Blair calls immigration summit as asylum target is blamed for crisis

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Indy Politics

A Downing Street summit on the Government's crisis over immigration tomorrow will consider if the problems have been caused partly by Tony Blair's target to cut asylum applications by 50 per cent.

As Mr Blair was drawn into another series of newspaper allegations, ministers admitted that his determination to cut the figures may have inadvertently contributed to a relaxation of immigration rules.

Ministers believe senior managers at the Immigration and Nationality Department "took their eye off the ball" over the way the rules were implemented because the Government's main focus was on asylum. "It does seem there was an imbalance between asylum and immigration," one said.

Labour MPs and some ministers were worried that the immigration issue would inflict huge damage on Labour at the European and local council elections on 10 June and at the general election expected next year. "It could have a devastating impact," one senior minister said yesterday.

A YouGov poll for The Mail on Sunday found voters regarded immigration as the second most important political issue after the NHS and that 80 per cent believed the Government's immigration policies were "not tough enough". Only three in 10 trusted Mr Blair to get the issue under control.

Tomorrow's summit, designed to "get a grip" on the problem, will be attended by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, other ministers and intelligence and security chiefs. The meeting will discuss what has gone wrong, whether through deliberate fraud or lax interpretation of the rules. Mr Blair will ask those present to report back with an action plan.

Aides say the Prime Minister wants to make a positive case for managed immigration but recognises that the public will not support it until the problems have been resolved. Although Mr Blair is unrepentant about setting his target of halving asylum claims, it would be embarrassing if it was found to have contributed to the crisis. More leaked e-mails from within the Immigration Service yesterday suggested the Government allowed illegal immigrants to remain free in case they claimed asylum on their arrest. The Home Office said ministers had never asked the Immigration Service to hold back on other operations to prevent asylum claims.

Downing Street denied a report that Mr Blair personally agreed to relax immigration controls for Romanians under a deal with Adrian Nastase, the Romanian Prime Minister. It was claimed Britain lifted its requirement for visas as a reward for a fall in the number of asylum-seekers from Romania.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said yesterday's reports were further evidence the system was in danger of being "corrupted" by Mr Blair's promise to halve asylum claims. It appeared ministers were adopting a "tactic of diversion" - admitting migrants by other means, "bogus or otherwise", so they did not enter Britain as asylum-seekers.

"There is at least a belief in the Immigration Service, and we do not yet know whether it is real, that this is actually being driven deliberately as a way of reducing the asylum-seeker target," he said.