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Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Howard: Yes, of course, I give way to my hon. Friend, who is a member of the Home Affairs Committee.

Mr. Howarth: I would have been here at the outset, had the earlier business not broken up sooner than anticipated. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on drawing this extremely important issue to the attention of the House. Will he address himself to a problem that has arisen in respect of the Dublin convention? The United Kingdom courts are now saying that even if the Government wished to return people to some continental countries, those countries are not deemed to be safe in terms of their future handling of

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those asylum seekers whom we wish to return to the continent. Is this not a serious issue? What advice can my right hon. and learned Friend give the Government to address the problem vis-a-vis our own courts?

Mr. Howard: This is a serious issue. It is an astonishing development on the part of the courts which say that only they can decide whether France or Germany is a safe country, that only they can decide what the proper interpretation of the convention is to be and that they know better than any other courts in any other European country. The answer is simple: the Government should legislate to overrule the decisions of the courts. If the Government say that they may not be able to achieve their objective in that way because of the Human Rights Act 1998, I ask who was responsible for it.

My constituency is at the sharp end of this problem. The problem is getting worse and must be dealt with. I have made what I believe are constructive proposals to the Minister this evening. The problem is out of control and action must be taken to deal with it.

5.59 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): Perhaps I could deal first with the point raised by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). It refers to an old batch of cases that have now progressed through the courts. My understanding is that the 1999 legislation dealt with that point and that those cases referred to matters that arose before that legislation came into force. If my understanding of the matter is not correct, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members present.

The United Kingdom has a long tradition of offering sanctuary to those fleeing oppression. For genuine refugees, we are committed by the international convention to provide protection from persecution, and we shall continue to do so. Indeed, not only are we obliged to do so by our international convention commitments, but I believe strongly that we have a positive moral duty to do so. The right to seek asylum did not just happen in 1951; it is much more ancient and fundamental than that. It is embodied in all the great world religions and I am proud that we, too, discharge our obligations.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Does the Minister agree that the 1951 convention, which is 50 years old, applied to wholly different circumstances from those that apply at present? Nowadays, someone can get on an aeroplane in Afghanistan, fly to Moscow, hijack the plane to London and, the next thing we know, become the Minister's responsibility at Stansted. What was the Home Secretary saying last year in Lisbon if it was not that the convention was out of date and that the problem of asylum seekers should be dealt with in the nearest safe country to the country where the persecution is occurring? Can the hon. Lady update us on the Home Secretary's comments last year?

Mrs. Roche: Not only did my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary make that speech in Lisbon last year; he spoke on the subject more recently in London. It is appropriate that we should be discussing this matter, as the Select Committee on Home Affairs--of which the

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hon. Gentleman is a member--considered some of these issues recently and produced a report that gives an extremely helpful background to them.

We continue to abide by the principles of the convention. Indeed, European Union Heads of Government affirmed that commitment at Tampere. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the context in which the framers of the 1951 convention operated was different from present circumstances--my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have made similar points. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recognised that and has initiated global consultation on the convention. The UNHCR says firmly that the convention is not--and was never intended to be--a migratory instrument. I always make a clear distinction between legal migration--on which I have recently made speeches--and asylum, which I strongly believe must be ring-fenced. Such an important concept cannot be undermined.

That is the background against which the Government introduced the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to strengthen immigration control and the asylum system, making it fairer, faster and firmer. The aim of the Act was to improve the asylum process across the board and to tackle the problem of illegal immigration to the UK.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) will forgive me if I do not quite share his analysis of past history on this matter. By the end of the previous Government's term of office, it was clear that asylum applications were rising--as they were across the whole of Europe. Indeed, according to current figures, some countries are experiencing greater pressure than us; compared with other EU countries, we are in the middle of the table showing numbers per head of population.

There was also a tremendous problem with support. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will know that areas such as Kent and London were faced with the difficult responsibilities of support as a result of his own failed legislation, which was struck down by the courts.

Mr. Howard: The hon. Lady will know that that happened as a result of the intervention of the courts, which said that the duty, which had fallen into disuse, on local authorities under the National Assistance Act 1948 was still relevant, and that it was open to the Government to legislate--it would have taken a one-clause Bill--to restore the interpretation that Parliament had always intended under the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, which led to the 40 per cent. decrease in the number of asylum seekers applying for entry to this country.

Mrs. Roche: The right hon. and learned Gentleman puts a good gloss on it, but his legislation was absolutely defective because he did not realise what would happen as a result of the 1948 Act, which was prayed in aid by several authorities, including Westminster council. He was prepared to allow in-country applicants for asylum--men, women and children--to be left destitute, with no support whatever.

Illegal immigration is an international and European problem, which we can solve only through close co-operation with other countries. For that reason, the United Kingdom co-operates within the framework of the EU, as well as bilaterally, to solve the problem of illegal immigration.

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One of the major new measures introduced under the 1999 Act is the imposition of the civil penalty, which the Conservative party has resolutely opposed. The measure was brought into force last year to tackle the problem of clandestine immigration in road vehicles. As a result, those held to be responsible are now faced with fines of £2,000 for every clandestine illegal entrant carried. The legislation encourages hauliers to take responsibility for the security of their vehicles and prevents them from being used to conceal illegal immigrants. It has been successful in encouraging hauliers and ferry operators to introduce better security systems.

In response to the growing number of immigrants who attempt to enter the United Kingdom illegally every day, P & O Stena Line has introduced carbon dioxide checks on all freight vehicles using its ferries. Provisional figures indicate that those checks at Calais have contributed to a 37 per cent. reduction in the number of undocumented arrivals found in Kent in the 12 weeks since checks began. However, the recent increase in security at the port of Calais has had a displacement effect in the area, and that is, of course, the subject of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's concern. We have seen an increase in clandestine immigration on the rail freight services and on the shuttle as a result. That not only undermines our immigration control but is highly dangerous to those who seek to enter and gives rise to a public safety issue.

The increased security at Calais has also led to a rise in undocumented arrivals at Cheriton involving people who have boarded open-sided freight shuttle trains. In February, there were more than 400 undocumented arrivals at Cheriton. The Government are co-operating closely with Eurotunnel and the French authorities in sharing intelligence and information to prevent clandestine entry and human trafficking.

My officials maintain close links with the company. On 8 March, I met the then president of Eurotunnel, and other executives, to identify the weaknesses of the site. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right to say that it is a very large site indeed. We discussed how to improve security there, and we have looked at ways in which to achieve that aim.

I am pleased to say that, yesterday, I received a letter from Eurotunnel telling me that it had examined the suggestion that I had made at the meeting on 8 March that the inner cordon at Coquelles should be extended to include the freight reservoir area. We have identified that area as a particular target by those seeking to enter illegally.

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