`Comments deeply insensitive’
9th December 2009: Even as immigration and border minister Phil Woolas defended big bonuses to his "very brave" staff saying they "put their lives on the line", furious MPs described the comments as an insult to the 100 British troops killed in Afghanistan this year.
Claiming he was stunned, Home Affairs committee chairman Keith Vaz said as many as 29 senior officials got £295,000 in bonuses, despite losing 40,000 immigrants.
The committee was also critical of the `slow clearance’ of 450,000 asylum cases, even as the UK Border Agency said it hoped to clear the backlog expeditiously.
Terming the bonuses as “merited”, Woolas had earlier told the BBC that he thought the UK Border Agency should be praised, as they are very brave men and women, adding he was defending his staff, “who put their lives on the line for us."
Woolas had subsequently insisted he didn’t compare staff to soldiers, but said they often faced "dangerous situations”.
Reacting sharply, an ex-Army officer-cum-Tory MP Patrick Mercer claimed the comments were deeply insensitive; and came soon after the Ministry of Defence announced the death of the 100th soldier in Afghanistan this year.
Mercer said it was a hard thing to swallow for fighting forces to be compared to an immigration service, about which a majority of them had the gravest of doubts.
Home Office sources, in the meantime, said Woolas was only talking about the circumstances in which staff had to work in dealing with immigration and detecting people smugglers.
They said airport liaison officers in Nigeria had to be escorted to work by armed guards.
In the past also, attempts were made by stowaways to stab officers.