Asked the Prime Minister’s view of the way the Home Office had been conducting its affairs recently, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said the Prime Minister continued to believe that the Home Office was trying to do a very difficult job well. He hoped people would recognise that the Government, led by the Prime Minister, David Blunkett and Beverley Hughes, had taken concerted, systematic action to deal with the problems in the asylum system, which, in turn, had helped lead to the halving of the number of asylum applications. We acknowledged that there were currently problems with the immigration system. We would examine those had been highlighted and take equally systematic action to address them if it was found necessary to do so.
Asked if he had discovered whether Ministers had been informed about the concerns raised in Romania and Bulgaria, the PMOS said that these were matters which would be considered by Ken Sutton. It went without saying that we would ensure the inquiry would be given all the relevant papers to examine.
Asked if he would agree that the Home Office had not succeeded in its attempt to do a difficult job well, the PMOS said we would acknowledge that there were issues which had to be addressed. That was being done. Equally, it was important for people to recognise that significant progress had been made on asylum. Put to him that the Government’s failure to address a ‘great swathe’ of problems relating to illegal immigration was no small matter, the PMOS said that the premise of the question was based on a pre-judgement of the Sutton inquiry. In his experience, it was always better to examine the particular issues that had been highlighted before jumping to conclusions. Asked if the inquiry would cover the fact that there appeared to be thousands of illegal immigrants living in Norfolk and Suffolk, the PMOS said that if people had actual evidence to support this claim, they should bring it forward to the Home Office rather than make broad-brush allegations. Put to him that it was up to the Government to look for that evidence in the light of the fact that several allegations had already been made, the PMOS underlined that, rather than make general allegations, people should bring any specific evidence they had to the attention of the relevant authorities. We were not afraid to admit there was a problem with immigration. However, the way to resolve those issues was not by making general accusations but looking at specific problems and addressing them in a systematic way. That was what we had done with asylum and was what we were doing with immigration. Put to him that the Government had clearly failed to look at the evidence of immigration fraud and malpractice it had received from officials in its own Departments, the PMOS said he had no intention of rushing to premature judgements before the Sutton inquiry had been completed. It was up to the inquiry to establish the facts. Challenged that the concerns from senior Home Office officials had not been dealt with by the Government and that he was simply using the inquiry as a way of avoiding answering difficult questions, the PMOS said he would refute absolutely the suggestion that the inquiry was a ruse to sweep unwelcome questions and facts under the carpet. On the contrary. It was a serious, genuine attempt to discover the true facts and then take action in problematic areas. The way that we had tackled the issue of asylum showed that the Government was making a serious attempt to resolve these matters. It went without saying that the findings would be followed through.
Asked if the hotline was operational yet and whether Ministers would be informed about the calls that were made, the PMOS referred journalists to the Home Office for the specifics relating to the hotline. In overall terms, however, we were determined to get to the bottom of any problems which existed and would address them in a systematic way. Asked if the ‘we’ referred to Ministers, the PMOS said that Ministers, from David Blunkett and Beverley Hughes down, had made it clear that they wanted to get to the bottom of these issues. They did not want to hide them under the carpet. They wanted to address them and that was what they were doing.
Asked if Ken Sutton’s inquiry would be limited to investigating what had been happening in Romania and Bulgaria, the PMOS said that the problems that had been highlighted related specifically to those two countries. It was therefore relevant for him to examine those issues first. Put to him that the narrow remit of the previous Sutton inquiry had meant that other serious problems had been missed and that a broader inquiry into the work of the IND should be established, the PMOS said that while it was fair to say that some concerns might have come to light, it was equally important not to overlook the fact that the IND had made substantial progress on asylum. The purpose of the Sutton inquiry was to establish the truth of the allegations. Ken Sutton was someone who had the experience and knowledge to do just that and he should be allowed to get on with his job. We recognised that his report was not going to produce instant answers, which would be frustrating for some. However, it was better to take the time to discover the true facts rather than rush to instant judgement. Put to him that the ‘progress’ on asylum in terms of the fall in applications might have been due to the fact that people had been given residency through abnormal channels, the PMOS said he thought it was better to work on the basis of actual fact rather than general accusation. The progress that had been made on asylum was indisputable, as indeed the figures showed. Asked again to explain why the remit of the second Sutton inquiry was so narrow, the PMOS said that since particular issues had been raised, it was important for them to be investigated as a matter of some urgency. If there were broader issues to be examined, then we would look at them. In the meantime, it was important to let Mr Sutton establish the facts on the specific issues relating to the allegations that had been made.
Asked if the Prime Minister was concerned that there had been a breakdown in internal communications inasmuch as the Foreign Office’s Sir John Ramsden had raised a number of issues relating Bulgaria nearly eighteen months ago but nothing had been done, the PMOS said the Prime Minister was concerned that the issues which had been raised would be addressed in a systematic way. Ken Sutton should be allowed to establish the facts and give a considered judgement. He was not going to provide a running commentary on his work.
Put to him that the fact that high level concerns had not been dealt with had led to a ‘catastrophic’ breakdown of trust in the Government – and yet it would appear that Mr Sutton was not going to address the broader immigration issues unless he decided to so, the PMOS said that it was just as important to recognise the considerable progress which had been made by the IND on asylum over the past year, which had been the result of a systematic approach to resolve the problems that had been highlighted. We acknowledged that issues had been raised in relation to immigration. The Home Secretary and Immigration Minister had both accepted that the allegations were serious, hence the serious way we were addressing them – not through generalisations but through specifics. We were taking a step-by-step approach. If there were other issues to consider, we would consider them too. Asked why it had taken several years before the Government had made any progress on asylum – and even then it was difficult to believe the figures because of the way the Government tended to ‘fiddle’ them, the PMOS said that the problems at the IND went back a long way and had not been addressed in the past in a systemic way. Pressed as to why it had taken the Government six years to deal with the problem of asylum at the IND and why it had taken seven years to begin tackling the problems of immigration there, the PMOS pointed out that the problems at the IND went all the way back to previous administrations. Beverley Hughes had acknowledged openly from the outset that she recognised they had to be addressed. That was now being done and people should give Ms Hughes credit for the significant reduction in the number of asylum applications. That said, the Government had never pretended that all the problems at the IND had been resolved. Clearly they hadn’t been.
Asked if the Prime Minister believed that Ministers should take responsibility for the disarray in their Department even if they had no knowledge of what had been going on, the PMOS said that rather than respond to hypotheticals, he thought it would be far more useful to address the facts as established by a systemic inquiry into these matters. Put to him that the principle of Ministerial accountability meant that Ministers took responsibility on behalf of Civil Servants for the running of their departments, even if they had no knowledge of what had been going on, the PMOS observed that Ministers should also be given credit for improvements in their departments. He agreed that the principle of accountability remained applicable. Equally, however, it was important to recognise that Ministers could not be made accountable for absolutely everything that went on in their departments. The key question was whether they addressed problems when they were raised. The Sutton inquiry had been set up to ascertain the facts. In that way, a commitment had been demonstrated to address the issues which had been raised in a systemic way. Asked if he was implying that a Minister, who was not aware of the specific operations that were fundamental to the running of their department, could not be accused of negligence, the PMOS said that rather than deal with theoreticals and generalities, it was important to establish the facts. That was precisely the purpose of Ken Sutton’s inquiry. Put to him that the problems at the IND had been identified several months ago and had not been addressed until now – which was hardly a sign that the Immigration Minister was in control of her own department, the PMOS said that it was important to establish the facts of the case. That was Mr Sutton’s job. People should allow the processes to take their natural course. Asked if he was indicating that Mr Sutton would examine exactly what Beverley Hughes had known and when, the PMOS said that Mr Sutton would have all the relevant material he needed.
Asked if, in defending Ms Hughes, he was implying Jack Straw had not done anything to address the problem when he had been Home Secretary, the PMOS said no. He had simply been making the point that Ms Hughes had identified the fact that there was much more work that needed to be done at the IND. That was why the Prime Minister had taken a personal interest in the issue of asylum and was why Ms Hughes had stated openly on her appointment as Immigration Minister that issues needed to be resolved. That was precisely what we were doing. Asked if this was why Barbara Roche had been sacked, the PMOS said that to reduce the issue to personalities would be to demean the important matters we were facing.
Asked if the Prime Minister was concerned about reports suggesting that the issue of asylum and immigration was becoming the number one grievance among voters, the PMOS said the Prime Minister had always recognised that asylum and immigration was a significant concern. However, it was one which the Government had taken measures to address. He also believed that people were concerned about other issues too, such as health, education and crime. That was why the Government had brought forward a range of policies on those issues as well.
Asked if the Government believed that setting up inquiries was the best way to resolve contentious disputes, the PMOS said that if an issue was raised, it was usual to investigate it. That was the definition of an inquiry. It was a logical and rational way to do business.
Briefing took place at 11:00 | Search for related news
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