than incompetent staff

Mr Straw said in every other area of government activity - such as health or education - the "customers of the department" were generally "willing volunteers".

This was "last thing" that applied to the people with whom the Home Office dealt, he said.

"They are dysfunctional individuals many of them: criminals, asylum seekers, people who do not wish to be subject to social control - the purpose of the Home Office.

"It is that which places the burden on the staff and provides a challenge both to staff and to ministers."

His comments were described as "utterly pathetic and distasteful" by Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

"Shame on Jack Straw for trying to shift the blame for the Home Office's poor performance by describing a marginalised and vulnerable group like asylum seekers as 'dysfunctional customers'," he said.

"Asylum seekers have come to seek our human rights protection. They are certainly not treated like customers at all."

Mr Rahman added: "They are frequently subject to detention and tagging and appalling decision-making by Home Office officials."

Officer 'being investigated'

It has been reported that a senior immigration officer - under investigation over claims he offered to help an asylum seeker in return for sex - was himself in Britain illegally at one stage.

Former Labour minister Keith Vaz warned these allegations were "very serious" and called for a Commons debate so MPs could help to set "benchmarks" to improve the Home Office.

The Leicester East MP said the assessment of home secretary John Reid that the department was "inadequate and not fit for purpose" was "pretty devastating".

Mr Vaz also made a prediction to Mr Straw, saying: "I will go to my surgery on Friday, as you will in Blackburn, and we will get a whole lot of cases from constituents who will complain about the Home Office."

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