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Public Houses (Portsmouth)

5.41 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I wish to present a petition on behalf of Carol and Mick Frewing, the tenants of the Connaught Arms in Fratton, Portsmouth, and of more than 1,000 local people who want a fair deal for local pubs and landlords. The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Miners' Compensation

5.42 pm

[The following petition was presented on behalf of the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig).]

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To lie upon the Table.

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Illegal Immigrants (Eurotunnel)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. McNulty.]

5.43 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): The United Kingdom terminal of the Eurotunnel service through the Channel tunnel lies in my constituency. For some time now, I have been disturbed by numerous reports of the frequency with which illegal immigrants into the United Kingdom are being apprehended in my constituency, both within the United Kingdom terminal and elsewhere. I have also been concerned about the increasing frequency of the reports which I read about the ways in which illegal entrants have gained access to Eurotunnel at the French terminal at Coquelles.

Last week, I decided to go through the tunnel to France, to see for myself what things were like on the French side. I travelled through the tunnel in the company of Bill Dix, the managing director of Eurotunnel, and I am very grateful to him and his colleagues for their co-operation.

I looked at the security arrangements at the terminal in Coquelles, and I visited the Red Cross centre at Sangatte. I applied for this debate so that I could report on what I found to the House and, indeed, to the Minister, for, as far as I am aware--no doubt she will correct me if I am wrong--neither she nor any of her ministerial colleagues in the Home Office have yet made a similar trip.

I hope that no one is in any doubt about the seriousness of the situation. I was told, for example, that the number of illegal immigrants apprehended within the United Kingdom terminal was running at a rate that would mean that as many would be apprehended in this month of March as were apprehended in the whole of last year. The number apprehended in the French terminal in the first 12 days of March was no fewer than 1,082. I am sorry that, through a misunderstanding, I gave that figure for the United Kingdom terminal on the radio this morning, but the true number affords no grounds for complacency, and is a matter of grave concern.

At the Red Cross centre in Sangatte, about which I shall say more in a moment, the number of people passing through during the past 18 months was no fewer than 25,000. I do not know whether the Minister was previously aware of that astonishing figure. It certainly brings home the scale of the problem that I want to discuss this evening.

The Eurotunnel terminal at Coquelles is a big place. I was told that it covers roughly the same area as Heathrow airport. It is obviously a very difficult area to make secure. I think that Eurotunnel has made a genuine attempt to do what it can to make it difficult for unauthorised entry to its trains, or the lorries that use its trains, to be obtained. It has not, however, been wholly successful in this endeavour--far from it.

When I talked to Eurotunnel about its problems, it identified two ways in which matters could be improved. First, the fencing of a part of the area is the responsibility of SNCF, the French national railways. SNCF has, I was told, been promising since last June to put up in respect of the area for which it is responsible the same kind of high security fencing that Eurotunnel is in the process of erecting--and, indeed, has now largely erected--in

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respect of the area for which it is responsible. Despite these assurances, no such action has yet been taken by SNCF.

SNCF is a nationalised concern. If there were any political will on the part of the French Government to take action on these matters, they could ensure that SNCF took the necessary action. If relations between the United Kingdom Government and the French Government are anything like as good as we are constantly told they are, it should be an easy matter for the United Kingdom Government to make representations to the French Government to ensure that this is done. I hope that the Minister will tell us during her reply to what representations the United Kingdom Government have made to the French Government on this issue and what response they have received.

I should mention that if this action were taken, it would have a positive effect not only on those who abuse Eurotunnel's services but on those who use the rail freight services through the tunnel. I am aware of the many difficulties faced by the operators of that service, largely caused by SNCF, although they lie somewhat outside the scope of the issue on which I want to concentrate this evening.

The second step that could be taken to improve security at the Coquelles terminal relates to the personnel who are employed on security duties at the terminal. As a result of the combined effect of the agreement under which the terminal is policed and French law, Eurotunnel's own security personnel have, as I was told last week, very limited powers. They are unable to use force in respect of those who seek unauthorised entry to the terminal and they are unable to detain any who are apprehended there. However, British police officers, including the Ministry of Defence police, would, as I understand it, have such powers. Eurotunnel therefore believes that personnel with those powers should be made available to undertake security duties at the terminal. The most obvious candidates seem to Eurotunnel and to me to be Ministry of Defence police. I understand that that option is currently being considered by the United Kingdom Government. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what progress, if any, has been made in considering that option.

The Red Cross centre at Sangatte is a remarkable place. It is evidently well run, and I entirely accept that the provision of the facilities that are available and the work that is carried out are motivated by the highest principles. However, the inescapable--and astonishing--fact is that this large facility exists solely for the purpose of providing food and shelter for those who are seeking illegal entry into the United Kingdom. Those who use the facilities are there only because of the proximity to the terminal at Coquelles. If they were able to obtain legal entry into the United Kingdom, there would be no need for them to stop off at Sangatte in the first place.

I can quite see why no one in France has any incentive to do anything to change the present situation. They are only too happy for these people to leave France, gain entry to the United Kingdom and apply for asylum in this country. They make little secret of that fact. The Minister will know, however, as everyone who pays any attention to this subject will know, that the international convention on refugees, which is the fundamental source of our

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obligations on this matter, provides that asylum seekers should seek sanctuary in the first safe country in which they find themselves. Self-evidently, for those arriving from continental Europe into this country by any method of transport other than air, that first safe country is never the United Kingdom.

The obvious question that arises is why those who congregate at Sangatte and elsewhere are so determined to seek asylum in the United Kingdom, rather than in France or any of the other countries through which they have travelled on their way to the United Kingdom. I asked that question of those whom I met at the Red Cross centre at Sangatte. Their answers were illuminating. They listed three factors--the English language, more money and better accommodation.

I understand that there is nothing that the Minister can do about the English language, but there is a very great deal that the Government can do to deal with the other factors that attract asylum seekers to this country.

I repeat that this country is never the first safe country arrived at by asylum seekers who use the channel tunnel. They therefore have a wide choice of countries in which they can apply for asylum. By definition, all those who use the Red Cross centre at Sangatte could apply for asylum in France. No amount of statistical obfuscation on the part of the Government can obscure the extraordinary fact that last year, for the first time, more people applied for asylum in the United Kingdom than in any of the other member states of the European Union, including Germany.

The Liberal Democrats say that nothing can be done to affect the number of people who apply for asylum in this country, so they do not propose to do anything at all about the problem. The Government's position, however, is different. They accept that measures can and should be taken to deal with that aspect of the problem. That, indeed, was the purpose of the legislation that eventually found its way on to the statute book last year.

I am on record as wishing the Government well with that legislation. I expressed the hope that it would work. Clearly, if it had worked, that would have been greatly to the benefit of my constituents, but the conclusion is now utterly inescapable that the Government's legislation has not worked. So, far from moderating the number of people who apply for asylum in the United Kingdom, that number has continued to increase.

The evidence that I discovered during my journey through the channel tunnel last week is that this problem is now completely out of control. What is more, the greater the extent to which it becomes apparent that it is out of control, the greater will be the numbers coming to the Red Cross centre at Sangatte and trying to effect illegal entry into the United Kingdom.

There are two other aspects of the problem with which I want to deal before I sit down. On both sides of this House, there is unanimity that genuine refugees should be granted asylum, although it is noteworthy that the Home Secretary has recently called for another look at the international conventions that govern our obligations in that respect.

The residents of the Red Cross centre at Sangatte do not give the appearance of people fleeing from persecution. They were described to me by those who run the centre as, typically, young, single, male and middle class. It costs, on average, £7,000 for them to get to

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northern France from their starting point. That is money not readily available to poor, downtrodden victims of persecution.

The truth is that the arrangements that exist in this country for asylum seekers are significantly more favourable to them than those that exist in other member states of the European Union. That is something for which the Government are responsible and which, now that the failure of their recent legislation is apparent, they should address. It is clear that action can be taken to deal with this problem. When I was Home Secretary the effect of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 and the associated benefit changes which we introduced was to reduce the number of asylum seekers to the United Kingdom by 40 per cent. The present Government could have continued with that policy, but chose not to. That is why the number of asylum seekers has increased from 29,000 in 1996--the last full year of the last Government--to more than 76,000 last year. That is why the situation is now out of control.

There is one final point that I should make before I sit down since it is frequently made but distorted by Government spokesmen. Indeed, the Minister attempted to make it on the "Today" programme this morning. The Dublin convention was agreed in 1990. That was long before I became Home Secretary, but more importantly, long before the asylum problem had reached the dimensions with which we are faced today. The underlying principle of the Dublin convention is that asylum seekers should apply for asylum in the first member state of the European Union in which they find themselves. It is a principle, to which, at least in theory, all subscribe.

The convention came into force in the summer of 1997. There is evidence to suggest that it is not working as it was intended to work and that, far from facilitating the application of that fundamental principle to which I have referred, it may in some cases be obstructing it. If that is so, the present Government have had almost four years since the convention came into force to revise it or withdraw from it. They never cease to tell us how warm their relations are with other member states of the European Union. Let this issue be a test of those assertions. If relations are indeed as good as we are always told they are, it should not be a difficult matter for the convention to be applied as it was always intended to be applied, to ensure that asylum seekers make their application for asylum in the first member state in which they find themselves.

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