John Reid today confirmed that the Home Office does not know exactly how many illegal immigrants are in the UK.
The home secretary was speaking after the director of enforcement and removals at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) told MPs he did not have the "faintest idea" how many people remained illegally in Britain.
Dave Roberts also told the Commons home affairs committee yesterday that checking up on individual illegal immigrants was "not an effective use of resources", adding: "We are making huge efforts to remove them but not at the basis of tracing individuals."
The IND did not know how many people leave the country voluntarily either, he admitted, nor did the Home Office keep records on how many of the 50,000 migrants and asylum seekers complied with court orders to report regularly to the authorities.
His comments provoked outrage from the Conservatives, and shadow home secretary David Davis said it looked like "deliberate negligence on the part of the Home Office".
"There is no excuse for not tracking every one of these individuals until they are sure they are out of the country," he said.
Mr Roberts said the government's efforts were focused on those illegal immigrants considered to pose a security risk, but Mr Davis questioned how it was possible to know who was a threat if they did not know who or where anyone was.
Speaking this morning, however, Mr Reid insisted that while the government did not have precise figures for the number of illegal immigrants in Britain, nor did the previous Conservative government.
"The truth of the matter is we don't have a precise figure for this. Not only do I not have it, but none of my predecessors way back to Michael Howard in the last government did," he told Today.
"And part of the reason is of course that we inherit a legacy of an unknown number from government to government as it were and therefore there are no precise figures for this, partly because of course people who come here illegally hide themselves."