Beverley Hughes, the embattled Immigration minister,approved a secret policy to hurry through the passport applications of thousands of foreigners, fuelling calls for her resignation.
The Home Office confirmed yesterday that Ms Hughes had authorised a clandestine scheme to scale down checks on citizenship applications to cut a backlog of 29,000 claims.
Ms Hughes already faced demands for her resignation after a civil servant exposed a separate initiative by officials in Sheffield who fast-tracked applications by eastern European workers to settle in Britain without ministers' knowledge. The Government hoped the storm had passed, but a leaked memo has reignited questions over her handling of immigration. Speculation is growing that she may be moved to a lower-profile post in the summer. The memo showed that Ms Hughes knew of a decision to judge citizenship claims received at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate's Liverpool office less rigorously.
In the memo, Rosemary Earp, a Home Office official, pointed to the 29,000 citizenship applications outstanding between December 2002 and June 2003. It said: "The backlog now needs to be addressed as a separate exercise with a view to clearing it within the next 10 months." Ms Earp recommended: "That you agree to dispense with the routine checking of passports for those cases ring-fenced in the workflow support unit." She concluded: "There is no reason why it should be disclosed outside of Nationality Group."
The Home Office confirmed that, unlike the Sheffield policy, the change from normal practice had been approved by Ms Hughes. But it stressed that applicants were legally resident in the UK and had undergone police criminal-record checks and standard immigration checks. The new practice had made no difference to the outcome of citizenship decisions, it said. Downing Street attempted to shield Ms Hughes from unwelcome questions yesterday by changing her plans. An announcement on a crackdown on illegal working was, instead, made by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary.
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