Smith hits back over illegal security workers

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LONDON, Nov 13 (Reuters) Home Secretary Jacqui Smith denied today claims her department had covered up a blunder over security clearances for illegal immigrants and said the government was taking ''robust action'' to address the issue.

Smith defended a decision not to publicise the fact that thousands of illegal immigrants could have been cleared to work as security guards, some at government facilities, saying she had wanted to wait until she had all the details.

''The responsible thing to do was to establish the full nature and scale of the problem and take appropriate action to deal with it, rather than immediately put incomplete and potentially misleading information into the public domain,'' she told parliament.

The Home Office acknowledged at the weekend that around 5,000 illegal immigrants had been cleared to work by the Security Industry Authority (SIA).

Smith confirmed to parliament that ministers had ordered checks in July, prompting accusations she had deliberately withheld bad news which she had known months before.

''The response of the Home Office so far has been blunder, panic and cover-up,'' said Conservative home affairs spokesman David Davis.

''Why wasn't the Home Secretary frank and candid about the 5,000 illegal workers licensed to work in sensitive security posts in this country?'' Smith defended her stance.

''Much has been made of the fact that I said the lines to take were not good enough for Press Office or Ministers to explain the situation,'' she said, referring to details of an August memo published in today's Daily Mail newspaper.

''The fact is that they were not good enough because the analysis of the issue had not been completed.'' Smith told MPs 250,000 licences had been granted by the SIA, although it was the duty of employers, not the agency to check whether those approved could work in Britain.

An operation by the Borders and Immigration Agency in April this year found that 44 people employed by one security company did not have the right to work in Britain.

Smith said 12 of these had been employed to guard London Metropolitan Police facilities including one where modified cars, such as the prime minister's, were taken for repairs.

But she said police had given assurances there had been no security threat.

Checks were now being made on 40,000 licences given to non-Europeans and preliminary results from 6,000 cases had shown that 10.5 per cent did not have a right to work.

Smith said the full picture would be known in December when she would again report to parliament.

But the Conservatives said that despite Prime Minister Gordon Brown's promises of a frank and open government, this showed the government was still more interested in ''spin''.

''In one of her first actions as Home Secretary, she put avoiding political embarrassment ahead of solving the problem and informing the public,'' Davis said.

Last month the government admitted it had underestimated the number of foreign nationals who had come to work in Britain in the last decade by 300,000 -- the size of a medium-size city such as Coventry.

REUTERS SBC BD2326

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