|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Blunkett: That sounds like an Adjournment debate to me, but one that I would rather not inflict on my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I suggest that we take up the problem and do something about it. All hon. Members must recognise that I would have to be out of my mind not to want to change the administration and improve the effectiveness and operations of my Department's immigration and nationality directorate. I am determined to do so because, as I said last week, the Home Secretary is responsible and accountable for the actions of the thousands of people whom we employ. I am determined to get the matter sorted, and the system that we are to establish will help those people to do that.
That in no way undermines any of the points that have been made. We face a major challenge and we need to get Europe-wide agreement. In the meantime, we have to adopt rigorous measures ourselves to build trust and confidence in this country, and we need to ensure that our response is reasonable.
Mr. Blunkett: I believe that there is a new spirit in the European Union's perception of immigration and asylum issues. In part, the desire to co-operate to deal with the threat of international terrorism has accelerated people's understanding of the need to co-operate on these issues. In part, global changes are having a major impact. The ramifications of the Taliban's fall have started a chain reaction that affects us all and that none can escape. The boat people trying to get to Australia and the changes in immigration law in that country and others illustrate that impact. We have a common purpose of trying to ensure that we get our systems right.
There are no more countries to which we can pass people on; it is therefore inevitable that we will have to have robust border controls. We need to recognise the implications of that. I hope that we will have got the balance right when the White Paper is published. However, if the spirit of the shadow Home Secretary's approach at the end of October and again today is indicative of future debates, although the issuenot least the effectiveness of the policies that I introducewill never be taken out of politics, we might be able to have a rational debate. Although his history is inaccurate and the solution that he seeks is therefore not immediately attainable, at least we have had a rational debate today.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I welcome the debate and its constructive and rational tone, which I intend to do nothing to disrupt. I welcomed equally the similar debate initiated by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) in Westminster Hall last Tuesday. I hope that the Home Secretary agrees that that was a constructive and interesting aperitif to today's debate as well.
The hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is aware of my respect for him, but I am amused by the way in which renegotiation of the bilateral agreement between Britain and France, which appeared to be a Back-Bench policy last Tuesday, moved quickly on Wednesday and Thursday to become a Front-Bench policy that has now been aired in debate today. I congratulate the Conservatives on the speed of their response to their right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. Although entirely proper, the argument is not one that I had heard before last Tuesday in Westminster Hall.
Mr. Letwin: The hon. Gentleman tempts me to engage in a piece of honesty, which I shall perhaps regret later. The argument has been recent because we only recently asked ourselves, "Why did all this start going so terribly wrong shortly after the disappearance of the Conservative Government?" We came to the conclusion that it was not likely to be that fact which brought about the consequences, so we looked for other facts. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) must take the credit for raising the issue in the first place.
Simon Hughes: Let me continue to be honest, and, I hope, courteous to the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who is much respected for his expertise and knowledge. We greatly appreciate his contributions. There is nothing wrong. We are trying, too, to find factual explanations and to be constructive. I hope that now, when we get the White Paper and during the debates between then and the Bill, there can be the best possible answers to these difficult international questions.
I have some other introductory words for the Home Secretary. I welcome, but I am sure not nearly as much as Eurotunnel or the other operators, the announcement made by the right hon. Gentleman a short while ago of the withdrawal of the civil penalty. If I may say so, that is a proper reward and a proper response. Having expended quite a lot of effort over the past six months informing myself of the facts, I believe that considerable efforts have been made and millions of pounds invested, not least by Eurotunnel, to try to help the authorities on both sides, as well Eurotunnel itself, to deal with the clear difficulty of trying to prevent people moving illegally from France to the United Kingdom.
I was extremely helped by the time that I spent on Friday morning and Friday afternoon, only three days ago, in Sangatte and Calais, with the Red Cross, with its camp director and with staff. I had the opportunity to talk to asylum seekers, or would-be asylum seekers, or migrants in the camp, of whom there were many.
Secondly, I had the opportunity to talk to representatives of Eurotunnel on their site. I have talked to them in this place, but I was able to talk to them on site and to see the site itself. I spent some time with the company's officials and employees as vehicles were being checked. Like every other day, the checks revealed that people were trying illegally to get through. That happened last Friday morning, and those involved were intercepted by the twin efforts of Eurotunnel staff, who first engaged in electronic video imaging of vehicles and then a carbon dioxide test to determine whether humans were in the vehicles in question. In other words, there is a double check. That resulted in a number of people being found, even in the earlier hours of Friday morning before I had arrived. They were handed over to the authorities and made no further progress.
We must see the issue in the context of the pattern of refugees and asylum seekers and their movements throughout the world. For those who follow these debatesmercifully, there are quite a fewthe most useful compendium that I have found is a large volume, which I often carry with me on these occasions, which is published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Oxford University Press. It sets out the state of the world's refugees and provides all the figures from 1950 to 2000. It shows that patterns of migration change; the countries from which people come change too.
The publication makes the telling point that, of about 12 million people who are refugees, most of them are near where they fled from. Most of them are refugees not in the rich north-west of Europe but in poor parts of the worldPakistan, if they fled from Afghanistan, or central Africa if they fled from other countries in central Africa. When we confront these issues, we must remember how relatively few people make their way to the shores of Britain, or seek to come to Britain at all.
If we compare the number of people who apply for entry with the wealth of the country concerned, we are about 77th in the league table. If we take the number of people who seek to come to a country relative to its population, in terms of the European Union, we are about seventh, eighth or ninth. It is true that in recent years the numbers of people who have sought to come to the United Kingdom have increased. However, they have not grown without interruption over the past decade. They grew in the first part of the 1990s and then the numbers fell. They grew again and then again they declined, and they have now grown significantly in the past few years.
Although we have not seen a final version of last year's figures, in each of the last couple of years, about 90,000 people have sought to come to this country. The obvious next question is: how many have had their applications granted? The figures are not insignificant. Whatever the arguments about the many people who are not asylum seekers but economic migrantsthe Home Secretary was right to say that, to be honest, almost everybody falls into one category or the otherif they are not asylum seekers, they are still seeking to better themselves, so it is right that the Government should think of ways of giving them a proper channel to apply to go through on the basis of economic opportunity. But in 2000, the last full year for which figures are available, 31 per cent. of asylum seekers had their applications granted and a further 18 per cent. had applications granted on appeal. So of those who arrived and put a case, just short of 50 per cent. of them, although the figure has been lower and occasionally higher, have had their case accepted by authorities.
I therefore hope that our debate will acknowledge that many of those people make a good case to come here and are fleeing awful circumstances. As a constituency MP, I have heard about enough awful circumstances from people from Sierra Leone whose families have been brutally murdered, as well as from people from Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Afghanistan and the middle east. Unless someone does our sort of job, or works with those people regularly, they would not understand that, unless we come to the debate with compassion and humanity, we are not doing our job properly as parliamentarians. I hope that people outside, including some of those who write for national daily papers, have as much interest in presenting that side of the story as they do in presenting the somewhat distorted picture of people trying to break through and come illegally to the United Kingdom.
One other preliminary point[Interruption.] I heard the Home Secretary. I beg his pardon; one other linked point is that it is imperative that we seekand I hope that the Bill to be introduced after the White Paper will do sofirst, to provide a way for people who want to come here as economic migrants to put a case; and secondly, to provide a route for asylum seekers who reach the European Union to put their case when they get here. I agree that the Dublin convention, which may have been conceived with the best intentions, has failed, for obvious reasons. If somebody first comes to the attention of the authorities in, for example, northern France, it is unlikely that they will know exactly where they entered the EU and which was the first country in which they arrived. Even if they knew, they might not tell the authorities; and if they did tell them, they would probably not have any papers to confirm it. The theory that they could be sent back to the country in which they first arrived is unlikely ever to work in practice.
The arrangements are also nonsense because, by definition, most people arrive across the landmass from the east and the south; enforcing them would put all the burden on Greece, Austria and Germany, and very little on other countries to the west. That international issue is sometimes created by European migrationfor example, owing to civil war in the former Yugoslaviaand sometimes by events like the terrible troubles in Afghanistan; but we need to address it collectively so that we share the burden responsibly. We therefore endorse the reference to that aim in the Conservative motion; indeed, we adopted it in our amendment, and it is a shared European objective. Generally, the number of people applying in France appears to be going up; the number applying in Britain may be going up too. In any event, we must realise that we are in this together.
The Home Secretary is of course right that it is probably more likely that agreements with the French, or agreements to which the French will be party, will be made after the two sets of elections than before. We are political realists. Immigration issues register quite high in domestic politics, for obvious reasons, so we will probably have to wait until after the presidential and parliamentary assembly elections in the spring and early summer, and until the new Administration have the confidence to answer such questions anew.
In the light of my experience last Friday, I have five practical suggestions. My experience at Sangatte confirmed that it is not a holiday camp: it is not luxurious. It is a completely unheated hangar, in which there are twice as many people as there are beds, and in which there
I had conversations with some of the people thereall of whom, as it happens, come from Afghanistanwho spoke English; the majority do not. They made it clear to me, first, that they left Afghanistan because at the time the country was extremely disrupted and had a history of almost 25 years of war; secondly, that they left with the support of their families, because their families wanted them to escape and to better themselves; and thirdly, that although they understood that things had settled in Afghanistan, they were unlikely to believe, about a month after the interim Government took office, that there was in place the stable peace that they hoped for, given that all the other stable peaces for which they had hoped over the past 25 years had been false dawns.
We cannot persuade people to go back the minute peace comes to a country or part of a country. It is just not a credible argument that things will not be as bad again if they go home. A belief that we can immediately say, "If you come from Afghanistan, you will all now feel comfortable about going back", struck me as an unrealistic option. It might be much more realistic in the medium or long term, but as of today, this month and next month, very little in the world will persuade those people that they ought to go home.
Secondlythe hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) made a similar pointwhen I asked the people how they had come to Europe, most said that they had paid about $10,000. Most had put themselves in the hands of the traffickers. Most of them chose to say that they wanted to go to the UK, either because, from their own information back in Afghanistan or wherever else they believed that that would be the best placewith the highest principles, respect for human rights, opportunities to work and decent treatmentor because, having listened to the World Service and so on, they spoke English and felt more comfortable with the language than with any other.
Those were practical reasons, but I asked people whether, if Denmark, Germany, France or another country offered them the same prospects, they would consider going there, and many said yes. I suggest to the Home Secretary, and I will suggest to the French ambassador when I see him nextI hope to see him again soonthat the most immediately useful step would be to establish an education and information programme at Sangatte, to give people the facts about what is happening in the countries from which they come, about the options for them now, and about what would happen to their case if they came to the UK. Many of them ought to know that even if they came, their case might be unlikely to succeed.
If, in the two hours I spent speaking to people at Sangatte, I was able to begin a dialogue which, I think, was effective in sharing some information, surely such an information flow could be provided on a regular basis. Certainly, the French Government have principal
Thirdly, no one has apparently done objective researchso the director told meinto the routes, the motivation of the people coming and so on. A few journalists have asked a few questions, but nobody has checked the facts which, as the hon. Member for West Dorset reminded us, often are not known. There ought to be some scientific random sampling of the people at Sangatte now, so that we can find out where they are coming from and who is bringing them, and so that we can deal with some of the causes of their being there.