Steve Richards: John Reid may be politically agile, but his one-man show is doomed

Something will go wrong under his watch, after which he will be fighting for his political life
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The Independent Online

The new Home Secretary, John Reid, has launched a one-man crusade to revolutionise the civil service. The Home Office is the focus of his crusading zeal, but he implies from the scale of his soaring ambition that Whitehall will never be the same again.

With his senior officials sitting either side of him, Mr Reid told the Home Affairs Committee this week that parts of his department were "not fit for purpose". Like the hotel inspector visiting Fawlty Towers, he listed the failings: "It is inadequate in terms of scope, information, technology, leadership, management, systems and processes." As Basil Fawlty asked of the hotel inspector: "Apart from that, is everything else all right?"

No, it was not. Statistics from the Home Office were unreliable. There is a reliance on outdated technology. And so on.

Mr Reid was briefly in a strong position. He could not be blamed for what had gone wrong in the past. Fleetingly, the Home Secretary had an unblemished authority at a time when his department was in a state of extreme crisis. Imagine if Charles Clarke had been sitting there in front of the committee this week. He would not have been able to place the spotlight on the darker areas of the Home Office. The glare would have been exclusively on him.

Weakened, fighting for survival, he would have had no choice but to be politely deferential to the largely unknown, but extremely powerful, officials sitting beside him. Mr Clarke would have been the story, not the Home Office. Indeed, Mr Reid inadvertently implied that Mr Clarke was still the story. In effect, he declared: My predecessors have left a shambles. I am coming to the rescue.

The problem with Mr Reid's one-man show is that he is destined to become the story too. Something will go wrong under his watch. After which he will be fighting for his political life and in no position to supervise an overhaul of his department.

Mr Reid will probably be in this vulnerable position soon. Already he shows a familiar inclination for headlines and initiatives. After his virtuoso display at the Home Affairs Committee, it seems that Mr Reid did not rush back to the job of reorganising his department. He gave up time for an interview with the Daily Mirror, in which he promised tougher measures for knife offences and an end to early release for some offenders.

These new initiatives follow a proposal floated earlier in the week in which victims would be given a say in the length of time criminals spent in jail. What victims would be involved, and would their understandably distraught state of minds be taken into account? Forget about the awkward questions, let's announce a new scheme to show we are getting tough, or tougher still.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair orders the Home Office to deport foreign criminals, or some foreign criminals, or at least consider some of them for deportation. He vaguely blames the Human Rights Act for siding with the criminals and seeks changes or, to be more precise, changes in the way judges interpret the Act -a different matter, which is almost impossible to legislate for.

There is trouble galore in this confused populism, and even someone as politically agile as Mr Reid will trip up. Indeed, it appears Mr Reid has tripped up already with the news that more foreign prisoners had been released than he realised when he addressed the committee on Tuesday. I am told he is livid, but soon he will become culpable too. He cannot scream for much longer: "I am furious that the Home Office has cocked up."

There is another problem with Mr Reid's sweeping ambitions. Cabinet ministers come and go. Mr Reid comes and goes more often than most. I recall speaking to him one summer about whether he would address The Independent's fringe meeting at Labour's conference the following September.

Mr Reid was Labour Party chairman at the time. By the time of the meeting, Mr Reid had been in two further Cabinet posts. Mr Blair, who has never run a government department, moves ministers around so often they never get to run government departments properly either. Mr Reid might be the right man in the right post. He will not be in the post long enough to make much difference. While he is there, he would be better advised to announce there are to be no more bills, announcements or initiatives coming from his department until it has been sorted out. Ongoing schemes such as the introduction of ID cards should be suspended until the department can cope. As a former Home Secretary, Ken Clarke, has pointed out there is more than enough legislation in place to protect this country and its citizens. It is a question of delivery. Mr Reid should disappear until he has got the place in order. The former secretary of state for education, Ruth Kelly, pointed the way by hiding from view while she dealt with the frenzy over sex offenders.

Even then, Mr Reid would not be able to do more than paper over the cracks. There needs to be a fundamental overhaul of the civil service rather than a doomed one-man show. The left-of-centre think-thank, the IPPR, is conducting illuminating interviews with ministers and senior civil servants for a report to be published this summer. It finds that ministers fume about the lack of accountability in the civil service.

One Whitehall insider tells me it is impossible to sack an official. All that a minister can do is move poorly performing civil servants from a brief by suggesting to the permanent secretary that they should be promoted. IPPR sayssenior civil servants are impatient for change too. The report will point out that the increasingly anachronistic principle of ministerial accountability was established in the 18th century, when the Home Secretary employed one clerk and 10 civil servants. Today, Mr Reid presides over 70,000 officials. He is a fairly ubiquitous figure, but he cannot be blamed for the actions of all of them.

The IPPR will recommend a new civil service commission to appoint permanent secretaries, empowered to remove poor-performing officials and reward high performers. I would go further. It should be as natural for the BBC's Today programme to interview powerful, unelected officials as it is for them to interrogate ministers. The appointments by the membership commission should be scrutinised with the same intensity as that of a cabinet reshuffle. At the same time, there should be more outsiders brought into the civil service to assist ministers. The great scandal in British politics is not that there are too many special advisers in Whitehall, but there are so few.

Mr Reid has promised to work 18-hour days. It will not be enough. This is a revolution that demands the attention of more than one cabinet minister who will probably be in a different job by the autumn.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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