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Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that English is now a predominant language, especially in the countries from which those people originate, plays an important part? Is he not presenting a rather simplistic argument?
Mr. Letwin: The strange fact is that the position that the hon. Gentleman correctly alludes to was already undoubtedly true before 1997. None of us can calculate the numbers exactly. There is no doubt that most of those who were seeking asylum before 1997 would have preferred to enter this country, partly on linguistic grounds. However, until about September 1997, if someone travelled from France, for example, to seek asylum in this country on linguistic or any other ground, under the bilateral agreement they were automatically returnedto use the Home Secretary's phraseto France. That no longer obtains, however. There has been a significant shift in the way the system works and has worked since late 1997.
The Home Secretary rightly said that the Dublin convention is not an adequate substitute. It does not work because, as the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), accepted in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on 29 January, it has proved quite impossible to establish that the first place in the EU that such people entered was France. The Dublin convention, which relies on the notion of the first place of entry, has not proved an adequate substitute for the bilateral agreement, and numbers have shot up.
Barring some slight quibble about exact numbers, nothing that I have said so far is a major cause of dissension between ourselves and the Government. I suspect that the position that I have outlined is one with which the Home Secretary himself has wrestled, and that like me he would prefer the creation of something resembling the bilateral agreement. Indeed, in replying to the Westminster Hall debate, the Under-Secretary eloquently sketched those very problems, and was at pains to point out how far the Government have gone in negotiating with the French. She referred to negotiations about Sangatte and many other matters, and I have no doubt that the Government are worthily engaged in repeated discussions with the French.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is adopting a constructive tone, which has not always been struck in past debates on this subject, but does he really believe that we can deal with the problems associated with movements of people within Europe purely through bilateral agreements with France, or any other country? To make progress on this issue, we need to develop common systems that involve not just the UK and France, but other European countries. Such systems are already being discussed in the EU.
Mr. Letwin: The honest answer to the hon. Gentleman's reasonable question is noI suffer from no such illusion. I am sure that a bilateral agreement with France is not a complete solution and many of our
Mr. Gerrard: Does not the history of dealing with asylum issues and illegal entry by trying to plug a perceived loophole show that another route will be found? Unless we achieve multilateral agreements, no solutions will be found and people will simply move from place to place.
Mr. Letwin: There are facts of geography about which the hon. Gentleman and I can agree. France is rather near and rather large, and large numbers of people have always found their way there. A stubborn fact, difficult to ignore, is that when the bilateral agreement was in place, a significantly smaller number of people found their way into the United Kingdom seeking asylum and a rather larger number remained in, or returned to, France. The precise nature of those facts is difficult to pin down because the whole matter is shrouded in statistical obscurity, but the general outline is clear. I am not seeking to solve all problems in a trice by these means, but simply to solve a major part of the problem. That would be a constructive effort in itself.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that even if there were to be a bilateral agreement, and there is an argument for that, it would be a small contribution to the wider issue? According to the migrant helpline in Dover, the numbers coming through the channel tunnel are going down. According to the figures that I was given when I was in Sangatte last Friday, 98 per cent. of those attempting to come from France to England in the Calais area are stopped in France, and only 2 per cent. are found as illegal asylum seekers here. Therefore, the reality is that about 2 per cent. of people might be sent back. Of those, many keep attempting to come here, so sending them back is not a solution.
Mr. Letwin: The hon. Gentleman is right: it is not a solution in that it is not a complete solution. I do not think that he is right to speak purely of illegal efforts to enter this country. In many cases, we are talking about people residing in France who make an effort to enter this country, which may not, in itself, be illegal. None of us knows the exact numbers. As I said, the whole matter is shrouded in statistical obscurity. However, my suggestion could form a significant part of a solution. The hon. Gentleman is right to describe it as an advance and say that there is a case for it. As for whether, on reinstating the bilateral agreement, so much of the problem goes away that the rest of the Home Secretary's measures are enough to cure the problem, I do not speculate. However, it would be an advance if we could at least cure this part of the problem.
I wish to address two points that have been raised by people who reject the idea of reinstating a bilateral agreement. Interestingly, neither was raised by the Under- Secretary in her response to the debate on 29 January, which suggests that, quite rightly, the Government do not place any emphasis on these arguments. However, I want to dispel them before they are raised in this debate.
It has been argued that we cannot have a bilateral agreement because of the Dublin convention. The Under-Secretary was right to say on 29 January that that is a false argument. It is possible to have a bilateral agreement, notwithstanding the Dublin convention. It is possible not only in theory but in practice, as has been shown by Germany and Denmark, which have such an agreement in place. I accept that there are disanalogies as well as analogies between the Danish-German case and our own vis-à-vis France. However, the continued existence of the German-Danish bilateral agreement, never challenged, shows that it is possible to have such an agreement notwithstanding the Dublin convention. I think that we are agreed with Ministers on that point.
The second argument is that it is not possible to renegotiate a bilateral agreement when it would be so advantageous for the UK and so disadvantageous for France, which seems to bear out the strength of my previous argument. This is where I take issue with the doomsayers. I accept that we cannot expect the Home Secretary to find himself one sunny morning in Paris, alongside his opposite number in the French Government, and, over a croissant and cup of coffee, emerge, without cost to the UK, with a new, glistening bilateral agreement that resolves the problem.
Mr. Letwin: Even a bottle of burgundy, as the Home Secretary says from a sedentary position, would not be sufficient to achieve this admirable result. I accept that the process of negotiation is difficult. What I do not accept is the proposition that because it is difficult, we should give up.
If I believed that, I should have to disbelieve the entirety of the Government's rhetoric about their relationship with our European Union partners. I have heard it said repeatedly over the past few years that the point of the Government's strategy vis-à-vis our EU partners was that it had put the Government in a position to achieve successful outcomes to difficult negotiations because it would be in our partners' interests to do diplomatic deals with us in the knowledge that we would do deals with them. In short, we would be part of the club, obey the rules and be good citizens so that we could achieve things of use to our country.
If ever an item would clearly be of use to our country, the bilateral agreement is one. If, therefore, there were ever a case, vis-à-vis a major European partner, for implementing the strategy on which the Government pride themselves, this is it. If the Foreign Office knew how to engage effectively in diplomacy, it would know what to trade and how to trade in order to achieve the desired result. It has, uncharitably, sometimes been alleged that just as the Department of Trade and Industry sponsors
It is not necessary for the French Government to accept a new agreement. As the Home Secretary pointed out during Question Time, the bilateral agreement still exists and applies to cases that are not related to asylum. All that is necessary is the adjustment, by reinstatement of one sub-paragraph, of an existing bilateral agreement. That should not be beyond the ingenuity of the Foreign Office.
My point is that if that action is not taken, the Home Secretary will produce his White Paper in good faith, we shall consider its proposals constructively and the country will hope that it will succeed. It is very likely, however, that it will turn out to be a car without an engine. A system that is under the greatest strain will not be able to implement its third system in just a few yearseven the first of those systems has not yet been fully implementedwhile the sheer number of applications continues at its present rate, largely because of the absence of the bilateral agreement. I am trying to provide the Home Secretary with a means to reduce the flow into the bathtub so that he may succeed in dealing with the water in the bath. That is a piece of constructive opposition, and I hope that the Home Secretary will take advantage of it.