Steve Richards: John Reid's reforms of the Home Office are fine, but his policies are still badly miscast

Like his master, Reid tends to be bold only when he has checked whether the focus groups approve
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The Independent Online

After several weeks buried away in the darkness of his department, the Home Secretary, John Reid, has emerged into the blazing sunshine proclaiming a revolution. Most cabinet ministers have either a low or high public profile throughout their careers; in the space of only a few months Mr Reid has managed to be ubiquitous, invisible and then ubiquitous again.

In the early days in his new job, Mr Reid appeared to be everywhere. He declared famously that the Home Office was not fit for purpose and gave an interview to a newspaper in which he was portrayed as The Enforcer. The following day, it was announced that more foreign prisoners had been released inadvertently and The Enforcer expressed impotent fury. Shortly afterwards, Mr Reid attacked a judge for the apparent leniency of his sentence, prompting several cabinet ministers to defend the judge. Then there was near silence as Mr Reid set about making the Home Office fit for purpose.

His brief reign has been the equivalent of watching the opening scene of a James Bond movie followed by one of the slower sequences in a Harold Pinter play. Mr Reid turned away from the highly charged, scintillating action and opted for a long pause. The silence was broken yesterday.

He deserves credit for the pause. It is harder sometimes to resist invitations from the media than to accept them. This is especially the case at the Home Office when real or imaginary crises erupt most hours of the day. For a minister, it is not easy to hear a presenter describe some apparent catastrophe followed by the words : "We asked Mr Reid for an interview but he declined."

For Mr Reid, a period of voluntary media exile must have been more frustrating as he is much the most persuasive minister in the cabinet. I could listen to him for hours explaining why Clem Atlee and Nye Bevan would have supported City Academies.

Yet the weeks of silence in the Home Office have been fruitfully spent. In the Commons, Mr Reid delivered a balanced statement. From immigration to international terrorism he pointed out that the challenges had changed beyond recognition, but in some respects the Home Office had plodded on as before. Sensibly, he stressed that improvements had been made on some fronts. It is not an obviously wise strategy to imply that the previous nine years of a Labour government had been a waste of time, not least when Mr Reid's predecessors at the Home Office are watching his every move with a neurotic sensitivity.

After Mr Reid's statement yesterday the Home Office will never be quite the same again. Directors are leaving or moving away from the comfort of Whitehall to the front line where services are delivered. Around a third of other officials will be heading for the front line too. Increasingly complex matters relating to immigration will be dealt with by a newly self-contained department within the Home Office. Mr Reid might have been uncharacteristically silent in public over recent weeks, but he has swept through the Home Office like a noisy volcano.

There are, though, several causes for concern. Sweeping the old structures away are not enough. The policies matter too. Here there are signs of conservatism and continuing confusion at the Home Office.

Today, Mr Reid will confirm that he plans to increase prison numbers by another 8,000. This announcement alone shows the limits to Mr Reid's reforming vision. His predecessor Charles Clarke dared to wonder whether the prison population was too large. Mr Reid has no time for such progressive introspection. Under his watch, the numbers will rise relentlessly. Already the prison population is a combustible mix of the mentally ill, drug addicts and dangerous criminals. Many of those that are incarcerated should not be there. Some who are outside should still be in jail. The vast majority re-offend, suggesting that increasing the prison population will make no impact on the level of crime. The additional prisoners will re-offend too.

Like the Prime Minister, Mr Reid tends to be bold only when he has checked whether the focus groups approve. The focus groups will echo the newspapers they read by wanting more people locked up. It seems that Mr Reid stands ready to oblige.

More fundamentally the government's approach to immigration is confused. Sometimes it is keen. Sometimes it is not. The confusion was highlighted when the Labour MP Tony Wright asked Mr Blair at the recent meeting of the liaison committee whether the government had a "population policy". For the only moment in an otherwise energetically authoritative performance, Mr Blair was thrown.

Mr Wright called for a debate on the ideal population level, taking into account the demands on public services and the need in parts of the country for additional labour. As Mr Wright put it: "Do we want more waiters even if that means fewer parking places?" Mr Blair acknowledged the importance of the debate but did not expand further.

In practise, the government's policy on immigration has been not to have a clear policy. On the eve of several Eastern European countries joining the European Union in 2004 a senior figure at the Home Office explained to me in detail that Britain would benefit greatly from the free movement of labour. Over time he predicted also that the movement would be in the other direction, with British people heading to Eastern Europe. The source was upbeat about the prospects. Suddenly the mood within the government changed. Britain was crowded enough already, thank you very much. There would be a long list of restrictions before immigrants within the EU could head for Britain.

The immediate cause of the change was a Conservative attack on the government's previous stance as the general election moved into view. Mr Reid could do worse than head for the darkness of the Home Office again and come up with a more firmly based population policy. Do we want waiters or parking places?

Whether he is given the time is another matter. It takes several years to turn around a private company, as anyone leading the modernisation of Marks and Spencers would testify. Transforming M&S is the equivalent of selling cold water in a heatwave compared with tackling the Home Office. Yet Mr Reid might not be in post for very long.

After the last election, Charles Clarke told Mr Blair that the Home Office was in need of long- term reform and that he wanted to stay in place for at least three years to implement the changes. Mr Blair expressed great enthusiasm for the idea. At the first sign of panic Mr Clarke was gone.

Mr Reid rarely stays in a cabinet post for more than a day or two before being called to the rescue elsewhere. In terms of administrative reform at least he is set upon an admirably ambitious path. On past form, he will not complete the journey.