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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 April, 2005, 06:31 GMT 07:31 UK
Sacking call over doctored photo
Ed Matts and Ann Widdecombe in the doctored photo
This photo was sent out with Ed Matts' campaign literature
A Conservative candidate has apologised for "doctoring" a photo of him campaigning for an asylum seeker.

Dorset South candidate Ed Matts was pictured carrying a photo of an asylum seeker, next to Ann Widdecombe holding a placard saying "let them stay".

In the "doctored" version, Mr Matts has a placard saying "controlled immigration" and Ms Widdecombe has one saying "not chaos and inhumanity".

Michael Howard said Mr Matts would not be sacked, despite opponents' calls.

The businessman, 42, is standing in the key marginal seat of Dorset South, and included the picture in his campaign literature.

To airbrush it out and make it almost the opposite is terrible
Father Philip Dyson
Priest and campaigner

The undoctored original showed him protesting, holding a photo of Verah Kachepa, a Malawian asylum seeker from Weymouth who has been threatened with deportation.

In a statement, Mr Matts said: "I apologise for making a foolish mistake - I had no intention of causing any embarrassment.

"However, being involved in an individual asylum case is not inconsistent with the Conservative view that Britain's asylum system is in urgent need of attention."

But the priest who helped organise the campaign to stop Mrs Kachepa's deportation told BBC News Mr Matts' actions had been "shocking".

Father Philip Dyson, of St Augustine's Catholic Church, said: "To airbrush it out and make it almost the opposite is terrible. To do that is deceitful. It has done him no good."

Labour took the constituency at the last election with a majority of just 153, making it one of the Tories' top targets in the upcoming election.

He should not have done what he did but he has apologised
Michael Howard

Health Secretary John Reid released an open letter to Tory leader Michael Howard asking how Mr Matts could not be sacked.

Mr Reid said the altering of the image was a "sick" political stunt and said if Mr Matts was not dismissed "the only conclusion I can come to is that this organised deceit has been sanctioned and organised by the Conservative Party".

Mr Reid later delivered a letter to Weymouth Conservative Club.

In response, Tory co-chairman Liam Fox said Mr Matts had apologised and asked why Labour ministers never apologised for their actions.

Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Menzies Campbell said: "Howard Flight was sacked by the Conservatives for telling the truth. Ed Matts, the Conservative candidate in Dorset South, should be sacked for telling lies."

Speaking on a trip to Torquay, Mr Howard said: "It should not have been done and the candidate concerned has apologised for it - and so he should."

'Silly mistake'

But Mr Howard said Mr Matts would not be stopped from standing in the same way as deputy chairman Howard Flight, who sparked a row over Tory spending plans.

"No, no, not at all. He has apologised. He should not have done what he did but he has apologised."

And Ann Widdecombe, who appeared in the images, said Mr Matts' actions were "unfortunate, but I don't believe they were malign".

Shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin, whose seat is the adjacent Dorset West, told BBC News: "Ed Matts has already apologised. He recognises that it was a silly mistake. It was the wrong thing to do."

But Mr Letwin said the images were "perfectly compatible" as the Tories wanted a fairer and more humane immigration and asylum system.

Mr Matts campaigned against the deportation of Mrs Kachepa, who arrived in the UK in 2001, was detained on 13 March and then threatened with deportation. She and her children spent almost a fortnight in Yarlswood detention centre until they were given a reprieve until July.

Mrs Kachepa's husband was in the country on a work visa as a pharmacist. She says he had a nervous breakdown, started drinking and vanished, eventually turning up back in Malawi where he resumed a relationship with the powerful niece of former dictator Hastings Banda.

The mother-of-four is well-known locally and does voluntary work for the Church and for charities.

Also standing in Dorset South are Labour's Jim Knight, Lib Dem Graham Oakes, the Respect-Unity Coalition's Berny Parkes, David Marchesi of the Socialist Labour Party, and the Legalise Cannabis Alliance's Vic Hamilton.