The turmoil in the Home Office intensified last night as doubts grew over whether John Reid could deliver on his aim of releasing more information to parents about the whereabouts of paedophiles.
A leading chief constable criticised the Home Secretary and his predecessor for drawing up "on the hoof" policies in response to media pressure for tougher action against child-sex offenders.
Downing Street admitted there were "genuine difficulties" involved in telling the public if a paedophile moved into their neighbourhood. It also emerged that several former Home Office ministers have warned that the move could backfire disastrously. They include Beverley Hughes, now the children's minister, who said in 2001 that a so-called "Sarah's law" , publishing the names and addresses of child sex offenders, was "simply not workable" and would drive them underground.
Mr Reid is sending one of his ministers, Gerry Sutcliffe, to the United States to see how different systems of naming sex offenders work and whether a British version could be introduced. The initiative follows a six-year campaign by the News of the World for "Sarah's Law" since the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne.
But the Prime Minister's official spokesman yesterday played down expectations of the chances of that happening in the near future. He said the correct balance had to be struck between "giving the public as much information as possible and on the other hand ensuring you don't have vigilantism." He added: "Everybody understands the genuine difficulties in this area."
Terry Grange, the chief constable of Dyfed and Powys, told BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight: "The last three years has been a litany of abandonment of any real strategic design in the Home Office in the management of sex offenders in favour of trying to find out what one tabloid newspaper wants and then complying with their wishes."
Mr Grange, spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers on violent crime, said that the media had driven "on-the-hoof policies" designed to tackle serious crime, problems over foreign offenders and the immigration service.
"The reality as I perceive it is that the only people with any real strategic intent and understanding on where they want to go and the will to be ruthless in getting there is the News of the World."
He added: "The News of the World has a plan and it is to have Sarah's Law introduced and it is working towards that plan. And the Government is slowly but surely acceding to its request."
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "John Reid is fast establishing a reputation for grabbing headlines and not dealing with the substance of issues."
Richard Garside, acting director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, accused the new Home Secretary of contemplating "new legislation on the hoof to get good headlines in the short-term".
In a turbulent day at the Home Office, Mr Reid announced that he was delaying controversial plans to amalgamate police forces in England and Wales. They were due to be ordered by this summer, with the intention of coming into effect next year. Mr Reid said he still believed sweeping reorganisation of the 43 forces was required, but he said he wanted more consultation on the detail of proposals.
He also said that he was seriously considering extending the maximum sentence for carrying a knife or similar weapon and would make an announcement within weeks. Officials later suggested that the sentence could be raised from two to four years.
* The row over sentencing reignited yesterday as a government minister was forced to apologise for criticising a judge who she said had imposed a lenient jail term on a serial paedophile.
Vera Baird, a junior minister at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, has withdrawn comments she made on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions. Ms Baird, a prominent QC with many years experience in the crown courts, directly criticised Judge John Griffith Williams for setting a sentence that allowed a man convicted of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a three- year-old girl to be considered for parole after just five years.
Home Secretary under fire
'We need a balance between protecting the public and avoiding vigilantism' - PM's official spokesman
'The Home Office has abandoned strategy in favour of complying with one newspaper' - Terry Grange, chief constable
'John Reid is fast establishing a reputation for grabbing headlines' - Nick Clegg, Lib Dem MP