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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 January 2007, 13:10 GMT
Reid seeks to reassure
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

When John Reid took over as Home Secretary last May he sent shivers through his new department with his now-famous "not fit for purpose" remark and with dark suggestions that heads would roll.

John Reid
Mr Reid started work with a tough message
So it is probably understandable that, almost nine months later, his insistence that he knew nothing of the failure to enter overseas offenders onto the criminal records system has been greeted with surprise, even barely-disguised disbelief, in some circles.

The fact that, despite Mr Reid's tough talking, yet another affair has been added to the list and no official or minister has so far resigned or been fired has led to claims he has failed to get a grip on the department or attribute responsibility.

Giving a Commons statement on the affair, Mr Reid attempted to reassure the public that the police did now have a grip on it, but he only accepted responsibility for "sorting it out" and could not yet guarantee none of the offenders had been employed in sensitive jobs with children or the vulnerable.

That was far from good enough for Tory spokesman David Davis who declared it was high time the home secretary took responsibility for what went on under his leadership.

Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg was more direct claiming Mr Reid was attempting to abandon the tradition that ministers took responsibility for errors in their departments and that ignorance was no defence.

On the line

It was an uncomfortable session for the Home Secretary who has, until now, painted himself as the man who accepted his department was "dysfunctional" but had been appointed to put things right.

Opposition MPs are in far less of a mood to accept that approach now, and some still even seem reluctant to accept reassurances this whole affair really did come as a surprise to ministers.

And, as Mr Davis said, there is a growing feeling that, after a series of revelations since the issue of freed foreign prisoners saw Charles Clarke sacked, the period during which Mr Reid could lay everything at his predecessor's door may have run out.

Home Office sign
Home Office was said to be unfit for purpose
Tory leader David Cameron has also insisted, during clashes with the prime minister, that if any of the offenders has gone on to commit other crimes, Mr Reid's job should be on the line.

One explanation being offered is that officials did not bother to inform the Home Secretary of the position because it was already being dealt with through the system set up last May which saw 27,529 files on overseas offenders handed over from the department to the police for processing.

As former minister and home affairs committee chairman John Denham said, the problem had been identified and was being dealt with.

But with the work of the Home Office under the spotlight, it has still come as a surprise that an issue like this could suddenly spring from the woodwork and, apparently, take everybody unawares.

And, with Mr Reid recently in the news for wide-ranging speeches seen as possible forerunners to a leadership bid, such local troubles will need to be tackled swiftly and effectively to avoid departmental issues damaging any chances of bidding for the top job.

John Reid speaks about the problem

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