Minister loses immigration duties

TONY McNulty, the Home Office minister at the centre of the foreign prisoners scandal, has been stripped of his responsibilities for immigration.

Mr McNulty, who was immigration minister, has exchanged jobs with Liam Byrne, formerly the police minister, but escapes the fate of his old boss, Charles Clarke, who was sacked by the Prime Minister.

The change was unveiled by John Reid, the Home Secretary, who will face a grilling over immigration from MPs on the home affairs committee today.

It came as the department was plunged into a fresh crisis following revelations that 700 prisoners had absconded from open prisons in the past year.

Mr McNulty's sideways move is a recognition that public confidence in the immigration service has been rocked after a spate of scandals.

These include allegations that a senior immigration official asked for sex from a rape victim in exchange for help with her asylum application, the release of foreign prisoners without deportation and the admission from the head of removals that he did not have the "faintest idea" how many illegal immigrants were in the country.

A Home Office spokesman said that moving Mr McNulty was part of Mr Reid's strategy to "sort out the Home Office".

He rejected claims that Mr McNulty had been moved as a result of recent immigration scandals.

"The right people have been given the right jobs - we've decided who was best for the job," the spokesman said.

Mr McNulty was the best person to push through police reforms because he was a former government whip. And Mr Byrne's background in management reform made him best-equipped to sort out the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, the spokesman said.

In January, Mr McNulty had also launched an investigation into separate sex-for-visas allegations, concluding that management had to clamp down on such abuses.

The shadow home secretary, David Davis, said the minister's move was an admission that Mr McNulty's report had been inadequate and designed to solve a political problem.

"How many other people have suffered after the government's report into the sex-for-visas scandal failed to eradicate the problem?" Mr Davis said.

The department's lurch from one scandal to another has triggered repeated calls for the Home Office to be split in two, as opponents claim it is too unwieldy to handle.

It emerged last week that 393 prisoners had absconded from Leyhill open prison since 1999, including 22 murderers, seven rapists and 24 drug-dealers.

More than 13,500 prisoners have escaped, absconded or disappeared while on temporary release in the past decade.

Mr Reid will today update MPs on the hunt for more than 1,000 foreign criminals mistakenly released without deportation.

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