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TONY TRAVERS - A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF WHAT IS WRONG WITH WESTMINSTER

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The Home Office has become a metaphor for so many of the problems of British central government. As Dr John Reid st...
The Home Office has become a metaphor for so many of the problems of British central government. As Dr John Reid struggles to staunch the tide of horror stories from his new department, the rest of us can observe the chaos from the sidelines.

The new home secretary's problems range from the non-deportation of foreign criminals, via prisoners absconding from open prisons, to a sex-for-asylum allegation. This poisonous drip-drip of bad news is hardly surprising. The Home Office has been overwhelmed in recent years by a debilitating torrent of initiatives, targets and leadership changes. The best that can be said for the department is that it has recently moved into nice, new, offices.

Local government has never much loved the Home Office. Officials working with successive home secretaries have obstructed most initiatives to pass powers back to councils, including the 'single pot' capital control system and, more recently, local area agreements.

In fairness, some of the Home Office's problems have mirrored those of councils themselves. The sudden increase in in-migration during the 1990s caught the department unprepared. The Immigration & Nationality Directorate has struggled, as have some councils.

Similarly, the imposition of targets has skewed the activities of Home Office providers, notably the asylum service, police and parts of the criminal justice system. Pressure for such top-down control has come from Downing Street. Although the Home Office has been a willing imposer of targets, it too has found its effectiveness undermined by them.

Then there is the government's concern for 'joined-up' government. Home Affairs Committee chair John Denham observed last Monday on Radio 4's Today programme that it would be impossible to slim down the Home Office because all its existing functions needed to be held together in one place. This was an unambiguous statement that services had to be under one department's control. How on earth local government is expected to 'join up' services across rigid departmental boundaries, if Whitehall itself can't, is hard to imagine.

Also on Monday, the Local Government Association launched its Closer to people and places document. The LGA wants to make the case that local government is on the ball and ahead of the government on a number of policy issues. Local area agreements, neighbourhoods and leadership are all addressed. Compared to the Home Office, the LGA's document is indeed coherent.

A 'capability review', a kind of performance assessment for Whitehall, is being undertaken at the Home Office. If published, the review will make fascinating reading. Weaknesses recently exposed in several parts of the Home Office's sprawling empire will, it is to be hoped, prove useful in making the future case for less central control and, indeed, for stronger local government.

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