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Blair rejected key minister's offer to quit

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, Apr 26: Britain's Tony Blair rejected the resignation of a key ally whose ministry allowed over 1,000 foreign prisoners to walk free without proper checks, the latest in a series of setbacks for the prime minister.

Home Secretary (Interior Minister) Charles Clarke said today he offered to quit after learning of the blunder, which put convicted murderers and rapists back on Britain's streets after they had served their sentences.

''I told him (Blair) I was prepared to resign if he thought it was right, and he said he didn't think it was right,'' Clarke told BBC Radio.

The debacle comes just days before Blair's Labour party contests local elections -- the prime minister's first test at the ballot box since he won a third term in office last May.

It is the latest in a string of embarrassing revelations for Blair's party which, according to one poll published this week, is less popular now than at any point over the past 19 years.

The premier has been criticised over party funding and the state of the national health service, and woke up on Wednesday to news of another sex scandal -- this time involving his Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and a secretary.

Blair's government has made much of its pledge to cut crime and expel foreigners it regards as a security threat, so the revelation it let 1,023 convicted criminals walk free without proper checks is a severe blow.

It is expected to play into the hands of the opposition Conservative Party and the fringe far-right British National Party (BNP) in the May 4 ballot. The BNP is campaigning on an overtly anti-immigration ticket.

The convicted criminals, who included murderers, rapists and paedophiles, were released over the past seven years.

All had served their terms and were entitled to release, but should, under prison regulations, have been considered for deportation before they were freed.

Around 160 of them were subject to specific court orders recommending their removal from Britain.

''SHOCKING STATE OF AFFAIRS'' The government has blamed the administrative error on a lack of communication between the prison service and immigration authorities. Clarke has described it as ''a shocking state of affairs'' and vowed to remedy it.

Opposition politicians say Clarke, who took over at the Home Office in December 2004, should quit.

David Davis, home affairs spokesman for the Conservatives, said his position was ''becoming untenable'' and former party leader Michael Howard told BBC Radio: ''If this government has an ounce of honour left, Charles Clarke has to go''.

The government says it has no idea where the vast majority of the 1,023 former prisoners are and is trying to trace them.

They include three murderers, nine rapists and 12 sex offenders including five paedophiles. Others were jailed for kidnapping, assault and drug and immigration offences.

The Home Office says it does not know how many, if any, had reoffended since their release.

REUTERS

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