Norfolk MP continues Home Office attack

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor The beleaguered Home Office comes under fresh fire today, accused by a powerful Commons watchdog committee of presenting ludicrous figures in chaotic internal accounting.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

The beleaguered Home Office comes under fresh fire today, accused by a powerful Commons watchdog committee of presenting ludicrous figures in chaotic internal accounting.

Home secretary John Reid continued with his efforts to restore public confidence in his 'not fit for purpose' department by unveiling a programme including tougher sentencing and 8,000 more prison places.

But he was undermined by scathing criticism from the cross-party public accounts committee for “basic failures in financial stewardship” - and a further broadside by Norfolk MP Richard Bacon, one of its members, who has just been voted “backbencher of the year” by his fellow MPs for his part in bringing the foreign prisoners scandal to light.

Mr Bacon condemned the Home Office's accounts as a “national disgrace”, saying it had supplied the National Audit Office with data showing that the gross value of debits and credits amounted to more than £26.5 trillion.

This figure, he said, was almost 2,000 times higher than the Home Office's spending for 2004-05, and about one-and-a-half times higher than the estimated gross domestic product of the world.

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The South Norfolk MP also poured scorn on the fact that the most senior civil servant in the department at the time, Sir John Gieve, had since become deputy governor of the Bank of England.

“In any parish council or cricket club the person responsible would have been out on his ear”, he said. “What actually happened was that he was promoted to become deputy governor of the Bank of England in charge of financial stability in the banking system. You might reasonably expect to see this in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but not in real life.”

The Home Office could not even reconcile its cash records with its bank statements or provide a set of audited accounts for Parliament, Mr Bacon said.

“Even worse, the Home Office seemed not to understand the vital importance of doing this. As a result, the Home Office cannot say with any certainty how much it spent during the year, what debts it was owed and what it owed to others, or what assets it owns.”

The PAC report brought further attention on the political leadership given by Norwich MP Charles Clarke when he was home secretary. His tenure was ended in May by the political crisis over the release of foreign prisoners without consideration being given to deportation. And the process of revealing the nature and scale of that fiasco began with questioning by Mr Bacon in the PAC.

The committee said the Home Office had “failed to get to grips with” the increasing numbers of foreign nationals in prison.

Commenting on that failure and on the department's finances, the committee chairman, Conservative MP Edward Leigh, said: “The Home Office has a substantial back catalogue of examples of poor management and stumbling projects, but it has crowned it with two astonishing failures. It has failed in its obligation to present to Parliament properly audited financial accounts. And it has failed in its duty to protect the public - by releasing from prison a large number of foreign nationals, many imprisoned for ghastly offences, without giving any consideration to whether they should be deported.

“The significance of these failures can hardly be overstated. Together they constitute a severe indictment of the way in which the Home Office has been run and demonstrate the inability of its leadership to act in a unified and coordinated way on its fundamental responsibilities - and perhaps even to understand them properly. The manager of even the smallest corner shop knows how crucial it is to reconcile cash records with bank statements.”

Dr Reid told the Commons on Wednesday of his plans for shaking up the running of his department. Over a quarter of its directors are to be changed, and over 250 of its senior officials are to be reassessed for their fitness to do their jobs.