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30 April 2007

A good month to bury bad news

John Reid is planning to use the Blair-Brown interregnum to shovel out all the overdue business of a

By Martin Bright

In the world of Westminster spin there are all sorts of good days to bury bad news. As the government adviser Jo Moore found to her cost on 11 September 2001, when she suggested putting out a story on councillors’ expenses, this can come across as plain distasteful. But most of the time ministers and officials get away with it, and no one is any the wiser.

The death of a significant figure such as a pope or a former prime minister, or a major sporting occasion, provides good cover. The last day of parliament before recess can be an excellent opportunity to slip out an unfortunate statistic or embarrassing report. Then there’s the “late on Fridays” trick, when political journalists are desperate to get home. It doesn’t always work, as Gordon Brown discovered last month when the Treasury released details of his 1997 decision to launch a £5bn-a-year raid on pension funds on a Friday evening. But who knows how many times it has worked? The public certainly doesn’t.

So imagine what ministers could do if they had a whole month or more in which to bury bad news. This is just the opportunity presented by the Labour leadership transition, which will last a whole seven weeks. After the local elections all eyes will be on the succession and ministers are already preparing to clear the decks. Nowhere is this more the case than at the Home Office, a department with more to hide from public scrutiny than most.

I am told that John Reid is planning to use the Blair-Brown interregnum to shovel out all the overdue business of a famously dysfunctional department in an attempt to bury a veritable landfill of bad news. The new Justice Department, which will add responsibility for prisons and probation to the present work of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, will come into existence on 9 May, in the week Tony Blair is expected to announce his departure. A rush of embarrassing releases will follow, each of which would have provided a major news story on its own in more normal times.

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Children’s charities have already been informed that the much-delayed research into a British version of Megan’s Law will be published on the very day the new department is created. If Reid’s friends at the News of the World had hoped for a new approach to the naming and shaming of paedophiles they will be disappointed. Insiders say the report will be deeply critical of the way the law works in the US and will pour scorn on the idea that it could be introduced in Britain.

A further flurry of potentially embarrassing research into systems for the supervision of the most dangerous sex offenders is also planned for publication later in the month. A second considerably delayed report, into the costs of the government’s ID card scheme, will also be published during this period. The report was originally due out on 30 March, but has been conveniently shelved until after Blair announces he is going. The costs are thought to be so astronomical that the plans would be called into deep question in normal circumstances.

The strategy is at its most cynical when it comes to the prisons crisis. There are now more than 80,000 inmates in our overcrowded prisons and the figure is forecast to rise to 82,000 during the year. When Reid took over he created a “war room” of civil servants to present him with schemes to cut prison numbers; the only condition was that they should not rebound on the Home Secretary himself. None worked because they all involved the early release of prisoners – that is, until someone came up with the wheeze of splitting up the Home Office, with responsibility for prisoner releases passing to a new department.

I have it on good authority from within Downing Street that Lord Falconer, who is likely to head the Justice Department in the short term, has already presented a paper to Blair proposing such an early-release scheme. The joy of the arrangement is that Falconer knows he is unlikely to survive a Brown reshuffle and therefore has nothing to lose by fielding the flak that will inevitably follow.

But resistance to Reid and Falconer’s stitch-up may yet come from an unexpected quarter. I am told the Prime Minister himself is furious at the proposals. No 10 has always said there should be no cap on prison places and that numbers should be allowed to rise according to the level of convictions.

The decision to split the Home Office has been seen as an attempt by Reid to fireproof himself from the sack under the new regime. Indeed, he loses no opportunity to extol the virtues of the change. As in his latest speech of 25 April, he uses it to further his “tough man” image. Some within Blair’s bunker, however, are already joking that Brown should indeed be advised to keep Reid in the cabinet but reshuffle him to the Justice Department, where he would be forced to clear up the prisons mess he was so desperate to avoid.