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Will the Home Secretary answer two questions to which I do not know the answers? First, apart from the agreement between Germany and Denmarkwe know about thatis he aware of any other bilateral conventions between European Union countries that deal with people who have sought asylum and moved, or not moved, on? Secondly, how far have the discussions that the EU Commission initiated in September proceeded? They were an attempt to reach a more universal EU-wide agreement that would not rely on bilateral arrangements. Answers to those questions would provide relevant background information.
Mr. Blunkett: First, I am aware of no other countries that have such an agreementand probably for the reasons that I have just enunciated. Secondly, the Commission set up a working party that continues to meet. We hope that, under the Spanish presidency, the process will be accelerated because Spain, like us, has a particular interest in this issue. Many people enter Spain from Morocco and north Africa, and Spain also wants a more rational and sensible Europe-wide agreement. Whatever the differences between me and Conservative Members, we all know and believe in our hearts that that is a sensible way forward. I hope that in future some sense will emerge.
I shall return to the well presented questions that arose after the Dublin agreement of 1990. There was a so-called gentleman's agreement between 1995 and 1997, but the difficulty was not that there was not reasonable intent, but that the time scales, as enunciated by the hon. Member for West Dorset, were very tight. People had to be turned back literally overnight. A difficulty arose before the gentleman's agreement because of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 and the wonderful terms in it, such as "statutory suspensive appeal", that related to whether people could exercise their right of appeal.
The Home Secretary tried to change the law in 1996, but as experts in this field will recall, he had difficulties with judges over withdrawal of benefits. The courts ruled that the National Assistance Act 1948 requires support to be given. As local authorities had become the conduit for that support, we decided to provide a more rational way of providing it by establishing the National Asylum Support Service. Incidentally, the local authority grant has grown over the years and is now £500 million, which is a tremendous amount of money.
The Government not only ran into problems with the courts in 1996 but had problems with my favourite legal ruse, judicial review. Having agreed to set aside the 1993 Act, they decided to have a judicial review of the removal of asylum seekers, thereby delaying deportation, a point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) alluded. People were therefore able to stay in this country longer than they had in France and were entitled to claim asylum here.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Surely the Home Secretary accepts that the legal difficulties to which he refers occurred at the very end of the last Conservative Government. His party has been in power for five years. Surely he and his predecessor should have found a way to address that gap in the law which, as he rightly says, was generated by judges perhaps over-reaching their authority.
Mr. Blunkett: That is an interesting observation. When we debated the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, I suggested that judicial review was used inappropriately, and we had an interesting discussion on whether the Special Immigration Appeals Commission should become a court of superior record. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House were deeply exercised by my concerns about judicial review. I suspect that we will return to that subject in the months and years to come because judicial review has been used over the past 20 years to thwart Parliament's decisions. There is no question about that. I look forward to receiving support from all quarters of the House if we think it necessary to introduce measures to clarify the situation and make the will of Parliament clear. The important consideration is whether the system in operation is fair and reasonable. It cannot be used simply to build in delays that frustrate the will of Parliament and therefore the democratic will of the country. That is an interesting test of what we need to do.
Of course there are problems, such as whether people are claiming asylum in France. If they are trying to get into this country, however, we have the problem of turning them around fast enough when they make a claim. As I said at Question Time, last year we sent back to France more than 6,800 people who, for a variety of reasons, either did not immediately claim asylum or did not have a substantive claim. The moment that someone claims asylum, they become part of the process.
It is interesting to consider how many people are coming through the tunnel or crossing the channel, and whether the number poses a serious problem. It is a worry, not least to a Home Secretary returning from his summer holiday. For example, the Daily ExpressI do not want to pick on it; after all, it has only picked on me every other day since 10 Junehighlights day after day the hordes of people who are supposed to be entering our country through the tunnel. What is actually happening is that they are not getting through, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) made clear. The visual signs in August and September, whether by photograph or television, vividly demonstrated the difficulty. At Christmas, 500 people stormed the barbed wire trying to get through, but they did not get through. Measures have been taken to help with that, and to help cross-channel carriers on the ferries.
Mr. Blunkett: I am painfully aware of that. The measures that I announced on 19 September involved co-operation with those operating on the French side of the tunnel and the portsworking not only with Eurotunnel, for instance, but with SNCF and English, Welsh and Scottish Railwaysto see whether we can assist in advance security measures and agree the steps that need to be taken.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing me to this point in my speech more speedily than I otherwise would have reached it. I am pleased to say that, after more than four months since a civil penalty was imposed on Eurotunnel, and owing to the measures that it has implemented and the dramatic fall in the number of people getting through illegally, we are lifting the civil penalty as from this afternoon. We will do so for SNCF for similar reasons, and we have withdrawn any claim concerning EWS, which we accept is not legally liable for its efforts.
That has been achieved because enormous strides have been taken. We want Eurotunnel and others to be able concentrate their time and resources on ensuring that they can operate commercially and effectively and on continuing to take with us the rigorous steps that have been taken. That illustrates that, as with SNCF and the French, we will reciprocate where there is co-operation, as with the juxtaposed checks at Paris that will operate from today.
A number of things are moving and there is improvement, but as I said to Elisabeth Guigou, there will be no progress until Sangatte is closed and no alternative is opened along the coast. She accepts, and indicated publicly that she had not advocated, and will not advocate, a further Sangatte in the Pas-de-Calais area, and that the long-term objective must be to close Sangatte. I believe that the short-term objective must be to close it, and we need to consider how we can do that, now or following the presidential and assembly elections, in a meaningful way.
All that leads me to believe that the problem is Europe-wide and international and that it needs to be set in the context of more widely managed migration and nationality policy and not simply asylum. We need a reasonable and rational debate. I therefore welcome the tone adopted by the shadow Home Secretary. In response to my statement on 29 October, he put his position in the form of questions. I failed to acknowledge all 15 of them, but I acknowledge now that he is entirely right to believe that I would accept that he is an honourable man and that the answers to most of the questions were yes. I believe that when we debate the White Paper the response will be similarly balanced.
Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): Does the Home Secretary accept that asylum seekers will keep on coming until the chaos of their processing is sorted out? Last month, two young Afghan lads came to see me at my surgery in Battle to say that they had arrived