The Big Question: Is the Home Office too large and unwieldy to do its job properly?

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Indy Politics

It is open season on the Home Office, which has been rocked by crisis after crisis in recent weeks, leading some to wonder whether the "dysfunctional" department is not simply too big and too complex for one minister to oversee, let alone carry the can for. The problems, particularly over foreign prisoners, have also highlighted severe problems of internal communications within the Home Office.

Charles Clarke lost his job over the 1,023 foreign prisoners who were freed without being considered for deportation. His successor, John Reid, faced a torrid weekend as it emerged that the Criminal Records Bureau had wrongly labelled about 2,700 people as criminals. And the troubled Immigration and Nationality Directorate faced fresh "sex for asylum" revelations. Yesterday, ministers faced questions over prisoners absconding from open prisons, as Dr Reid attempted to stage a fightback.

Just how big is the Home Office?

It is big, and is one of the most complex departments in Whitehall. The Home Office has 73,700 full-time staff and spends £14bn a year, not a huge budget by Whitehall standards. What sets it apart is the vast array of its responsibilities, and the high-profile nature of its work, which can, and frequently does, blow at any seam.

What are its responsibilities?

The Home Office describes its aim as "building a safe, just and tolerant society". In practice it is responsible for everything from police and anti-terrorism to prisons, probation, immigration and asylum; from fighting crime to drugs policy; from compensation for criminal injuries and miscarriages of justice to ID cards.

The Home Office also has to deal with less well-defined problems, such as race relations and the thorny question of "preachers of hate" and the promotion of citizenship and "Britishness". It also has a key role tackling anti-social behaviour and promoting the Prime Minister's "respect" agenda.

New officials at the Home Office express amazement at the range of issues their department covers. One joked that when a news story breaks on television they count how long it takes to turn out to be their responsibility. "It's usually a couple of hours," he says.

How is it all organised?

The department is divided into five main areas. Two ministers given their roles by John Reid yesterday, Tony McNulty and Vernon Coaker, are responsible for crime, policing and security. They oversee the Home Office's policing and anti-terrorism directorate which has overall responsibility for local police forces and the security service MI5.

Liam Byrne and Joan Ryan have responsibility for the department's troubled Immigration and Nationality Directorate, which is in charge of controlling illegal immigration, migration policy and asylum. They also oversee the Identity Cards and Passport Service, which issues passports and will in a few years issue ID Cards to every man and woman in Britain.

Baroness Scotland and Gerry Sutcliffe are in charge of the National Offender Management Service, which includes the prison service and the probation service. They also run the Office of Criminal Justice Reform, which has an important role in administering the criminal justice system together with the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Crown Prosecution Service.

How could it be broken up?

More difficult than it sounds, even according to the department's critics in the Opposition. Many of the problems stem from divisions within the Home Office empire - such as the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and the Prison Service - failing to communicate properly. Hiving these bodies off into different ministries, it is argued, would hardly help them work together better. However, the Conservatives have long argued that the Home Office's anti-terrorism work should be made the responsibility of a dedicated Homeland Security minister of Cabinet rank to stop the enormous load of protecting Britain and its borders overwhelming the other work of the Home Secretary.

That would not necessarily mean dividing up the administration of the Home Office, and Conservatives point to the work of the Treasury, where both the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury sit in Cabinet. They argue that the Home Office was not too complex for one Cabinet minister when they were in charge.

The Liberal Democrats argue instead for creating a new agency to decide asylum cases, leaving the Home Office Immigration and Nationality Directorate to deal with citizenship and removing illegal immigrants. But they say that a plethora of legislation and initiatives has been no substitute for making sure the department runs properly.

What does the Government say?

The Government insists that John Reid has the leadership skills necessary to make the Home Office work. Yesterday the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman insisted that the Home Office should remain as a single organisation. He said: "We have now got criminal justice, crime and constitutional affairs and there is synergy about having prisons and issues such as policing in the same department. Nobody pretends that the issues are anything other than complex but we believe that the synergy outweighs the disadvantages."

Is reform on the horizon?

The Home Office has already been split internally into major directorates and agencies tasked with implementing its wide-ranging brief. But Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are pledged to reform the Home Office if they win power.

Neither party would tear the department to pieces, as they are in agreement that many parts would have to stay as they are. However, both are committed to stripping away major parts of the department's operation to make it easier to manage and more focussed on the task of making Britain safer.

Should the Home Office be broken up? Yes...

* The sheer scale and variety of the Department's responsibilities are bewildering.

* Homeland security is too important to be only one part of a minister's brief.

* The recent record has shown too many cases where the department appears accident-prone.


* The Home Office, like other large departments, can be led well, if the right person is found to lead it.

* Failings that arise from poor communications inside the department will hardly be solved by pulling them apart.

* Crime, terrorism, police, prisons and the rest will be hugely controversial no matter how many departments it is broken into.