Home Office told of immigration scam 18 months ago, claims Davis

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The turmoil over immigration policy deepened last night after it emerged that the Home Office was warned 18 months ago about an "organised scam" to spirit bogus workers into Britain.

The turmoil over immigration policy deepened last night after it emerged that the Home Office was warned 18 months ago about an "organised scam" to spirit bogus workers into Britain.

The disclosure, in a fresh set of leaked documents to Conservatives, intensified the political pressure on David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, hours after he suspended all immigration applications from Bulgaria and Romania.

Mr Blunkett was forced for the second time in two days to issue a robust defence of the Immigration minister, Beverley Hughes, who has faced repeated demands for her resignation.

The latest came when James Cameron, a British diplomat in Romania, was suspended after claiming visa applications were waved through indiscriminately by immigration officials.

The Home Office was thrown further on to the defensive by fresh accusations yesterday about the lax checks on migrants from Romania and Bulgaria and claims that ministers must have been aware of the problems in handling immigration applications from those two countries.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, produced a letter from John Ramsden, a senior Foreign Office official, to Chris Mace, deputy director general of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) at the Home Office.

Sent on 5 November 2002, six months after Ms Hughes became Immigration minister, he reported that the British embassy in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, had alerted him to "an organised scam that completely undermines our entry control procedures - and indeed makes a bit of a nonsense of having a visa regime".

About 70 Bulgarians had submitted applications, under the European Communities Association Agreements (ECAA) scheme to allow people from countries about to join the EU, to set up businesses in Britain. Each had produced virtually identical business plans and some admitted the plans were written by solicitors who were charging £1,500 to £2,000 for a "guaranteed" UK visa.

Mr Ramsden wrote: "The applicants rarely know what is in their business plan, cannot speak English, and have absolutely no knowledge or experience in the type of skills needed for respective businesses."

He complained that applications - even from people previously caught submitting forged documents - were being approved by IND staff in Britain against the embassy's "strongest recommendations".

The Tories released details of several farcical applications that were approved. They included a one-legged man given permission to be a roof tiler and a man who had lost several fingers who successfully applied to work as an electrician.

In a second letter to IND headquarters, sent by a vice-consul in Sofia on 20 October, it was warned about Bulgarians travelling to Britain ostensibly on holiday then applying for ECAA status in this country. Of a party of 48 organised by one tour group, a total of 37 failed to return to Bulgaria. "If this does not demonstrate the enormity of the problem (this is just one agency of about 40 we have on a suspect list) and that something should be done about the ECAA problem sooner rather than later, I don't know what would," wrote G McCall.

Mr Davis said: "Beverley Hughes can no longer claim that senior officials in her department were unaware of these allegations. More and more revelations illustrate the extent of the chaos, confusion and mismanagement."

Ministers refused to be drawn on whether they were made aware 18 months ago of the problems over the issuing of ECAA status, insisting that question would be covered by a fresh inquiry announced yesterday. It will be conducted by Ken Sutton, a senior IND official, who has already investigated claims that immigration applications from East Europeans were secretly fast-tracked at the IND's office in Sheffield.

In heated scenes at the Commons, Mr Davis claimed immigration controls had "effectively collapsed" under Labour. He said civil servants had repeatedly warned ministers about the rubber-stamping of bogus applications from East European countries but, instead of the rules being tightened, they had become weaker. Mr Davis said: "Somebody should shoulder responsibility for this disaster."

Ms Hughes hit back in a combative performance, saying: "I'm neither incompetent nor dishonest and I intend to carry on doing my job as long as the Prime Minister and Home Secretary want me to do so." Mr Blunkett said: "She has our unequivocal backing."

* EU justice and interior ministers last night agreed the first pan-European set of rules on asylum, which the UK says will reduce the flow of refugees into Britain. The plans have provoked opposition from civil rights groups, who say they could violate international law and endanger the lives of refugees.

'There was much more opportunity in Britain'

Angel Tchourkin, 32, is a business analyst and researcher for "Bulgarian London" website, He came to work in Britain in 1996

"I was working back home in a bank but it was a stagnant time for the Bulgarian economy, with not much opportunity. I thought there was more opportunity in Britain so I did a language course and got an ECAA [European Communities Association Agreement system]. This e-mail, which was kept for three weeks, seems to me to be slander and nothing else. I feel the whole issue is quite opaque with a political stance. There has been a lot of anti-immigration feeling over the past two years. Most people who come here on an ECAA are self-employed as cleaners or taxi drivers, they do not come to claim benefits but to work. In my case, if I cannot find work, I am not entitled to claiming benefits. I have to pay for everything. Some people have to wait up to a year and a half to join their spouses or the rest of their families in Britain. This will just make their separation even longer.

Many Bulgarians I have spoken to are quite distressed by the news. A lot of people, especially families, have waited for four or five months and thought they would get their visa any moment, but are now left in limbo. The whole procedure is a long one and this makes the waiting even longer. People normally pay for a lawyer to carry out the process and most use money they have borrowed from banks or friends. I imagine a lot of people in Bulgaria are going to be angry after having spent a lot of money, to be told that the process has been suspended. "

Arifa Akbar

THE ACCUSATIONS

Claim: Checks on thousands of East Europeans were waived to massage the immigration figures. (7 March)

Response: Beverley Hughes, the Immigration minister, admitted that had happened at the Sheffield office of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) but said it was without ministers' knowledge. She was vindicated by an inquiry.

Claim: A fast-track process was introduced at the IND's Liverpool office for thousands applying for citizenship to make it easier for them to receive passports (16 March).

Response: Ms Hughes authorised a "change in the approved process" for handling such claims to clear a backlog. The Home Office insisted it was not a relaxation of the rules.

Claim: Checks on all immigrants waiting more than three months for their applications to be approved were relaxed (28 March).

Response: Policy emerged in leaked memo from two officials at the IND's headquarters. The Home Office confirmed authenticity and that Ms Hughes was aware of it but said it was consistent with efforts to reduce backlogs under Tory governments.

Claim: Romanians and Bulgarians were routinely allowed to enter Britain to work with forged documents (29 March).

Response: Claim emerged in leaked memo from James Cameron, consul at British embassy at Bucharest. Applications from Romania and Bulgaria were suspended.

Claim: The Home Office was informed 18 months ago of details of scams to smuggle in bogus workers from Romania and Bulgaria (yesterday).

Response: Leaked documents suggest worries were conveyed in 2002 to the IND. The Home Office refused to say whether ministers were told.

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