Asked if the Prime Minister held monthly meetings on immigrations and asylum because he had identified the issue as a priority and whether he would have seen papers and had any knowledge relating to what was going on in the immigration service, the PMOS confirmed that the Prime Minister held regular meetings on the key delivery areas of Government, of which asylum was, of course, one. The Prime Minster had been very focussed on this issue since the Government had come into office in 1997. We recognised that global changes in terms of transport and migration were throwing up challenges for many countries, not only the UK. That was why we had considered it imperative to look at end-to-end reform of the system and bring forward legislation several times since 1997, not least the measures going through the House at the moment to deal with appeals. Pressed as to whether the Government had known about these allegations, the PMOS said that he had no intention of getting drawn into a discussion about who knew what, when. Journalists should not over-interpret that, but see it as a desire to let the investigation take its course without prejudicing it. David Blunkett had made it absolutely clear in the House today that Home Office Ministers had not given instructions to officials to do anything other than follow proper procedures and uphold the law. That said, the allegations that had been made were serious and were, indeed, being taken seriously. Ken Sutton would have the opportunity to consider all the relevant papers that had come to light and Home Office officials were flying out to Sofia and Bucharest to investigate the matter. Mr Sutton would bring forward his report as quickly as possible, consistent with doing a thorough job.
Asked if Mr Blunkett would respond to today’s allegations, the PMOS said that Mr Blunkett had responded to David Davis’s statement in the House. Ken Sutton had been asked to investigate the allegations and was doing so. Further papers had now been brought forward and no doubt Mr Sutton would look at them as well.
Put to him that the ‘who knew what, when’ questions were important in the context of the allegations, the PMOS said that these were issues that Ken Sutton would be more than able to look at within the remit of his inquiry. Serious allegations had been made and an investigation was under way. Asked if the Government or Downing Street had been aware of the new documents from the FCO and Home Office which had come to light today, the PMOS said that he had no intention of getting drawn into some big processological debate. It was for Ken Sutton to look at all the papers and reach his own judgements.
Asked why the Government hadn’t done anything to crackdown on any wrongdoing in the immigration service when the Foreign Office had clearly known about it eighteen months ago, the PMOS said that people should be patient and wait for Ken Sutton to complete his inquiry. Asked if the immigration minister would have seen any correspondence between a senior Foreign Office official and the head of the immigration service, the PMOS pointed out that the IND was 12,000-strong, with forty-four senior managers. It carried out a highly complex body of work. The staff there worked hard and did a good job. Paper trails and sequences of events were matters which would be looked at carefully by the inquiry insofar as they were relevant. Pressed as to whether the Prime Minister was aware of any problems, the PMOS said that he hadn’t checked the minutes of every single meeting the Prime Minister had had on immigration issues. However, the allegations had certainly been news to him.
Asked if the Prime Minister believed that Ms Hughes had lost control over her department, the PMOS said the Prime Minister believed that Ms Hughes was a first rate minister and that the job she carried out was probably one of the toughest outside the Cabinet. This area was hugely complex. Considerable progress had been made on asylum applications, with the numbers being halved. That was in no small part due to the work that she had done. We acknowledged that there were clearly areas where things had happened that shouldn’t have happened. As a result of Ken Sutton’s initial inquiry, it had been found that decisions had been taken unilaterally without reference to senior management or to Ministers on accession country applications. Measures had now been put in place to rectify the problems. We were also taking the latest allegations seriously because they concerned fraud, malpractice and criminality. That said, it was important that people did not rush to judgement or lose sight of the progress that had been made in other areas. Equally, no one could ever accuse Ms Hughes of saying that there weren’t big challenges facing the Government in this area. We had never downplayed them or pretended that everything was straightforward. We had always said that there were issues to be addressed and that was precisely what we were doing.
Put to him again that the fact that Ms Hughes had failed to act on information that was known eighteen months ago was an indication that she had lost control of her department, the PMOS said that it was important to wait for Ken Sutton’s report on what had happened. Put to him repeatedly that Ms Hughes should know what was going on in her own department, the PMOS said that people should be patient. Home Office officials were travelling to Sofia and Bucharest and would no doubt be speaking to people in the UK as well. People should take a step back and wait for the process to be completed.
Asked repeatedly why the Government was refusing to confirm whether Ministers had seen the papers on which the various new allegations had been based and that surely that should be possible by now, the PMOS pointed out that three different documents had been brought forward in the last two/three hours. They would be considered by Ken Sutton together with all the other evidence he would wish to look at. The PMOS repeated David Blunkett’s assertion to the House today that officials had not been under any instruction to do anything other than follow proper procedure and uphold the law. He thought it was sensible if you set up an inquiry to let it proceed and not prejudge it.
Asked to clarify the remit of the Sutton inquiry, the PMOS said that Mr Sutton had been asked to investigate in full the allegations that had been made regarding fraudulent applications from Bulgaria and Romania. Since further papers had come to light during the course of the day, it was up to him to decide whether they were relevant to this inquiry or not. Asked if Mr Sutton was directly answerable to Beverley Hughes, the PMOS said that as an official in the Home office, he reported directly to the Permanent Secretary. Asked if that meant that it would not be in his interests to find against Ms Hughes, the PMOS said he hoped that no one was suggesting that Mr Sutton was anything other than someone of integrity who would do a thorough job. Put to him that since Mr Sutton was the deputy Director of the IND he was, in effect, conducting an investigation into his own Directorate, the PMOS said that Mr Sutton was somebody with very wide expertise in these areas. Asked if he was objective, the PMOS said of course he was. Asked if Mr Sutton was the right person to lead the current inquiry in the light of the fact that he had concluded in his original inquiry into the Moxon allegations that the rushing through of visas was an isolated incident – a fact which was now clearly wrong, the PMOS said yes. Questioned as to whether he would look at countries beyond Romania and Bulgaria, the PMOS said that it was up to him to decide whether he wished to do so and if it was relevant. He pointed out that he had already examined EU accession countries when investigating the Moxon allegations. Asked if the Prime Minister continued to have confidence in Ms Hughes, the PMOS said yes, of course. In answer to further questions, the PMOS said that these were serious, but narrow allegations being made. People should not rush to judgement nor jump from the specific to the general.
Briefing took place at 15:45 | Search for related news
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