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Why the Home Office can’t keep its house in order

A paranoid government that wants to put every citizen on a list and every criminal in a cell? No wonder the system seems swamped.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Politics

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Under UK home secretary John Reid, the Home Office has lurched from one ‘scandal’ to another. It is currently in full-blown crisis – and it is very much a crisis of the government’s own making. The seeming chaos in the department is a product of governmental paranoia about keeping more and more people on files and in prisons, and infighting and disorientation at the heart of the political elite. The government’s desire to control all aspects of our lives, coupled with the fact that it is itself politically out of control, has given rise to a Home Office that can’t keep its house in order.

In April 2006, the Home Office admitted that over 1,000 foreign prisoners had been released without being considered for deportation. In May, the newly-appointed John Reid did wonders for departmental morale when he described the Office as ‘not fit for the purpose, averse to a culture of personal responsibility, technologically ill-equipped for an era of mass migration and led by officials that are incapable of producing facts or figures that remain accurate for even a short period’.

New year, new cock-up: in January it was revealed that the Home Office had failed to enter the foreign convictions of thousands of British nationals on to the Police National Computer. The department was apparently in such disarray that even basic admin had gone out of the window (see Look at the State they’re in, by Mick Hume). After the computer fiasco, it was revealed that the prison population in England and Wales has reached bursting point, exceeding the 80,000-plus current capacity. Cells in police stations, and in prisons previously condemned as uninhabitable, have been thrown open to accommodate the convicted. And all this despite the fact that the government has built 20,000 new prison places. To add insult to injury, it now seems that 332 people who are listed on the Sex Offenders’ Register have gone ‘missing’, having failed to keep the police fully informed of their whereabouts.

Reid’s response has been to suggest splitting the Home Office into two – creating an ‘interior ministry’ that deals with prisons and probation, criminal justice, and constitutional affairs, and a ‘national security ministry’ to deal with terrorism, the police and immigration. This is a desperate search for an administrative fix for a deeper underlying problem that is fundamentally political in nature.

The current Home Office crisis has its origins in the New Labour government’s politicisation of crime and petty authoritarian programmes. Certainly the Home Office crisis cannot be explained as a consequence of government penny-pinching. A report by the Centre for Crime Studies at Kings College London (1) shows that government spending on ‘public order and safety’ has been rising in real terms for years, and that it really shot up under the second New Labour administration:

In fact, Britain spends a bigger proportion of GDP on law’n’order matters than any other major country, including the USA:

These figures demonstrate the extent to which tackling crime, or at least being seen to tackle crime, has become central to New Labour’s agenda. In place of a clear or coherent political programme, the government has turned crime from a social problem into a major political issue. The upshot has been ever-greater encroachment into our lives, an expansion of what is regarded as a ‘crime’, and an increasing resort to the big stick of prison for even minor offences. Last August, it was reported that over 3,000 new criminal offences had been created under the current government. Anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) mean that, on the basis of relatively poor evidence, someone can be threatened with prison even when an offence can’t be proven, or for behaviour that wouldn’t otherwise qualify as a crime. The introduction of ‘indeterminate sentences’ means that those who have committed even relatively minor offences can be locked away for ‘life’ and only freed once a panel is satisfied that they are unlikely to re-offend.

The number of people in contact with the system continues to grow. Consider the prison population. In 1993, it was 45,000. Today, it is over 80,000, and in all likelihood it will continue to grow as fast as the government can build the cells. And this is happening at a time when, officially at least, crime is falling according to official statistics – and when the government has greatly increased the use of non-custodial quick fixes for crime, too, such as by introducing the Penalty Notice for Disorder, a kind of parking ticket for aggressive behaviour.

Moreover, even when people are released from jail they tend to be kept on ‘the books’. Increasing numbers of people on parole are returned to jail for relatively minor breaches of their licence. And whether you are jailed or not, you are more and more likely to be on one government register or another. There are currently around 29,000 people on the Sex Offenders’ Register and 14,000 sexual and violent offenders under Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements. Then there are the millions who must put themselves forward for vetting because they come into contact with children as part of their work – some nine million people, including teachers, youth club workers, lollipop ladies, football coaches.

And yet the mood would appear to be in favour of greater intervention. So when the failure to add Britons convicted abroad to the Police National Computer came to light a few weeks ago, media and opposition politicians expressed alarm that we didn’t know what these people had done or what they might be up to now. Such paranoia does not only give rise to an illiberal culture of vetting, checking and data-inputting – it is also ineffective and counterproductive. The government spends millions of pounds and thousands of man-hours updating list after list of offenders and potential offenders while seeming to give little priority to the few who might actually be a serious threat to others. Far from reassuring us, the list culture only compounds anxiety; the Sex Offenders’ Register and vetting databases, for example, exist as a permanent advert for the idea that ‘ADULTS CAN’T BE TRUSTED’. (see Time to tear up the Sex Offenders’ Register?, by Rob Lyons).

The result is a system that gives every impression of being swamped. Such is the government’s distrust for its citizenry that it seems keen to put every one of us on a list and every criminal, however minor his offence, under the watchful eye of prison guards or electronic tags. This culture is driven less by any Orwellian instinct to stamp on the human face forever, as some of the government’s critics claim, than by a sense in the corridors of power that things are spinning out of control. It is the government’s feeling of distance from the public, its feeling that we are a strange and unknowable mass, that drives its desire to list us, tag us or demand that we carry ID cards, etc. At a time when there is widespread public suspicion of politicians, and when fewer of us vote or engage in political life, the government seems to view us as strangers – hence its seeming paranoia for ensuring that no one ever evades the clutches of the state or ‘slips through’ the system unknown and un-inputted. This is social inclusion the hard way.

Indeed, the underlying internal disorientation has exacerbated the Home Office crisis, giving rise to some unprecedented public spats over the prisons problem in particular. Last week a judge in north Wales said a man convicted for downloading child pornography would receive a suspended sentence rather than jail in protest against Reid’s new advice to judges. The following day, a judge at Exeter Crown Court released a middle-aged man convicted of sex offences on bail to await sentencing for the same reason. Judges in Northampton and Southampton have complained about government failures and its restrictions on their freedom to sentence.

Instead of a serious debate about the government’s record on liberty and its various authoritarian ways of relating to its citizens, we have a pretty grisly spat between the executive and the judiciary over prisons and sentences. And the spat is cynically being played out in the media. The reason those two judges decided to take a stand by not imprisoning child porn offenders is because they knew it would hit the headlines. They’re airing their grievances with the government on the front pages of the tabloids. Internal incoherence both nurtures the list and vetting culture while also allowing disagreements about this culture (which usually only focus on how it can be made more air-tight) to leak out.

We’re left with an increasingly draconian society, driven by one misguided panic after another and characterised by organisational chaos. For those caught up in the middle of it all, it could mean personal disaster. For the rest of us, it means living in a less free and more anxious society. Perhaps if the Home Office focuses on doing its job, instead of doing a job on all of its citizens, things might improve.

Read on:

spiked-issue: British politics

(1) Ten years of criminal justice under Labour, Centre for Crime Studies [pdf]

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Topics Politics

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