Hughes: Blair Babe who became Tories' No 1 target

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Indy Politics

The Home Office's "monstrous regiment of women" was today one fewer after Beverley Hughes' resignation.

The beleaguered immigration minister had enjoyed a meteoric rise through the Government ranks since being elected to Parliament as one of the 1997 generation of "Blair babes".

But her appointment to the immigration and asylum brief placed her at the centre of one of the most ferocious battlegrounds of modern politics, and a series of controversies in recent weeks marked her out as the opposition's number one target.

The Tories' relentless calls for her scalp finally paid off, just hours after Ms Hughes' Home Office colleague, Baroness Scotland, joked at a reception about the department's "monstrous regiment" of five female ministers.

Ms Hughes was forced to admit in Parliament last month that she had misled a fellow Labour MP when she claimed police and immigration officials had taken action to deal with migrant cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay in the months before February's tragedy when 20 Chinese workers drowned.

But her troubles really started on March 7, when the Sunday Times published allegations by whistleblower Steve Moxon over practices at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate in Sheffield where he worked.

Tories called for her head after Mr Moxon claimed immigration officers had been told to rubber-stamp applications from eastern Europeans seeking to start businesses in the UK.

Ms Hughes appeared to be in the clear after a swift inquiry by senior IND manager Ken Sutton blamed middle managers for an overzealous attempt to clear a backlog of cases.

But the row was reignited when the same newspaper published a leaked memo appearing to suggest that she had personally approved a policy to waive checks on cases which were more than three weeks old.

Home Secretary David Blunkett, one of Ms Hughes' long-term political mentors, sprang to her defence.

"Let me be absolutely clear. Bev Hughes is not going, she's not resigning, she is not going to be sacked," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"She has got the most difficult job outside Cabinet and she is doing it superbly."

The furore marks the biggest upset so far in what had previously seemed an almost unstoppable rise towards the Cabinet.

The red-haired Manchester University graduate had barely been in the Commons a year when she became a parliamentary private secretary at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) in 1998.

She was given her first government role when she was made a junior minister at the same department just a year later.

Her rapid ascent continued in 2001, when she was appointed to the Home Office as a junior minister with specific responsibility for prisons and probation.

And her status as a rising star of the Blair administration was confirmed in 2002 when she was made asylum and immigration minister in a reshuffle prompted by the departure of Transport Secretary Stephen Byers.

At one point last year reports suggested that she was even being considered Cabinet material.

However, the career of the MP for for Stretford and Urmston has not been without controversy or criticism.

In 2001, she was roundly criticised for describing Channel 4's Brass Eye satire on paedophilia as "unspeakably sick" without having seen it.

In the uproar that followed its screening, she said: "This programme trivialised traumatic experiences that can affect children for almost their whole lives. Parts of the programme were unspeakably sick."

But she later admitted she had only seen a commentary and had not actually watched the programme itself.

Ms Hughes, a 53-year-old married mother-of-three, was educated at Ellesmere Port Girls' Grammar School, Manchester University and Liverpool University.

She was a probation officer on Merseyside before she returned to Manchester University as a research associate in 1976. She then went on to became a lecturer in 1981, before becoming senior lecturer and head of department in 1993.

She was a councillor on Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council from 1986 to 1997, council leader in 1995, and has long been an advocate of the rights of women and pensioners.

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