Blair's 'secret deal on visas'

by GRAEME WILSON, Daily Mail

Labour's immigration crisis was focused on Tony Blair last night after allegations that he made a secret deal to end visa controls on Romanians.

He was accused of telling his Romanian counterpart Adrian Nastase that he would remove restrictions in return for Bucharest slashing the number of asylum seekers.

The two men were said to have discussed the plans during a meeting in Downing Street as long ago as March last year - only a month after Mr Blair made his high-risk pledge to halve asylum applications.

The deal was finalised last October, when a jubilant Mr Nastase announced that the UK would lift visa restrictions this spring - three years before Romania is due to join the EU. He repeated the claim at least four times last year.

The allegations came as Number Ten announced that Mr Blair will hold a crisis summit tomorrow in an attempt to get a grip on a controversy which has already forced Immigration Minister Beverley Hughes to resign.

A spokesman insisted: "The Prime Minister does not accept that the immigration system is in chaos", but admitted there had been "a decline in public confidence in the integrity of some of the processes".

Tories claim checks scrapped

The Tories said it was clear that Mr Blair's promise to halve asylum applications had spawned a drive to water down or scrap many immigration checks.

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: "Tony Blair was deeply involved in attempts to manipulate the figures for asylum seekers rather than trying to resolve the problem properly.

"You might call it a tactic of diversion, letting people in by other ways so they don't try to become asylum seekers."

Meanwhile the Home Office was hit by new leaks revealing that officials working for Mrs Hughes had ordered staff to avoid arresting illegal immigrants.

The instruction went out because officials feared immigrants would immediately claim asylum - and undermine the Premier's drive to cut applications.

Resignation last week

The growing crisis has already accounted for Mrs Hughes, forced to resign last week after a former colleague torpedoed her claims that she had known nothing about immigration scams in Romania and Bulgaria.

Home Secretary David Blunkett has also been badly damaged. Yesterday the spotlight moved to Mr Blair's role at the heart of the issue and his apparent deal with Romania.

Immigration was on the agenda when the Prime Minister met Mr Nastase at Number Ten last March, weeks after Mr Blair had pledged to halve asylum applications. At a press conference after their talks, Mr Nastase confirmed that he had pressed Mr Blair to let Romanians "travel to the United Kingdom without a visa".

Mr Blair offered a positive response. "We will see how we can work on achieving the solution he wants as soon as possible," he promised.

The two men met again at the start of October, during an EU summit in Rome. After returning to Bucharest, Mr Nastase announced: "As of spring 2004, Romanians will be able to travel without visas into the UK."

Britain's ambassador to Romania, Quinton Quayle, told reporters at the time: "This is not any more a political decision but it has to do exclusively with a decrease in the requests for asylum filed by Romanian citizens.

"The more we cut the number of Romanian illegal immigrants, the more we're getting closer to the moment when visas are lifted."

Immigration 'in disarray'

The Tories said last night that the revelations proved the immigration system was in disarray.

Mr Davis said: "There is at least a belief in the immigration service - and we don't yet know whether it's real - that this is actually being driven deliberately, as a way of reducing the asylum-seeker target." He said a full independent investigation was essential.

"We don't have what you might term a managed migration system," said Mr Davis. "I've rarely seen anything so unmanaged."

Downing Street denied that Mr Blair made a secret pact with Mr Nastase, insisting: "There is no question of a deal or trade-off."

Both Number Ten and the Home Office confirmed, however, that Romania had been told it had to stop illegal immigration before visa restrictions could be lifted.

Downing Street said: "We are working very hard with the Romanian government to stop illegal immigration and get to a point where visas are no longer necessary.

The Home Office also denied that investigators were warned not to arrest illegal immigrants, in case they claimed asylum.

Leaked emails

But a different picture was painted by leaked e-mails written by senior officials in the Home Office immigration enforcement directorate, which investigates and arrests illegal immigrants.

One, from last summer, says that a raid on a company thought to be employing both illegal immigrants and failed asylum seekers had to be abandoned because officials could not be sure they were all asylum rejects. An e-mail says: "We will cancel this so as to ensure intake reduction."

One official wrote: "I have already been talking to Bev Hughes's office on another operation and if I report anything other than FASs [failed asylum seekers] detected and removed next week, then I will be looking for another job."

The Home Office agreed last night that removing failed asylum seekers was a priority but added: "Ministers have never asked the immigration service to hold back on other operations."

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