Tony Blair gave the go-ahead today for the Home Office to split in two and hand over many of its responsibilities to the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

The Prime Minister announced the fundamental reform of the troubled, 225-year-old department in a written statement to the House of Commons after receiving a final version of the plan from the Home Secretary, John Reid, last night.

The change, which will not require parliamentary approval, will take effect on May 9 and is the largest Whitehall shake-up since Labour came to power in 1997.

?The Home Office will be refocused towards the realities of today?s world and priorities of today?s people," Mr Reid told the House of Commons this morning as he outlined the reforms, which will create a new Office for Security and Counter Terrorism within the Home Office, which will shed its former responsibilities for prisoners and sentencing policy.

Expert View

The reshaping will give the Home Office overall control over Britain's battle against crime and terrorism. As well as his control of the police and MI5, Mr Reid will have day-to-day access to the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the eavesdropping agency, GCHQ, although both will remain formally under the oversight of the Foreign Office.

"It will increase the capacity, it will give us more strategic thinking and planning, it will integrate the efforts against what is an integrated and seamless threat now that runs through foreign, domestic and defence affairs,? said Mr Reid.

The Home Office will retain its responsibilities for border control and immigration policy but prisons, the probation service and sentencing policy will handed to a new Ministry of Justice: the renamed Department for Constitutional Affairs.

With his expanded role, the Lord Chancellor will become the Secretary of State for Justice and take charge of the Government's new National Offender Management System (NOMS) which is intended to join up the the handling of offenders from the moment they are convicted, through probation to their eventual release and reintegration back into society.

The reform comes eight months after Mr Reid, the Prime Minister's chief political fixer, was appointed Home Secretary and promised to work 18-hour days to repair a department which he declared "not fit for purpose".

It also marks a victory for the Home Secretary after months of wrangling with his Cabinet colleagues over how best to share his office's sprawling workload.

Mr Reid told MPs today that the split was part of a vigorous period of reform at the Home Office, where more than 20 programmes of change are already underway.

He said the decision to bring Britain's counter-terrorism efforts under unified control followed the Mr Blair's request for a review of terrorism policy after last summer's alleged plot to blow up passenger aircraft over the Atlantic. A new ministerial committee on security and terrorism, chaired by the Prime Minister, will accompany the changes.

The Home Office has laboured under a growing weight of responsibilities and scandal in recent years, beset by controversy over its finances and failures to properly manage offenders, while simultaneously trying to handle its dramatically expanded counter-terrorism brief.

Last year Mr Reid had to answer for a backlog of 27,500 crimes committed by Britons abroad that had not been entered onto the police database, raising fears that serious criminals, including murderers and rapists were not being properly monitored when they came back into the country.

At the same time he faced criticism over the escape of two terrorism suspects who were supposed to be under supervision at all times and the fact that Britain's prisons were full.

The Conservatives described the reforms announced today as "irresponsible" and proof that Mr Reid was unable to do his job properly. David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, criticised the reforms for failing to create a Cabinet-level Minister for Security or give Mr Reid full control over M16's budget.

Mr Davis also said the decision to break up "one of the great departments of state" had massive implications for crime, justice and terrorism and "should not have been disgracefully smuggled out? in a written answer to an emergency question tabled by the Tories.

?This proposal has been described as ?batty? by one of the last Home Secretaries, ?Balkanisation? by the one before that, and dismissed by you only last year," he said. ?Because of the way it has been done, the creation of a Department of Justice and a Department of Security will leave public security undermined, and a justice system overwhelmed.?

The attempt to finalise the reforms in just six weeks, by May 9, also attracted scrutiny, with MPs suggesting that Mr Blair was eager to have the changes made before he steps down.

"Can you explain to us how we are to have any other interpretation but a political one on the timetable for these changes falling neatly I think it is on May 9, which will also coincide with the transfer of power from one Prime Minister to the next?? Asked Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs spokesman.

But the reforms found favour with the Association of Chief Police Officers, whose president, Ken Jones, said: ?Bringing together all agencies and strands of fighting terrorism from engaging communities to intelligence gathering is a logical step."

The Government's independent reviewer of anti-terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile of Berriew, also lent his support, saying it was sensible to unify the fight against terrorism under the Home Office. He added: ?I think it?s long overdue for there to be effectively a Ministry of Justice created and for all the issues about probation, sentencing and prisons in particular hived off to another department.?

Troubled past, divided future:
The Home Office:
  • Founded March 1782 as the Home Department
  • First Secretary of State for Home Department Earl of Shelburne
  • Other previous occupants Robert Peel, founder of the police service; Lord Palmerston; Winston Churchill; Roy Jenkins; James Callaghan
Errors:
  • 1999 500,000 people wait up to 50 days after failure of new computer system at Passport Agency
  • 2002 Backlog of applications after poor launch of ?940 million Criminal Records Bureau
  • 2004-05 Home Office loses control of its finances. National Audit Office refuses to give seal of approval
  • 2006 1,025 foreign prisoners released without being considered for deportation.
  • 2006 The Prison Service runs out of places in jails
  • 2007 Disclosure of 27,500 backlog of files on British citizens convicted abroad
  • 2007 Runs out of prison places again
The New Look:
The Home Office:

Overseeing the police, MI5, and borders. There would be an Immigration and Nationality Directorate with 15,944 employees and an Identity Cards and Passport Service with 2,886 staff

The Ministry of Justice: (the new Department of Constitutional Affairs)

In charge of probation, criminal justice policy, sentencing, drugs and crime reduction. A staff of 47,100 for prisons and 1,256 for the National Offender Management Service

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