NEW Home Secretary Dr John Reid has signalled the merger of Merseyside and Cheshire police forces will be shelved or even scrapped because of the wider crisis engulfing the Home Office.
Dr Reid, facing rising anger over the foreign prisoners fiasco, told a committee of MPs he was 'not convinced' force mergers would deliver the better policing promised.
He said the restructuring appeared 'abstract' rather than offering 'more police on the beat, more accountability and more community control'.
His comments, to the Home Affairs Select committee, were seen as the first stage of a climb-down that could delay the unpopular mergers or scrap them altogether.
Cheshire, which is fighting amalgamation with Merseyside, is among several police authorities that have threatened to challenge merger in the High Court.
But Dr Reid is already faced with the huge task of overhauling the Immigration Service following a succession of scandals.
He is thought to be reluctant to fight on two fronts simultaneously, including a battle that could see the Home Office fighting its own chief constables.
Further evidence that the mergers will be shelved came when Tony McN-ulty, the new police minister, told a Commons debate he would 'take a look at things like timetables'.
Merseyside and Cheshire's opposition to merger has already triggered a fresh consultation period and will force the Home Office to bring an Order before Parliament to force it through.
Challenged by MPs, Dr Reid insisted the idea of restructuring was still correct as 'we can't stay at the status quo'.
But he said: 'I believe the police restructuring programme should have, at its heart, not an abstract restructuring, but more police on the beat, more accountability and more community control.'
Dr Reid added: 'It's probably right in the destination that we want to go to, but I was not convinced that the journey was the right one.'
When an MP suggested the best way for the battered Home Office to win back public confidence was for the mergers to be dropped, the Home Secretary did not disagree.
He said he was faced with 'a tidal wave of events', because of the fallout from the release of 1,093 foreign prisoners who should have been considered for deportation.