“The holding centre planned for the port of Calais has been the subject of frenzied claim and counter claim in recent days with the French government publicly denying that it has been given the go-ahead.
Phil Woolas, the immigration minister, was left out on a limb by his French counterpart Eric Besson when Mr Woolas revealed details of the project last week, with the French minister claiming that he had no knowledge of it.
But a letter from the UK Border Agency to the Director of Migration in Paris seen by this newspaper reveals that British and French officials discussed the centre in detail a few weeks ago and agreed “joint action”. It has been costed, given planning permission and a building contract awarded for its construction, according to the letter.
The 500,000 euro (£470,000) detention suite will be similar to the one at Heathrow Airport and contain a number of police cells designed to hold immigrants until they can be deported. It replaces a temporary structure now in place at the port which is barely more than a temporary building.
It will be half-funded by the British with the Calais Chamber of Commerce among those having offered to put up the rest of the money.
The plans are revealed in a letter from Brodie Clark, head of Border Force at the Home Office to Francis Etienne, Director of Migration at the Migration Ministry in France.
The letter says: “I am very pleased to be able to confirm, on behalf of the UK Border Agency our contribution to fund 50% of the 500,000 euros cost estimated by the Calais Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCCI) which will enable work to start.
“I believe that planning permission has been granted and that a building contractor has been chosen through a tendering process run by the CCCI, whom we believe had previously made an offer for funding this facility.
“We look forward to having a purpose built facility that provides a safe, secure and appropriate method of holding clandestines for short periods.”
The plans are an attempt by ministers to stop migrants and the gangs who smuggle them into northern France from continuing their journey to Britain and instead returning them swiftly to their own country. At present, immigrants from Afghanistan, Kurdistan and Africa exploit European law to evade expulsion by trying repeatedly to enter Britain, being arrested and released several times, until they get through.
A senior Labour insider said: “We have to have a process to return these people to their own country rather than just releasing them into the French countryside and this building is the first part of that process.”
It is thought the French initially denied the plans because of fears it could be compared to the notorious Sangatte camp. British officials were baffled by their reaction because it would have been easy to explain that the new centre will be a small detention suite rather than a large residential camp.”