TONY Blair yesterday (Tuesday, December 18) issued a fierce defence of the record number of immigrants under his premiership - urging politicians not to "make them the scapegoats for our problems."

The former prime minister urged people to be "careful" in their comments, adding: "Immigrants do a lot for this country, they bring fresh energy, fresh initiative - it will be sad day if we end up targeting them."

And, asked whether his government should have done more to restrict entry from Eastern Europe, he replied: "Personally, I think the Polish community contributes a lot to this country."

The comments came just days after David Cameron attacked Labour for letting in two million migrants during its decade in power, saying: "Immigration was out of control under the previous government."

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband, in a flagship speech last week, acknowledged Labour had "made mistakes", including failing to impose transitional controls on migrants from new EU member states in Eastern Europe.

Speaking to journalists at Westminster - and insisting he was "emphatically not" criticising Mr Miliband - Mr Blair, the former Sedgefield MP, said: "Of course it has to be controlled and illegal immigration has to be tackled head on.

"It's important that we do that.

"But, overall, I would like to say that I think immigration has been good for Britain and most immigrants have assimilated well. So don't make them a scapegoat for our problems."

During the question-and-answer session, Mr Blair also: * Urged Britain not to turn its back on Europe, saying: "Talk of leaving is dangerous, immensely damaging to Britain's long-term interests".

* Defended financial services as "an essential part of our economic future", adding: "We must be careful that we don't flatten it with regulation and capital requirements that go too far."

* Insisted climate change "still matters", saying: "It shouldn't be a casualty of the financial and economic crisis."

* Argued Scotland would reject independence, adding of the pro-union campaign: "I'm very happy to play a part in it."

* Criticised calls for an early withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan and an attitude that said "forget about the rest of the world, - we just retreat back into our homeland".

* Defended his role amid revelations about the extraordinary rendition of terror suspects - referring to a memo that "made it absolutely clear, in my own handwriting, that we would not condone the use of torture or maltreatment of suspects".

* Revealed he had sent a Christmas card to Gordon Brown.

On Europe, Mr Blair criticised any rush towards a referendum on Britain's EU membership, before the country had worked out "what we want Europe to look like - and what part Britain should play in that".

Ahead of Mr Cameron's crunch EU speech next month, he said: "A referendum is not a way of alleviating the responsibility of political leaders to take a clear position and fight for it."

On his own future, Mr Blair again refused to rule out a return to public life, but said: "I'm not aiming for it, wanting it, positioning for it, or any of the rest of it - and I doubt whether it's ever going to happen."

Asked whether he would like to be President of Europe, he said: "President of Europe? It's gone - Mr Van Rompuy is doing it."