Tony Blair's decision to split the Home Office into separate security and justice departments has provoked a storm of protest from judges and MPs in all parties.
The Prime Minister was accused of a "botched job" after rushing through the sweeping changes before he stands down this summer. Although Mr Blair argued that the shake-up would strengthen the fight against terrorism, critics warned they would undermine the battle against crime.
Mr Blair confirmed yesterday that John Reid, the Home Secretary, would become Britain's "security supremo". He will take over the co-ordination of anti-terrorism work from the Cabinet Office and gain "lead responsibility for strategy in relation to security threats in the UK, including their overseas dimension".
About 350 more counter-terrorism staff will transfer to the Home Office. But Mr Reid said its overall numbers will fall as prisons, probation and sentencing switch to a new justice ministry, an expanded version of the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA). He declined to disclose the cost of the reform, but said it would be contained within existing budgets. He said the changes would "add capacity", develop a more strategic and integrated response, and be "a step change in our approach to managing the terrorist threat to the UK and to winning the central battle which is the struggle for values and ideas".
The Home Secretary, who last year described his department as "not fit for purpose", said: "We are refocusing the Home Office - not for the first time in its history - towards the priorities of today's world and the priorities of today's people."
Charles Clarke, Mr Reid's precedessor at the Home Office, condemned the decision as "irresponsible", warning that it would delay critical reforms. He told MPs: "The coherence and co-ordination of the criminal justice system, which is so important for its success, will be damaged seriously by these proposals."
John Denham, Labour chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said: "Terrorism is very serious, but more people went to bed last night worrying about yobs on the street corner."
Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the Lord Chief Justice, said the new justice ministry could face a crisis over sentencing and prison overcrowding. He said there was a risk that "judges will be placed under pressure to impose sentences that they do not believe are appropriate."
Figures to be published today are expected to show the prison population at a record high of 80,199.
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, warned that senior Home Office staff would be distracted by the "massive reorganisation". He asked how the poor communication between the immigration and prisons departments, which caused last year's foreign prisoners fiasco, would be improved by splitting them into two Whitehall empires.
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said the shake-up had been rushed through in a "shoddy and cynical way". "It gives every impression of being shaped by the political timetable of Tony Blair's departure and John Reid's ambition to be installed as the Government's anti-terror supremo before Gordon Brown takes over."
Mr Reid is expected to retain the security brief if Mr Brown succeeds Mr Blair. But he hinted strongly that Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who now heads the DCA, would not be in charge of the ministry of justice for long, as it should be headed by a minister in the Commons answerable to MPs.
The new structure
Ministry of Justice
The Department of Constitutional Affairs - courts, justice system, human rights, freedom of information, elections, constitution
Security and counter-terrorism
Immigration and asylum
Identity and Passport Service
Tony Blair has decided to make the break-up of the Home Office part of his political legacy. The Home Secretary, John Reid, announced to the House of Commons yesterday that there is to be a Ministry of Justice, which will be responsible for prisons, probation, sentencing and constitutional affairs. Meanwhile, a slimmed-down department, headed by Mr Reid, will be responsible for what remains of the old Home Office brief, and also absorb counter-terrorism strategy from the Cabinet Office. And all this is to happen by early May, the same time the Prime Minister is expected to announce his departure from office.
There is a little too much reverence for the so-called "great offices of state" among politicians. The truth is that Whitehall re-organisations happen all the time. And we need not take the objections of the former home secretaries Charles Clarke and David Blunkett too seriously. Both resisted similar suggestions for breaking up the department, perhaps out of reluctance to dilute their power.
The present Home Office has plainly grown too sprawling for one Cabinet minister to oversee competently. But it would be quite wrong to assume that the size of the department is the chief reason why it has been such a shambles in recent years. The roots of many of its problems lie in ministers' distorted priorities. Successive home secretaries have rushed through draconian legislation, at the behest of the Prime Minister, to win favourable headlines in the right-wing press. As well as being illiberal, this avalanche of new laws has created a host of other problems, not least gross prison overcrowding.
The other great failing at the Home Office has been an absence of basic administrative competence. Departments have not been communicating with each other. Computer records have not been updated. A few months ago it emerged that thousands of case files on Britons who had committed crimes abroad had not been entered on the police national computer. And last year we learnt that many foreign nationals had been released from prison without being considered for deportation. Splitting the Home Office will not cure such ailments by itself.
The problem with bureaucratic reorganisations like this is that, while they give the impression of dynamism at the heart of government, in reality they make little difference. Such upheavals seem very important in Whitehall, but have minimal effect on the lives of the public. If this reshuffling helps government to function more smoothly, it is of course to be welcomed. But we should not imagine that in the grand scheme of things it is anything more than a side show.
Of course it is possible to cock this up but there is no reason to. It is NOT a big change to the constitution. It will on the other hand make things a clearer and more transparent. It should reveal the true dichotomies and dilemmas that beset the administration of justice and the handling of national security and enable the rational working out of procedure over time. It was the very lack of this in the all-encompassing Home Office which led to paralysis over the preceding years. Of course there may be teething troubles. That will be no bad thing.
The Department for Constitutional Affairs is due to become the Ministry of Justice and take over probation and prisons from the Home Office.
In a BBC interview, Lord Woolf said the reforms, set for 9 May, raised "concerns about our liberty".
But Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer said there would be "proper safeguards".
When he announced the changes at the end of March, Home Secretary John Reid said they were needed to meet the changing threats to the world.
After the split, the Home Office will concentrate on dealing with terrorism, security and immigration.
Lord Woolf told Radio 4's Today programme that, with added responsibility for prisons and probation, the lord chancellor could find it harder to safeguard the integrity of the court service and judiciary.
He said: "We should work it out beforehand and not wait until we have created the change and then somehow or other try to scramble to get it into place.
"This is a very big change for our constitution."
|| I hope that the planning
of these changes is going to be very, very carefully worked out
He added: "My concern in relation to this new Ministry of Justice is that it might, if it is absorbing what was previously the bulk of matters that the Home Office dealt with, be unable to have the sort of relationship we hitherto have had with the lord chancellor.
"There is close cooperation on matters where this is appropriate between the lord chancellor of the day and the judiciary.
"This arises from what is now history, but is still an important influence - the fact that the lord chancellor was head of the judiciary - so it is natural that the judiciary should listen to what he has to say and talk to him in confidence about their concerns.
"If the lord chancellor is watered down as to his traditional roles because of these new responsibilities he is being given, that would be worrying from this regard."
He said: "There has been no debate. Parliament has not considered this, but it is going to apparently happen on 9 May.
"I really think with our constitutional arrangements, we should be more careful about how these matters are dealt with.
"We have no written constitution which is entrenched and our constitution works through checks and balances and it is very important that if we are starting to alter the framework of checks and balances, that the matter is looked at carefully."
Lord Woolf also warned: "Our constitution protects our individual liberties - and these are not matters of concern of a financial nature, they are concerns about our liberty."
His words come a week after he said the plans to split the Home Office should be planned carefully to avoid repeating old problems in the new department.
But Lord Falconer told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "This is do-able. We have got to understand the serious concerns raised and deal with them and that's what we are doing."
The plan would mean "better justice outcomes for the public", he added.
Lord Falconer said any delay to the Home Office split would "blight" the proposals, adding: "If we have a long period building up to a change, then what happens to the various organisations is they become paralysed leading up to the change."
He added: "These are things that have been carefully
thought through. The issue about whether or not there should be a
ministry of justice has been a public discussion over a long time."