David Blunkett admitted yesterday that public confidence in immigration controls had fallen to an all-time low as he promised a raft of measures to "get a grip" on the system.
Tony Blair and the Home Secretary announced an initiative to convince sceptical voters that government figures could be believed and pledged action within weeks against sham marriages and bogus student visas. They stressed, however, the economic advantages of controlled migration.
In a move dismissed by the Conservatives as a "headline-grabbing stunt", Mr Blair summoned ministers from five departments and security chiefs to an emergency Downing Street meeting on immigration. It was called after a barrage of allegations about lax visa checks forced the resignation of Beverley Hughes as Immigration minister.
The severity of the crisis - and the political damage it can do to Labour - was acknowledged by Mr Blunkett in a press conference after the meeting. He said: "I understand why in view of the allegations that have been made that people are more distrustful, less confident than they have ever been." He said the Government had asked the National Audit Office to review asylum statistics to ensure that would-be refugees had not entered the country by other means.
Mr Blunkett said a package of measures would be produced soon to ensure that private colleges which offered places to foreigners were adequately accredited and students on short-term courses were properly monitored. There would also be an initiative on sham marriages, undergone by an estimated 15,000 people each year to gain entry to the country.
Mr Blunkett added: "We appeal to people to have trust in the system because we can't have Fortress Britain. We need people to come here and work."
Mr Blair said: "I understand why people get angry about the issue of immigration. If people are coming into the country illegally or improperly they get angry about it. Regaining trust is about having a dialogue with people where they understand you get their concern but they also listen to the sense of perspective necessary in this debate."
The Prime Minister dismissed as "absurd" reports that he had struck a deal with the Romanian Prime Minister to relax immigration controls in return for helping Britain meet asylum-seeker targets. He pointed out that Britain, unlike many other western European countries, still had visa requirements for Romanians.
The meeting is understood to have focused on potential abuses of the immigration system and the need for government departments to be better co-ordinated in their response. It was also attended by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister; Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary; Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor; Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General; Des Browne, the new Immigration minister; and Chris Pond, the Work and Pensions minister.
Earlier, an academic disputed government figures that suggest immigrants contribute £2.5bn a year more to the economy than they receive in benefits. In a study for the think-tank Civitas, Robert Rowthorn, of the University of Cambridge, said: "The true figure could well be negative, though probably not by very much."Reuse content