Time to scrap the Home Office, by Nick Comfort

5 May 05
The most august Whitehall department has a long history of failing to perform and is clearly out of its depth on major issues, argues this former government adviser. Would we not be better off without it?

06 May 2005

The most august Whitehall department has a long history of failing to perform and is clearly out of its depth on major issues, argues this former government adviser. Would we not be better off without it?

A few months into his tenure at the Home Office, Jack Straw, faced with one of the horrors that regularly confront that department, told Michael Howard in the Commons that he now felt a member of the Home Secretaries' Club.

Charles Clarke must have had the same feeling at the start of the election campaign when it emerged that Kamel Bourgass, the Algerian convicted of murdering DC Stephen Oake and plotting a terror campaign using the poison ricin, had already had an asylum application rejected and had failed to appear at an appeal hearing.

Bourgass was just the latest in a string of failed asylum seekers to have committed serious offences up to and including murder after being told they could not stay. On each occasion the authorities had lost contact and made no serious effort to find and deport them.

Immediately, the Bourgass case became an election issue, as subsequently did the inability of the government to determine how many illegal immigrants (and not just failed asylum seekers) there are in Britain. Michael Howard characterised this as a failure of Labour policy. Yet the Conservative leader should have known better than anyone that the policy was irrelevant; what is in question is the ability of the Home Office to implement that policy.

It was Howard himself as home secretary who drew that distinction — and memorably alienated his deputy Ann Widdecombe — when he sacked Derek Lewis as head of the Prison Service after an embarrassing jailbreak on the Isle of Wight. His argument was clear, if controversial: if ministers set a policy, they cannot be blamed for the failure of officials to carry it out.

Labour and Conservatives alike — and, under most circumstances, the Liberal Democrats — have a policy of deporting people who abuse the asylum process. Yet the machinery of government has consistently shown itself unable to implement this policy, to a degree beyond whatever transgression Lewis might have committed.

This is not solely a criticism of the Immigration Service and related agencies, nor a judgment against individuals; it is a reflection on the inability of the Home Office over generations to get things done, as opposed to delivering Olympian thoughts. And that inability stems from the ethos of this most august of all Whitehall departments, wherever it may be located.

David Blunkett took considerable stick last autumn for rashly having told a biographer that when he inherited the Home Office from Straw it was in a mess. I am pretty sure it was. But it was in as much of a mess when Straw inherited it from Howard. And in the view of many, it has been in that state for half a century.

From the surrender of Britain's radio wavelengths at a conference in Vienna at the end of the 1960s, through the Passport Office shambles and the inadvertent publication of witnesses' addresses during the Macpherson inquiry to the loss of control over asylum, the Home Office has long appeared out of its depth. Its functions have increasingly been sloughed off to agencies, starting with the prisons, and more recently to other departments, notably the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Department of Constitutional Affairs. But the problem remains.

That problem is deep-rooted. In the late 1980s a senior civil servant whose entire career had been at the Home Office told me the department had for all that time been in need of root-and-branch reform. Only one Home Secretary in his experience had both recognised the problem and attempted to do something about it: Leon Brittan. But he was shuffled sideways and downwards before he could get any results.

The Home Office's inability to perform adequately even its most basic functions was highlighted just before the dissolution by the Public Administration Select Committee. It found that the department was among the worst for meeting the 15-working-day target for replying to letters from MPs and peers, was third worst at meeting the deadline for answering parliamentary questions and, when unable to respond at all, only explained why in 13% of cases.

It might be that getting on top of what could just be an irresistible historic movement of peoples is beyond any department. But when the Home Office loses track of most asylum seekers and cannot even answer its own correspondence, something is seriously amiss.

There has been plenty of radical thinking in all parties about abolishing Whitehall departments, with the Department of Trade and Industry the prime target. We now have a government with four-plus years to plan ahead, a government committed to reform. Why doesn't it start by scrapping the Home Office? That would be radical — and it might just bring results.

Nick Comfort was a lobby correspondent for more than 20 years and was special adviser to the Secretary of State for Scotland