John Reid was accused of reopening the political auction to sound toughest on immigration yesterday after he set out an array of plans to toughen border controls and deport illegal workers.
The Home Secretary acted to stem the crisis of confidence in the immigration system triggered by the release of more than 1,000 foreign prisoners without deportation hearings.
Mr Reid said 200 million people were on the move every year around the world, presenting Britain with "a challenge of hitherto unimaginable proportions".
He announced moves to fast-track asylum applications, make it easier to expel illegal immigrants, hold more failed asylum claimants in detention centres and double the immigration budget. Stronger action is planned against employers who hire illegal workers, with the public encouraged to use the Crimestoppers number to report them.
Passport checks on all people leaving the country will be reintroduced, although the controls will not be fully in place until 2014.
Ministers believe they can be reinstated because of the development of new technology, but the scale of the task was underlined by its decision to delay their full introduction. They will be phased in over the next eight years, beginning with "higher risk routes and people". That also means a true estimate of the number of illegal immigrants in Britain will not be possible until the middle of the next decade.
From 2008 the Government is also introducing biometric visas including fingerprints, starting with travellers from countries noted for illegal immigration. They would be issued abroad as Britain attempts to "export our borders".
Mr Reid set a new target for dealing with asylum applications, pledging to conclude 75 per cent of cases - including removing failed claimants - within six months by 2009. He ruled out an amnesty for illegal immigrants in the country.
The much-criticised Immigration and Nationality Directorate is to become an arm's-length agency from 2008, with highly-paid managers recruited and under-performing staff sacked.
Mr Reid said: "This is a long-term investment. It will require endurance and patience. It is not a quick-fix."
But Habib Rahman, the chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: "The Home Secretary has chosen to reopen the bidding war between the political parties over who can get toughest on immigration."
He said that the proposals would leave irregular migrants "without rights and protection from exploitation".
Maeve Sherlock, the Refugee Council's chief executive, said: "Border controls matter, but mustn't stop people whose lives are in danger from being able to get to safety here. There need to be safe routes for people fleeing persecution to get to the UK."Reuse content