Struggling Reid admits scale of problems at Home Office

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The Independent Online

John Reid confessed he still had a "mountain to climb" as he faced renewed embarrassment over his desperate attempts to assert some control over the size of the prison population.

Shortly after a man convicted of child pornography offences avoided prison owing to Mr Reid's plea to courts to jail fewer offenders, the Home Secretary said he was facing a "struggle" to get a grip on his beleaguered department.

Judge John Rogers gave Derek Williams, 46, a suspended sentence, saying he had to consider "the current sentencing climate". He told Mold Crown Court, in north Wales: "As of yesterday, I have to bear in mind a communication from the Home Secretary."

As the Home Office searches the country for extra prison spaces, Mr Reid disclosed that his officials were negotiating to open a former RAF base, expected to be in Lincolnshire, to hold prisoners. He said prefabricated cells were being installed at several jails, and negotiations to lease two prison ships were at an advanced stage.

Despite the series of crises to hit his department, Mr Reid insisted he was still on top of the need for reform. But he rowed back from his much-repeated claim that the department was not "fit for purpose", insisting his remarks were not directed at his staff.

Mr Reid told reporters at Westminster: "Let me tell you why it's a struggle to reform the Home Office. It's not because the people are not good. They are. It's not because they are not trying. They are. It's not because they have small brains. It's not because they are stupid.

"It's because the world has changed to such an extent in the tasks and challenges of the Home Office that there is a huge mountain to climb. So, when I say that this or that is not fit for purpose, it's not a personal comment on anybody who is working there, it is about systems and structures and responses to a changing world."

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, accused Mr Reid of "trying to bale out his sinking prison policy with a sieve".

The Home Secretary suffered another setback yesterday when The Sun launched a vitriolic personal attack on his performance under the front-page headline: "John Reid's brain is missing". Home Office sources said he was "absolutely livid" to lose the support of the newspaper over his letter to courts this week urging them to jail fewer non-violent offenders. The Sun accused him of breaking a series of promises to get to grips with the prisons crisis, and concluded: "Reid has been exposed as delivering absolutely nothing."

Mr Reid will address another problem in his in-tray today when he publishes the UK Borders Bill, containing a series of measures to strengthen frontier controls. Immigration officers, who will be issued with special uniforms, will be given powers to seize cash and other assets from illegal entrants and impose tough reporting restrictions on visa holders coming to work or study. They will also be able to make further biometric checks on new arrivals.

Ministers are braced for continuing damaging publicity as offenders are spared jail sentences following Mr Reid's intervention. David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "We now have a situation where sentences are being dictated by the prison capacity and not the severity of the crime.

"It looks like the consequences of the Government's failure to address the lack of prison places is coming home to roost."

But a judge at Liverpool Crown Court said yesterday he refused to be swayed by the Home Secretary's advice. After a defence barrister urged him to bear in mind Mr Reid's letter, Judge Denis Clark said: "I will not have my judicial independence compromised by any outside pressure from any government agency whatsoever.

"The prison population is not my problem, it is not my responsibility. I must fulfil my obligations to my judicial oath and pass the sentence in the circumstances I feel there should be."

Civil servant falls victim to robbery upsurge

A Home Office civil servant has become the latest victim of an upsurge in armed robberies. The 29-year-old was robbed of a wallet and mobile phone in Beckenham, Kent, shortly before midnight on Wednesday by two men armed with a replica gun. Two teenagers were later arrested. Details of the incident came as new crime figures showed that guns were used in 4,120 robberies in England and Wales last year - a 10 per cent rise. There has been a 9 per cent increase to 1,439 in the number of street robberies where firearms were used.

There was also a 46 per cent rise in burglars threatening people with firearms in their homes - a record 645 cases in England and Wales. The Home Office says firearms offences have fallen by 14 per cent in the year up to September 2006 - 1,642 fewer incidents.