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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:
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 expectedwith no prior warningto 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 spendsor 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.
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 womenhowever mightily they striveis 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 solutionI accept the points made by hon. Members on both sides of the Housewill none the less make a constructive effort to help us bear and solve a problem whose solution has for so long eluded us.
Mr. Blunkett: I am not going to do that even for my friend, the Leader of the Oppositioneven 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
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 askI am sure that the Leader of the Opposition will join mePresident 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 positionwould 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
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.