Government in turmoil over immigration as Hughes resigns

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David Blunkett was fighting to restore his political credibility last night after the sudden resignation of Beverley Hughes, the Immigration minister, plunged the Government into a fresh crisis.

David Blunkett was fighting to restore his political credibility last night after the sudden resignation of Beverley Hughes, the Immigration minister, plunged the Government into a fresh crisis.

Ms Hughes, who had rejected Tory calls for her resignation during a month of controversy over the Government's immigration policies, performed a surprise U-turn yesterday after it emerged that she had been warned by a fellow Home Office minister more than a year ago about a visas scam allowing people in Romania and Bulgaria to enter Britain. She had denied knowledge of the racket during media interviews on Monday.

Her resignation failed to take the heat out of the affair as the Tories stepped up the pressure on Mr Blunkett and demanded an independent inquiry into the much-criticised Immigration Service.

The Home Secretary, who had stoutly defended his protege, faced criticism that he had misled Parliament on Wednesday, when he suggested during Prime Minister's Questions that ministers were not told about the visas scam. Referring to civil servants who had blown the whistle on immigration problems, he shouted at the Tories: "They didn't write to ministers." David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said last night: "David Blunkett has said he is ultimately responsible for the policies of his department. We agree. Time and again, the Government denies allegations which then turn out to be true. Only when they're faced with the documents do they own up to the mess within the department.

"This goes beyond simple administrative failure. The Home Secretary is ultimately responsible for the politically driven migration policies where the prime goal is to massage statistics."

Despite a steam of leaks from disgruntled civil servants, Ms Hughes was brought down by the intervention of Bob Ainsworth, the Government's deputy Chief Whip. After visiting Romania and Bulgaria when he was a Home Office minister, he wrote to Ms Hughes expressing concern that bogus applications for visas were being rubber-stamped by immigration officials in Britain. He said staff in the two embassies were "demoralised," echoing criticism in an e-mail sent to the Tories by James Cameron, the British consul in Bucharest, who was suspended last week.

Tony Blair's spokesman insisted there was no threat to Mr Blunkett's position, saying: "The Prime Minister believes he is a first-class Home Secretary." The spokesman argued that the Home Secretary had not misled MPs because the allegations made by Mr Cameron and Mr Ainsworth were "of a different order".

An emotional Mr Blunkett said: " It has been the worst personal day because Bev Hughes is not only a deeply competent and conscientious minister, but she also happens to be a personal friend and I am very sad to lose her."

In a resignation statement, Ms Hughes told a crowded Commons chamber: "I've always said that in my political and my personal life nothing is more important than my integrity and, while I did not intentionally mislead anyone, I have decided that I cannot in conscience continue to serve as Immigration minister."

She added: "I believe strongly that on an issue as sensitive as immigration - one so open to misunderstanding - there is a special obligation on me as minister to set the highest standards, not only of my own personal integrity, but also of the policies we are pursuing."

Mr Blair, whose monthly press conference was overshadowed by the resignation, said Ms Hughes had "shown a great deal of courage". He said: "She came to me very honestly yesterday evening and said, 'I don't think that I can continue because I think that the answers that I have given in these interviews, having looked at the correspondence, are inconsistent with that'."

In a hasty mini-reshuffle, Mr Blair appointed Des Browne, a minister at the Department of Work and Pensions, as Immigration minister. His post goes to Jane Kennedy, a Northern Ireland minister, who is succeeded by her parliamentary private secretary Barry Gardiner.

Ms Hughes had been tipped for promotion to the Cabinet. She joins a list of prominent Blairites who have left the Government, who include Peter Mandelson, Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn. Her departure is a major coup for the Opposition, who did not provoke any of the previous resignations. Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "We are sorry to hear of Beverley Hughes's resignation. We recognise the contribution she has made in her role as Immigration minister to improving some of the Home Office systems. Although we sometimes disagreed on approach, we feel she shared our commitment to having a system that helps refugees in fear of their lives and deals effectively with those who have been fairly rejected."

But Michael Howard, the Tory leader, said last night: "This is a government that has let the country down on one of its most important responsibilities, which is the control of our frontiers and the control of immigration. It is quite clear from what has happened over the last month that the Government's policy on immigration is in chaos."

Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dem leader, backed Tory calls for an independent inquiry into the visa row, arguing that the internal investigation carried out by a senior civil servant, Ken Sutton, did not go far enough.

The Government announced yesterday that it was to launch a Whitehall "whistleblowers' roadshow" to explain to civil servants how they can raise concerns about their departments without going to the press or opposition MPs. Sir Andrew Turnbull, the Cabinet Secretary and head of the Home Civil Service, said the presentations would highlight the network of senior officials to whom civil servants can go with their complaints.

THE MINISTER'S PARTING WORDS

This is an extract from Beverley Hughes's resignation statement:

I've always said that in my political and my personal life nothing is more important than my integrity and, whilst I did not intentionally mislead anyone, I have decided that I cannot in conscience continue to serve as Immigration minister.

"I believe strongly that on an issue as sensitive as immigration - one so open to misunderstanding - there is a special obligation on me as minister to set the highest standards, not only of my own personal integrity, but also of the policies we are pursuing. I'm proud of what we have done in turning around the asylum system, which has had huge problems over many years."

ANATOMY OF A RESIGNATION: HOW THE STORY UNFOLDED

NOVEMBER 2002: A Foreign Office official, John Ramsden, writes to Chris Mace, the deputy director general of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND), saying Britain's entry controls are being undermined by an "organised scam".

4 MARCH 2003: A Home Office minister, Bob Ainsworth, writes to Beverley Hughes detailing officials' claims of abuse after visiting Romania and Bulgaria. He says business applications are "invariably" granted in the UK despite reservations from officials on the ground. "Posts are understandably demoralised by having their recommendations routinely overturned, which they see as a weakening of the immigration control in cases which do not need to be conceded." He urges her to "follow this up".

17 MARCH 2003: Ms Hughes replies: "You have raised some important issues which I will raise with IND and I will let you know the outcome as soon as possible."

10 APRIL: Ms Hughes writes to Mr Ainsworth again. "Following my note to you of 17 March, I have discussed the points raised during your visit to Bulgaria and Romania with IND." She says: "We cannot refuse applications unless we have the evidence to sustain those decisions. The proposal that cases should be decided locally is still being considered ... Thank you once again for bringing these points to my attention."

7 MARCH 2004: Ms Hughes orders Ken Sutton, a senior IND official, to investigate claims by an IND whistleblower, Steve Moxon, right, that checks on applications for UK residency from people in Eastern European countries about to join the EU are being waived.

8 MARCH: The Tories receive anonymous e-mails with fresh claims.

25 MARCH: The Sutton inquiry clears Ms Hughes. She blames "over-zealous" staff for waiving checks.

29 MARCH: James Cameron, British consul in Bucharest, is suspended after sending an e-mail to the Tories, right, claiming that immigration warnings are ignored. Ms Hughes says in television interviews that she had not previously been informed of concerns over bogus applications at the Bulgarian and Romanian embassies. "We haven't had the allegations put to us before today. We don't know if these allegations are true ... These allegations are completely new and we could have had this information three weeks ago."

30 MARCH: David Blunkett suspends all applications from Bulgaria and Romania. Ms Hughes tells MPs: "I am not resigning, because my conscience is clear." Mr Ainsworth reminds her of their correspondence. She asks for a review of all files.

31 MARCH: Ms Hughes re-reads the Monday interviews and realises that they are "not in fact fully consistent" with the Ainsworth correspondence. She asks to see Tony Blair.

1 APRIL: Ms Hughes resigns.

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