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19 July 2006 : Column 327

The Government’s own review showed that they needed 100,000 prison places by 2010. Even after the 8,000 new places that I understand the Home Secretary will announce tomorrow, they will still have less than 90,000 places by 2012. Again, there are failures of management, but in a system put under intolerable pressure by failures of political leadership. We could go on. We have a police force so overburdened with central targets and politically correct red tape that its detection rates dropped to an all-time low two years ago. As a result, violent crime is spiralling out of control, as we will no doubt hear tomorrow when the crime figures come out, putting extra pressure on the police, the courts, the prisons and the Home Office.

Of course, Ministers themselves have put intolerable pressure on the Home Office. Since 1997 there have been more than 1,300 new regulations, many hundreds of initiatives and over 50 major Home Office Bills—more than the total number of Criminal Justice Bills in the previous century. Some of those Bills were useless—not in my opinion, but in the Government’s. In the case of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, 110 of its provisions never came into force. Seventeen more were repealed before they could come into force, and another 39 were repealed after they came into force. That is by no means the only example; there are many others. Massive amounts of work were piled on to the Home Office, for no use whatever.

This is not a Department that is impossible to run. Since 1997, as the Home Secretary mentioned in his statement, it has given up responsibility for 24 policy areas. It has less to do in straight policy terms than it had. Under the burdens of a target-driven, red tape-driven, bureaucratic, top-heavy approach pursued by this Government, however, its central staffing has doubled—and is it not revealing that the number of press officers has trebled ?

It is true that some of the Home Secretary’s proposals have merit. For example, the agency proposals for the IND—I think that I disagree with my ex-leader on this—may improve some aspects of its management. It may, however, make communication and co-operation with other parts of the Home Office more difficult, so none of these things come free. It will certainly not absolve Ministers of responsibility for effectiveness and delivery.

The main issue is that the Home Office is a Department in severe crisis, as a direct result of Government policy. It is no hyperbole to say that the crisis is the biggest faced by a Department in modern times. The failures are multiple and massive, and will have a serious impact on the public. We all hope that the Home Secretary’s measures succeed. Even if they do, however, they are unlikely to resolve problems of the size that his Department faces. And whatever they do, they will not allow him to sweep a political problem under a bureaucratic carpet.

John Reid: I shall try to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s questions—although I must say that he asked very few. I do not, however, begrudge him his entitlement to make a statement on the matter.

On the clear-up rates, I think that his long division was based on the false premise that every case file
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equals a person. That is a wrong assumption on which to work. As I said earlier, some case files are duplicates, and some represent a decision that someone can stay here but we have not been able to get in touch with that person to tell them. In some cases, the person concerned may be dead, or may be from a state that has now become part of Europe. In some cases, the limited evidence that we have suggests that the person may have left of their own accord.

I did say that we would aim to clear up the caseload legacy in five years—or, I hope, less time than that. That is because we have made significant progress since the right hon. Gentleman’s party was in power. We no longer take 22 months to deal with a case; we deal with it in eight weeks— [Interruption.] I think that Opposition Members will accept that I am always ready to admit our inadequacies; they should not be so sensitive when I point out some of the inadequacies of the Conservative Government. The truth is that we have made massive progress in recent years to reform the asylum system. We have reduced applications by 72 per cent., and we have reduced the time taken to deal with them from 22 months to two months.

The right hon. Gentleman asked why so many asylum applicants come to Britain. First, we have the English language. Secondly, we have had a more prosperous economy than anywhere else. Thirdly, his facts are wrong—in terms of asylum applications per thousand, the rate of application in this country is no greater than that in many European countries, and less than in some, including France. We should get our facts right. The truth is that there are inadequacies, and as I said earlier, one of the greatest is that the Home Office’s fundamental systems were made for a different age. That created problems for everyone, including the last Home Secretary under the Conservative Government.

It is just not fair to suggest that my predecessors did not have major achievements. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, when he was Home Secretary, halved the time taken for persistent young offenders to be dealt with in the court system. He introduced a ban on handguns and the first race relations legislation in 25 years, and developed and introduced antisocial behaviour orders. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) brought in a record number of police officers, and created community support officers, neighbourhood policing teams and the street robbery initiative that did so much to reduce crime. My right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) established the Serious Organised Crime Agency, dealt with 7/7 and its aftermath with great statesmanship, and achieved the tipping-point target whereby, for the first time in the past 20 years, we are deporting more failed asylum seekers than we are importing. It is a mixed balanced sheet, but to pretend that the previous Conservative Government achieved anything like what my three predecessors did is to fantasise about political history.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): My right hon. Friend’s plans are certainly bold. One of the problems with the immigration and nationality directorate in recent years has been not that it has failed to meet its targets, but that it has met its targets and failed to deal with other problems, such as foreign prisoners, on which common sense requires action.
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Agencies are usually managed against targets. The great challenge to the Government and my right hon. Friend’s proposals is to ensure that the new agency does not just deliver on a narrow set of targets laid down by Ministers, but deals with the whole problem.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that at the core of his proposals is a belief that the slimmed-down centre of the Home Office will be able to offer a higher quality of leadership from officials, and—if I may say so—a less ministerial impatience and desire to intervene than we have perhaps been able to show in the past?

John Reid: The answers to my right hon. Friend’s questions are yes, yes and yes, particularly on the last point. If we want to encourage a spirit and culture of acceptance of responsibility and accountability among officials, that will require us to tolerate a degree of risk-taking on the part of officials; and that will require a degree of self-denying ordinance when such risks result in something going wrong, as they inevitably will. Hopefully, however, those tactical mistakes will be to the benefit of an overall strategic change in the systems, giving us more effective and efficient management and output.

The reason we want to do this is that, even after so many years in government, we should take upon ourselves the process of renewal of government, of Government Departments and of Government delivery—in a self-critical and, we hope, a constructive fashion, but also in a way that delivers from the centre what people want, rebalances our criminal justice system as people want it to be rebalanced, and provides a fair and effective system of managed migration that people can see to be both fair and effective. At the end of the day, we must show the public that we pay some attention to their concerns about government and governance.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I thank the Home Secretary for allowing advance sight of his statement.

Given the suspense involved in awaiting this important blueprint for reform of the Home Office and given that the Home Secretary has been working on it for 18 hours a day, I must say that I am somewhat underwhelmed by what appears at first glance to be a hotch-potch of managerial doublespeak and wildly implausible targets. Some of it, of course, is welcome—we have been calling for the creation of a semi-independent agency from the immigration and nationality directorate for a long time, and we obviously welcome it now—but can the Home Secretary explain why he did not go further and look at models in other European countries and in north America, where the monopolistic functions of the Home Office are divided between a justice ministry dealing with judicial issues and a separate ministry dealing with police and security matters? That model works extremely well in large parts of the western world; perhaps the Home Secretary could reflect on it further.

I was intrigued to learn that the end of the cold war is now held to be at least partly responsible for some of the woes in the Home Office, but I wonder why the unrelenting flow of headline-grabbing legislation from this Government—more than 50 Bills and more than 1,000 new offences in under a decade—was not mentioned in the statement. Surely the Home Secretary accepts that no Home Office, however structured or
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however reorganised, can work effectively as long as Ministers push it from pillar to post on the back of a volley of half-baked media gimmicks and legislative initiatives.

I believe that the Home Secretary announced today a new contract between Ministers and civil servants. Will he confirm that his side of the bargain will be to guarantee that he will not announce any new initiatives at the behest of newspaper editors until he has discussed them in full with his civil servants?

In the light of what is widely regarded as a bold if somewhat implausible claim that nearly half a million failed asylum seekers will be deported in less than five years, will the Home Secretary agree to look at the example of Canada, where a totally independent asylum agency has been created? Its functions are separate from the other functions of the immigration service, and it has proved spectacularly successful in dealing—free from political interference—with a highly sensitive area of public policy.

John Reid: I take it that when the hon. Gentleman spoke of the making of policy, he was referring to the protection of children. May I remind him gently that I was an Opposition spokesman on children 15 years before he entered the House? I spend considerable time thinking about these matters before I announce them.

As for the implausibility or otherwise of the performance objectives, I think it best to make them public and to let people judge, according to the milestones that we are also making public, whether we achieve them. I thought that, as an adherent to the policy of open government and good delivery, the hon. Gentleman would welcome that. As for management practices, I cannot pretend to be a management expert. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is one, but I assure him that I have full confidence in my permanent secretary and the top leadership, and in the external management experts who advise them.

The hon. Gentleman was a little churlish to diminish the efforts of many good people in the Home Office who have worked very hard for the past two months. They worked long hours, including weekends, to produce this as well as two other plans. The fact that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) was able to welcome many of the proposals is testimony to the good sense of those proposals.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of a monopolistic tendency in Departments. I should have expected him to welcome the fact that we are moving from the centre to the front line, talking about devolving accountability and responsibility, moving from centrally controlled to agency status and introducing contestability, which may result in a degree of privatisation in certain areas. What the hon. Gentleman said makes me wonder which document he has been reading. Nothing in this document moves towards monopoly; everything in it moves in the other direction. It may be the right or the wrong direction, but I should have thought that he would be able to discern the direction of travel.

The hon. Gentleman cast aside, rather dismissively, any suggestion that the cold war could have had huge geopolitical consequences that caused problems for all Departments. I remind him that my first job in Government involved reconfiguring the whole of the
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British armed forces because of the changes brought about by the cold war. It has affected all our lives. The extension of Europe to the east, which the hon. Gentleman will have welcomed—eight more countries, and possibly another two, with all the migration that that involves—is a direct result of it. Those are not insignificant events. We ought to start facing up to the challenges that the new world presents to us, and that is what I am trying to do today.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. A good many Members are seeking to catch my eye. May I appeal for brisk questions, and perhaps for brisk answers from the Home Secretary?

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): As regards asylum, may I put it to my right hon. Friend that with all the talk of targets, tipping points and agencies, we are in danger of losing sight of the fact that we are dealing with human beings? Most people in this country are not as mean and nasty as most of our loathsome tabloids would have us believe. They do not want children who have lived in this country throughout their conscious lives sent back to destitution in countries such as the Congo, Angola and Sudan. May I therefore express the hope—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is enough to be going on with.

John Reid: My hon. Friend made some of those points recently in an Adjournment debate, the report of which I read with interest. I have a degree of sympathy with what he has said, but I hope that he understands that the aim of those of us who talk of providing a fair and effective system of managed migration is partly, at least, to ensure that when genuine cases such as those that he mentioned arise, everyone in society accepts that fair and genuine decisions have been made. The problem at the moment—with so many unknowns, so many illegal immigrants and a system that so many people feel is not fair and effective on the immigration side and not balanced in favour of the law-abiding majority on the criminal justice side—is that the legitimacy of taking decisions gets undermined, but that is the balance that we are trying to strike.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Does the Home Secretary recognise that his proposals for transferring or transforming the immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office into an agency will limit his ability to intervene as part of what he rightly described as carrying out the “unglamorous” business of good government if things continue to go wrong—if, for example, the fears expressed by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) about the effect of targets prove to be justified? Is that the Home Secretary’s objective? Does he agree, given that he has described that part of the Home Office as not fit for purpose, that it would be better for him to continue to accept personal responsibility for its future performance rather than to offload it to an agency?

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John Reid: There is no way that I would want to give up responsibility for an agency inside the Home Office, because the strategic direction, the policy decisions and so forth clearly lie with Ministers. I accept that the application of policy and operations cannot always be separated from policy decisions—there is no absolute differentiation between the two; there will be an overlap on occasions—and that some cases are strategically important, or perhaps in the national interest, so that a Minister has to intervene, but I nevertheless hope that by establishing the right regulatory and leadership framework and a greater degree of devolved responsibility to the agency, we will get a more effective output at the end of the day. That is, of course, a matter of discussion and if the right hon. and learned Gentleman, or, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) have further points to make—they bring a great deal of experience to bear on the matter—I would be more than happy to reflect on them, as I do not regard the managerial aspect as a matter of party politics.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Following that very point, I am interested in the new contract between Ministers and officials. When will it be put in place and will it be published? Where will ministerial responsibility end and the responsibility of officials begin?

John Reid: We have called it a renewed contract. My understanding, although I am not a constitutional historian, has always been that general responsibility for policy and strategic leadership lies with elected Members and Ministers, while responsibility for the detailed minutiae of operational work lies with officials—in the same way that advisers advise, but Ministers decide. It has at least been perceived and may have been the case in reality over recent years that Ministers can get involved in micro-managing operations to the detriment of the strategic whole. That is why we are trying to re-establish the relationship. As so often in other matters, the contract will be public, but this does not have the glamour of a contract signed by football players; it is an attempt to re-establish a balance in the relationship between Ministers and officials.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I served in the Home Office for three years under my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Hurd, and the Department was then not unfit. If it is unfit now, that is the consequence of Ministers who have overloaded and abused the Department. If the Secretary of State looked into recent failings—most notably, oppressive legislation struck down by the courts, the unjustified merger of police forces, the chaotic Criminal Justice Act 2003 and failing immigration controls—he would see that they were all the direct responsibility of Ministers. In those circumstances, it is unworthy to poor-mouth officials and not to take ministerial responsibility.

John Reid: I would have thought that I had taken a great deal of ministerial responsibility. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is a little unfair, but I hope that I am not being unfair when I say, first, that I did not say that the whole Department was unfit for purpose, but that certain fundamental systems in the Department were unfit for purpose. Secondly, if it was so fit for
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purpose when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was there, I wonder why crime doubled during that period. Thirdly, the suggestion that problems dealing with immigration, the number of illegal immigrants and the state of knowledge of data systems are afflictions that have been visited upon us only since we have had Labour Secretaries of State is not a true reflection of history.

Some of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s predecessors know full well that there are difficult problems to cope with. Tracking people in, tracking people through and tracking people out has always been difficult. In a world in which the number of migrants has doubled and we have 90 million visitors and roughly 90 million people going out of the UK, it becomes very difficult. That is the problem that we are trying to resolve. If Mr. Speaker allows me, I shall have more to say about that in the next few days.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I very much welcome the reforms, especially the shift of resources to the front line, which is where my constituents want them to be. On the IND proposals, what will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that strict protocols are in place so that the system is secure, to cut out duplication and to ensure consistent decision making in what will be an arm’s-length, decentralised agency?

John Reid: We can try to do that by simplifying the law. Much of the detail that my hon. Friend seeks I will, if I am allowed, elaborate on a future occasion. As I have said, my officials have been working very hard on two other sets of proposals: one is about rebalancing the criminal justice system and the other relates to the specifics of the IND. One thing that we certainly should do is listen carefully to what those with experience, either as constituency MPs or former Ministers, have to say. I think that I am correct in saying that in the past 24 hours my hon. Friend has met my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality to discuss the matter, and we are always willing to discuss it further.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I thank the Home Secretary for advance notice of his statement and I welcome some of its contents, not least the plans to transform the culture, skills, systems, processes and data of the Home Office. He will be aware of many recent criticisms, such as foreign prisoner release, the missing passports fiasco, and the imbalance between the location of immigration officers and ports at which so few, if any, people illegally entering the country are apprehended. Can he assure us that, in making the changes in the 55 paragraphs and 38 high-level bullet points at the back of the action plan, there will be no loss of front-line focus in those areas? In particular, will there be a continued focus on the direct relationship and linkage between the Home Office and the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency over serious crime and drugs issues and the counter-terrorism role?

John Reid: Yes, I certainly hope that that will be the case. By definition, if we are identifying international contacts and dealing with organised crime on a pan-national scale, it would be completely contradictory if we were to lessen the co-ordination in the fight against crime among the countries of the United Kingdom.

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