Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480 - 499)




  480. To where?
  (Mr Boys Smith) We then have to apply to the country under the Dublin Convention rule with which that relationship arises, be that Italy or France. If that country then says, yes, they accept that Dublin does apply to that person, they can then be sent back to that country. It requires communication with that country, it is not simply putting them back on the ferry.

Mr Linton

  481. That means getting asylum seekers to admit that they have applied for asylum before and the country where they applied to admit that they have.
  (Mr Straw) The whole purpose of EURODAC is to have a European wide fingerprint database so that we do not have to get a correct answer from the applicant, we will be able to tell whether or not they have applied elsewhere. You are right, Mr Linton, to point out that this Dublin process is fairly bureaucratic, and it is of huge regret that the previous administration did not see this coming and was ready to abandon the better working bilateral gentleman's agreement between France and Belgium, which ended in 1997. As I say, they were not perfect, they were not fully comprehensive, but they were better.

Mr Howarth

  482. If we believe the Italian figure that in 1998 they received only 7,100 applications for asylum, against our 46,000—the figures for 1999 not being available earlier this year against our 71,000—we are just being naive, are we not?
  (Mr Straw) I come back to the point that some countries' official statistics are not quite as robust as other countries' official statistics, and this is true even within the European Union.

  483. They are not British really, are they? They do not play cricket.
  (Mr Straw) Leaving aside your xenophobic point, it just happens to be the case that the statistical collection varies in terms of its comprehensiveness. In this country our asylum statistics will reflect the vast majority of people who have arrived here in the year unlawfully. In a country like Italy, those official statistics reflect only a tiny proportion of the total number of illegals, as is also the case in Spain. So you must not assume from that that they have only got 7,000 people who are seeking permission to remain, they have hundreds of thousands and they also have very significant problems. Italy does take people. On one occasion a couple of years ago when the Italian border police required Kosovo refugees to come to this country rather than accepting applications, I personally arranged with the then Minister of the Interior, Giorgio Napolitano, to take them back and he did, the whole lot.

Mr Linton

  484. Just to clarify, if somebody has not claimed asylum before coming here from France, they can then claim asylum in this country and only when and if they are refused and they lose their appeal can the Dublin Convention then be invoked to send them back?
  (Mr Boys Smith) There are a number of criteria for Dublin, but the basic principle is to identify the country which initially admitted those people to the EU area. On top of that there are criteria such as that they have made an asylum claim in that country, and that is where the EURODAC fingerprint arrangement will come in, because once there is common information around the EU it can be quickly established that they are the same people, and one can check whether they might be the same people and return them without more ado. There are other criteria to do with family connections and the existence of dependents within those countries. If they look like being a Dublin case and we can then establish which country and which criteria applies, then the legislation you refer to, the recent changes, will facilitate the return in some cases. There is quite a stiff test and it is not just simply asylum applications, it is not just simply where they have arrived in the United Kingdom from and assuming they can automatically go back there. That is what the reform of the Dublin Convention process is looking at and, hopefully, will simplify.

  485. You mentioned the changes that are now being discussed. What are the changes you would like to see incorporated in the Convention?
  (Mr Straw) A very detailed questionnaire has now been sent out, which we helped to draft, to each Member State, seeking to evaluate the problems which have arisen with Dublin and how it can be improved. They issued a discussion document in March 2000 and the Commission is working on that document to identify some areas where improvement can be made, for example, the maintenance of statistical records, currently known to be incomplete, to reinforce my point to Mr Howarth, dealing with the argument centred in the text, that applicants destroy documentary evidence. Considering the scope of the application as Dublin's successor, as Dublin currently applies only to those seeking protection under the 1951 Convention, and dealing with these problems of differences of practice and interpretation which go back to the provenance of Section 11.

  Chairman: I am afraid we shall have to go and do our duty. We will resume at 6.15.

   The Committee suspended from 6.00 pm to 6.19 pm for a division in the House.


  486. Thank you, Home Secretary. I understand you would like to be away by 6.45. We will do our best.
  (Mr Straw) If it is possible.

  487. Can we now have a look at whether border controls might be improved by creating a single agency or whether, indeed, you think that growing the operation is the answer.
  (Mr Straw) Yes.

  488. Your Department has been working very closely with the Lord Chancellor and Attorney General in trying to get joined-up government across the whole of the criminal justice system. Is there scope for more of that in this area as well?

  (Mr Straw) As you probably know there is now a Border Agency's Working Group which meets at least six times a year, and that includes representatives from Customs, police, Immigration Service and NCIS and it sets priorities for each of the agencies. At a local level the Agency's Work Group is encouraging the establishment of tripartite inter-agency groups, comprising representatives of the Immigration Service, police and Customs at each port level. You are right to say in the area of criminal justice we are taking a lot of steps to improve co-ordination and co-operation, we want to see this happen here. If you are asking me whether I think there should be a single border agency, control agency, border police which would do Customs' work, Immigration Service work and police work, the answer from that is that I am very far from persuaded. We will look at proposals but I think that if you went down that route, whilst you may end up with slightly better co-operation at the port between those operatives, but query whether you would, you may end up with very, very significant problems in the relationship between the new border police and its work with the former parent agencies, namely Customs, immigration service and the police. In preparation for this session, Chairman, I was thinking about a parallel which I think does exist in terms of the way we have set up youth offending teams. Colleagues here will be familiar with how they have been established in each area. We thought about having people who were brought into a new career called the Youth Offending Officers. We decided not to go down that route but, instead, to draw into these youth offending teams professionals from the different agencies to work together, but to ensure that they still had professional and practical lines back into their respective agencies. After all, it is on them, from the police through to education welfare officers to social workers, whom the disposal of youth justice problems would be dependent. I think there is a lesson to be learned there. You get people to co-operate much more effectively on the ground, this has already happened, but you bear in mind the real importance of those links back to the parent agencies.

  489. We were told at some of the ports here and certainly elsewhere in Europe about some of the difficulties of using a common database and sharing intelligence, because you want to be certain with whom you are sharing it. Do you feel there are impediments to us doing that here because we are stricter about data protection rules and do you have experience of that getting in the way of this?

  (Mr Boys Smith) I do not think that is a serious obstacle for us. There are indeed criteria, and the sharing of information under the new legislation. The immigration side cannot routinely gather it, for example, for Customs purposes, although anything that we gather that is relevant to Customs can be shared and vice versa. I do not think it is a real obstacle and I think it is important to look at the institutions and the spirit of co-operation to achieve what you want. Bearing in mind a lot of the intelligence at the top end of the business, so to speak, is that formulated through the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which we are close members of and have our own part of dealing with organised crime.

  490. I must say that we were very taken by the comments made, I think everywhere we went around the ports and the airports, about the reality of co-operation at that level. The most recent evidence we have had from the Home Office, Home Secretary, says there are no plans to extend the powers of police officers to act as examining officers on behalf of other agencies. Why is this?
  (Mr Straw) I cannot tell you without notice, thank you very much for the question. To answer a question you have not asked—

  491. Okay.
  (Mr Straw)  —but might nonetheless be helpful, we have of course extended the powers of the Immigration Service as far as arrest, search and detention are concerned, to ensure that they are better equipped with powers and more subject to PACE, as are Customs. Can you answer this question, Stephen?
  (Mr Boys Smith) The reason there are no plans is because we do not see any reason to do it. The Immigration Service is present at ports, can exercise the powers it needs, and is increasingly flexible with the changes which have been made under the 1999 Act to focus their efforts where the intelligence information suggests, without having police officers brought in specially from their normal duties to exercise a function that is getting increasingly sophisticated.

  492. We were told that the Immigration Service is not able to gather information from carriers for Customs purposes?
  (Mr Boys Smith) That is right. That is the point I made a moment ago. There are enhanced arrangements for sharing information but the agencies—Customs, Immigration and so on—have to gather it for their own purposes and then any that is relevant to other agencies they can share. We do not set out from the Immigration side to gather Customs data, nor do Customs set out to gather our data, but we can share what we jointly gather. What is relevant for the Immigration Service that has come from another source is available to us for immigration purposes.

  493. I understand what you are saying. If you look at it another way you think this is quite stupid. There are your Berlin Wall friends where they need to be but the other way into that is really you are as certain as you can be that where another agency collects information which is of more value to its brother or sister that would generally be made available.
  (Mr Boys Smith) That is shared. I think the business of gathering information is itself a sophisticated one, it is not just a hoovering up exercise, it requires the right kind of questions and examination of material, so it would be foolish of us to pretend we could gather in a sophisticated and useful way what was really required by Customs, or I think vice versa.

  494. You are looking for something specific but you actually come across something else, as it were, which is not directly relevant, say, to the Immigration Service but could be of great value to Customs.
  (Mr Boys Smith) Then we can share it.

  495. You are happy that works?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I think that is the right way. The question should be posed by those best equipped to pose the question. The data should then be shared according to the needs of whatever data turns up.
  (Mr Straw) I understand the point you make, not so much about data sharing but data collection. In practice I do not think there are many impediments in the Data Protection Act as far as sharing of data between these agencies is concerned. There are impediments about the initial collection of the data. I think this is something we will have to examine about the exclusivity of data sharing and data collection in this kind of area. If data emerges in the course of inquiries for immigration purposes which it is obvious to anybody indicates there is evidence of, say, a breach of Customs' obligations or criminal law, then the other agencies are told and vice versa.

  496. I suspect this is more for you, Mr Boys Smith. Is there a procedure in place to ensure that the passenger information sought under relevant legislation covers the needs of all the agencies? Are there restrictions on who can look for what?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Yes. We can gather information on manifests, as indeed can Customs, but so far as I am aware there is no problem in ensuring that what is gathered covers all our respective requirements.

  497. I suppose it is an inevitable part of working together to try and ensure that people do not trip over somebody else's feet. Are you satisfied that there are arrangements in place to ensure that the Immigration Service has pre-clearance arrangements which are not going to jeopardise other agencies' control procedures?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I hope and believe that to be the case. You are getting down to a level of quite considerable detail and it requires, again, an exchange of sensitive information so that something we were doing does not jeopardise some operation or exercise that was being undertaken by another agency. I think we do have in place arrangements for sharing information about exercises of that kind so that we do not trip over each other's toes.

  498. We have had a complaint from Customs that the Immigration Service does not ask for information from carriers which would be of interest to Customs usefully. Are you aware of that?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I am not aware of that issue. Beyond the point that the Home Secretary has just referred to, the existing statutory criteria which we can seek that information on, I was not aware of that as an issue. I will certainly pursue it.[5]

  499. It may be some little local difficulty.
  (Mr Boys Smith) It is certainly not an issue which has come up through the working group to which the Home Secretary referred, or has come up to me or my senior colleagues in that way.

5   See Appendix 27. Back

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