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Europe

British Government Rocked by Immigration Scandal

The British government is in disarray after its Immigration Minister Beverley Hughes resigned on Thursday amid accusations of a cover up surrounding an alleged eastern European visa scam.

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British tabloids have whippped up fears of a flood of Romanian gypsies entering the country.

Hughes handed in her notice after she admitted in parliament to "unwittingly" misleading the public with her statements regarding the simmering scandal involving Romanians and Bulgarians who had gained access to the United Kingdom with forged documents. "I have decided that I cannot in conscience continue to serve as immigration minister," she told the House of Commons.

Hughes had insisted she had not known about the practice but later had to admit this statement was false after it emerged that Bob Ainsworth, a Labour party colleague, had told her about it last year.

The scandal surfaced after opposition Home Secretary David Davis received an e-mail from James Cameron, a British diplomat in Romania, which mentioned that the Home Office were approving visa claims from Eastern Europe despite warnings they were backed by forged documents. The email claimed that visa applications, some bogus, had been rushed through to clear backlogs in the system. Cameron has since been suspended.

The eastern European scandal comes hard on the heels of a government inquiry into the exposure by Steve Noxon, another whistle blower, of a similar practice at an immigration center in the northern city of Sheffield in order to clear a backlog there. Noxon has also since been suspended.

Concerns about lax immigration controls

An increasing number of British diplomats and officials have come out in recent weeks to express their concerns about the Home Office's lax controls on immigration which they fear have been exploited by applicants from Bulgaria and Romania as part of an organized scam. There are also concerns that the holes in the visa process could also be used by terror organizations intent on getting operatives into the country with forged papers.

Immigration applications from Bulgaria and Romania have been suspended while the Home Office investigates the claims that requests for visas were being accepted despite officials knowing documentation was counterfeit.

Tony Blair und David Blunkett vor der Presse

Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Home Secretary, David Blunkett.

The row intensifies pressure on the Home Secretary David Blunkett (pictured with Tony Blair) who is likely to be pressed by the opposition Conservative Party to reveal what he knew about the scam. The shockwaves could spread all the way to Downing Street and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the Conservatives turn up the heat on the scandal.

Blair concedes problems

The news of Beverley Hughes' resignation came just two hours before the prime minister was due to hold his monthly press conference. Once in front of the media, Blair denied reports he would be taking personal charge of immigration but said he would take "a close interest" in the issue. "It's pretty obvious to me that something was seriously wrong," he told the news conference.

The prime minister dismissed suggestions that David Blunkett should also resign.

David Davis has called for an independent inquiry and reiterated his demands on BBC Radio 4's "Today" program after news broke of Hughes' resignation, saying that now more than ever those questions that still remained unanswered should now be addressed.

Opposition demands answers

"Who knew about the disasters in Romania and Bulgaria and anywhere else we find them because we don't know that's the end?" he asked. "When did Beverley Hughes know, when did David Blunkett know - at what point was he involved in this process?"

Something was "systemically wrong" in the current immigration system, Davis added.

The British government, and Home Secretary Blunkett in particular, have been almost constantly under fire for its immigration policies. From strict controls on potential European immigrants to the treatment of those already in the country, the Labour Party have had a rough ride. These latest allegations are unlikely to ease the pressure.

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