Page last updated at 20:10 GMT, Saturday, 29 November 2008

Ex-minister in immigration blast

Fiona MacTaggart
Ms MacTaggart said immigration officers needed better training.

UK immigration officials have been on the receiving end of a four-letter outburst by former home office minister Fiona MacTaggart.

The MP told a conference of a Labour think tank that the job could corrupt "even quite good and moral" people.

"One of the reasons immigration officers are shits is actually because some people cheat and they decide everyone is like that," she said.

But Home Office minister Meg Hillier defended the profession.

She said standards had improved recently through better training.

'Psychological problem'

The pair clashed at the annual conference of New Labour think tank Progress in central London.

Asked about the negative attitude of some border officials during a question-and-answer session on immigration, Ms MacTaggart, whose Slough constituency has seen a large influx of migrants from Eastern Europe in recent years, said officers' attitude to the job was affected by the large numbers of people who cheated the system.

"There is quite a difficult psychological problem because of cheating. Even quite good and moral people can end up like this," she said.

Ms MacTaggart, who left the government in a 2006 reshuffle and was among the Labour MPs who spoke out against Gordon Brown this summer, added that officers needed better training so that they could give "every single person their best chance".

Labour MEP Claude Moraes, chairman of the Progress policy group on immigration and former director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, also questioned the professional standards of British border officials.

He said he had been told by one senior official that he employed the "ugly woman" test to decide if someone could be granted a marriage visa.

The official told him "if the woman is really ugly and the guy is OK, that is probably a fraudulent marriage".

Meg Hiller said she hoped the official in question no longer worked for the Home Office.

You can not deal with some of these ugly human trafficking people in a patsy way
Ian Livsey
Chief executive
Gang Masters Licensing Authority

And she mounted a defence of the border officials, arguing that many of the problems talked about were in the past.

Officers were told they had to be "bold and make decisions which are right and fair, whether to deport or not to deport and the government gave them proper training "to make their decisions both ways".

Their roles had been upgraded recently and they were now better qualified to deal with the backlog in cases they faced, added Ms Hillier.

'Filthy business'

Speaking afterwards, she said the behaviour referred to by Ms MacTaggart and Mr Moraes were "historic anecdotes" and previously sceptical MPs who had recently seen the work of immigration and asylum officers had been impressed by their professionalism.

But Ian Livsey, chief executive of the Gang Masters Licensing Authority, defended the tough stance of some UK border officials,, saying: "You cannot deal with some of these ugly human trafficking people in a patsy way."

He added: "You have got to be ugly with ugly people."

He was echoing a point made in the meeting by Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who said human trafficking was a "filthy business".

"When you are dealing with a not very nice business, sometimes you have to be not very nice," he told the meeting.

In a policy document on immigration, Progress proposes allowing a limited number of unskilled migrant workers from outside the EU - currently banned under the government's new points based migration system - into the country each year, along the lines of the US Green Card system.

It says there should be a lottery or quota system, with annual numbers set by the Migration Advisory Committee.

It also called for more flexibility in the points based system so that occupations with shortages could be filled more quickly. And it urged action to end the "brain drain" affecting poor countries, which were losing doctors and other highly skilled worker to the UK.

And it called for an independent body to be set up to provide more accurate and independent migration statistics.

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