Migrant row reaches inside Downing Street as Blair is accused of secret deal to relax controls

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Tony Blair was drawn into the political storm over immigration last night amid claims he personally sanctioned a relaxation of controls on Romanian migrants.

The Prime Minister was reported to have brokered a deal with the country's premier, Adrian Nastase, at an EU summit last October.

After the summit, Mr Nastase told reporters in Bucharest that Romanians would be entitled to travel to Britain without visas from 2004.

And the British ambassador to Romania, Quinton Quayle, explicitly linked the decision to lift the visa requirement with the reduction in the number of asylum seekers from the country.

Downing Street furiously denied a deal had been done as part of efforts to meet the Government's pledge to reduce the number of asylum seekers by half.

However, the disclosure of the deal prompted speculation that the "fast-tracking" of visas exposed by British consul James Cameron last week may have been part of a wider agreement between the two governments.

Beverley Hughes lost her job as immigration minister last week over the claims, revealed by David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary.

Mr Davis said last night that the existence of the deal implicated Mr Blair in "attempts to manipulate the figures" on asylum.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "There is no question here of a deal or trade-off. We are working hard with the Romanian government to stop illegal immigration and to get to a point where visas are no longer necessary."

Meanwhile, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, faced further pressure over the operation of his immigration policies as more evidence came to light of possible abuses.

Leaked emails from the Home Office suggest that planned raids on premises where suspected failed asylum seekers were hiding were aborted after pressure from the office of Ms Hughes.

The raids might have uncovered illegal immigrants who would promptly claim asylum, forcing up the figures, it is claimed. A separate claim from Bulgaria's ambassador to Britain, that the Home Office had failed to chase criminals let into the UK on visas despite repeated warnings, added to the gathering crisis.

The Prime Minister called a cabinet summit on immigration yesterday after his office admitted there was a crisis of confidence among voters.

"The Prime Minister does not accept that the immigration system is now in crisis," a Downing Street spokesman said. "However, he does believe that there has been a decline in confidence in the integrity in some of the processes and that has to be addressed. Rooting out abuse is vital to achieve that."

Mr Davis taunted the Government last night, claiming he had "dozens" of emails from disgruntled civil servants.