Reid returns for dawn raid on foreign suspects

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John Reid joined a series of dawn raids linked to the foreign prisoner fiasco yesterday, but most civil servants in his beleaguered department had the day off.

The new Home Secretary had caused surprise by travelling to France at the weekend shortly after vowing to work 18 hours a day to tackle the chaos in the Home Office.

But Mr Reid returned to duty in the early hours to watch immigration officers, backed by police, break into four homes in north London. They made two arrests - a Cameroonian man and a Middle Eastern man, who have both served prison sentences for fraud.

Another team of immigration officers, who had earlier been given a "rallying call" by Mr Reid, detained a Jamaican man who had been released from jail for manslaughter.

It is unusual for a senior politician to take part in such a raid, but officials said it underlined the determination of the Home Secretary - who donned a stab-proof vest for the operation - to be "hands on".

However, thousands of his staff enjoyed one of their two and a half "privilege days", allocated to all civil servants in Whitehall every year. Yesterday's coincided with the Queen's official birthday. A Home Office spokesman said: "Essential operations are continuing, including the work of the foreign national prisoner team."

But Mike Penning, the Tory MP for Hemel Hempstead, said: "Until this department has got itself sorted out, you would expect it to be pulling together every working hour of the day. If that means John Reid calling them in on a day when the rest of the country is working, so be it."

Mark Harper, the Tory MP for Forest of Dean, said he failed to contact the Home Office yesterday over a foreign prisoner issue.

He said: "John Reid promised he would work 18 hours a day, but then headed off on holiday, and it looks as if his officials have followed suit. This doesn't give anyone confidence that the Home Office is on top of these problems."

The Independent disclosed yesterday that thousands of Home Office staff went on courses last week, to learn about such diverse topics as witchcraft, waltzing and Japanese, as part of an adult learning initiative.

Mr Reid, who has been Home Secretary for three weeks, has been scathing about the performance of his department. He has said the immigration service is "not fit for purpose", with inadequate leadership and management, and has warned that civil servants face the sack over the release of foreign prisoners without deportation hearings.

There were claims last night that Mr Reid's presence in the dawn raids could lead to legal problems. Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, said: "It could put him in an embarrassing situation if he was present at a particular arrest of someone over whom he then has to make a disinterested decision, as to whether they should be deported."

He said the Home Secretary's attendance was tasteless, adding: "It needs more than gimmicks to sort out the Immigration and Nationality Directorate."

Pierre Makhlouf, an immigration lawyer, said: "The issue is whether the Home Secretary's presence did lend itself to some bias in the Home Office. If this were a case of mine, I would look to see if his presence, combined with a weak or rushed decision, had had an impact on the case."

A Home Office spokeswoman replied: "The Home Secretary was there as an observer to see the dangers and difficulties of these operations at first hand and to understand the procedures. He played no part in the decision-making."

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