A cabinet minister could be given charge of the fight against terror in a major overhaul of the intelligence services to be announced within weeks. John Reid, the Home Secretary, said he has submitted sweeping proposals to Downing Street for boosting the performance of MI5, MI6, police counter-terrorist teams and the GCHQ communications centre.
Although he is ruling out merging any of the security services, they could be brought under the control of a senior minister with sole responsibility for driving up standards. But the chances of the Government making a fresh attempt to increase the time police can detain terrorist suspects beyond 28 days appear to be fading.
After criticism of the failure of the security services to work together, Mr Reid told the Commons home affairs select committee that the Government response to terrorism needed to be more co-ordinated. He said: "This is now a serious threat. It no longer is easily divided into foreign affairs, defence or domestic affair. It therefore needs a seamless, integrated, driven, politically overseen counter-terrorism strategy, which places at its heart the recognition that above all this is a battle for ideas and values."
Ministers are understood to be sympathetic to the creation of a new government department, led by a cabinet minister, to oversee the fight against terrorism. The security services foiled an alleged plot to blow up transatlantic flights with liquid explosives in August, but were embarrassed because one of the 7 July suicide bombers had been known to them.
Spending on intelligence and counter-terrorism will reach £2.1bn in 2007-08, more than twice the budget before the 11 September attacks of 2001. A recruitment campaign is underway, particularly among speakers of Arabic, in a drive to double the staffing of MI5 to 3,000 by 2008.
A new Counter-terrorism Bill, designed to pull together the array of existing anti-terror legislation, is expected in the spring. It could include measures to give police the power to prosecute terrorist suspects on further charges after their initial charge and to allow phone-tap evidence to be used in prosecutions.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, have made clear they support an increase in the 28-day period police can question terrorist suspects before they are charged.
Mr Reid struck a more cautious note; he said he would consider extending the period if he was provided with a "factually-based case". But he added: "That case has not yet been put to me. That is where I stand. That is why I have an open mind about it. That is why no one should assume that a particular piece of legislation should be brought to the House."
Mr Reid also admitted that only 129 of the 1,013 foreign criminals released without deportation hearings - the fiasco that cost his predecessor, Charles Clarke, his job - have been removed from Britain. He said police were still hunting 250 of them, mainly minor criminals but including one serious offender.
Giving evidence on the performance of his beleaguered department, Mr Reid promised to give "strong leadership" to reforms of the immigration service. But he said: "I'm not the Wizard of Oz; I'm not saying everything is perfect, but I am saying progress is being made."
With 80,306 people in prison in England and Wales, the highest proportion of the population in western Europe, the Home Secretary admitted reoffending rates at more than 60 per cent, were "obstinately too high".Reuse content