Howard pursues asylum and terror link

Milburn tries to defuse row with apology for officer's death

Alan Travis and Michael White, Friday April 15, 2005 The Guardian

Labour last night tried to defuse the potentially damaging row over asylum and terrorism that followed the conviction of ricin plotter Kamel Bourgass by expressing their regret over the death of the police special branch officer he murdered.

"Of course what we apologise for is the death of that police officer, serving his country, trying to protect his country. The issue now is how we ensure that that sort of thing doesn't happen again," Labour's election coordinator, Alan Milburn, told ITV News.

Michael Howard's calculated use of the Bourgass case in yesterday's election campaigning - when he blamed Labour's failure to deport the failed asylum seeker for the death of Detective Constable Stephen Oake - prompted an equally fierce response from cabinet ministers.

"The tragedy of what happened is that Kamel Bourgass, an al-Qaida operative, should not have been in Britain at all," claimed the Tory leader. "He was one of the quarter of a million failed asylum seekers living in Britain today who should have been deported. His case underlines the chaos in our asylum system."

Last night Mr Milburn's apparent apology only served to stir the row further as the Conservatives deliberately mistook his expression of regret as an admission of government failure to deport the failed Algerian asylum seeker.

The Home Office denied claims last night that there was no immigration officer in London available to see Bourgass when he was arrested for shoplifting. They established that 130 officers had been on duty at three separate immigration offices in the capital on the day in question, July 2 2002.

More than 1,000 Algerians a year came to Britain from the early 1990s and claimed asylum. During the four years that Mr Howard was home secretary between 1993 and 1997 an average of 120 failed Algerian asylum seekers were sent home each year. Between 1997 and 2001 there were a similar number - 90 deportations a year despite refusals running at an annual rate of 1,300.

Charles Clarke, the home secretary, accused Mr Howard of "playing politics" with the murder. He said: "This terrorist used multiple identities to evade capture and prosecution. The police and security services say that identity cards will be a vital tool in the fight against terrorism. We agree with them."

He challenged Mr Howard to say where he now stands on ID cards which the Tories supported, then opposed. The Tory leader kept his options open, but argued that if ID cards were the answer Labour should have introduced them after the 9/11 attack.

On a day when the Daily Mail's front page proclaimed that DC Oake was "Murdered Because We've Lost Control of Our Borders" the Tory leader brought a prepared statement to a Westminster press conference - in which he said that if Mr Blair had delivered the "firm but fair" policy he promised in 1997 Mr Bourgass would not have been in Britain.

The former home secretary denied suggestions that the crucial failures were at police operational level, not policy level - a distinction he used in office - because the system is at fault.

Printable version

The ricin ring that never was (Dossier The Guardian, 14.04.05)