The Times reports that Britain’s Immigration Minister provoked outrage this week by claiming that immigration officers were “putting their lives on the line” for the country.
Phil Woolas, the Immigration Minister, defended bonus payments worth an average of £10,000 paid to 29 senior civil servants in the UK Border Agency.
He said staff in the agency were “very brave” and that they helped to protect the country.
His comments, which came after the death of the 100th soldier to die in Afghanistan this year, were criticised for being “deeply insensitive”.
Patrick Mercer, a Conservative member of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, and a former British soldier, said: “I think this is another extraordinary statement.
“It is a very hard thing to swallow for our fighting forces to be compared to an immigration service about which most of us have the gravest of doubts.
“It’s deeply insensitive to make those statements the day after the 100th member of the Armed Forces was killed in Afghanistan this year.”
Mr Woolas made his comment after publication of a Commons Home Affairs Select Committee report into the work of the agency.
The committee said that the agency, whose predecessor was described as “not fit for purpose”, was still not operating adequately.
It also expressed surprise that £295,000 had been paid in bonuses to 29 officials working in the agency which is having to deal with huge backlog of old asylum and immigration cases.
Mr Woolas backed the payments and work done during an interview on the BB Radio 4 Today programme.
He said: “I think the UK Border Agency should be praised – they are very brave men and women who protect our borders and they are getting on top of the situation.
“The chair of the [Home Affairs] Select Committee has said we are not yet fit for purpose and I’m defending my staff who put their lives on the line for us.”
Later a furious Mr Woolas issued a statement defending his remarks.
He said: “It is ridiculous and contemptible to suggest that I compared the immigration service to our soldiers serving in Afghanistan.”
The Minister added in a statement: “UK Border Agency front-line officers work 24/7 at our ports around the country and posts abroad to protect our border and in daily operations in partnership with the police to arrest and deport foreign criminals in often difficult and dangerous situations.”
Home Office sources said Mr Woolas had been talking about the circumstances in which staff have to work in dealing immigration and detecting people smugglers.
They said airport liaison officers in Nigeria have to be escorted to work by armed guard.
They pointed to occasions in the past when attempts have been made by stowaways to stab officers and to maritime officers who board vessels at sea without knowing whether they will face people with knives or guns.
Source: The Times
Home Affairs Committee chairman Keith Vaz is reported to have said it was “astonishing” staff were paid £295,000 last year despite new revelations about abandoned case files.
A review of files at the UK Border Agency revealed 40,000 where officials had “no formal record” of immigrants leaving. Most were more than six years old.
Labour MP Mr Vaz said he was “very concerned” by the high number of errors discovered in asylum backlog files.
Of the 450,000 files uncovered three years ago, 220,000 have been dealt with, but the committee discovered 88,500 files marked as concluded – more than a third of the total – were found to contain errors.
Some 74,000 asylum seekers and their children have been granted leave to remain and only 30,000 (14%) have been removed from the country.
Increasing numbers are being allowed to stay because as time passes with further delays they are more likely to have established a “family life” in the UK, the report said.
Mr Vaz said UKBA was still a long way from “performing as it should”.
The UK Border Agency was set up after former Home Secretary John Reid said it was “not fit for purpose” in May 2006, following revelations about foreign prisoners not being deported.
The committee’s report called for the target of 2011 for officials to deal with the “substantial” asylum backlog to be moved to September next year. Some have been living here for as long as nine years before being given a final decision, the report revealed.
Chancellor Alistair Darling announced yesterday that banks will have to pay a 50 per cent levy on any bonus paid to its staff before April 5 to address public fury over City remuneration.
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