Howard 'a hypocrite' for past authorisation of fast-track scheme

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard, who has demanded the sacking of the Immigration minister, Beverley Hughes, came under fire for "sheer hypocrisy" yesterday after it emerged that he authorised a scheme to fast-track immigration applications while he was Home Secretary.

Michael Howard, who has demanded the sacking of the Immigration minister, Beverley Hughes, came under fire for "sheer hypocrisy" yesterday after it emerged that he authorised a scheme to fast-track immigration applications while he was Home Secretary.

The Conservatives have smelt Ms Hughes' blood over accusations that she sanctioned the secret relaxation of checks on immigrants. Both the Tory leader and David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, have called for her to be fired because of the "systematic culture of deceit" over immigration.

But with Ms Hughes facing renewed speculation over her future, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, attempted to turn the tables on the Tories. Fiercely defending Ms Hughes as a "superb" minister, he ordered Home Office officials to release details of how the department has attempted over the past 15 years to reduce immigration backlogs by hurrying through applications.

It disclosed that in December 1996, when Mr Howard had been Home Secretary for more than three years, an initiative was launched to clear a backlog of applications for student visas and marriage approvals.

The Home Office said it encouraged immigration staff to grant student visas "unless there were substantial causes for doubt" and marriage applications "where the decision was finely balanced and it was questionable whether further inquiries would tend positively in one direction or another".

Three months later, "guidance was issued to staff encouraging them to take decisions on marriage cases where possible without making further inquiries and requiring the agreement of a more senior officer where further inquiries were to be made".

A spokesman for Mr Blunkett said it was long-standing practice for the Home Office to introduce schemes to reduce backlogs of claims. He said: "It is sheer hypocrisy for Michael Howard to call for the resignation of Beverley Hughes for overseeing the same arrangements that he presided over himself as Home Secretary."

With the Tories believing asylum and immigration have the potential to damage the Government, Labour will be anxious to accuse Mr Howard of opportunism on the issue. They may also turn the spotlight on his four-year spell as Home Secretary. Labour alleges that during that time the Conservatives lost control of the immigration system.

Mr Blunkett took his officials by surprise yesterday when he ordered the release of details of how current and previous ministers had tackled the issue of immigration backlogs.

Ms Hughes said: "The backlog clearance exercises that go on periodically are part of good management and they took place under Michael Howard."

Labour plans to make Mr Howard's record in office under Margaret Thatcher and John Major a theme of its campaign attack on the Tories in the general election expected next year. Mr Blair and senior ministers will attempt to focus on his role in introducing the poll tax while Local Government minister, presiding over soaring jobless figures as Secretary of State for Employment and suffering a series of embarrassing prison escapes when he was Home Secretary.

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