Wednesday 11th April 2012
By Keith Vaz, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee
The Home Office has long been regarded as one of the more challenging Government Departments to run.
Since becoming Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee 5 years ago, we have held 53 inquiries. This is more than any other Select Committee of the House and reflects the sheer breadth of subjects that fall under the remit of the Home Office.
The creation of the Ministry of Justice in 2007 saw some of the Home Office’s responsibilities transfer out of the Home Office. But even after the transfer, policing, immigration, equalities, alcohol and drugs, crime, and counter-terrorism provide plenty of material for the Home Secretary to work on and for the Home Affairs Committee to scrutinise.
These are all potentially high-risk, career-ending policy areas. It is little wonder that being appointed Home Secretary is regarded in Government circles as something of a poisoned chalice and has led to a series of high-profile appointments ending in resignation over the years.
The present Home Secretary, Theresa May, has held on to her post since the May 2010 general election. Despite several calls for her resignation over her nearly two years in office-most recently in connection with the row over the suspension of some border checks, which claimed the Head of the UK Border Force, Brodie Clark-she has remained in her post and has continued to steer the Home Office through a number of high profile policy areas.
The biggest changes that the Home Office is making under the Coalition Government relate to policing. However, the changes, described by the Home Secretary as “the most radical change to policing in 50 years”, are proving to be difficult to achieve in the tight timescale the Government have set themselves.
The Committee has published a trilogy of major reports on these proposed reforms: the first on the impact of police cuts called Police Finances, the second on the introduction of the controversial directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners, and the third one on what we call the New Landscape of Policing-essentially, a string of major changes to the structures and organisations that support the police service.
In our considerations we took evidence from the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, Nick Herbert. The Government have made it clear why they want to change it and their vision for the end results, but the detail of how they will get there is yet to be provided.
The introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners has already been delayed from May to November 2012 and the phasing out of the National Policing Improvement Agency has been delayed, upon recommendation of the Committee, from spring 2012 to December 2012.
But there is still a huge amount of work for the Home Office to do in a short time. As of March 2012, the Government’s flagship project, the National Crime Agency, has one employee and we are yet to receive any details about the new professional policing body.
If the Government is to deliver the radical change it promised it must revise its timetables. It must begin to provide the Committee, the awaiting public and anxious police officers with details soon.
Immigration is proving to be the Government’s Achilles heel. From the Brodie Clarke affair and the Lille loophole, to the asylum backlog and bogus colleges, the work of the UKBA has take up the majority of the Committee’s time.
We have regularly called the Minister for Immigration, Damian Green, and the recently appointed Chief Executive of the UK Border Agency, Rob Whiteman, before the Committee to explain immigration failures and inconsistencies.
The Committee have found that the reason behind these failures is that there is very little communication between Ministers, senior management and the front-line staff of the UK Border Agency.
It is for this reason that the Committee now conducts a four monthly review of the work of the UK Border Agency.
With the split of the agency and the creation of the new Border Force, I am in no doubt that this is an area that will require additional oversight.
The other Home Office Minister who has appeared regularly before the Committee is Lynne Featherstone, the Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State for Equalities and Criminal Information. We have been particularly interested in her equalities work.
The decision to consult on whether to make forcing someone to marry a criminal offence is a step in the right direction and was recommended by the Committee in its report last year.
The next 12 months will be a testing for the Home Office and its Ministers, with crucial stages of the police reform agenda to be seen through, the UK Border Force being separated from the UK Border Agency, and the London Olympics.
The Committee will be there every step of the way, ensuring that Ministers are held to account for their decisions and actions as this demanding time.