Leading article: Change must go further

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The Independent Online

There was a large dash of humbug about yesterday's announcement by John Reid of a comprehensive shake-up at the Home Office. The idea that making the Immigration and Nationality Directorate an "arm's-length" agency will remove it from daily political influence is laughable. In an area as politically sensitive as immigration and asylum, ministers will always find a way to meddle.

There was also an element of political expediency about the timing of this reform package. We should not be too surprised that it has coincided with the revelation that a parliamentary committee was misled last year by a senior Home Office official over the number of failed asylum-seekers in Britain. The Home Secretary needed something yesterday to deflect the political heat from his department. And this government has had more practice than most in "burying bad news".

Yet despite all this, it has to be welcome that the Government is attempting to get to grips with the systemic failings of the Home Office. We have had ample evidence over the past few months that the department is at best chaotic and at worst incompetent. The Home Office is always going to be under greater pressure than other departments because of its vast range of duties and the sheer number of cases it must process. But this sort of administrative shake-up is overdue, especially the movement of a considerable number of staff out of Whitehall and into front-line duties. The Home Office's problem has never been an absence of targets or orders from on high, but a dearth of competent officials on the ground ensuring that files are properly updated and information relayed through the system.

Mr Reid's image of himself as some sort of managerial troubleshooter, however, must be resisted. The present Home Secretary has been just as guilty as any of his predecessors in focusing on the political rather than the practical aspects of his job. In his two months in charge, he has floated a formidable range of populist ideas, from the introduction of a US-style law on identifying local paedophiles to "super Asbos" for organised criminals. And he still continues to threaten more muddle-headed moves to "rebalance" the criminal justice system in favour of the victim. It seems there is to be no let-up in the Blairite assault on our civil liberties.

The most vital reform that the Home Office needs is in the mentality of its political masters. Home Secretaries must realise that their function is not to come up with ever more crowd-pleasing legislation, but to make their department function as it should, and as the public expects it to. This is what is required to make the Home Office truly "fit for purpose" once again.