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Mr. Letwin: I hesitate to strip away an illusion, but the Conservatives would be delighted with a more EU-wide

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agreement. We welcome Dublin II and the prospect of the shared burden being distributed more evenly. The problem is that it might take years. The question is not whether multilateral agreement is a good idea, but whether it might be worth trying in the meantime to reinstate a bilateral agreement as one helpful approach.

Mr. Gerrard: I am not sure that all the measures would take as long as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I am glad that he agrees that we should seek wider agreement—most people welcome in principle moves towards harmonisation of asylum policies across the EU.

There is danger in the fact that the debate so far has focused on harmonisation rather than on the more important issue of standards. We have focused far too much on how to get policies to converge, rather than on what the policies should be and what the aims of EU-wide policies should be.

Despite the fact that the tone of today's debate has been mainly constructive, I am worried. If the attitude of every EU country is to say, "We want common standards, agreement and harmonisation, but we also want fewer people coming to our country to claim asylum," we will never reach agreement, and no progress will be made. The debate is couched in terms of wanting harmonisation and agreements—bilaterally with France, and perhaps multilaterally involving other countries—but at its root is the desire for fewer people to come to the UK to apply for asylum. If every EU country adopts a similar attitude, we will either get nowhere or end up with a policy that does not work.

I was interested in some of the suggestions of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey about how we might examine the issue of applications made from another country. I strongly agree with the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), although it was greeted with scepticism by some hon. Members. Factors such as knowledge of a particular language, or family connections, or friends who are already asylum seekers or recognised refugees, have a great influence on an asylum seeker who is deciding the appropriate point at which to make an application.

There are so many complex factors of that nature involved in the process that I find it difficult to envisage the "first safe country" concept ever really working, whatever arrangements along the lines of the Dublin agreement are reached. There are those who flee wars and end up in a neighbouring first safe country but when people travel halfway round the world to come to the European Union, I seriously doubt whether a policy based purely on first safe country will achieve the results that some people wish.

Mr. Lansley: I recognise the hon. Gentleman's great experience in these matters but is he not falling into the trap of confusing asylum policy and immigration policy, as if they were not separate matters? At the heart of asylum policy must be the concept that those who seek asylum are genuine refugees. Therefore, the first safe country principle must have a role to play in that when someone has left a place where he is in fear of persecution or risks losing his life, the first safe place that he comes to is a valid country in which to claim asylum, even if it is not his final place of residence.

Mr. Gerrard: I hope that the hon. Gentleman's last couple of words are an acknowledgement that there may

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be family connections and family ties, which presently are not recognised. I recently met an asylum seeker from Sri Lanka who had been given exceptional leave to remain in the United Kingdom. He has family members who have been given refugee status in Switzerland. However, it is impossible in the EU for that family to come together. That strikes me as ludicrous. Different countries have recognised different members of the same family, but there is no mechanism to bring them together within the EU. We need to go beyond saying that the first safe country is the only thing that matters.

It is highly unlikely that any of us in this place will have to seek asylum. However, if I were in that position, I am not sure that France would be the first country to which I would want to go to live. That is not because I have anything against the French. I would think about language and where I might have a friend or relative whom I might want to reach.

We shall have to consider gateways from other countries. During the Kosovo crisis, the humanitarian evacuation programme brought people who had gone from Kosovo to Macedonia to the UK and other EU countries. But only in major crises have we tried to operate mechanisms to allow approaches through an organisation such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in another country. We must think about such situations if we want seriously to deal with traffickers and cut their routes.

As long as we erect barrier after barrier, someone will always be trying to find their way round them. He or she will try to make money by doing so and bringing in people illegally. I hope that we shall start to think about mechanisms that will allow people from other countries to make applications rather than causing them to try to smuggle themselves through the channel tunnel, for example.

We must remember that the UN convention on refugees does not let us say that we must regard someone as a bogus asylum seeker or failed asylum seeker because he has come to this country illegally. The present position is that it is virtually impossible to come to the UK legally to make an application.

When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary publishes his White Paper, I hope that that will allow us to have a sensible debate on some of the wider issues. The debate must not focus on a narrow bilateral question but consider what happens throughout the EU. We must consider the links between asylum and immigration policy and economic migration. We have started to have that debate today. I hope that we can develop it when the White Paper is published in the same constructive tone that has characterised much of this afternoon's debate.

5.50 pm

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) for rescuing this subject from the comparative obscurity of Westminster Hall, where I raised it early last week, and introducing it in the Chamber, where it is assured of a blaze of publicity and packed Benches—at least for his speech. I am glad that my hon. Friend has done so, and that he adopted a positive and constructive tone which has infected most of the subsequent speeches. There was however a degree of complacency in the Government's response, which is reflected in their amendment.

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It is generally accepted that the flow of asylum seekers to this country represents a significant part of a major problem. I do not want to repeat in the Chamber what I said in Westminster Hall, but we must reaffirm what we mean by the problem, which is not about individual asylum seekers. In so far as they are genuine asylum seekers genuinely seeking refuge from persecution elsewhere, Members on both sides of the House endorse and accept our responsibility to take them into this country and give them the security that they need. Even in so far as they are economic migrants who constitute a great proportion of those who come here allegedly seeking asylum, we should respect the fact that they are trying to do their best for their families. They often come from impoverished and troubled countries and, by definition, they have shown themselves to be entrepreneurial and ambitious even to have got here in the first place. As individuals, they could no doubt make a sizeable contribution to this country.

The problem is one of numbers. We cannot be a country of unlimited immigration, and must therefore limit the number of those who come here; we must try simply to meet our obligation to those who are genuine refugees and perhaps, beyond that, those who are given exceptional leave to remain. We must restrict and prohibit entry for those who are not true asylum seekers.

There is plenty of evidence available to all of us that the flow from France is a major part of the problem. There are continual newspaper stories of people being discovered in the back of lorries; people waiting in the Sangatte camp and repeatedly trying to get in; large numbers of people trying to break into the tunnel at Christmas; and gangs trying to rig the signals so that people can get on the trains before they reach the tunnel. All those stories provide qualitative evidence of a sizeable problem. The quantitative evidence, however, is less clear. The Government amendment cites the figures for 2000 and 2001, when 13,500 and 11,000 would-be asylum seekers, respectively, came here illegally from France.

Those figures are puzzling. First, why did the Government just give us figures comparing 2001 with 2000? Our debate is about the situation between 1995 and 1997, and whether we could replicate and reproduce it if we restored the bilateral agreement that obtained then. Will the Minister give us the figures, comparable to those that the Government gave for 2000 and 2001, that applied during 1995, 1996 and 1997? The Government amendment says that there was a 20 per cent. reduction between 2000 and 2001, which is obviously welcome. It then says that

Can the Minister tell us the distinction between the number of people crossing illegally into the United Kingdom, which showed a drop of almost 20 per cent., and the number of clandestine entrants, which showed a drop of almost 27 per cent. in 2001? Is there a distinction that we need to know about? We also need to be told whether either category—illegal entrants or clandestine entrants—is the whole story? Do not a number come here legally, then claim asylum? In addition, are there not people who come illegally, but about whom we subsequently know nothing? And are there not people who claim asylum, but we do not know which route they took?

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Are there not also dependants of claimants, since the practice is simply to give the number of claims, not the number of people covered by those claims? In addition, are there not people who will subsequently be brought here as dependants of claimants? Once people are given the right to stay here they ask, not surprisingly, whether their dependants can join them. We need to know those figures in more detail if we are to understand the size of the problem constituted by the flow of people from France to this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset rightly pointed to the fact that we had a bilateral agreement between 1995 and 1997. So far as I know, no one denies that it was pretty effective. It may not have been 100 per cent. effective; it did not seal this country hermetically and stop the flow of immigration from France. However, it was effective and gave us the capability to return people either within 24 hours or, if we lodged a statement that we might have difficulty doing so within that period, within seven days. In certain circumstances there was a month's further grace, if I understand the agreement correctly.

If the agreement was effective then, why cannot it be renewed now? A number of reasons have been given by the Minister and the Home Secretary. The first is that France will not agree. But France agreed in 1995 or, to be precise, the agreement was drafted in 1994 and came into force in 1995. France continued to agree, even though it had the right to resile from the agreement with a month's notice. Indeed, it continued to agree with terms that did not lapse when the Dublin convention came into force. Are the Government saying that our influence over our French friends and partners is less now than it was then? Are they saying so despite the fact that, in the interim, they have made many unilateral concessions to our partners in the European Union, including signing up to the Amsterdam treaty, unilaterally agreeing the social chapter, and agreeing with the French to co-sponsor a European rapid reaction force? All those unilateral changes, we were told, would increase our influence and take it to previously unknown heights. If that is the case, why cannot that influence now bring about something that we could achieve in 1994 and 1995?

The Government argue that everything was stopped by the Dublin convention; the agreement was superseded by the convention, so we cannot rely on bilateral agreements any longer. As my hon. Friend pointed out, that is not the case. Germany and Denmark have, subsequent to the Dublin convention, entered into a bilateral arrangement. We are told that Germany is different from France; it is in a different geographical location, which means that, more frequently than France, it is the first place of entry into the community; and more people have made a claim there before making a claim in Denmark. All those things were true in 1995; the relative geography of France and Germany has not changed since 1995, and the arrangements have remained rigidly in place. What was possible in 1995 must surely be possible now.

The Minister has also said that the agreement was not much use because action had to be taken within 24 hours, which has become more difficult. I am glad that some of the difficulties created by the courts have subsequently been overridden by legislation introduced by the Government, which specifies that the courts cannot treat France or Germany as unsafe countries, in the sense given

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in the Geneva convention. That would make it easier for us automatically to return people within 24 hours if we restored the agreement and renegotiated bilaterally.

I repeat to the Under-Secretary, who has the misfortune of facing me once again, the questions that I put to her in the previous debate and which she did not answer. Have the Government tried to renegotiate the bilateral agreement? If so, when, where, with whom and on what terms? Why was it refused? As all of us are more interested in the future than in the past, an even more important question is whether the Government will try in future.

The Home Secretary made the legitimate point that the French are facing elections and that, in the immediate run-up to an election, it is more difficult to get an agreement with them. That may or may not be true, but may we at least have an assurance that once those elections are out of the way, the Government will not rule out trying once again to resume the bilateral arrangement with the French, or something like it?

A characteristically thoughtful and even more characteristically lengthy and unfocused speech from the Liberal Democrat Benches failed to address the question whether there should be a bilateral agreement. When pressed on the point by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the view of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) was that there was no point. If we sent people back, they would keep trying to enter the country, so we might as well let them in in the first place. That was the logic of the hon. Gentleman's position.

That highlights an important point. We must ask why the United Kingdom is so attractive to so many people who, having got to France—a country which I love and in which I would willingly spend more time, if the House would allow me—do not want to stay there, but want to come to this country. Theoretically, under the terms of the Geneva convention and the obligation of those seeking asylum to seek it in the first safe country to which they come, the United Kingdom should, for that reason and because it is an island, probably have the smallest flow of asylum seekers of any major country in Europe. Instead, it has the highest proportion of asylum seekers per head of any major country, though not as high as some smaller countries, such as Ireland—that is even more strange, as reaching it requires crossing two stretches of water—and Denmark.

Why, then, is the UK so attractive? It is not just language; it is not just the generosity of our benefits. I have made it clear in the past that our benefit levels are not supremely generous, compared with those often available on the continent. It is not just because jobs are relatively available in the UK, although that obviously is a factor. When one asks asylum seekers, they say, and all the surveys show, that it is because they know that when they get to this country, they face the least likelihood of being returned to their country of origin.

That is demonstrated by figures quoted in one of the court cases, which was held to prove that France was not a safe country and the UK was. Five per cent. of claimants who come to the UK seeking asylum from Algeria are returned to Algeria, and 80 per cent. of those from Algeria seeking asylum in France are returned to Algeria. There

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is a great disparity between the likelihood of their being returned once they get to the UK, and the likelihood of their being returned from other countries.

That has not come about intentionally or wilfully. The House did not decide to make this the most attractive country in Europe for economic migrants. It has come about by accident, because we moved from a system that was essentially administrative to one which was put in the hands of the courts. In so doing, we have effectively extended to every inhabitant of the globe who can find his way to these shores the right, once he has done so, not just to seek asylum, but during the period of seeking asylum, to obtain benefits; after six months, to obtain a job; after refusal, to appeal; after the appeal being turned down, to seek a judicial review; and after the judicial review failing, to seek remedy under the Human Rights Act. By that time the person will have been here so long that he will have put down roots in this country, become part of the community, perhaps have married and probably have had children.

The people who come to my surgery expressing generally racist views about asylum seekers one day will come the next day about Mohammed who lives next door, whom they want to stay because he has been here five years already, he is part of the community and a member of the parent-teacher association, his children go to the same school as their own, they like him, he is a good chap, and they worship in the same church, or whatever. They are right, of course. It would be inhumane to send such people back, and it becomes increasingly inhumane the longer they have stayed in this country and the deeper their roots are.

Effectively, we have created a system for ourselves under which we cannot send people back because the whole process takes too long. They know it, so they come here and will go to great lengths to come here, including running great risks and facing great dangers to do so, because once here, they are pretty confident that they will not have to return.

We know, although no one expresses it with as much bluntness as I perhaps can, now that I am on the Back Benches, that there are only two ways to solve the problem. One is to make the UK a less attractive place for economic migrants and asylum seekers to stay. The other is to make it a more difficult place for people to stay.

The options for making the UK less attractive include those which apply in the period during which people may not take a job—the experiment tried by the previous Home Secretary and scrapped by the present Home Secretary to introduce voucher payments instead of benefits, and the changes that I introduced to the benefits system, which meant that if people had entered the country with a visa, to get which they had had to convince the visa authorities that they had the means to support themselves, they would not be entitled to benefits.

All those measures were designed to make the UK a less pleasant place for asylum seekers to be. On the whole, I would prefer not to rely on such methods, even though I was responsible for one of those that I mentioned. I would prefer to make it legally more difficult for people to exploit all the loopholes in our legal system to stay in the UK when they are essentially economic migrants, not asylum seekers.

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