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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 29 January 2002

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Asylum Seekers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

9.30 am

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the issue of asylum seekers from France.

Mrs. Thatcher said of Lord Young of Graffham that most people brought her problems, but he brought solutions. Most people bring to the Chamber problems and issues that they want to highlight. I want to emulate Lord Young and bring a solution, or at least a partial remedy, to a problem. I do not need simply to highlight the problem and issue of asylum seekers from France, as that is constantly before us in the newspapers. We are aware of a continuous stream of people who often risk their lives and great hardship to get to this country across the channel from France. We know stories of attempted mass breakthroughs at Christmas. Only the other day, gangs' attempts were discovered to rig the signals so that people could stow away on Eurostar trains. People are conscious that the flow has become one way. Asylum seekers come from France to this country and they are not returned.

I want to make a practical proposal, which I hope that the Government will take seriously. They should have taken this measure four years ago to alleviate the problem, but they could still implement it if they set about it with a will. I will set the scene in relation to asylum seekers. The House of Commons believes that we should be and remain a safe haven for that minority of asylum seekers who genuinely suffered persecution and torture in their home countries, or who face persecution and torture should they return. I go further: we should be sympathetic to most asylum seekers, although they are "bogus"—a word that the Prime Minister used—and are not genuine asylum seekers. [Interruption.] I assure the Minister that the Prime Minister described them as bogus. They are economic migrants who seek to enter this country to better their conditions and those of their families. They are often admirable people who would be of great benefit to this country. However, hon. Members from all parties recognise that this country is simply not in a position to become a country of mass immigration. We cannot alleviate the problems of economic migrants or of the troubled, disturbed and impoverished countries from which they come simply by allowing them unlimited entry.

The most humane thing that we can do is speedily to return economic migrants whence they came. That is humane to them, as it avoids the prolonged anguish and agony of a long drawn-out process during which they put down roots. We have to uproot them to return them or we create an unsustainable position in this country. It is also humane, as it sends the message down the chain

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that it is pointless for others to try to enter this country—an attempt that, sooner or later, we must render impossible.

In principle, the easiest group to return rapidly whence they came are those who have crossed the channel from another safe country. The Geneva convention, under which we operate and by which we are bound, specifies that asylum seekers should seek sanctuary in the first safe country that they come to; they do not have the right to shop around for the country offering the most favourable conditions. Consequently, if they pass through one safe country to another, the end recipient has the right to return them under the Geneva convention, yet people pour in from France in significant numbers and are not returned.

From 1995 to 1997, many asylum seekers were returned to France under a bilateral agreement that was negotiated by the Conservative Government but allowed to lapse in autumn 1977. My modest proposal is that the Government should renegotiate the agreement. They should have done so four years ago, but it is far more important that they do so now than that I try to lay blame for the past. They would have my support and, I believe, the support of the House of Commons and the country.

The bilateral agreement between the United Kingdom and France specified that we had not only the right to return unacceptable asylum seekers to France within 24 hours but the obligation to do so or, if there were practical obstacles to overcome, to state within 24 hours that that was our intention. The agreement reflected the cordial relations that prevailed then between the United Kingdom and France. It was reciprocal and allowed movement both ways on equal terms, although in practice the flow was largely one way. We were able to return large numbers of asylum seekers who had entered the country from France.

As I said, the agreement reflected the cordial relations that existed between the United Kingdom and France, and which happened to be dear to my heart: I am a registered, paid-up and leading Francophile of long standing. It worked well: both sides had the right to terminate it with two months' notice but neither did so, because they were satisfied with it and accepted that it was a logical, sensible arrangement. I believe that the agreement remains in force for non asylum seekers; according to the Home Secretary, some 6,000 have been sent back under the agreement. However, it contained a clause that allowed the arrangements for asylum seekers to be superseded by the Dublin convention, which came into effect in September 1997. The asylum seeker aspects were allowed to lapse at that point and have not been renewed.

The Dublin convention was intended to make general what the bilateral agreement had achieved for Britain and France; namely, the return of asylum seekers to the first safe country that they reached in the European Union. In practice, the convention failed to achieve that. Instead, it makes the return of asylum seekers more difficult and complex than was previously the case. It was negotiated in the late 1980s and signed in 1990. Since then, asylum seeking has grown out of all proportion and out of all recognition in scale and sophistication. A large industry, which has grown on the

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back of asylum seeking, has learned how to exploit legal complexities in a way that no one envisaged when the Dublin convention was negotiated.

With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, we can criticise the 12 or so Governments, including ours, who signed the Dublin convention for failing to foresee the situation 10 years later when it came into force. However, if the Minister wants to rest on criticism of the past, it should apply even more strongly to those who, in 1997, let the Dublin convention supersede the bilateral agreement between Britain and France without foreseeing that, in practice, it would remove our ability to return asylum seekers to France.

It was certainly inexcusable that, once the problems emerged, the Government did not renegotiate the bilateral agreement with France, within the terms of the Dublin convention, to restore speedy "refoulement", as the conventions call the return of asylum seekers to previous safe countries. Labour Ministers have defended their inaction by saying that the rules of the Dublin convention rule out such bilateral agreements, but that is nonsense. Since the Dublin convention came into force, Germany and Denmark have agreed a similar bilateral agreement to the one that we had with France, and it works well. It enables Denmark to send back 18 per cent. of the asylum seekers who make their claims in Denmark. In contrast, under the arrangements that have been established in this country, we send back only 1 per cent. to all safe countries, not just France.

I hope that the Minister will answer the following questions. First, have the Government attempted to renegotiate the bilateral agreement between France and the United Kingdom to extend it again to include asylum seekers? Secondly, if so, will they place a paper in the Library that details the renegotiation process: the dates of meetings, participants, proposals, where and when things were discussed and why the negotiations failed?

Thirdly, if the Government have not tried to renegotiate the agreement, will they do so forthwith? I believe that that would have the wholehearted support of the House of Commons, including, I hope, my party. I look forward with interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins). If the Government seek to renegotiate the agreement, we will certainly be there to help them.

If the answer to those questions is no, why are the Government not taking steps to renegotiate the bilateral agreement? They sometimes give a second reason for not re-establishing the bilateral accord, which is that the French would not want it. However, they wanted it in 1995 and continued with it, even though they had the right to withdraw from it. The fact that the Government say that re-establishment is impossible is all the odder when they constantly caricature the relations that prevailed between Britain and our European partners in the past as hostile. In fact, as our success in negotiating the agreement revealed, our relations then were extremely cordial.

The Government say that they are now at the heart of Europe, have warm, friendly relations with our continental partners and have made a range of unilateral concessions—from signing the Amsterdam

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treaty and the social chapter to agreeing to a European defence force—in the belief that that will give them greater influence. If that is so, let them call in their chips. If the Government have greater influence and better relations with our partners on the continent, let them turn that influence into something that is useful for Britain, in the shape of a renegotiated bilateral treaty for the rapid and speedy return of asylum seekers who reach our shores from France—a safe country.

A longer-term issue relates to the flow of asylum seekers from France. To be fair to the Government, one factor that aggravated the problem of refoulement was the decision of the British courts to rule that France and Germany were not safe countries to which we could return asylum seekers. They said that we interpreted the Geneva convention to include persecution not just by states but by rebel and opposition groups in the countries from which people came, so that people from Algeria, for example, which has endemic civil disturbance, could claim either to have been persecuted by the Government or to face persecution by the opposition. Continental courts and Governments who do not interpret the Geneva convention so widely believe that it applies only to persecution by a foreign state. The courts reached the conclusion that the foreign courts' narrow interpretation was not correct and therefore that those foreign countries were not safe countries to which we could return asylum seekers.

I am not here to make party political points. I support what the Government did in 1999 in overriding that ruling by introducing the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which specified that all EU countries were deemed to be safe places to which to return asylum seekers. We hoped that that nonsense had been put to an end. However, that decision is open to challenge under the Government's own legislation—the Human Rights Act 1998. The court, in a case last Friday, ruled that the Home Secretary cannot rely on the 1999 Act alone to rebut such claims under the Human Rights Act; it upheld him in that case, but it was a worrying caveat that the 1999 Act alone cannot provide a rebuttal of human rights claims. How do the Government interpret that case, and will they need further legislation to prevent that loophole from reopening if, indeed, it is possible without amending the Human Rights Act?

Meanwhile, however, an absurd situation arises: while our courts have ruled that French and German courts are not safe places to which to send asylum seekers, we are invited to introduce a European arrest warrant that will allow UK citizens who are not asylum seekers to be arrested at the behest of those courts and sent, without any real right of review under habeas corpus, to France and Germany to face trial in courts that we have been told are not safe for asylum seekers.

The Government's justification is that those courts are bound by the European convention on human rights; yet if our courts have said that continental courts cannot be trusted to interpret the Geneva convention safely, how can they be relied on to interpret the European convention on human rights accurately or safely if British citizens are to be sent back to them? I ask the Minister to think again about creating the extraordinary anomaly that the Government propose to introduce in the extradition Bill.

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I said that I came here in the spirit of David Young, offering solutions rather than problems; I have become something of a purveyor of policy to Her Majesty's Government in recent months. I made proposals on reform of the cannabis laws, which were initially rubbished, but then the Home Secretary acknowledged that there was sufficient truth in them to move some way in the direction that I proposed. Earlier, I made proposals for reform of the health service that were initially rubbished, but now the Secretary of State for Health has adopted the rhetoric of patient choice and patient power that I proposed.

In all modesty, therefore, I make my proposal for the Government to renegotiate with France an agreement that will enable us to return to that country asylum seekers who arrive at our ports. People will welcome that essential step to stem the unsustainable flow of immigrants from the continent to this country. I remind the Minister why they come here: it is because this country is a more attractive place and a softer touch for immigrants than other continental countries. The judge in the court case that gave rise to the conclusion that France and Germany were not safe countries noted that the evidence showed that 80 per cent. of asylum claims by Algerians in France were rejected and the claimants were liable to be sent back to Algeria. Only 5 per cent. of Algerians who made claims in this country were refused asylum and sent back to Algeria.

Britain is therefore a magnet for asylum seekers. It is only right that we should try to restore the bulwarks against that excessive flow of people seeking to enter the country and return those who should, in all conscience, make their claims elsewhere. I hope that the Minister responds positively to that proposal.

9.50 am

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) on securing the debate and raising, in measured terms, concerns that are shared by many hon. Members on both sides of the House, some of whom are unable to be present, and shared particularly by those who, like myself, represent what I would describe as a front-line constituency.

I represent the seat of North Thanet, which is, with Dover and South Thanet, the recipient of considerable numbers of those crossing the channel by legal or other means to seek asylum in Britain. The county of Kent—of which I am proud to represent a small part—has paid a considerable price, literally and metaphorically, because of the number of people coming into the country from the other side of the channel to claim asylum. The Minister and the Government should not underestimate the real concerns of the people of most of the constituencies in Kent, who are paying through their council tax to provide education services, health services, policing services and social services that are already overstretched. The demands on housing are already too great for us to meet. The additional burden is considerable.

When I raise the subject, I am normally branded as racist. I am not. As I have mentioned before, I think that I am still the only hon. Member who has entertained and looked after an asylum seeker in his own home and who, under those circumstances, sought and won from a

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Minister in the previous Conservative Government leave for that asylum seeker who was under my care—a young Romanian—to remain permanently.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle) : I want to place it on the record immediately that I do not regard the hon. Gentleman as racist. I would not bandy such words about, in an attempt to create a low debate, when we have to deal with difficult and serious issues to which there are no easy answers.

Mr. Gale : I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that measured response to my concerns. She will know that people outside the House read the reports of our debate in the Official Report and may think otherwise. It is for that reason alone that I feel obliged to put my position clearly on the record.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said, this country has a proud and honourable tradition dating back not just many decades but many centuries. The United Kingdom has for hundreds of years played host to refugees from all over the world, fleeing from all manner of persecution. Long may we conduct our business in a manner that continues that proud tradition. However, if that is to happen and the British people are to welcome with open arms those in genuine need of relief, succour and a safe haven, we must exercise proper controls to ensure that our systems are not exploited by those whose demands are other than asylum and safe haven.

My right hon. Friend referred to economic migrants. It is a fact that the overwhelming majority of those reaching our shores from across the channel, sometimes from halfway around the world—whether by container lorry, car, bus or truck—are economic migrants rather than asylum seekers.

We all understand the desire of people from impoverished, developing countries to better their lot and, by working over here, to send money home to support their extended family in their own countries. We also understand and sympathise with the desperation with which they seek—by almost any means, even at the risk of their own life—to come here to what they regard as a better, more prosperous and more advantaged nation.

It is impossible, however, for a small island to continue to take all comers from anywhere under any circumstances so that our ratepayers and taxpayers see their money spent to fund people working in the black economy who are not paying taxes, have no right to be here and no work permit and who, too frequently, disappear into the black economy from the registers of asylum seekers. I do not have the up-to-date figures—the Minister will be able to tell us—but a guesstimate for a two-year period is that between 20,000 and 30,000 people simply disappeared into the system. Those were people who could and should have been sent back whence they came once their cases had been determined, but of whom there is no trace. Some of those people are therefore living in the United Kingdom under entirely false pretences and circumstances.

It is incredibly easy not just to cross the channel, but to cross and re-cross it. A young man released from prison into my care, for whom I had accepted responsibility, managed to cross the channel three times

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with no documentation whatever. He not only came into the United Kingdom but left it to go and see a girlfriend in Germany, where he claimed that he was being persecuted, and returned to the United Kingdom. I discovered that rather later in my representations than earlier, but it did not colour my judgment in respect of his particular need.

We have a very real problem. Arguments about the Geneva convention have been well rehearsed, as have arguments about the origins and paternity of the Dublin convention. Successive Ministers of both parties have sought to blame each other. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said, the Dublin convention has done more harm than good: it has not achieved what it set out to achieve, it has undermined the bilateral agreement with France and, with the wonderful gift of hindsight, it has been proved not to do the job.

I am not here to score party political points this morning, but I must tell the Minister that her party, now in power for five years, has had considerable opportunity to observe the effects of the problem and to seek to effect change. I agree with my right hon. Friend that moves must be made to renegotiate a bilateral agreement. He is absolutely right that the argument that it cannot be done because of the Dublin convention is nonsense. It can be done. It has been done between Denmark and Germany and there is no reason—give or take the willingness of the French Government—why we cannot renegotiate a bilateral agreement with France.

I believe that certain things must be done swiftly. The previous Home Secretary sought to introduce a system of dispersal, to ease the burden on counties such as Kent and constituencies such as my own, by placing asylum seekers in communities of their own kind around the country. That system simply has not worked. The recipient local authorities have been few in number and considerably unwilling. The placements place a demand on their limited resources, and there is no record of the number of people who have been dispersed under the scheme. The Home Secretary said recently that it had been a great success. Having challenged him and been challenged by him on the Floor of the House, I tabled a parliamentary question to find out the measure of that success, but the Home Office had no statistics to say how many people had been dispersed, from where or where to.

Angela Eagle : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gale : I will give way to the Minister, but she may want to comment on my next point. In answer to either another parliamentary question or a letter—I cannot remember which—the Home Office said that people were being dispersed and one place that they were going was Thanet. We thought that Thanet was one of the places from where they were being dispersed.

Angela Eagle : We have numbers on the cluster areas from where people have been dispersed in the National Asylum Support Service scheme, which is post 1999 and the relevant legislation. However, we have difficulty with the pre-1999 situation, in which local authorities

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often organised dispersal themselves. It is possible to have an area that has no NASS dispersals but does have asylum seekers who have been dispersed there by local authorities that had made arrangements with other authorities. We are trying to get a handle on the situation by conducting surveys and contacting local authorities to establish the position, bring the different schemes together and obtain a better idea of the overall situation. The work is continuing, but at the moment, our figures cover NASS dispersal, rather than the interim scheme dispersals that have gone on with bilateral agreements between local authorities.

Mr. Gale : That is very helpful, and I thank the Minister. I wish only that some small part of that helpfulness had been reflected in the parliamentary answer. I do not want her to disavow the Home Secretary—and nor would she—but none of that information was forthcoming when I asked my question. I shall be delighted to table a further parliamentary question on the statistics that are available post 1999. I think that I am right in saying that the scheme was first introduced on all fools' day which, with hindsight, seems appropriate.

It is too early to say whether the introduction of identity cards will help, and I would welcome any measure that began to address the problem, however late in the day. I fear that we are sticking a small plaster over a large wound. The fact that the Home Secretary met a French Employment Minister begs the question: what is the Foreign Secretary doing about the situation?

I turn to the thorny issue of Sangatte and the Red Cross centre. I recently visited the migrant helpline service in Dover. It has grown like Topsy, and consists of dedicated people doing their level best to assist those coming to this country in need. They try to meet increasing demand under tremendous pressure and in difficult circumstances with limited resources, and provide, for example, basic tuition in English, so that the people who come to this country to claim asylum have at least a tentative foothold in the language that they must deploy to go about their everyday life. I pay tribute to those people, as they are doing a tremendous job, but they recognise that we are being exploited and taken for a ride.

Prior to Christmas, we saw the invasion of the channel tunnel centre close to Sangatte. Eurotunnel has made it plain that it believes that the presence of the Red Cross centre at Sangatte is an open invitation to asylum seekers from throughout the European Union and beyond to come, gather and try to cross the channel illegally by ferry or, more probably, through the channel tunnel. Eurotunnel owns the property that the French Government have appropriated to give to the Red Cross to use as a centre and, as I have described before, little more than a waiting room for illegal immigrants. While that is happening, the French Government are turning a blind eye because it suits them so to do. That is inexcusable, and whatever else the Minister defends this morning, I hope that she will not try to defend the appalling record of the French Government. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, I am a Francophile. I spend a great deal of time in France, where I have many friends, and I am the proud owner of a tumbledown barn. However, that does

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not prevent me from looking with honest eyes rather than rose-coloured glasses at the actions of the Government just across the Channel.

The asylum seekers and economic migrants coming through the port of Dover to these shores have travelled across not one but probably half a dozen safe havens within the European Union. In any one of those countries, they could and should have claimed asylum under the terms of the Geneva convention if they were genuine asylum seekers—although, as we know, most of them are not. That they have not done so is reprehensible but perhaps understandable if they are travelling, as many of them sadly are, and sometimes with fatal consequences, in sealed containers. However, when they arrive at Sangatte and Nord-Pas de Calais, they are released frequently into the open air to find their way across the channel. The French Government know precisely what they are doing and why they are there. Because they are on French soil as illegally as they later are on English soil, the French Government have the opportunity to return them whence they came, or process their cases and demand that they either return to their country of origin or claim asylum in France.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): This is a very important issue, and I hope to have the chance to elaborate later. When I put that point to the French ambassador here, he made the persuasive argument that many asylum seekers will not tell officials the route by which they came through Europe or own up to the first country in which they arrived. Therefore, the French do not have a greater obligation to take them than any other country through which they travelled. When asylum seekers are asked whether they want to apply for asylum in France, the small percentage who say that they do have their applications processed, but the rest say that they want to apply elsewhere. The French cannot make them apply to stay in France.

Mr. Gale : The French ambassador is charming and persuasive, but wrong. Unless he believes in magic carpets, it must be abundantly plain to him that the people arrived in France from a third country and safe haven. When they arrive in a container lorry and its route is shown on the tachograph, as it is throughout the European Union, there is proof of the countries through which they have travelled. It is absolute nonsense to say, first, that they cannot be returned to another country in most cases—although not all—and secondly, that they cannot or should not claim asylum in France if they are illegally on French soil. If they have no documentation, visa, means or willingness to demonstrate their entry into or their right to be in the European Union, the French have the absolute right to deport them to their country of origin or insist that they claim asylum. The fact is that it suits the French Government to allow them not only to use a building at Sangatte that has been appropriated from Eurotunnel, but to use and reuse it, having tried on many and successive occasions to enter the United Kingdom illegally via the channel tunnel or one of the channel ports.

Angela Eagle : I share the hon. Gentleman's frustration, but it is not always possible to find illegal immigrants with the lorries on which they have been trafficked to the European Union when they claim

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asylum in-country. It is not easy to obtain proof of where they came from, the routes they used and often their nationality. That makes it difficult to send them back, in addition to which there are some countries to which we cannot send them. Most of the people at Sangatte are Iraqis and Afghanis and almost all—80 per cent.—are single young men, and they cannot be returned to those countries at the moment. I share the hon. Gentleman's frustration and wish that it was a matter of simply sending them back, but in practice it is not always that easy.

Mr. Gale : I understand what the Minister is saying, but that is a problem for the French, not us. The buck is passed smartly across the channel with the total connivance of the French Government. People live openly in the Red Cross centre at Sangatte. They are not there clandestinely; they do not hide. They walk around the town. The French Government know that they are there and they are not yet in the United Kingdom, but with the connivance of the French Government, they are effectively encouraged to move out.

The problem is even slightly worse, because although other countries in the Schengen area do not deport asylum seekers, they tell them to move on to anywhere outside that area, and of course the United Kingdom is outside it. If the Belgians, Dutch or Germans want to get rid of someone, they say, "Off to England, please. It is outside the Schengen area, so you will have left our territory and no longer be our problem." That is serious and real nonsense and we must get to grips with it.

I have not always seen eye to eye with Eurotunnel, as it well knows, but I share its anger and frustration that the French and now the British Governments are not dealing with the problem properly. It is all very well for the Home Secretary to meet a French Employment Minister and for him to try to introduce identity cards, but the root of the problem lies with the lack of bilateral agreement between this country and France. Unless and until the Foreign Secretary meets and discusses seriously with his counterparts in the French Government, and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom meets, if necessary, the President and Prime Minister of France to resolve the issue, there will not be a solution.

Angela Eagle : There have been meetings, but given the hon. Gentleman's analysis of French indifference, does he believe that a bilateral agreement is possible in the circumstances in which he has painted the French approach?

Mr. Gale : If necessary, I think we must tell the French Government that unless there is a bilateral agreement we will simply send straight back to France anyone coming into the United Kingdom.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden raised the issue this morning not from malice, mischief or spite, but to put forward a serious proposition that a bilateral agreement must be renegotiated and agreed. As a precursor to that and as a Member of Parliament representing a front-line constituency in Kent, I suggest that we must prevail upon the International Red Cross and the French Government, at the very least, swiftly to close the reception centre at Sangatte and move it to a more

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distant place, if necessary within Nord-Pas de Calais. I know that the argument is that people must go somewhere and if there was no centre they would be milling around the streets of Sangatte. However, the fact is that that facility on the doorstep of the channel tunnel makes it possible for dozens of would-be economic migrants, literally nightly, to mount assaults on the defences—that is what they now are—of the entrance to the channel tunnel. Therefore, as a first step, if the French Government wanted to demonstrate any good will, they could immediately close that centre and return to Eurotunnel the use of its lawful property for lawful purposes.

Secondly, there is an organisation, with which I wish to have little truck, called the Euro-region, which comprises the county of Kent, Nord-Pas de Calais and Wallonia. Every now and then this rather peculiar institution holds meetings of dignitaries from Kent, Nord-Pas de Calais and Wallonia. I attended one of those meetings and I attended a workshop on the social issues affecting the Euro-region. Because we are used in the House to introducing measures and to negotiation, I persuaded the working group that I was on to put forward to the plenary session a proposal for consideration by the European Union that there should be established, within the Euro-region—which I do not recognise—a holding centre for all asylum seekers entering that region. It will not surprise the Minister to know that I suggested that that holding centre should be based somewhere in Nord-Pas de Calais.

The working group adopted that resolution, and it went to the plenary session and was adopted by the plenary session. Therefore, an agreement was reached by the elected representatives of Nord-Pas de Calais, Kent and Wallonia that, somewhere in that Euro-region, there should be a holding centre for asylum seekers—for economic migrants. They agreed that they would approach the European Union for support and funding for that purpose. It will not surprise anyone in the Chamber to know that precisely nothing has happened since, and that was about four years ago.

I believe that there are ways in which this problem can and should humanely be solved. I believe that there should be a centre to which people are sent, wherever they are found in the area, and that we should then seriously consider how the genuine claimants of asylum should be dispersed throughout those counties and beyond and how the rest should be returned. I hope that the Minister will take on board in her reply my concerns on behalf of my constituents and the people of Kent—the wider Kent—in the context of the measures raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara) : Order. Given that there are no Back-Bench speakers seeking to catch my eye, it would be equitable if, as closely as feasible, the remaining time were divided equally between the three Front-Bench speakers.

10.17 am

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I was doing my maths as you rose to speak, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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I welcome the opportunity for debate that we have been given by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley). I welcome his constructive approach to this matter, as to others. From the freedom of the Back Benches one can often put forward such solutions. I come to the debate in the same way and in the same context: we are grappling here with difficult issues, and it behoves us all to try to find practical and workable ways forward.

I also want to add a couple of words of context and to preface those by saying, as I mentioned in my question to the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), that over the months I have had conversations not only with the French ambassador and his staff but with Eurotunnel and many others who are involved. Indeed, within the next two weeks I shall visit Calais, Sangatte and the Eurotunnel site to bring myself up to speed with the situation there. I make these comments in advance of that visit.

I want to rehearse some of the most recent figures that put this problem in context. Of the approximately 21 million people in the world who are refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced, 12 million are refugees. An assessment that equates the numbers found in different countries with wealth shows that some of the poorest countries in the world have much greater problems to grapple with than we do. The figures, which were produced this month, show by league table the financial implications for developing countries hosting refugees. Guinea has 130 people of concern for every $1million of gross domestic product and Tanzania has 80. In comparison, the United Kingdom has 0.2. I hope that we can start considering the issue in context.

The other measure that places the issue in context is the number of people who arrive here or in France. I have checked the statistics concerning asylum applicants in European Union countries during the past 10 years. Germany came top, with nearly 2 million, the United Kingdom second, with nearly 450,000, and France third, with about 330,000. According to last year's figures for asylum applications per head of population, Belgium was top in the European Union, followed by Ireland, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Luxembourg. The UK is eighth and France is 10th. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, we received 80,315 asylum seekers: 1.37 per 1,000 inhabitants. France had 38,590: 0.65 per 1,000 inhabitants.

According to the figures compiled by the migrant helpline referred to by the hon. Member for North Thanet, the number of people arriving via the channel tunnel or illegal routes through the channel tunnel into Kent from northern France is decreasing. That is the latest information that I have, as of autumn 2001, but the Minister may have more accurate information. The figures are encouraging because no one wants people to seek illegal entry at risk to themselves and others.

The Home Office and the university of Wales have published research detailing asylum seekers' reasons for coming to the United Kingdom. I had heard that many had found that many of the asylum seekers found in northern France cited language and reputation as their reasons for coming here. Surprisingly, however, the research shows that people are less bothered about the particular country that they travel to than they are by what they have been told by those arranging their travel.

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Many asylum seekers in northern France can apply for asylum in France: most are asked and few have said yes. The Minister is right that over 80 per cent. of people in Sangatte are from three national groups: the Afghans, the Iranians and the Kurds. That situation has persisted for some time.

I have also talked to the refugee agencies. They have met Ministers regularly and made suggestions about how to proceed. First, I do not believe that the Dublin convention ever worked, or ever will, and it is the widespread view of others in the field that it will never succeed. For the reasons cited in my intervention on the hon. Gentleman, most people have already crossed other EU borders when they come to the attention of the authorities. Most will have no documentation evidencing the route that they have taken, or be unwilling to explain the route—if they know it. Whether undertaken by the French or British authorities, it is impractical and a waste of resources to send them back to Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, or wherever they first arrived in the EU. That is a nonsensical system. I understand why it was conceived, but it has not worked. It is understandable that the Government are seeking a new system.

Secondly, I understand the point made by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden about bilateral agreements between countries. However, such agreements do not solve the problem that many of these people come back again and again. That was evidenced by the example given by the hon. Member for North Thanet about his Romanian house guest. A bilateral agreement that simply says, "We're going to send back to France people who arrive here illegally," is not sufficient to deter people. In every interview that I have seen people give, whether they are waiting in Tangier to cross to Spain, or in Calais to cross to the United Kingdom, they make it clear that if at first they do not succeed, they will try and try again. If they are sent back from the UK to France, that does not mean that they will automatically go back whence they came.

Of course, if there is a settlement in Afghanistan that enables people to go back, they will start to do so, and we have a duty to ensure that that happens. However—with respect, because the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden makes a perfectly proper constitutional and political suggestion—I do not believe that that will significantly reduce the numbers of people returning.

Thirdly, I welcome the fact that the Government have at last recognised that there are always two categories of people in places like Sangatte. Some are genuine, honest asylum seekers who have been persecuted and left afraid for their lives. On Friday, I saw in my surgery an Afghan man who had lost his child, his wife, his mother and his whole family and was still terrified about whether it would be safe for him to go back. He was justified in being here and putting his case. Other people are economic migrants. The Government now realise that there must be a legal route for people in both queues—the asylum queue, which has never provided a legal route in to enable people to put their case, and the queue for economic migrants, who must also be able to put their case.

Mr. Lilley : I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman thinks that the fact that terrible things happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime and during the

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conflict justifies anyone's remaining here, instead of a presumption that in future refugees from Afghanistan should be returnable there. In that case, what have we been fighting for? The same applies to Kosovo.

Simon Hughes : There is no disagreement between us. The same applies in Sierra Leone, where at last all the territory has been recaptured by the Government. After a settlement there comes a time, after a short but decent interval, when the Government must make an assessment to decide whether it is safe for people to return. Some places in Afghanistan are still not yet fully under control. I accept the proposition that as soon as a civil war ends and a place is again at peace and under control—as in Kosovo—people should be free and able to go back. It is never quite as daunting a prospect as is sometimes painted. It is not a one-way traffic or an unchanging situation. Places with turmoil, conflict and persecution cease, mercifully, to be like that, and it is right that we should be able to tell people that they are now free to go home to help to rebuild the country from which they came.

Fourthly, the way forward, which is endorsed by refugee agencies in Europe and elsewhere, is to seek not merely a bilateral solution that may or may not be practical, but one that brings in all the countries of the European Union. As the hon. Member for North Thanet said, in the Schengen territories, where there are no frontier controls, it is difficult to monitor where people came from and where they are going. The reason for the queue at our front door is that we are not part of Schengen; we have separate border controls. Liberal Democrats hold to the view that we should continue to keep those, and it is my personal view that that should remain one of the ways in which we regulate matters in the UK.

Mr. Gale : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is considerable cynicism within Schengen? The approach tends to be, "As long as you're not in Schengen, you're not a problem."

Simon Hughes : I agree. There has been much passive, if not active, connivance at the attitude that says, "As long as you leave our territory, we're happy." That is not a satisfactory solution, because people will still be wandering around Europe, legally or illegally seeking to obtain established status.

I believe that the way forward is to seek to agree on a common process of application in the EU for people once they have come to the attention of the authorities. It should not follow that because someone, for example, came to the Austrian authorities' attention, they have to end up in Austria. The burden should be shared across the EU. If someone has a particular case for coming to the UK—because they speak English, for example, or are from a Commonwealth country with community links with the UK—provided they are within the fair quota of people for the UK, it should be possible for their application to be dealt with on behalf of the UK authorities, even if it is processed in Austria.

If they were working with the collaboration of bodies such as the Red Cross, under the auspices of the UNHCR, British officials in Sangatte, for example, could process applications there and then. There would not then be the risk to lives of people trying to cross the

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channel. I understand that that would require a common basis for the definition of refugee, and common systems thereafter.

Can the Minister tell us whether a final agreement has been reached on the Eurodat database, which will allow the sharing of information about whether people have applied before and had their applications dealt with? Have we come to an agreement, or are we on the way to one, on the European Commission proposal for a common definition of refugee? That picks up on the question of the different definitions of refugee used by the Germans, the French and ourselves, for example over persecution by Government or others, to which other hon. Members have referred.

Do the Government anticipate that it will be possible by bilateral agreement or, more usefully this year, by European Union-wide agreement to examine a system that will accept in principle my proposal that the processing of applications should happen when a person first comes to the authorities' attention, irrespective of where that person is eventually given asylum if their claim is granted? I believe that that would be a sensible way forward and I urge the Minister and her colleagues to consider it positively.

10.32 am

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) on securing the debate, and on the thoughtful and constructive way in which he made his persuasive argument. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), whose expertise is well known and who has a strong constituency interest and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who speaks with experience, care and compassion on such matters.

I have had a long interest in matters to do with asylum. In 1992, I was privileged to found the Immigration Advisory Service, which provides free legal help and advice to those with rights of appeal under immigration law. I was the first chairman of its trustees, and I pay tribute to its work throughout the country.

I begin with a proposition on which we can all agree. Any decent country—ours is a decent country—must speedily and happily grant refugee status to those entitled to it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden made that point. We must always display good sense and humanity, not only in what we do but in what we say and how we say it.

One date should be engraved on the minds of those of us with an interest in the subject: 19 June 2000. On that day, 58 Chinese people were found suffocated in a van in Dover. Those poor souls suffered a dreadful death. They may have been illegal immigrants, but never let it be forgotten that they were ordinary, decent people with families, desperate for a new life.

What has happened to our asylum system? Where do we stand in 2002? It is fair to say that after four years of Labour Government, from 1997 to 2001, the system had nearly collapsed and had descended into chaos. The number of asylum applications rose from 26,000 a year

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in 1990 to approximately 80,000 a year in the year 2000. By August 2001 the backlog of applications awaiting an initial decision had risen to 43,000.

My right hon. Friend made the sad point that things were so slow that many people established roots in this country. Indeed, children were born and had almost gone to school. The longer one leaves asylum seekers who will fail to gain asylum in limbo, settling into a country, the more unkind it is at the end of the day to remove them. Although there are approximately 60,000 refusals a year, in 2000 there were only 9,000 removals from this country.

The Labour Government did not know, and do not know, how many people refused asylum leave this country of their own accord, and the Home Office does not know the whereabouts of tens of thousands of failed and current asylum seekers. No wonder the Labour-dominated Select Committee on Home Affairs concluded in 2001 that the Home Office had been dilatory in enforcing the removal of people whose asylum claims had been refused and others who had gained illegal entry to the UK, and that that had attracted more people.

Dealing specifically with France, the principal means of illegal entry into this country has been lorries, 4,000 of which pass through Dover every day of the week, ferries, and trains, which, as a result of the abuse of ticketing arrangements, at one stage allowed as many as 1,000 people a month to arrive on Eurostar as illegal entrants.

The Government have done good work in the past two or three years as far as Eurostar is concerned, and many of those problems have been overcome. However, the problem remains of a customer who buys a single ticket from Brussels to Lille and remains on the train to Waterloo, unimpeded and untouched by immigration controls.

We know the principal methods by which people have got into this country from France, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden and my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet have mentioned the Red Cross centre at Sangatte, where I saw up to 1,000 people when I visited it with the Home Affairs Committee. Those people were in a safe place, they were in a safe country, and to get to Sangatte they had passed through a series of safe countries. The French authorities were well aware of their existence but they did nothing about it. Those people were poised in their jumping-off point illegally to enter this country.

It was a sorry situation, and a question occurred to me, to other members of the Home Affairs Committee and to others in this country: how can it be that those people did not claim, or were not obliged to claim, asylum either in the first safe country that they reached or in France, which is obviously a safe country? That is a blindingly obvious question, to which there seems to be no real answer. That brings me to the bilateral agreement. The Conservative party agrees with those who say that the Government should urge the French to close Sangatte. It is a mistake in principle for the French to allow a jumping-off point for illegal immigrants into this country. If such a centre is necessary, it should be moved many miles from the coast.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden forcefully pointed out that the bilateral agreement of 1995 worked well. It was negotiated by a

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Conservative Government and was in force for two years or more, even though the French had an opportunity to stop it at any time at two months' notice. They did not, which says a great deal for the strong relationship between the previous Conservative Government and the French. If we refused entry to anyone coming here illegally from France, the agreement enabled us to send them back to France within 24 hours. We could and we did, and it worked well.

I agree with those who say that the Minister should explain what her Government have done to try to renegotiate the bilateral agreement. It is a tragedy that that has not been done. The Dublin convention is said to have superseded the agreement, but it has not worked well. The current Foreign Secretary told the Home Affairs Committee that it was in good company if it did not understand the Dublin convention. The key point is that the readmission agreement enabled us to return illegal entrants within 24 hours. Those who say that the Dublin convention superseded the bilateral agreement miss the obvious point that the bilateral agreement between Germany and Denmark allows for the return of asylum seekers who cross the border between those two countries, even though those countries are signatories to the convention. If that bilateral agreement can work, which it does, there is no reason why our bilateral agreement with France, which proved so effective in returning asylum seekers to that country, could not have continued after September 1997, or why a similar bilateral agreement could not operate alongside the convention.

I ask the Minister specifically what the Government have done in the past four years to try to renegotiate the bilateral agreement. If they have done nothing, why have they done nothing? If they have done something, will they tell the House of Commons in detail what they have done and the French response to it? I point again to the strong relationship between the previous Conservative Government and the French that enabled that bilateral agreement to work so well.

Life seems unreal to those who work in immigration and customs in Dover. However many people they detect entering Dover, nothing can be done about it once the word "asylum" is mentioned. It does not matter if there is one dog sniffing for illegal immigrants, two carbon dioxide probes, or three X-ray machines. The best method of finding and stopping people is the single heartbeat machine, of which there is only one. On Friday, the doors of the hangar broke, and it is not working. Even if it were, what is the point of such methods? Real work must be done on the French side of the Channel to stop people using Sangatte and the French ports to jump into this country.

We need a policy that includes a streamlined process of asylum applications and which enables quick decisions and a fair, quick removal system. We need to be able to negotiate more bilateral agreements and we urgently need to renegotiate the existing agreement with France, putting back a system that worked so well. Goodness knows what can be done throughout the EU. The Laeken summit concluded with EU heads of government asking the European Commission to draw up new and strengthened proposals on asylum procedures in three or four months. Amen to that, but I

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may not be alone in lacking confidence in the EU's ability to come up with an understandable, workable and effective system.

10.46 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle) : I welcome the debate. We are dealing with a series of difficult and interrelated issues. It has been hinted at but not explicitly stated today that we are also dealing with sophisticated international criminal smuggling gangs who make large profits from the exploitation and misery of human beings who are trafficked across borders. They have increasingly sophisticated methods. All Governments within the EU and internationally, including this one, are increasingly aware of the huge profits made from that trade and realise that an important way to disrupt it is to bring about greater cross-border police co-operation. We must deal with some of the main smuggling routes into the European Union by strengthening the EU's outer borders, whether or not we are dealing with Schengen countries; such a policy should include the sharing at police level of information, and intelligence-based work to try to disrupt the trafficking routes. I assure hon. Members that we are working hard to put more such protections in place to disrupt that trade.

The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) made much of what he called the bilateral agreement. As I discovered when I investigated the matter, the Home Office called it a gentlemen's agreement with France, which, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, was signed at an official level in 1995. It covered arrangements for the return of refused passengers and illegal entrants arriving at the channel ports or via the channel tunnel, although it was signed before the channel tunnel operated in the way that it does today. It was understood by both parties that the section on asylum applicants, rather than refused passengers, would be superseded by the Dublin convention.

As soon as the Dublin convention came into being, therefore, the asylum part of that original gentlemen's agreement with France was superseded. The right hon. Gentleman is correct that the rest of the agreement continues in place and works well. He had figures on that. In 2000, for example, 5,831 people were refused entry and returned from Dover to France as part of that agreement. However, the plain fact is that both signatories, France and Britain, explicitly said that for asylum purposes the agreement would be superseded by the Dublin convention.

For reasons that we have debated this morning, the Dublin convention is not working as well as those who drew it up would have liked. I suspect that when it was being negotiated, no one realised the extent and the sophistication of people-smuggling that countries in the European Union would have to face. That is not a criticism but a reflection of the way in which asylum and immigration issues have developed—they are likely to continue to do so. We can guard our frontiers only by continuing to move as the threat moves. When we close off one method of entry, the focus switches to others and the immigration service and the police do all that they can to respond and react—co-operating with their French counterparts—to tackle the problems.

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Other bilateral agreements, particularly the German-Danish agreement, have been mentioned. It is open to any two parties within the Dublin framework to decide on a bilateral agreement, but by definition such agreements must be agreed between two parties. The German-Danish agreement works mainly because the Germans recognise that geography makes theirs the source country, and they agreed to take back most of those who end up in Denmark who must have come through Germany. France, however, is in most cases a transit country, rather than the first source of entry for asylum seekers. Hence a bilateral agreement between France and Britain is different from one between Germany and Denmark.

In seeking to develop arrangements with the French, we have our eye on transforming the Dublin convention. Currently negotiations are in progress for Dublin II. As hon. Members know, a draft was proposed by the European Commission working party, which seeks to improve on the first Dublin arrangements, particularly provisions that stymied the convention's effectiveness —those making it necessary to prove where individuals came from before sending them back to the immediate EU country. As seen in earlier exchanges, it is often impossible to prove where individuals entered the EU because the trafficking routes are hidden, because people often possess no papers and because it is not easy to establish their nationality. Some claim to be of a nationality other than their own.

Mr. Malins : I understand the Minister, but what have the Government done in the past four years to persuade France to enter another bilateral agreement?

Angela Eagle : The hon. Gentleman should be aware that we have done considerable bilateral work with France, centring mainly on the Sangatte issue. We have focused on areas where large numbers of people gather to make an attack on our borders. Part of the Dublin II text—still only in draft form and requiring unanimous agreement—proposes a different approach to dealing with the illegal presence of individuals in different countries. At present Dublin does not recognise that but merely talks about first safe countries, which is not practically useful when we cannot prove in which first safe country individuals arrived.

On bilateral contacts with the French Government, we meet regularly to discuss immigration issues. We fully recognise the difficulties caused by illegal immigration, particularly the problem of clandestine immigrants gathering around Calais in northern France. Co-operation is important.

I congratulate the French authorities on their success last weekend in disrupting the gang of Romanians who had been interfering with signalling on the rail line to allow clandestine boarding of freight trains. Those who boarded were taken off at Fréthun, which is the freight yard, and did not get through to Britain. However, for weeks organised attempts to board by interfering with the signals put the safety of trains at risk. The work of the French in dealing with the problem is a major success story.

The juxtaposed controls at the Eurostar stations have also been extremely effective. On the point that the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) raised, the Belgian

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authorities conduct effective entry and exit checks on passengers before they board the Eurostar at Lille and when they leave it at Waterloo. If he has been on Eurostar recently, he will know that the checks are reinforced by our immigration officers, who go through the train checking people's information, passports and identity. We put controls in place to deal with issues as they are identified, and we are in constant contact with our Belgian and French counterparts to deal with new problems as they emerge or if we have intelligence that traffickers are focusing on a new area.

We have a biannual UK-French summit. In February 2001 we established the Cross-Channel Commission, which promotes bilateral discussion of cross-channel issues, including illegal immigration. The excellent progress that has been made on a range of issues is a clear indication of the commission's usefulness. We are dealing with the problem of illegal immigration across the channel by increasing controls and law enforcement in the Calais area.

On 12 September, the Home Secretary agreed with Daniel Vaillant, his opposite number, on several practical measures to tighten controls further at the channel ports and reduce the flow of illegal immigrants into the Calais area, including sending more immigration officers to Coquelles. France agreed to toughen up legal action against those who gain unauthorised access to the Eurotunnel site at Coquelles, and we are grateful for their action in dealing with facilitators and racketeers who operate at Sangatte. They have quickly secured several prosecutions for the mass intrusions into the Eurotunnel site at Christmas; about 40 more court cases are pending. As has been pointed out, the Home Secretary had a private meeting with Mrs. Guigou, the French Social Affairs Minister, who has responsibility for funding of the Red Cross centre at Sangatte. I understand that their constructive meeting built on our excellent working relationships and was part of the continuing process of working with the French to find a solution.

We have been perfectly open with the French about the fact that we wish the Sangatte centre to be closed; they are under no illusion that we have any other view. The Government take every opportunity to discuss the situation at Calais with our French counterparts, and it is clear that that bilateral co-operation has led to a sharp overall drop in the number of people crossing illegally from northern France to the UK. According to Eurotunnel figures, there were 27 clandestine crossings in December 2000. The route was targeted and, for example, in July 2001, 808 people arrived. The number is now down to virtually zero.

Some of the controls that we have put in place have resulted in routes being closed, which is why the Sangatte camp now has more people in it than before. They are not getting through, but we are not complacent that they will not seek other routes. That is why the routes at Fréthun and the work of the SNCF and English Welsh and Scottish Railway are so important. I assure hon. Members that we are doing all that we can and will continue to do so. I am happy that we have been able to debate the matter today.

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