Blair on back foot over immigration

Tony Blair comes under fire over immigration system in PMQs
Tony Blair comes under fire over immigration system in PMQs

Tony Blair was on the defensive today when asked to explain why the immigration system was "not fit for purpose" despite his outspoken praise for it just two years ago.

The prime minister was asked how his declaration that the immigration and nationality directorate (IND) was a "transformed part of the Home Office" squared with the home secretary's admission yesterday that it was in need of a "major overhaul".

John Reid made the comments after a disastrous few weeks for the Home Office, in which his predecessor was sacked over the foreign prisoners row and the IND was found to have employed illegal immigrants, to name but two of a series of embarrassments.

In a raucous session of prime minister's question time this afternoon, Conservative leader David Cameron suggested Mr Blair should take personal responsibility for the "shambles" in the Home Office - with the clear implication that he should step down.

"In the last week we have learnt that 85 foreign criminals who've committed serious crimes are still at large; that 700 people escaped from open prisons last year; and that illegal immigrants are allowed to clean the office of the department responsible for removing them," he told MPs.

"This is a typical week in Labour's Home Office. But there is one person who has made law and order his priority and has stayed in the same job for the last nine years. When is the prime minister going to take personal responsibility for this shambles?"

Mr Blair responded with his usual statement about how overall crime had fallen since Labour came to power in 1997, the number of failed asylum seekers being removed had doubled and tougher sentences had been brought in for serious offenders.

And he tried to put the blame on the Conservatives, saying they had opposed many of the measures the government introduced to improve law and order, including a national identity cards scheme and new powers to deport people.

He was clearly feeling the pressure, however, and the situation was not helped by the jeering, heckling and even hissing from the opposition benches - behaviour that prompted the Speaker to threaten to end the session unless MPs calmed down.

Mr Blair appeared no more confident when asked about Gordon Brown taking over at No 10, after he praised the chancellor for his adept management of the economy.

"If the chancellor is doing such a good job, why won't he let him take over," Mr Cameron asked, to which Mr Blair snapped back: "[The Tory leader] may want to forget this but we had a general election a year ago - we won, he lost."


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