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Dr. Iddon: How would the hon. Gentleman answer the criticism made of the original bilateral agreement, that those who had knowledge of English procedures and the language were able to stay here long enough to implement judicial processes that meant that they spent longer on British soil than on French, making the French reluctant to accept them back in a transfer?

Mr. Letwin: I answer that point in the words of the bilateral agreement. Incidentally, the agreement has sometimes been misrepresented as being a gentleman's agreement. It was nothing of the kind. [Hon. Members: "Oh?"] I intend no adverse comment on either of the signatories. It was signed by officials of the two states on 20 April 1995, and it spoke of:

That had exactly the automaticity of which the Home Secretary spoke so powerfully in the—irrelevant—case of those who are not seeking asylum. The very fact that the agreement works so well for those not seeking asylum—as the Home Secretary pointed out during Question Time—gives hope that it will again, as it did in the past, work well for those who are seeking asylum, precisely because of that speed.

My closing comments also relate to a point that was made during Question Time. The Home Secretary has not so far tried to deny the assertion—I shall be the first to

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withdraw if he does deny it—founded on a document in my possession that appears to be leaked, that the initial estimate for expenditures on the asylum support system in the UK for 2001–02 will be about £1.09 billion. The document notes that

I quite understand that provisional estimates are never accurate. I accept that a variation of 10 per cent., or even 20 per cent., especially in a demand-led service of this kind, would be normal. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), in his former role as the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, might have been willing to grant that a 30 or 40 per cent. increase was tolerable in such circumstances. When we are dealing with an increase of 150 per cent. compared with the provisional figure, however, it looks as though some accident has occurred: it looks as though some carelessness has crept into the system.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): Does the hon. Gentleman think that that accident or carelessness is comparable with the accident or carelessness that occurred under the previous Government, when towns such as Slough were expected—with no prior warning—to maintain asylum seekers with no support at all from the Government? That decision put a £2 million hole in the budget of the council in the town that I represent.

Mr. Letwin: The figure seems large. However, I am more than prepared to accept that the asylum system has for a long time imposed serious strains on all Governments. I began the debate by saying that I did not seek, on this occasion, to use the Opposition day to prove a failure by the Government, but rather to suggest a way forward. I am willing to accept that the strains under which the present system of asylum, the lack of the bilateral agreement and the other deficiencies of structure have put the Home Office have made it well-nigh impossible for the Home Office to constrain the sums it spends—or even remotely accurately to predict them.

During Question Time, the Home Secretary said that the lack of the bilateral agreement and the numbers coming to us from France were no part of the explanation of the under-prediction. It will be interesting to learn whether that is because he does not believe that the under-prediction actually occurred. Perhaps he will tell us that there is some other cause.

My claim is simple. At present, neither the Home Secretary, for all the good will that he has displayed in this matter, nor his officials, for all the ingenuity that they are displaying and will display when the White Paper is implemented, are able to deal with the problems that we face as a nation, because the weight of the numbers and the speed of the arrival and the disproportion—[Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) want to intervene?

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): My hon. Friend refers to the weight of numbers. I was observing that it was not a description that would apply to the number of Labour MPs attending the debate.

Mr. Letwin: That is not a point that I would have made—although it is nevertheless strangely true.

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The disproportion between the burden being borne by this country and by our nearest and closest neighbour is so great that no group of men and women—however mightily they strive—is likely to conquer the problem. I hope, therefore, that rather than refuting and retorting, the Home Secretary will adopt what I believe to be the right posture in the face of such suggestions. I hope that he will entertain the possibility that he can persuade his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to get to work, with all the wiles for which our Foreign Office has long been known, to try to reinstate a bilateral agreement that, although it will not be a complete solution—I accept the points made by hon. Members on both sides of the House—will none the less make a constructive effort to help us bear and solve a problem whose solution has for so long eluded us.

4 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I take it from the manner and tone of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) in this afternoon's presentation that he—rather than his chief of staff, whom I have read about this weekend—wrote his speech. I understand that the Leader of the Opposition entered the Chamber a minute or two ago, so I also take it that the hon. Gentleman's speech is a follow-through from his leader's speech last week, but presented in a different tone. I now understand the hon. Gentleman's tone, and I like it. In fact, on Friday at Cardiff, I said, "You are awful, but I like you." Dick Emery used to say that, and the phrase seemed to fit very well.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): He used to get dressed up.

Mr. Blunkett: I am not going to do that even for my friend, the Leader of the Opposition—even though The Mirror reported that we dined together. We dined during the general election campaign at a secret meeting in North Yorkshire. We met, had a buffet supper and then debated on Radio 4's "Any Questions", and we both enjoyed it very much. At that moment, I thought that if one lad from North Yorkshire fails, this lad will succeed in leading the Tory party, but we have got nothing to worry about. That is what I thought at the time, and nothing has disabused me of it since.

We are debating an interesting issue: putting Britain first. I think that that was the thrust of the Leader of the Opposition's speech last week, so this debate is a follow-through. I am pleased that we are debating the issue this afternoon because this happens to be the day that the

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French Government have implemented legislation, which they had to push through their Parliament, known as the implementation of domestic juxtaposed controls at Paris. We already have juxtaposed checks in London and Paris because they were imposed when the channel tunnel opened, but those using the domestic rail route from Paris to Calais did not have to be checked by British immigration officials. As a consequence, people with domestic tickets used that loophole to stay on the train and travel through the tunnel. The British Government pressed the French to legislate; they had to change their law.

I want the House to consider what would have happened if the French Government had requested us to alter our internal ticketing and travel arrangements so that people travelling from London to Dover had to go through French passport and immigration controls just to be able to get to Dover, not France. The mirror image of that has been imposed by the French today, having legislated during the autumn. We should get into perspective what the French are prepared, or not prepared, to do.

Given the tone of the hon. Gentleman's introduction, I shall be honest with him. Who believes that we will achieve a major change in French immigration policy in the immediate run-up to the presidential and Assembly elections in April and June? I am prepared to have a go and ask—I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition will join me—President Chirac not to make immigration an issue in the French presidential elections. If he is prepared to do that, we can stand four-square together, and we can get somewhere. The French Prime Minister, the Minister of the Interior and Madame Guigou, the Minister with responsibility for the encampments and the accommodation, would be in a much better position—would they not?—to respond to our approaches.

I would obviously also have to take into account the very different situation that has existed in France over the years and that the hon. Gentleman undoubtedly knows about: the tolerated illegal presence. Part of renegotiating the Dublin agreement involves ensuring that that state of affairs does not exist. For those who are not totally familiar with the issue, the problem is that the position in France is unlike that in Britain. If the people at an encampment such as Sangatte seek to move on to claim asylum elsewhere and do not claim asylum in France, they are not arrested or removed. That policy goes back a long way in France and, as the hon. Gentleman said about another front, the position is not the same in Germany, Italy or most other European countries. Tolerated illegal presence means that people are not claiming asylum in France.

That point is relevant because of the agreement that Germany and Denmark reached in Dublin. It relates to those people who tried to claim asylum in Germany but failed and who then tried to move across the border to Denmark to claim asylum there. However, we are faced with a very different situation. We cannot persuade people to claim asylum in France for love or money. We have promised them free Burgundy, sunshine and all sorts of other things, but they will not do so.

With the best will in the world, I cannot compel the French Government to force potential asylum seekers to claim asylum in France. However, I can make it clear to the French Government that if asylum seekers refuse to claim asylum in France, they are tolerating an illegal

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presence. Under Dublin II, as it has become known, we need to be able to enforce the same approach across Europe, so that those who refuse to seek asylum in the country in which they are illegally present are removed to the place from where they came.

Holding this debate today is interesting, not least because I have had to do my homework on it. I always welcome that, as I did when I was the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. Doing our homework is good for us, and it enables us to enlighten others, such as the avid readers of Hansard across the country waiting for our every word to dribble out on the web.

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