Tory custody plan on asylum issue

All asylum seekers would be kept in custody until their cases are resolved under a hardline Tory policy which the party will seek to make a key issue at the next general election.

Ann Widdecombe, Conservative spokeswoman on home affairs, believes the tough approach towards people seeking the right to stay in Britain will prove popular with voters worried about the growing influx of asylum seekers. But last night Labour MPs accused the Tories of planning to "play the race card" at the election. Although Labour's private polls show rising concern among the public about the problem, ministers insist that their "fairer, faster, firmer" new policy will tackle it.

Applications for asylum are running at 6,465 a month - a 42 per cent increase over a year ago. The backlog of cases stood at 103,000 last month. Miss Widdecombe believes that automatic detention on arrival in Britain would deter some bogus applicants from coming to this country in the hope of "disappearing" before their case is decided. On Monday, six Romanian men absconded from a detention centre at the former Oakington army barracks near Cambridge.

Although the policy could be expensive and would involve the provision of new detention centres, the Tories would speed up decision-making to avoid lengthy stays in custody. Miss Widdecombe accepts there would have to be some exceptions. Mothers with young children and sick people needing hospital treatment are unlikely to be kept in custody.

Ministers will challenge the Tories to spell out how they would fund the "massive expansion" of detention centres their policy would require.