Howard steps up Tory attack on immigration service 'shambles'

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard ratcheted up the Tory attack on the Home Office yesterday by accusing ministers of cutting numbers of asylum-seekers by waving through bogus visa applications from other immigrants.

Michael Howard ratcheted up the Tory attack on the Home Office yesterday by accusing ministers of cutting numbers of asylum-seekers by waving through bogus visa applications from other immigrants.

In bitter Commons clashes, Tony Blair came close to accusing the Conservative leader of playing the race card in his onslaught on the "shambles" and "chaos" of the immigration service.

Mr Blair trumpeted the Government's success in halving the number of asylum-seekers arriving in Britain, which have fallen from 9,000 a month in Autumn 2002 to less than 4,500 a year. But Mr Howard retorted: "Anyone can reduce the numbers if you tell people to wave through other applications on the basis of forged and fraudulent documents."

Mr Blair angrily dismissed the accusation, arguing that the controversy over immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria was irrelevant as few people from those nations had ever claimed refuge in Britain.

He told the Tory leader that politicians should always take care over the "language and approach" they used when discussing immigration.

He said: "This issue should be handled with care, for very obvious reasons ... And I'm not quite sure today you have fulfilled that."

Mr Howard denounced the Government for hiding behind the inquiry it announced on Tuesday into claims that the Home Office failed to act 18 months ago on warnings about "organised scams" in Romania and Bulgaria to bring bogus workers to Britain. He called for an independent investigation.

Mr Blair said the inquiry, to be headed by Ken Sutton, would look into any involvement by ministers and would be published. In stormy scenes, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, shouted that letters from Foreign Office officials and consular staff about the problems in Romania and Bulgaria had not been passed on. The Home Office has been paralysed by the row, which has led to repeated demands for the sacking of Beverley Hughes, the Immigration Minister.

It has also been reported that Tony Blair has privately acknowledged that asylum and immigration could be voters' "No one grievance" at the election expected next year.

Meanwhile, Steve Moxon, the "whistleblower" who disclosed that checks were being waived for visa applicants from EU accession countries faces a Home Office hearing today.

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