The Sketch: When is the truth not the truth? When ministers try to defend it

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The Independent Online

Those of us reluctant to take ministers' words at face value struggled with David Blunkett yesterday.

"A labour market is a labour market," he said. What did he mean? In what way wasn't that true? "Those people who can get a job, get a job," he went on. Are we prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt on this? He is the Home Secretary after all. Exactly: he is the Home Secretary.

David Davis asked a junior minister about an instruction allegedly going round the immigration police: Don't arrest illegal workers, because they'll apply for asylum and clog up the system. "Is she confident such an instruction doesn't exist?" Mr Davis asked.

Beverly Hughes replied: "I absolutely and categorically reject the assertion!" And what did she mean by that? She finished her categorical rejection by saying: "The way managers choose to deploy their resources is for managers." Ahhhh! What she means is: I categorically confirm the assertion but it's not my fault. Of course, the instruction exists. It's been published in the Sunday papers. So those of us accused of undue cynicism should find a place in our collective memory for the minister's categorical rejection. It is a treasure.

She also revealed to the House that, last year, asylum applications were 52 per cent lower than the year before. That fulfilled the Prime Minister's pledge to halve asylum applications. How the deuce had they done that? Governments meet their targets, by accident, or by fiddling the figures.

So it proves: their success in reducing applications is the result of two initiatives. One, they've stopped arresting illegal workers who then would have claimed asylum (see previous), and two, they've quadrupled the number of work permits to 175,000 a year. They've made illegal working legal.

Not that I'm complaining. They've swung into action since the Prime Minister made up some policy at the dispatch box ten days ago. What they've come up with - free entry for new EU countries but no eligibility for benefits - is a perfectly good idea, in its way, inclining to the libertarian.

But it is characteristic of the political class that even when pursuing a benign policy they prefer to defend themselves with a lie. David Davis pointed out the Home Office estimate of 13,000 Eastern Europeans coming to Britain was probably low. Indeed, in the past year for which there were figures, 14,000 Eastern Europeans had made it to Britain.

Mr Blunkett said that the figure had come from the Home Office but that he himself had never used the statistic. "The words 13,000 have never crossed my lips." That may be true; but the way in which it is untrue is more interesting.