Attorney General Baroness Scotland faced humiliation last night over employing an illegal immigrant.
The Border Agency launched an inquiry and the government’s senior lawyer faced the prospect of a fine of up to £10,000 and even a ‘raid’ on her home.
Lady Scotland employed Tongan cleaner Loloahi Tapui, 27, as a housekeeper for six months–even though she had overstayed her student visa by five years and had no right to work here.
The Daily Mail can reveal that Miss Tapui was refused a visa renewal not once but twice–yet immigration officials did nothing to deport her.
Despite Lady Scotland’s attempts to draw a line under the affair, senior government sources were expressing doubts that she can survive.
One former Labour minister said: ‘If this were America, she would already have had to resign.’
‘No Attorney General in modern political history has faced such a scandal.’
Lady Scotland fired Miss Tapui on Wednesday after the Mail revealed she was working illegally. She denied knowing the Tongan was an illegal migrant.
The spectacle of Britain’s top law officer under investigation for breaking the laws she is supposed to enforce is a grave embarrassment to the government. Lady Scotland has even managed to fall foul of a measure she helped steer through Parliament when she was a Home Office minister, the 2006 Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act.
Under the act, it is a civil offence to employ an illegal–whether or not the employer knows their status.
Since the legislation came into force last year, the Border Agency has launched 9,547 raids on employers. Some 2,400 cases have resulted in fines, totalling more than £23million.
The Home Office said Lady Scotland will definitely face a penalty–a fine of up to £10,000–if Border Agency officials find Miss Tapui was working illegally, something she has admitted.
A spokesman said: ‘Everyone found to be in breach of the rules is issued with a notice of liability. They get a penalty and then they can appeal.’
The standard fine for employing a single illegal immigrant is £5,000.
Senior figures in Westminster said that if Lady Scotland escapes with a smaller penalty, or no punishment at all, it would provoke accusations of special treatment.
Lady Scotland faces awkward questions about the checks she made on Miss Tapui, whose 2003 student visa expired the following year.
Two attempts to renew it, in 2004 and 2005, were rejected by immigration officials, who told her to appeal or leave the country.
Yet the Attorney General’s spokeswoman has said Lady Scotland personally inspected documents provided by Miss Tapui, which showed the cleaner was entitled to work in the UK.
Lady Scotland’s only hope of avoiding a fine will be to produce copies of the documents and prove she did everything possible to ascertain whether or not they were forgeries.
But her spokeswoman has refused to say whether she has copies, or even what paperwork she scrutinised.
If it could be proved that Lady Scotland knew about Miss Tapui’s illegal status, she could face criminal charges and a possible two-year prison sentence.
Last night the Tories challenged the Attorney General to produce the paperwork.
Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said: ‘There’s no possible way the system can remain credible unless she is treated the same as everyone else.
‘This is a real hammer blow for the credibility of the government’s rhetoric on immigration.
‘To have a senior minister in this position will just make the small business community think this government does not practise what it preaches.’
The scandal has also drawn attention to the complete failure of communication between HM Revenue and Customs and the Border Agency.
Miss Tapui, who was given a National Insurance number when she was on a legitimate student visa, was able to use the same number to keep working for five years.
The Department of Work and Pensions confirmed yesterday there is ‘no mechanism’ for withdrawing an NI number when a visa expires.
Lady Scotland’s aides launched a damage limitation exercise, stressing she believes ‘due process should be followed’ in the probe of her affairs.
Ministerial aides also appeared to be trying to downplay the affair.
A senior government source said: ‘This is not exactly a warehouse full of illegal workers. It’s a low key issue.’
Downing Street said Gordon Brown had read Lady Scotland’s response to the revelations and added: ‘The Prime Minister has full confidence in Baroness Scotland.’
But Lady Scotland’s allies are increasingly concerned that she may be forced to resign and the opposition is scenting blood.
A senior Tory MP said: ‘I think in the end she is toast. You can’t have the government’s senior law officer under investigation for breaking her own laws.’