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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
Minister denies Labour 'meltdown'
John Prescott, Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke
Some have described the events as Labour's "black Wednesday"
Tony Blair's government is not in "meltdown" despite the triple whammy of controversies facing his Cabinet, minister John Hutton has said.

He rejected comparisons with John Major's final days after what has been called Mr Blair's "black Wednesday".

It saw nurses boo the health secretary, John Prescott admit an affair and the home secretary face calls to quit.

Mr Hutton said the government was still taking the right long-term decisions, and was not a "victim of events".

The prime minister chaired a Cabinet on Thursday morning which his spokesman said was "like any other".

No mention was made of the deputy prime minister's affair with one of his secretaries, said the spokesman.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke reported to the Cabinet as he continued to resist pressure to resign over the prisoners issue.

Prisoner hunt

Mr Clarke apologised earlier this week after 1,023 foreign prisoners, including murderers, rapists and sex offenders, were allowed to walk free without being considered for deportation.

Mr Clarke told the Cabinet it was a "systemic problem like any other" and he hoped to report by the end of the week on the more serious prisoners.

You don't underestimate the impact of events, but you don't allow them to distract you from the big picture
Downing Street spokesman

Detectives running checks on the names of the prisoners are expected to tell the home secretary if they have any record of them.

Pressure increased on Mr Clarke when it emerged that 288 foreign prisoners were released after the Home Office was alerted to the problem.

The release rate even increased after the warning to ministers last July.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats say Mr Clarke had failed to protect the public.

Tory leader David Cameron urged Mr Blair to press ahead with a Cabinet reshuffle and create a new homeland security minister so the home secretary could sort out the prisoners "mess".

'No hiding'

It has now emerged there could be 1,500 more foreigners in UK jails than previously thought.

The Home Office has admitted there are 915 inmates in England and Wales jails with no nationality recorded.

Home Office sources have also told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that a further 600 have falsely claimed to be British.

FOREIGN PRISONERS RELEASED
September 2005 - 61
October - 49
November - 34
December - 49
January 2006 - 40
February - 30
March - 25

Trade Secretary Alan Johnson said the Cabinet had shown unanimous support for Mr Clarke, who was "getting a grip" on a problem which had existed for many years.

And Mr Hutton said Labour's problems could not be compared to the last days of Mr Major's Conservative government.

Ministers were getting on with taking long-term decisions and were not the "victim of events".

"It is a massive exaggeration to say that the government is in a meltdown," he told the Today programme.

'Rude'

The government had faced a difficult week "and of course it is still only Thursday", admitted Mr Hutton.

Mr Blair's spokesman described the Royal College of Nurses' conference reaction to Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt as "rude"

Mr Hutton praised Ms Hewitt for taking debate about the NHS to people on the front line by facing angry delegates.

And he said Mr Prescott's affair was a "private matter", even if the deputy prime minister might have made fun of Conservative predecessors had they been in his position.

Mr Prescott faced further lurid details of his two-year affair with one of his secretaries being published by the tabloids on Thursday, including an interview with her former boyfriend.

Some backbenchers are worried about the damage the latest controversies will cause to Labour's local election campaign.

Reading MP Martin Salter said Mr Clarke should stay, but a general Cabinet reshuffle could help draw a line under the difficulties.

The leaders of the Labour groups on two city councils have written to Mr Blair telling him to expect bad results in next week's polls, and urging him to leave office sooner rather than later.




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Hear the Today interview with John Hutton



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