EU may stop France passing the buck on asylum-seekers

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Britain is backing proposals to force France to deal with applications for asylum rather than "passing the buck" at Channel ports.

The Government wants European Union countries to agree a new common asylum policy, which would stop them handing on the problem to other EU member states. The plans could force France to change its response to would-be refugees living in the centre at Sangatte, near Calais, who want to reach Britain. A blueprint drawn up by the European Commission proposes "to make a member state which has knowingly tolerated the unlawful presence on its territory of a third-country national for more than two months responsible for examining the asylum application".

Under the plan, due to be agreed by December, countries would use "the threat of removal" to give refugees an incentive to apply for asylum. The draft policy says that an EU state should not through "inertia" encourage people "to wait on its territory for a suitable chance to travel unlawfully to another member state".

Welcoming the plans last night, British officials said the proposals could help to tackle the growing asylum problems generally and the specific problems near Calais.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, rejected a call by Eurotunnel to send British officials to Calais to handle the applications. He said: "People in France seeking asylum should apply to the French authorities. To do otherwise would result in all the paraphernalia of accommodation and adjudication taking place on French soil."

Mr Blunkett has become more convinced than his predecessor, Jack Straw, of the need for closer co-operation with other EU countries. He wants Britain in a key role, but to retain its opt-out from the EU's "open borders" policy, the Schengen agreement.

Mr Blunkett wants EU countries to give firm pledges that applications should normally be dealt with by the first EU state the person visits. This could enable Britain, often the target of refugees, to send many of them back to the Continent.

Closer co-operation with other EU countries will form part of a wide-ranging "tough but fair" policy on asylum to be outlined by Mr Blunkett this autumn. It will also include: tougher police patrols, reform of the system under which asylum-seekers are handed state vouchers rather than cash benefits ­ allowing them to work while their claims are processed ­ and speeding the handling of applications.

Mr Blunkett, who will meet his French counterpart a week today, held talks last Saturday with Otto Schily, the German Interior Minister, about a common policy. Mr Blunkett is attracted by Germany's less "woolly" system.

Yesterday, the two contenders in the Tory leadership race both launched strong attacks on Labour's response to the asylum issue. Kenneth Clarke said the system in Britain had "totally collapsed" and blamed incompetence by Home Office ministers.

Iain Duncan Smith accused Tony Blair of "doing nothing" to solve a crisis he has promised to end and which was "getting more desperate every day".