Beverley Hughes, the Immigration minister, said yesterday it was "absolutely absurd" that she could be held responsible for a policy adopted by officials to make it easier for East Europeans to settle in Britain.
Downing Street was forced to pledge Tony Blair's full confidence in her after she admitted that routine checks on thousands of immigrants had been waived, without ministers' knowledge, to cut the backlog of applications. Ms Hughes came under fire at the Home Affairs Select Committee for appointing an official from the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) to investigate the scandal within his organisation's offices in Sheffield.
Ken Sutton, a director for asylum casework, will not examine the failure of officials to pass to Ms Hughes the warning sent by a "whistle-blower" at the IND to her office about the covert "fast-tracking" plan. Asked by a Tory MP, David Cameron, where ministerial responsibility lay for the mistakes and cover-ups, she said: "My job is to account to Parliament when things go wrong and put things right. It's absurd to imply that when a group of officials have changed a procedure and insisted it's kept secret from ministers and senior officials ... that affects my responsibility."
She insisted the policy decision had not been taken by her and that she had not been negligent in failing to find out about it. Ms Hughes angrily protested that the line of questioning was a misuse of the time of the committee, which had been called to examine the effect of European Union expansion in May on immigration levels.
When she was challenged by James Clappison, a Tory member, over inconsistent accounts of when the secret policy switch began in Sheffield, she said: "I'm not interested in having a debate with you about details that at the moment are not clear with me ... It's nonsensical."
- More about: