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Home Office: Reform Action Plan

Volume 449: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2006

I should like to make a statement about our plans for transforming the Home Office. I have today placed in the Library a copy of a reform action plan which gives details of the changes that we intend to make.

All political change should start with values and objectives. The Home Office exists to protect the key elements of civilised society: to reduce fear and increase security, from global terrorism to local cohesion in our streets and communities, and from justice and fairness to the protection of opportunities to live life in security. However, the context in which we seek to apply those values is changing faster than ever before, and changing fundamentally, creating new and different challenges for the future.

In the past 15 years, we have seen no less than seismic geopolitical changes, ranging from the global to the local. Globally, the old cold war had frozen the world into relative immobility. States were frozen, ethnic tensions and religious extremism were repressed, borders were inviolable, and peoples were largely static. The end of the cold war brought a torrent of new problems and, above all, the challenge of international mobility on a hitherto unimaginable scale. We have seen unprecedented levels of migration, with the movement of more than 200 million people in 2005, the development of international terrorism—[Interruption.] That is hardly a laughing matter. We have also seen the growth of global and organised crime.

Moving from the global to the local, relative immobility has given way to social and geographic mobility, whereby the old group allegiances, extended family relationships and inherited patterns of voting and religious observance have broken down, and with them the old forms of community cohesion. Unlike most other Government Departments, we find that in this changing context many of the people whom the Home Office is trying to deal with—prisoners, criminals and illegal immigrants—see it as their primary objective not to co-operate with the Government, but to resist our authority and evade our control.

In the face of those challenges, the Home Office has been in a process of change and reform for some years. The Department now has a more streamlined focus as a result of some of our responsibilities being transferred to other Departments. I give credit to my predecessors and the civil servants who worked with them for facing those challenges. They took a system that was designed before the cold war and improved it in three important ways: through additional resources, improvements in technology and legislative and practical solutions.

Those improvements have led to notable successes in key matters. Crime is down significantly—the chance of being a victim of crime in this country is the lowest since 1981. We have record numbers of police and an additional 6,300 community support officers on the streets. Asylum applications are now tackled in two months, as opposed to 22 months under the previous Government. The UK Passport Service, which was failing just a few years ago, now regularly tops customer service polls, beating some leading private sector organisations. It is a shining example of transformation, and what can be achieved.

However, the underlying systems and practices for dealing with those issues have not changed sufficiently. Many of the fundamentals that underlie the systems in the Home Office were designed for a pre-cold war era. In the face of the huge challenges that I outlined earlier, we have now reached the limit of what can be achieved without a fundamental overhaul. The Home Office capability review, which is published today, strongly reinforces those views.

Some of the inadequacies have surfaced recently—in co-ordination, administration and accounts. In co-ordination, the House knows only too well—I do not have to rehearse the matter—how the release of foreign prisoners challenged systems across the Home Office and the criminal justice system, and found them wanting.

In administration, the House knows that, for example, the National Audit Office last year suggested that 283,000 unsuccessful asylum applicants might still be here—excluding dependants and those who claimed asylum before 1994 and after 2004—reflecting the difficulties of successive Governments in removing failed asylum seekers. That is reflected in the immigration and nationality directorate’s case load of around 400,000 to 450,000 electronic and paper records, which, as hon. Members also know, are riddled with duplication and errors, and include cases of individuals who have since died or left the country, or are now EU citizens.

As for accounts, the House knows that the Home Office’s resource accounts for 2004-05 were disclaimed by the National Audit Office. We have sought to remedy those individual instances. I have today set out in a written ministerial statement, through my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality, our plans to improve the way in which we deal with foreign national prisoners. We will tackle the case load in the IND with the aim of clearing it—not in 25 years, as has been suggested, but in five or less. We will put our books in order. However, as today’s capability review shows, we need to go much further in general and fundamental reform.

For all those reasons, I am today setting out plans for an ambitious set of reforms across the Department. They are outlined in the document that we published today, and I shall highlight some of them. We will sharpen the Home Office’s focus on its core purpose of protecting the public through the six key priorities set out in today’s plan. We will establish a new top team with a reshaped Home Office board and 15 immediate changes at director level—that is more than a quarter of all directors.

We will reshape radically the structure of the Home Office, with a major shift in responsibility and resource to the front line. We will fulfil our commitment to reduce the total size of Home Office strategic and operational headquarters by 30 per cent. by 2008—and today I can also tell hon. Members that I am making a commitment to a further reduction of 10 per cent. in headquarters staff by 2010.

The cumulative effect of these changes will be to reduce the size of the headquarters of the Home Office and its agencies from 9,200 in 2004 to 6,500 in 2008 and to 5,900 by 2010. These changes will mark the biggest shift from the centre to the front line in the Home Office’s history. We will thereby save £115 million a year by 2010 in HQ costs, which we will invest in improving front-line services.

We will go further by establishing the immigration and nationality directorate as an executive agency of the Home Office—a shadow agency will be in place by April 2007—with strong accountability arrangements. I shall give more details of this in the next few days. We will establish clear performance frameworks for the operational services of the Home Office—the immigration and nationality directorate, the National Offender Management Service, and the identity and passport service—and hold the heads of those services accountable for operational performance. The National Offender Management Service headquarters will be focused on the job of commissioning high-quality services for managing offenders and of driving up the performance of the probation and prison services. As a result, the headquarters of NOMS will get progressively smaller. We will reduce it by 50 per cent. by 2010.

We will develop a renewed contract between Ministers and officials, clarifying respective roles and expectations in relation to policy, strategic decisions, operational delivery and management. We will seek to reduce further the bureaucratic burden on the police and other partners in tackling crime, by implementing simpler performance arrangements for policing crime and drugs.

We are also launching today a radical reform programme in the Home Office, with seven strands of change designed to transform the culture, skills, systems, processes and data of the Department. Today we have set out a clear action plan to deliver this reform, and more. By September, we will develop a full implementation programme. An external audit of progress will be conducted in December and annually thereafter. In the next few days, we will supplement today’s plan with two further sets of proposals: on rebalancing the criminal justice system and on reforming our immigration and nationality directorate.

We are determined to deliver a confidently led and well managed Home Office which delivers high-quality services to protect the public and better meets their expectations, and which builds through transformation on the improvements that have been achieved so far. I would like to thank my predecessors, my Ministers and my senior officials for all the work that has already been put into the development of the Home Office and into our new plans.

I stress to the House the fact that we are not starting from year zero, and that we do not expect perfection at the end of the process. This is the start of a long-term programme for transforming the fundamental systems of the Home Office. All those involved—Ministers, directors and staff—know the extent of the challenge, and that this will not be accomplished overnight. However, we are committed to making early progress to demonstrate our seriousness to the public and to our stakeholders and staff. The fundamental change that we are seeking will require determination and, above all, endurance. This is the unglamorous hard work of delivering good government. That is now the task ahead, and I commend the plan to the House.

I thank the Home Secretary for giving me advance sight of his statement, much of which we agree with. We wonder, however, why it has taken 10 years for some of these lessons to be learned. I was quite surprised by the right hon. Gentleman’s undertaking—which I did not see in the original statement—to clear up in five years the backlog that the Home Office faces. Working on today’s numbers, that implies that it will be deporting a net figure of 80,000 people a year, and I would be interested to hear the Home Secretary confirm that that is the case.

In the past 12 weeks, we have witnessed a serial catastrophe in the Home Office, with daily disclosures of massive failures of policy. The issues have included the release of foreign prisoners, murderers on probation, sex-for-visas scandals, dangerous prisoners being put into open prisons, hundreds of thousands of failed asylum seekers, and massive numbers of illegal immigrants.

This has been a spectacular serial failure of government, the like of which has not been seen in modern times in this country. Each and every failure that we have talked about in the past 12 weeks has serious implications for ordinary decent British citizens. At the very least, the Government have wasted hard-earned taxpayers’ money and put excessive pressure on housing and public services. At worst, they have threatened public safety and even, in some cases, national security.

We need to understand why that has happened—the wrong analysis of the problem will lead to the wrong conclusion. The Home Secretary puts it down to the end of the cold war, and with it the rise in asylum seekers and other threats. But that does not explain why Britain, which is further away from the failed states than any other European state—except Ireland—and which is an island and therefore harder to get into, with borders that are easier to control, has had the second highest number of asylum applicants in the world in the past five years.

The reason is simple. The new Labour Government—I see that the previous Home Secretary but two is on the Treasury Bench—repealed Conservative laws allowing us to send people straight back to safe countries on the so-called white list. They terminated Conservative welfare arrangements designed to deter economic migrants, and failed to negotiate a continuation of the right to return asylum seekers to France. I see that the right hon. Gentleman is nodding. They later tried to reinstate some of those laws, but too late. In the following five years, more than a quarter of a million failed asylum seekers—failed asylum seekers, not real asylum seekers—tried to enter Britain, with almost 90,000 in one year alone. That, along with political decisions to increase net immigration by nearly 200,000 a year and not to strengthen our borders, is why the immigration and nationality directorate was overwhelmed.

Of course there have been failures of management, but there have been much bigger failures of political leadership. The same is true elsewhere in the Home Office. We have seen the disaster over foreign prisoners, the debacle over putting dangerous prisoners in open prisons, and the catastrophe of murderers released after a 25-minute telephone call and going on to murder innocent people. All those came from the same cause—a political decision not to build enough prison places.

The Government’s own review showed that they needed 100,000 prison places by 2010. Even after the 8,000 new places that I understand the Home Secretary will announce tomorrow, they will still have less than 90,000 places by 2012. Again, there are failures of management, but in a system put under intolerable pressure by failures of political leadership. We could go on. We have a police force so overburdened with central targets and politically correct red tape that its detection rates dropped to an all-time low two years ago. As a result, violent crime is spiralling out of control, as we will no doubt hear tomorrow when the crime figures come out, putting extra pressure on the police, the courts, the prisons and the Home Office.

Of course, Ministers themselves have put intolerable pressure on the Home Office. Since 1997 there have been more than 1,300 new regulations, many hundreds of initiatives and over 50 major Home Office Bills—more than the total number of Criminal Justice Bills in the previous century. Some of those Bills were useless—not in my opinion, but in the Government’s. In the case of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, 110 of its provisions never came into force. Seventeen more were repealed before they could come into force, and another 39 were repealed after they came into force. That is by no means the only example; there are many others. Massive amounts of work were piled on to the Home Office, for no use whatever.

This is not a Department that is impossible to run. Since 1997, as the Home Secretary mentioned in his statement, it has given up responsibility for 24 policy areas. It has less to do in straight policy terms than it had. Under the burdens of a target-driven, red tape-driven, bureaucratic, top-heavy approach pursued by this Government, however, its central staffing has doubled—and is it not revealing that the number of press officers has trebled ?

It is true that some of the Home Secretary’s proposals have merit. For example, the agency proposals for the IND—I think that I disagree with my ex-leader on this—may improve some aspects of its management. It may, however, make communication and co-operation with other parts of the Home Office more difficult, so none of these things come free. It will certainly not absolve Ministers of responsibility for effectiveness and delivery.

The main issue is that the Home Office is a Department in severe crisis, as a direct result of Government policy. It is no hyperbole to say that the crisis is the biggest faced by a Department in modern times. The failures are multiple and massive, and will have a serious impact on the public. We all hope that the Home Secretary’s measures succeed. Even if they do, however, they are unlikely to resolve problems of the size that his Department faces. And whatever they do, they will not allow him to sweep a political problem under a bureaucratic carpet.

I shall try to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s questions—although I must say that he asked very few. I do not, however, begrudge him his entitlement to make a statement on the matter.

On the clear-up rates, I think that his long division was based on the false premise that every case file equals a person. That is a wrong assumption on which to work. As I said earlier, some case files are duplicates, and some represent a decision that someone can stay here but we have not been able to get in touch with that person to tell them. In some cases, the person concerned may be dead, or may be from a state that has now become part of Europe. In some cases, the limited evidence that we have suggests that the person may have left of their own accord.

I did say that we would aim to clear up the caseload legacy in five years—or, I hope, less time than that. That is because we have made significant progress since the right hon. Gentleman’s party was in power. We no longer take 22 months to deal with a case; we deal with it in eight weeks—[Interruption.] I think that Opposition Members will accept that I am always ready to admit our inadequacies; they should not be so sensitive when I point out some of the inadequacies of the Conservative Government. The truth is that we have made massive progress in recent years to reform the asylum system. We have reduced applications by 72 per cent., and we have reduced the time taken to deal with them from 22 months to two months.

The right hon. Gentleman asked why so many asylum applicants come to Britain. First, we have the English language. Secondly, we have had a more prosperous economy than anywhere else. Thirdly, his facts are wrong—in terms of asylum applications per thousand, the rate of application in this country is no greater than that in many European countries, and less than in some, including France. We should get our facts right. The truth is that there are inadequacies, and as I said earlier, one of the greatest is that the Home Office’s fundamental systems were made for a different age. That created problems for everyone, including the last Home Secretary under the Conservative Government.

It is just not fair to suggest that my predecessors did not have major achievements. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, when he was Home Secretary, halved the time taken for persistent young offenders to be dealt with in the court system. He introduced a ban on handguns and the first race relations legislation in 25 years, and developed and introduced antisocial behaviour orders. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) brought in a record number of police officers, and created community support officers, neighbourhood policing teams and the street robbery initiative that did so much to reduce crime. My right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) established the Serious Organised Crime Agency, dealt with 7/7 and its aftermath with great statesmanship, and achieved the tipping-point target whereby, for the first time in the past 20 years, we are deporting more failed asylum seekers than we are importing. It is a mixed balanced sheet, but to pretend that the previous Conservative Government achieved anything like what my three predecessors did is to fantasise about political history.

My right hon. Friend’s plans are certainly bold. One of the problems with the immigration and nationality directorate in recent years has been not that it has failed to meet its targets, but that it has met its targets and failed to deal with other problems, such as foreign prisoners, on which common sense requires action. Agencies are usually managed against targets. The great challenge to the Government and my right hon. Friend’s proposals is to ensure that the new agency does not just deliver on a narrow set of targets laid down by Ministers, but deals with the whole problem.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that at the core of his proposals is a belief that the slimmed-down centre of the Home Office will be able to offer a higher quality of leadership from officials, and—if I may say so—a less ministerial impatience and desire to intervene than we have perhaps been able to show in the past?

The answers to my right hon. Friend’s questions are yes, yes and yes, particularly on the last point. If we want to encourage a spirit and culture of acceptance of responsibility and accountability among officials, that will require us to tolerate a degree of risk-taking on the part of officials; and that will require a degree of self-denying ordinance when such risks result in something going wrong, as they inevitably will. Hopefully, however, those tactical mistakes will be to the benefit of an overall strategic change in the systems, giving us more effective and efficient management and output.

The reason we want to do this is that, even after so many years in government, we should take upon ourselves the process of renewal of government, of Government Departments and of Government delivery—in a self-critical and, we hope, a constructive fashion, but also in a way that delivers from the centre what people want, rebalances our criminal justice system as people want it to be rebalanced, and provides a fair and effective system of managed migration that people can see to be both fair and effective. At the end of the day, we must show the public that we pay some attention to their concerns about government and governance.

I thank the Home Secretary for allowing advance sight of his statement.

Given the suspense involved in awaiting this important blueprint for reform of the Home Office and given that the Home Secretary has been working on it for 18 hours a day, I must say that I am somewhat underwhelmed by what appears at first glance to be a hotch-potch of managerial doublespeak and wildly implausible targets. Some of it, of course, is welcome—we have been calling for the creation of a semi-independent agency from the immigration and nationality directorate for a long time, and we obviously welcome it now—but can the Home Secretary explain why he did not go further and look at models in other European countries and in north America, where the monopolistic functions of the Home Office are divided between a justice ministry dealing with judicial issues and a separate ministry dealing with police and security matters? That model works extremely well in large parts of the western world; perhaps the Home Secretary could reflect on it further.

I was intrigued to learn that the end of the cold war is now held to be at least partly responsible for some of the woes in the Home Office, but I wonder why the unrelenting flow of headline-grabbing legislation from this Government—more than 50 Bills and more than 1,000 new offences in under a decade—was not mentioned in the statement. Surely the Home Secretary accepts that no Home Office, however structured or however reorganised, can work effectively as long as Ministers push it from pillar to post on the back of a volley of half-baked media gimmicks and legislative initiatives.

I believe that the Home Secretary announced today a new contract between Ministers and civil servants. Will he confirm that his side of the bargain will be to guarantee that he will not announce any new initiatives at the behest of newspaper editors until he has discussed them in full with his civil servants?

In the light of what is widely regarded as a bold if somewhat implausible claim that nearly half a million failed asylum seekers will be deported in less than five years, will the Home Secretary agree to look at the example of Canada, where a totally independent asylum agency has been created? Its functions are separate from the other functions of the immigration service, and it has proved spectacularly successful in dealing—free from political interference—with a highly sensitive area of public policy.

I take it that when the hon. Gentleman spoke of the making of policy, he was referring to the protection of children. May I remind him gently that I was an Opposition spokesman on children 15 years before he entered the House? I spend considerable time thinking about these matters before I announce them.

As for the implausibility or otherwise of the performance objectives, I think it best to make them public and to let people judge, according to the milestones that we are also making public, whether we achieve them. I thought that, as an adherent to the policy of open government and good delivery, the hon. Gentleman would welcome that. As for management practices, I cannot pretend to be a management expert. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is one, but I assure him that I have full confidence in my permanent secretary and the top leadership, and in the external management experts who advise them.

The hon. Gentleman was a little churlish to diminish the efforts of many good people in the Home Office who have worked very hard for the past two months. They worked long hours, including weekends, to produce this as well as two other plans. The fact that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) was able to welcome many of the proposals is testimony to the good sense of those proposals.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of a monopolistic tendency in Departments. I should have expected him to welcome the fact that we are moving from the centre to the front line, talking about devolving accountability and responsibility, moving from centrally controlled to agency status and introducing contestability, which may result in a degree of privatisation in certain areas. What the hon. Gentleman said makes me wonder which document he has been reading. Nothing in this document moves towards monopoly; everything in it moves in the other direction. It may be the right or the wrong direction, but I should have thought that he would be able to discern the direction of travel.

The hon. Gentleman cast aside, rather dismissively, any suggestion that the cold war could have had huge geopolitical consequences that caused problems for all Departments. I remind him that my first job in Government involved reconfiguring the whole of the British armed forces because of the changes brought about by the cold war. It has affected all our lives. The extension of Europe to the east, which the hon. Gentleman will have welcomed—eight more countries, and possibly another two, with all the migration that that involves—is a direct result of it. Those are not insignificant events. We ought to start facing up to the challenges that the new world presents to us, and that is what I am trying to do today.

Order. A good many Members are seeking to catch my eye. May I appeal for brisk questions, and perhaps for brisk answers from the Home Secretary?

As regards asylum, may I put it to my right hon. Friend that with all the talk of targets, tipping points and agencies, we are in danger of losing sight of the fact that we are dealing with human beings? Most people in this country are not as mean and nasty as most of our loathsome tabloids would have us believe. They do not want children who have lived in this country throughout their conscious lives sent back to destitution in countries such as the Congo, Angola and Sudan. May I therefore express the hope—

My hon. Friend made some of those points recently in an Adjournment debate, the report of which I read with interest. I have a degree of sympathy with what he has said, but I hope that he understands that the aim of those of us who talk of providing a fair and effective system of managed migration is partly, at least, to ensure that when genuine cases such as those that he mentioned arise, everyone in society accepts that fair and genuine decisions have been made. The problem at the moment—with so many unknowns, so many illegal immigrants and a system that so many people feel is not fair and effective on the immigration side and not balanced in favour of the law-abiding majority on the criminal justice side—is that the legitimacy of taking decisions gets undermined, but that is the balance that we are trying to strike.

Does the Home Secretary recognise that his proposals for transferring or transforming the immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office into an agency will limit his ability to intervene as part of what he rightly described as carrying out the “unglamorous” business of good government if things continue to go wrong—if, for example, the fears expressed by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) about the effect of targets prove to be justified? Is that the Home Secretary’s objective? Does he agree, given that he has described that part of the Home Office as not fit for purpose, that it would be better for him to continue to accept personal responsibility for its future performance rather than to offload it to an agency?

There is no way that I would want to give up responsibility for an agency inside the Home Office, because the strategic direction, the policy decisions and so forth clearly lie with Ministers. I accept that the application of policy and operations cannot always be separated from policy decisions—there is no absolute differentiation between the two; there will be an overlap on occasions—and that some cases are strategically important, or perhaps in the national interest, so that a Minister has to intervene, but I nevertheless hope that by establishing the right regulatory and leadership framework and a greater degree of devolved responsibility to the agency, we will get a more effective output at the end of the day. That is, of course, a matter of discussion and if the right hon. and learned Gentleman, or, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) have further points to make—they bring a great deal of experience to bear on the matter—I would be more than happy to reflect on them, as I do not regard the managerial aspect as a matter of party politics.

Following that very point, I am interested in the new contract between Ministers and officials. When will it be put in place and will it be published? Where will ministerial responsibility end and the responsibility of officials begin?

We have called it a renewed contract. My understanding, although I am not a constitutional historian, has always been that general responsibility for policy and strategic leadership lies with elected Members and Ministers, while responsibility for the detailed minutiae of operational work lies with officials—in the same way that advisers advise, but Ministers decide. It has at least been perceived and may have been the case in reality over recent years that Ministers can get involved in micro-managing operations to the detriment of the strategic whole. That is why we are trying to re-establish the relationship. As so often in other matters, the contract will be public, but this does not have the glamour of a contract signed by football players; it is an attempt to re-establish a balance in the relationship between Ministers and officials.

I served in the Home Office for three years under my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Hurd, and the Department was then not unfit. If it is unfit now, that is the consequence of Ministers who have overloaded and abused the Department. If the Secretary of State looked into recent failings—most notably, oppressive legislation struck down by the courts, the unjustified merger of police forces, the chaotic Criminal Justice Act 2003 and failing immigration controls—he would see that they were all the direct responsibility of Ministers. In those circumstances, it is unworthy to poor-mouth officials and not to take ministerial responsibility.

I would have thought that I had taken a great deal of ministerial responsibility. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is a little unfair, but I hope that I am not being unfair when I say, first, that I did not say that the whole Department was unfit for purpose, but that certain fundamental systems in the Department were unfit for purpose. Secondly, if it was so fit for purpose when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was there, I wonder why crime doubled during that period. Thirdly, the suggestion that problems dealing with immigration, the number of illegal immigrants and the state of knowledge of data systems are afflictions that have been visited upon us only since we have had Labour Secretaries of State is not a true reflection of history.

Some of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s predecessors know full well that there are difficult problems to cope with. Tracking people in, tracking people through and tracking people out has always been difficult. In a world in which the number of migrants has doubled and we have 90 million visitors and roughly 90 million people going out of the UK, it becomes very difficult. That is the problem that we are trying to resolve. If Mr. Speaker allows me, I shall have more to say about that in the next few days.

I very much welcome the reforms, especially the shift of resources to the front line, which is where my constituents want them to be. On the IND proposals, what will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that strict protocols are in place so that the system is secure, to cut out duplication and to ensure consistent decision making in what will be an arm’s-length, decentralised agency?

We can try to do that by simplifying the law. Much of the detail that my hon. Friend seeks I will, if I am allowed, elaborate on a future occasion. As I have said, my officials have been working very hard on two other sets of proposals: one is about rebalancing the criminal justice system and the other relates to the specifics of the IND. One thing that we certainly should do is listen carefully to what those with experience, either as constituency MPs or former Ministers, have to say. I think that I am correct in saying that in the past 24 hours my hon. Friend has met my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality to discuss the matter, and we are always willing to discuss it further.

I thank the Home Secretary for advance notice of his statement and I welcome some of its contents, not least the plans to transform the culture, skills, systems, processes and data of the Home Office. He will be aware of many recent criticisms, such as foreign prisoner release, the missing passports fiasco, and the imbalance between the location of immigration officers and ports at which so few, if any, people illegally entering the country are apprehended. Can he assure us that, in making the changes in the 55 paragraphs and 38 high-level bullet points at the back of the action plan, there will be no loss of front-line focus in those areas? In particular, will there be a continued focus on the direct relationship and linkage between the Home Office and the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency over serious crime and drugs issues and the counter-terrorism role?

Yes, I certainly hope that that will be the case. By definition, if we are identifying international contacts and dealing with organised crime on a pan-national scale, it would be completely contradictory if we were to lessen the co-ordination in the fight against crime among the countries of the United Kingdom.

In supporting the broad thrust of my right hon. Friend’s proposals, may I gently remind him that, as those of us who have had extensive experience of the Child Support Agency know only too well, arm’s-length agencies are not of themselves necessarily a solution? What steps will he take to ensure that the combination of challenging targets and a head-count reduction do not lead to the sort of collapse of morale that occurred in the Child Support Agency? That has many implications not just for the effective management of the system, but for meeting the needs of vulnerable individuals within it and, of course, for community relations, particularly in multiracial communities such as those in my constituency.

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall not go into the details of the immigration and nationality directorate reforms at this stage, because I hope to report back to the House with further detail shortly, as I have said. At that stage, I hope that she will be satisfied that we have achieved the right balance in respect of general accountability, regulation, objectivity, advice and autonomy of leadership. I agree with her that, on its own, agency status will not solve all the problems. I do not believe that an organisation’s being in the private sector or the public sector necessarily makes it good or bad. Similarly, being an integral part of a Department or an executive agency is not necessarily all good or bad. However, I believe that what we are suggesting will provide a good degree of freedom for top management, in whom I have confidence, to take on the responsibility to lead and, in the midst of all the pressures on immigration from all sides, to sustain objectives. The maintenance of objectives is the first rule of achieving them.

I would be most grateful to the Home Secretary if he would accept from me that my immigration case load has gone up from 50 to 80 per cent. of the total in recent years and that that is primarily to do with the inordinate length of time that the Home Office takes to make decisions. What assurances can he give that, while the changes take place in the IND, a primary management objective will be to ensure that no further delays occur in my constituents’ cases—or should I write to them to suggest that they must wait even longer?

I certainly hope not. I assure the hon. Lady that the issue is very high in all our priorities. She is absolutely right to suggest that unacceptable delays, which run through from answering questions from Members of Parliament to dealing with immigration cases, are not only inconvenient for the individuals involved but highly deleterious eventually if anyone wants to deport those individuals. The longer that they stay here, the more that they have a case under article 8 of the European convention on human rights about the disturbance to their family life, as they have become settled. So there are all sorts of reasons why we ought to do such things far more swiftly.

I welcome the statement, particularly as it contains no reference to the over-ambitious identity card scheme. I remind the Home Secretary that for the past nine months police forces in this country have not been, in his phrase, sharply focused on their core purpose of catching criminals, because they have had to put up with the massive distraction of police reorganisation. Can he assure me that police forces such as my own in Gwent, which put a great deal of effort and resources into preparing for reorganisation, will be compensated for the money that they have wasted?

I hate to disappoint my hon. Friend on a number of fronts. I hope that he is pleased that we have decided to abandon an approach by diktat and to try to fill the gap, which everyone thinks is there in the protective services, by discussion, dialogue, collaboration and partnership and, where possible, by strategic mergers. I hope that that will be done, and most people would think that, on balance, it is a far better way of doing it. That has certainly been the reception that we have had. I am sorry to disappoint him, however, about ID cards: the more that I see of the problems that we face in counter-terrorism, fraud and organised crime, the more that I become convinced that we made the right decision on ID cards, and I therefore reaffirm our commitment to them.

I support the Home Secretary’s firm intention to shift resources over time from headquarters to front-line services—I wish him well with that—but will he look urgently at the resources behind border controls? Certainly in Plymouth and at other ports of entry, there is a very real fear that many people, perhaps undesirable, and many undesirable substances are coming into the country with not a sign of a border guard or a Customs official to detect or deter them. Will that be looked at very urgently in his great new Home Office?

I note what the hon. Gentleman says—most of our exercises in that respect are intelligence-led—but he may find it of interest to be here when we discuss in further detail some of the plans for the IND and wider, associated issues, if Mr. Speaker allows us to do so in the near future.

Can my right hon. Friend give any assurance at this stage that hon. Members will continue to have access to Ministers on behalf of constituents who are involved in particularly difficult immigration and asylum cases?

Certainly I and the Ministers associated with me have always tried to make time available to hon. Members who want to speak to us on any matter. However, we all accept that a system whereby there is routine reopening and re-examination of every decision that is taken by the IND adds very little to its fairness but hugely to its inefficiency. So we must try to get that balance right. Again, we will return to that subject when we discuss the matter in the near future, I hope.

May I ask the Home Secretary a question on ministerial accountability? On Monday, I asked the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality a question about the sex for visas issue, which strikes right at the heart of the problems at the IND. I am afraid that I got a reply that showed that the Minister simply does not understand the issue and that the people concerned—the victim and her solicitors—have not been kept informed. That is an issue of fundamental importance to the integrity of the right hon. Gentleman’s Department and the directorate. Will he look at a letter that I have written to him today, follow that case through and assure the victim of that incident and me that her concerns are being met?

Yes. I will not refer to that incident, because I think that I am correct in saying that criminal investigations are still going on in that case. That is partly why my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality was reticent. Investigations are certainly going on in one or two of the cases. Therefore, we must be rather careful about what we say about them, but the hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that it is entirely unacceptable that such things go on. When they are discovered—we have strengthened our fraud investigations internally—people ought to be investigated and, where appropriate, disciplined and, again where appropriate, criminal charges should be brought, and they are being brought in some of those cases.

However, we are rather reticent to discuss cases openly for two reasons: first, if judicial proceedings are going on; and secondly, although we can try to ensure that such people are discovered and penalised, the intervention in individual and specific cases that involve members of staff is normally better left to the permanent secretary and others who manage the staff side. That is partly intended to maintain the integrity of the relationship between Ministers and officials. However, I fully accept the points that the hon. Gentleman makes about keeping the victim of that incident informed. If he would like to see me and my colleagues afterwards, I will see how we can do that in a way that is commensurate with not intervening in any judicial proceedings.

While my right hon. Friend is reforming his Department, can we give some thought and appreciation to the people on the ground who are fighting crime, particularly crime reduction officers and community support officers? Will he join me in congratulating Crime Reduction Officer Steve Barrett in my constituency on coming up with the simple idea of producing a key fob with the picture of the community support officer on it, so that local people can recognise their CSO, and with the contact details on the back? That is a very effective way of helping community policing to work. Will he encourage other police forces to take up that simple idea?

Yes, indeed. I congratulate the local neighbourhood policing team and the gentleman in question on that. I have not thought of doing something similar for the Home Secretary; it might not be as warmly received throughout the nation.

The Home Secretary will be aware that most members of the public have contact with the Home Office through their local police. In his statement, he talked about simplifying the procedures for the police and improving front-line services. In view of those comments, would he like to take this opportunity today to rule out clearly, unequivocally and without hesitation any prospect of those wholly unwelcome police mergers?

I have already made my position known on that. In fact, I told the Police Federation within a week of coming into the post, I told the Association of Chief Police Officers a week later and I have told the House several times that I do not intend to force people to merge. The legislative, parliamentary and local support and the community, judicial, financial and fiscal problems of doing so were sufficient to deter even a Glaswegian from going in there, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that the status quo is not acceptable and that some protective services need to be provided, and that therefore either through collaboration, partnership or some sort of voluntary merger, we should try to do so. That is what I have asked the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety to do. I hope that we never have to return to do that by diktat, because that is not the route that I prefer, and I have ruled it out certainly for the foreseeable future.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and what he is trying to achieve. May I direct his attention to the asylum seekers in my constituency, who have been there for at least five years? Their children have gone through primary school and are heading to secondary school. Adding another five years will mean that those children will be more British than from the country of their parents’ origin. Will he ensure that they are looked after?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The longer it takes us to deal with cases, the more likely it is that the scenario that he outlined will occur. Then, of course, however fair or unfair the original entry into this country was, it becomes difficult to ask people to leave, not least because it is in contravention of article 8 of the European convention on human rights on settled family life. That is precisely why, if we are to have a fair system, it needs to be a speedy and efficient system. I certainly aim to ensure that that is the case so that we move from a vicious circle to a virtuous circle. That will not happen quickly and it will require great endurance. I hope to go into the detail in a few days’ time.

The creation of an agency is like moving around the deckchairs on the Titanic, rather than keeping an eye open for icebergs. One of the icebergs is hospital orders. Does the Home Secretary agree that we need to consider how offenders are handled if they are given hospital orders and how the National Offender Management Service deals with people at the end of such orders?

Yes. Quite separately from what I am telling the House today, a written ministerial statement has been issued by my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality, which addresses several issues regarding foreign national prisoners and associated areas. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I would point out that while we will have another opportunity to discuss the immigration and nationality directorate, we have hugely reduced the number of asylum seekers and hugely speeded up the process of dealing with them. For the first time in our history, we are deporting more false asylum claimants than we believe are coming into the country. That is what is allowing us to tackle the inherited legacy of cases. We are slowly winning the battle, but I hope that people recognise that—apart from the IND—the document published today about the transformation of the Home Office is very significant and will be challenging for the permanent secretary and everyone involved. I hope that we will all give them a great deal of support as they try to transform this old, important and venerable Department of State into one that is fit for purpose in every conceivable direction.

Notwithstanding the connection that the Home Secretary has drawn between the ending of the cold war and mass migration, the statistical fact is that there was a sharp and significant increase in net migration into this country after 1997, in no small measure as a result of Government policy. Will the Home Secretary reflect on the estimate given by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on housing demand, namely, that up to 2026 around a third of net household formation—65,000 additional households a year—will be attributable to immigration?

The hon. Gentleman needs to remember that apart from mass migration being easier because of the porous nature of borders, failed states and the push factor of civil wars, there was also a magnet effect in this country after 1997. The economic development and the employment opportunities provided by 2.5 million extra jobs, which had not—in fairness—existed under the previous Administration, pulled people in. That is why it became an even greater challenge. The reduction of 72 per cent. in the number of asylum applicants, the speed with which they are dealt with, and the tackling of the inherited legacy—which goes way back to the early 1990s—are all stages on a journey that has had measured success. However, we now need to redouble our efforts and transform the whole of the system.

On 31 January, the Home Office presented a set of accounts to Parliament that was unaudited. I am sure that the Home Secretary will agree that that is not only unacceptable, but disgraceful. Can he give a guarantee that that will not happen next year and that Sir David Normington will have the top team support that he needs to ensure that it does not happen? Who will do the external audit of progress that will be conducted in December?

Yes, it is entirely unsatisfactory that the accounts should be in that state, and that is why I included them among the difficulties in my statement. However, I cannot guarantee to the hon. Gentleman that things will go as swiftly and as orderly as I would like with the next set of accounts, because the difficulties were not remedied until halfway through the financial year that has yet to be approved. That might be a qualification. I can assure him that Sir David is well on top of the issue and has been at the centre of all the work of the past few weeks. He will have all of the assistance that he requires. I cannot guarantee, however, that there will be no problems.

On the issue of indefinite leave to remain, rather than asylum, can the Home Secretary tell us how many outstanding cases there are and the time taken to process those applications? How will his reforms impact on that waiting time? Many of my constituents wait five, six or seven years to get through the process and have still not reached the end by the time they come to see me. It would be helpful if the Home Secretary could give some opening statistics on where we are today.

If I could get reliable statistics of that nature, it would be very helpful. One reason why we are carrying out a fundamental overhaul of our systems, including our information systems, is that such information is not easily to hand—and when it has been in the past, it has proved unreliable. I accept that verifiable databases and information systems are a fundamental part of any modern organisation that is trying to tackle such problems. I invite the hon. Lady to take part in our longer discussions when I make a statement—if I am allowed to do so—on the transformation of the immigration and nationality directorate. Everyone gets a second bite of the cherry under a new Labour Government.

On Monday, I asked a junior Minister if he could tell the House the exact number of failed asylum seekers awaiting deportation. He could not give me that number. Surely, if someone fails their asylum application appeal, a record must be kept somewhere. How can the Home Secretary have any confidence in his ability to sort out the asylum system unless he has that vital information to hand?

I thought that I had covered that point honestly in my statement. I gave the House the number of cases—or files—but I pointed out the complications of that number, in that some files are duplicates; some are in error; some may not have been asylum seekers, but people whose stay here had been approved and who had not been contacted yet; some may have left of their own volition; some may now be here legitimately because they came from states that have subsequently become part of the European Union; and some may even have died. For all those reasons, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact figure. I have a quote from the last Conservative Home Secretary, who said:

“By its very nature, illegal immigration is difficult to measure and any estimates”—

[Interruption.] Well, illegal immigration and failed asylum seekers who have disappeared like illegal immigrants and are trying to evade the authorities bear a striking similarity in terms of how difficult it is to calculate their number—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman should listen to the answer that he sought from me, which is that we can give the estimate that the National Audit Office produced last year of up to 283,000, to which we should add dependants. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an accurate figure, but nor could the last Tory Home Secretary.