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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006, 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK
Time to break up the Home Office?
By Jon Silverman
BBC legal affairs analyst

Beyond the survival as home secretary of Charles Clarke, the row over the failure to deport foreign-born criminals raises a wider question.

Home Office
The Home Office has to master numerous responsibilities

Has the Home Office become unmanageable because of its plethora of responsibilities, and is it time to break it up?

The former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, who highlighted concerns about foreign prisoners five years ago, advocates a ministry of justice to deal with issues such as criminal sentencing policy.

This would allow the Home Office to concentrate on crime and offending, security, asylum and immigration.

But Robert Hill, a former adviser to the home secretary, argues that this would not have provided an antidote to the current problems.

"Balkanising the Home Office is not the panacea. It might increase inter-departmental wrangling, which is one of the biggest obstacles to reform."

'Core' functions

In fact, the newly-created Office for Criminal Justice Reform, straddling the Home Office, Department for Constitutional Affairs and attorney general's office, is answering at least some of the criticisms about "silo" government.

In theory, this allows the Home Office to concentrate on what its former permanent secretary, Sir John Gieve, called its "core functions".

It is ironic that these functions - crime and offending and security - are the very ones which have appeared to be less than robust.

So why is this?

Traditionally, the Home Office was a dustbin into which were swept those responsibilities which did not fit into other Whitehall ministries

One explanation is the avalanche of change which is sweeping through the Home Office.

There is a major IT programme; a planned reduction of head office staff of about a third; and the need to make 2bn value-for-money savings.

At the same time, both Sir John and his successor, Sir David Normington, have been trying to convert the Home Office from a crisis-handling department to one which can deliver successfully and think strategically.

One example of this is the advent of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) - an overarching body designed to co-ordinate the work of the prison and probation services.

Another explanation for the current crisis is that the civil service culture of the Home Office has failed to respond adequately to the government's reform and delivery agenda.

"What we have seen with the Prison Service and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate [IND] is a systems failure," said Mr Hill.

"Beverley Hughes had to resign as a minister over process flaws at IND, and it seems clear that despite Charles Clarke's efforts, the system for flagging up and deporting foreign prisoners wasn't working."

Mixed progress

There is agreement that one IND system - that for removing failed asylum seekers - has made substantial progress and its head, Lyn Homer, is well regarded in Whitehall.

But the Prison Service, under director-general Phil Wheatley, is struggling to cope with a record population and the consequences of overcrowding.

The arrival of NOMS has brought about a closer relationship with the probation service. But links with IND are more tenuous.

Traditionally, the Home Office was a dustbin into which were swept those responsibilities which did not fit into other Whitehall ministries.

It has got rid of some - such as gaming - but things like animal testing and ensuring that the clocks change twice a year are still there.

But few would seriously argue that such responsibilities are at the root of the present crisis.


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