Mark Harper’s resignation as UK immigration minister over his employment of an illegally-working foreign cleaner highlights flaws in the Government’s immigration crackdown, critics said.
The Tory MP insisted he had not broken the law but accepted he failed to make sufficiently rigorous checks given his status as the politician in charge of the reforms.
Prime Minister David Cameron said he accepted “with regret” the resignation - which was applauded by all sides at Westminster as a principled decision.
But Labour said it should also prompt a rethink about the effectiveness of proposed new requirements for landlords, employers, bankers and others to verify the status of overseas individuals.
And health campaigners said it underlined the unfairness of expecting NHS staff to police new charges on immigrants for the use of services including accident and emergency care.
Mr Harper had been responsible in the Commons for the Immigration Bill – which among other changes seeks to double the fines on employers who recruit illegal immigrants to £20,000 per case.
He said it was that role which led him to double-check the right to work in the UK of his cleaner of seven years with immigration officials – who informed him on Thursday that she was here illegally.
“Although I complied with the law at all times, I consider that as Immigration Minister, who is taking legislation through Parliament which will toughen up our immigration laws, I should hold myself to a higher standard than expected of others,” he told Mr Cameron in his resignation letter.
Mr Cameron said it was a typically “honourable” decision by Mr Harper, the MP for Forest of Dean and that he hoped to see him make a return to the ministerial ranks “before too long”.
He has been replaced as Immigration Minister by James Brokenshire.
Mr Harper said he took copies of the cleaner’s passport and a Home Office letter stating she had indefinite leave to remain in the UK when he took her on to clean his London flat in 2007.
He expressed regret that he did not check their veracity with officials either when he was appointed a cabinet office minister in 2010 or took on the immigration brief at the Home Office in 2012.
Prompted to do so by being put in charge of the legislation – which doubles the fine for employers caught taking on an illegal worker to £20,000 – he was unable to find the documents, he said.
When the cleaner produced new copies, he passed them to immigration officials who informed him that the woman should not in fact be in the country.
His admission that he was not in possession of the papers raised suggestions - rejected by officials – that he could be liable to a fine.
In 2009 the then Attorney General Baroness Scotland was fined £5,000 over her hiring of an illegal immigrant as her housekeeper – under a law she had helped develop.
The Labour peer apologised for the “technical breach” of failing to take copies of the documents shown her by the woman and was allowed to keep her job by then prime minister Gordon Brown.
Shadow immigration minister David Hanson said: “As immigration minister he has argued in Parliament for landlords to be required to carry out checks on every tenant, and he is responsible for the helpline for employers to ring up to double-check the immigration status of their employees.
“We have called for the landlord scheme to be piloted, and the employer helpline to be better resourced exactly because this can be complex for employers and landlords.”
“He has shown himself to be a decent man in his resignation and I wish him well for the future but perhaps once again the Government need to think very carefully about how they approach this issue as it’s clear there are limits to the effectiveness of relying on employer and landlord checks to address illegal immigration.”
The National Health Action Party – formed by health professionals concerned about NHS reforms – also seized on the case to highlight concerns about the legislation.
“Doctors,nurses and receptionists don’t have the time or skills to also act as immigration officers,” European elections candidate Dr Louise Irvine said.
“Mark Harper himself has shown up the difficulties of checking immigrants and the flaws in implementing such a policy.”
Home Secretary Theresa May praised Mr Harper as an “excellent” minister who could be “proud of the role he has played in sharply reducing immigration to Britain”.
The MP was severely criticised recently for spearheading the Government’s “go home” ad van warning to illegal immigrants – which was later abandoned amid an outcry.
Mr Harper said he had been “mindful of my legal and financial obligations” when he took on the cleaner and sought verification of her immigration status despite having no legal requirement to do so.
On the requirements imposed on employers by the Immigration Bill, he pointed out that “we do not require them to be experts or spot anything other than an obvious forgery”.
In a limited reshuffle following Mr Harper’s departure, Karen Bradley moved from the whips office to the Home Office to fill Mr Brokenshire’s junior ministerial post.
John Penrose was promoted within the whips office to replace Ms Bradley and Harriet Baldwin was brought into the Government ranks as a junior whip.
Mr Cameron has faced Labour attacks in recent days over his failure to promote women.