European Standing Committee B
Wednesday 2 May 2001
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
[Relevant Document: European Community Document No. 13119/00.]
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I warmly welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Stevenson.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the European Commission's communication on asylum. It is an important document in the development of a common European asylum system and it starts a debate in which the Government intend to be actively involved.
The Commission communication on a common asylum procedure and uniform status was presented in parallel with the communication on a Community immigration policy that the Committee debated last week. It was adopted by the Commission on 22 November 2000 and presented to member states for the first time at the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 30 November. An explanatory memorandum was submitted for parliamentary scrutiny on 15 February.
The extraordinary council at Tampere in October 1999 reaffirmed our commitment to setting the minimum standards required by the treaty of Amsterdam and, in the longer term, to establishing a common European asylum system. The communication is a direct result of that commitment.
The Government fully support such action at European Community level. Moves towards harmonisation of the asylum process should ensure more equitable treatment for those seeking asylum and so reduce the secondary movement of asylum seekers between member states.
In the treaty of Amsterdam, member states set themselves the challenge of establishing minimum standards for the asylum process by May 2004. By virtue of our protocol to that treaty, the United Kingdom can choose on a case-by-case basis whether to opt in to each element. In May 1999, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced our policy of opting into those elements that did not interfere with the maintenance of our border controls. The UK is playing an active part in negotiations on asylum and good progress is being made.
We have adopted, for example, the regulation on Eurodac, the EU-wide system for comparing and exchanging asylum seekers' fingerprints. We have also established the European refugee fund to assist member states with the reception and integration of refugees and asylum seekers, or the return of those whose applications are unfounded. The UK has opted into those measures and discussions are well advanced on minimum standards for the temporary protection of displaced persons.
Negotiations have also begun on minimum standards for asylum procedures. The draft directive on asylum procedures was recently the subject of an inquiry by the House of Lords European Union Committee, which recently published a report on the directive, to which the Government will publish a response.
It is also expected that, within the next few months, the Commission will present draft proposals on minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers, minimum standards for qualification as a refugee and a new instrument on responsibility for considering asylum applications to replace the Dublin convention.
The Home Secretary's speech to the Foreign Press Association last week emphasised the importance that the Government attach to the setting of minimum standards for the elements of the asylum process. He also proposed that minimum standards on asylum procedures should be complemented by the mutual recognition of member states' asylum systems, including their interpretations of international instruments. Such mutual recognition would assist co-operation between member states, particularly decisions about responsibility for asylum applications made under the terms of the Dublin convention and its forthcoming first pillar successor.
Those are the main elements of the first stage of the harmonisation process, paving the way for the second stage, which will be the establishment of a common asylum system. The Home Secretary's proposal for mutual recognition is designed to help bridge the gap between those two stages.
The Commission's communication looks beyond the current work on the establishment of minimum standards for the asylum process. Its intent is to begin a debate on the second stage, moving on from minimum standards towards a common system. It raises questions about the extent to which member states want to move towards a common procedure and the shape that that procedure might take.
The document is wide-ranging, and it is divided into five main sections. The first part sets out the current asylum situation in the EU and the relevant international law. It also covers the objectives and scope of a common asylum system. The Commission argues that the common procedure and uniform status must be applied not only to cases covered by the Geneva convention, but to all international protection needs. The Government fully support such an approach. The alternativea common procedure covering only Geneva convention cases and leaving other cases to member states' discretionwould be relatively limited in its impact, not least because strong incentives for secondary migration would remain as economic migrants and people smugglers shopped around for the best deal in subsidiary forms of protection.
The first part of the communication also emphasises that the Commission is not proposing that a community body should take asylum decisions, on the grounds that that would be against the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. Again, the Commission has the Government's full support on that point.
The second part of the document points out that the draft directive on minimum standards for asylum procedures, which is under discussion, is only the first step towards a common system. It does not require member states to apply uniform procedures. A move towards common procedural standards would require a restriction in the flexibility allowed to member states. That might include, for example, common definitions of safe countries of origin, as proposed by the Home Secretary in his speech to a European conference on asylum in Lisbon last year.
The second part of the communication discusses the comprehensive procedure already operated in some member states, including the United Kingdom, whereby an application rejected under the Geneva convention criteria is automatically considered for other forms of international protection by the same body.
The next part of the communication discusses the options for the rights and status granted to those in need of international protection and, in particular, whether the beneficiaries of subsidiary forms of protection should have the same rights as those granted refugee status under the Geneva convention.
The fourth part of the communication points out that the move towards a common procedure will require a significant increase in information sharing and a common approach to information and statistics on asylum.
Finally, the communication considers mechanisms by which the EU might move from short-term minimum standards to longer-term harmonisation. It is argued that the current process of setting minimum standards, which has a deadline of May 2004, must be informed by the long-term goal of a common European asylum system. For that reason, the minimum standards now being considered must be reasonably ambitious, and the Government agree with that analysis.
The Government welcome the clear references in the communication to the proposals put forward by the Home Secretary in his speech in Lisbon in June. The proposals include an EU resettlement programme, the possibility of asylum applications being lodged from outside the EU and a common categorisation of countries of origin.
This is an interesting and thoughtful document, and I welcome the Committee's decision to debate it.
The Chairman: We have until 11.30 am for questions. I strongly request that they be brief and asked one at a time, so that we can use our time effectively.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): Does the Minister believe that a harmonised, common European system and status for asylum is a desirable objective?
Mrs. Roche: Yes, it could well be. In terms of the opt-out that we secured, any proposals emerging from the document would have to be compatible with our border control. Certainly, in respect of asylum seekers and various claims made within the European Union, it is clear that this is a Europe-wide issue. The ambitious aim of a common policy could prove desirable, but ultimately it must be compatible with the desire of the UK and with the opt-out. Border control must remain in the hands of the UK Government.
Jackie Ballard (Taunton): I should like to probe the Minister a little on that answer. Her desire for a common policy seems incompatible with the UK's opting out of those elements that the Government do not like, or which do not fit into their strategy. Every member state could decide that, even though it wants a common policy in theory, in practice it must opt out of the bits it does not like. However, would such an approach lead to a common policy that can achieve our aims?
Mrs. Roche: The first stage of the process and the measures implemented so far signalled our intention to opt in, and thus far there has been no difficulty. Indeed, in the light of this document we anticipate no difficulties, but it would be unwise to bind ourselves at this stage, and the Committee would not expect us to do so. Given emerging European Union discussions, perhaps a policy will come to light that we can opt into. However, as I made clear in the session last week on immigration, because of its unique geography and history the UK has developed differently from continental Europe. For that reason, we must measure the question of opting in against the desire to retain control of our borders. Certainly, we have felt able to opt into measures such as Eurodac and the refugee fund, and at this stage I think it likely that we will feel similarly about other measures.