Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500 - 520)



Mr Linton

  500. Obviously this inquiry, Home Secretary, is on border controls with the emphasis on controls as a means of controlling immigration. We have looked at border controls in other countries which seem to have rather large shortcomings. At the green border between Germany and the Czech Republic, anybody can walk through the forest, and, obviously, they catch some, but they do not catch others. In fact, the southern border of Spain on the Straits of Gibraltar did not seem to us to be enormously different in the sense that although they catch people off the ferry, many people came by small boats which they simply could not catch. I think it made us realise that Schengen countries tend not to rely on border controls but on internal controls to do this. One of the things we were told at Sangatte is that one of the main pull factors, in their view, the reason that they were coming to the United Kingdom, was because of the greater access to public services, and Mr Boys Smith mentioned in evidence that our country is a relatively un-policed society. That really prompted the thought whether, in this country, we should seriously consider something similar, not as an alternative to border controls, but in addition. It is a very sensitive issue and one is not necessarily suggesting identity cards, but we understand that the Danes have a system of identity numbers, which does ensure quite effectively that people who reside in that country can only use public services if they have an immigration status. What are your thoughts on this as an approach?
  (Mr Straw) There is every sense in making greater use of unique identification numbers which already exist in our society. Everybody who is born in this country has what is called an NHS number, which is taken from the folio of their birth certificate record, which is held by the registrar. They have that number and then they have a national insurance number.

  501. It is supposed to be unique, but, perhaps, some people have several.
  (Mr Straw) There is work going on to make sure that they are unique and that people do not develop what are called "legends", where they take on somebody else's personality or identification. That work ought to continue because it makes every sense to have a single number. If you wanted to go down the Schengen road—which, for the avoidance of doubt, I do not, and neither does the Government—and lift border controls, then you would have to have a strong system of internal controls and that would lead you, inevitably, into a system of compulsory identification cards. I do not just mean ID cards which are available for everybody and where there would be a strong incentive for people to carry them but it would not be an obligation, I mean where you have to carry your papers with you, as is the case in most European countries. The police would routinely stop people to ask them for their papers and a failure to produce papers or produce a reasonable explanation as to why you have not got them would itself be an offence. I am not opposed to the idea of the wider availability of an ID card which is voluntary and where there is the incentive to use it. I am opposed to having an ID card which is compulsory to carry and where people have to produce it on demand to police. I just ask colleagues here to think about the consequences so far as community relations. The police have to make judgments about who they ask, but generally speaking they will be less likely to interrogate people who appear to be white Anglo-Saxon protestants than other people. So they will be going to people who looked "foreign" in one way or another. That would mean that people who had different coloured skin or had different facial features would be the ones who were stopped. Given all the problems we have had with "stop and search", I do not particularly think that this is—

Mr Cawsey

  502. Would it necessarily have to be as bad as that, Home Secretary? The impression that I got from the French experience was that it was not that the police were stopping and asking people to produce it, it was just that they could not get access to public services, so it was at that point of delivery that it was established.
  (Mr Straw) The question is: Do you want us to deny health service to asylum seekers who happen to be ill? Things are not always what they appear. It is not the case that if asylum seekers or sans papier in France need health care they are denied it. It is made available.

Mr Linton

  503. There already are hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants here illegally any way.
  (Mr Straw) The proposition being put to me is that people, presumably, as a means of control, should be denied basic services. At the moment people who are seeking asylum here, or people who are otherwise here illegally, cannot claim social security benefits of any kind. Once they have a right to be here there is no automatic right to social security benefit, by no means. Even under the returning residents rule that is strictly controlled. People do have a right to health treatment, leaving aside elected cosmetic treatment, which you could exclude. Then there is the issue of schooling. Is it really being said that children of asylum seekers, who will not have made the decision themselves to come here, should be denied the right to be educated.

  504. The case is not being made for an inhumane regime of access to public services, but simply the production of an identity number when claiming public services. It could well be that the Government will be well advised to make some of the public services available to asylum seekers and visitors, but at the moment there is no check and that has been cited as one of the reasons why a lot of people prefer to come to this country rather than other European countries.
  (Mr Straw) Of course the people who are waiting at Calais want to come here.

  505. That is one of the reasons they cite.
  (Mr Straw) I know, but there is a huge number of other people who want to go somewhere else and do not want to come to the United Kingdom. That is often ignored in the discussion. At a rough guess we probably account for one in six of the applications that are made across the EU. Five out of six of the people who apply for asylum in the EU apply somewhere else.

  506. You made the point yourself, Home Secretary, that many countries, Spain, Italy and France, turn a blind eye and allow employers to turn a blind eye because they need the labour. What we are talking about is effectiveness of different forms of control. Supposing a country wants to control immigration, what is the most effective way of doing it, is it through borders, is it through identity cards, is it through access to public services or is it through access to jobs? We are just enquiring whether access to public services might not be an effective way, not necessarily instead of border controls, because nobody is advocating dissolving those, but in addition to it.
  (Mr Straw) I am always ready to consider suggestions which improve control and enforcement but do not act in an inhumane way. Certainly the ones which more readily deter wholly unfounded applications, yes, and there is a strong case anyway for a unique identification number and then for ensuring that each person only has one of them, which is another matter. That leads someone to the whole issue of holding biodata on these individuals and matching the biodata to the individual.

  507. Photographs or fingerprints?
  (Mr Straw) Photographs or fingerprints, yes.


  508. Home Secretary, we were told by both Customs and Immigration that they are very pleased with the extra resources.
  (Mr Straw) Good.

  509. And what this has delivered in terms of extra numbers of staff, as we have seen lately with Customs with the investment in the new scanning equipment. Is it your general impression that both staffing numbers and the availability of new technology is either enough, or beginning to be enough, to enable both of those services to do the job we expect of them?
  (Mr Straw) We can always do with more but the changes in the budgets are pretty extraordinary. For example, the budget for the Immigration Service's Enforcement Directorate was £45 million, that is 1995-96, then dropped to £42½ million, 43, 43, 46 last year, up then in the current year to £197.23 million and it is rising still further next year. The total Immigration Service, again, in real terms, faced cuts in the mid 1990s, just to reinforce the point I made earlier, rose from 133 in 1998-99 to £145 million 1999-2000, this year it has more than doubled to £313 million and it is rising again. I will ask Stephen to comment more widely on this issue as well.
  (Mr Boys Smith) I think having suffered a period when there was not only in cash terms but in the relationship between the number of staff and the work of the job to be done a real decline, we are now in a completely different situation, both as regards the port and as regards enforcement. Just to add to the financial figures. During the current year we are bringing in about 1,200 additional immigration officers, about 500 assistant immigration officers, split between ports again, ports in total AIO and IO about 1200 and enforcement about 500. So the Enforcement Directorate, not only in cash terms but with some capital expenditure, is doubling in size in terms of the people who can deliver the job. This is an enormous transformation. Alongside the transformation are the increases in staffing on the case working side, which is of course very relevant for the reasons we discussed earlier, 400 extra case workers for the current year. I think, like the Home Secretary, I have to say one could always do with more and you would expect any manager to say one could always do with more but this is putting us in a position to get on top of the job in a way which has not been the case for a very large number of years, indeed the key lesson perhaps from history is once the backlog builds up it takes a great deal of time to get on top and get back in a real sense of the situation. We are now on our way to doing that, although not by any means there yet.
  (Mr Straw) We are aware of—to come back to the point Mr Malins raised much earlier—speed of decision-making and then enforcement and removal. That is why we are having this four fold increase in the investment in the Enforcement Directorate.

Mr Malins

  510. Eurostar, Home Secretary, a couple of years ago or more I raised the matter with the Government who said the matter was all in hand and we did not need to worry too much about what was going to happen. My understanding—and you can correct me if I am wrong—is there are still 500 people a month coming in to Waterloo through Eurostar as illegal entrants, is that right?
  (Mr Straw) It is about right. I do not think I ever said nothing needed to happen. What happened was it built up as a problem originally on the Belgium to London route and my then opposite number, Monsieur Van Lanot, agreed very readily to the imposition of the Carriers Liability provisions on that route. That has led to a very significant decline in the number of clandestines on the Brussels to London route.

  511. Yes.
  (Mr Straw) Then they transferred to the Paris to London route and it has been a significant leakage point for us. As a result of that we have been negotiating this additional protocol.

  512. Let us look at the negotiations which have actually happened. Eurostar is a commuter train, so tell me if my proposition is wrong. Somebody buys a single at Lille to get them to Paris or somewhere like that and simply remains upon the train. They do not need proper documents, they are not properly checked. They cannot be thrown off the train under French law and when they get to Waterloo they cannot be thrown off back to France. That is the case, is it not?
  (Mr Straw) Yes.

  513. What can be done about that, Home Secretary?
  (Mr Straw) Hang on a second. A lot is already being done about it, all right? If you want to allocate responsibility, Mr Malins, this goes back to what was just a hole in the original Sangatte Treaty. Now at that stage what ought to be pleaded in mitigation by those who signed it was that asylum was not a particularly big issue. That is the problem we have had. We have negotiated effectively with the French. We have agreed this additional protocol and it is going to be ratified by both Governments and the French expect it to take place in the summer.

  514. That is all very well, Home Secretary, but nobody has said my scenario of what happens is incorrect. I am telling you, Home Secretary, it is correct.
  (Mr Straw) No.

  515. Who is able to stop this at source?
  (Mr Straw) That is the whole point of the juxtaposed controls so that we then seek better to stop it at source.

  516. Are you saying that in a year or two's time—
  (Mr Straw) No, we are taking other steps as well meanwhile. Plainly, with Eurostar, as with all the other means of movement across the Channel, it is far better for us to prevent people from coming in the first place than having to deal with the consequences afterwards.

  517. Everyone is powerless, Home Secretary. Two years on we have still got 500 people coming in on Eurostar. I am going to go over next month myself and try it to see how it is worked just to find out whether anybody in either Government has got a grip on this.
  (Mr Straw) Mr Malins, you are not actually, with great respect, paying attention to what I have said. You are talking about this Government—

  518. Good job you did not say that to me in court!
  (Mr Straw) I will do. The previous administration—

  519. You appear before me and you would get six months.
  (Mr Straw) Yes, but I would come back here and get some legislation through to deal with shirty stipendiaries! The previous administration failed to deal with this and they failed to deal with this when they could have been excused that in the 1980s. They failed to deal with it at all when they should not have been excused of it in the 1990s when there was a big problem. Within the constraints of international law and this Treaty, we have got on with the case, strengthening controls and co-operation with the French border police, PAF and much else besides. We have now got this agreement signed up, it is a question of legislating for it.
  (Mr Boys Smith) First of all, could I associate myself with the Home Secretary's opening remarks on this. Certainly in none of the evidence that I gave on the previous occasion in the summer when I appeared did I suggest that the Waterloo Eurostar situation was satisfactory. What we have done is to work hard with the French who have delivered a good deal, although not enough, to close up the route pending the arrival of the juxtaposed controls. They are exercising some checks at the Gard du Nord. Those checks are partially, but by no means wholly, effective. We are continuing discussions with the French. We hope that before long there will be a formal exchange of letters which will reinforce what they are doing in the period before juxtaposed controls come and deal with the issue finally. So by no means is it satisfactory, but although I realise these are things one can say and cannot prove, I am quite clear in my own mind that it would be a great deal worse were the French not now being as active as they are when conducting the checks which are already in place, which are checks at the expense of the French Government, to no purpose of the French Government but in a spirit of co-operation with ourselves.


  520. Thank you, Mr Boys Smith, and thank you, Home Secretary, for your patience and your courtesy in answering all the questions we have asked you. I do hope your cold is better very soon.
  (Mr Straw) Thank you very much indeed.

  Chairman: I am just coming out of one myself. Thank you. We will see you in two weeks.

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