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6.39 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): This has been a thoughtful and constructive debate. Measured contributions have been made in a non-party political way from all parts of the House, and we should all be grateful for that. I begin by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who introduced this topic in what might in sporting terms be described as a warm-up match in Westminster Hall the other day.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): The second XI?

Mr. Malins: Is the hon. Lady talking about her own side? Surely not.

Some of the players in that debate are here again today. I was grateful for the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who has great experience in home affairs. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) made a thoughtful and well-argued speech, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden outlined many of the issues that we raised together in Westminster Hall last week. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)—who decided that after last week, I was not to have a quiet afternoon today but would have to do the same thing again—for the constructive way in which he put our arguments to the House.

I hope that I shall be forgiven, Madam Deputy Speaker, for reminding the House that in 1992 I was privileged to found the Immigration Advisory Service, the largest national charity that gives free legal help and advice to those with rights of appeal under immigration law. It does excellent work throughout the country, and I am proud of my association with it. As the hon. Member for Slough

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(Fiona Mactaggart) said, expert advice for asylum seekers is important, and the IAS is one of the bodies that provides it.

We would all agree with the proposition that any country with decent values—I am thankful to say that we remain such a country—must speedily and happily grant refugee status to those who are entitled to it. Further, we must display not just good sense but humanity, not only in what we do but in what we say—and, most important, in the way we say it. That point was reinforced by the hon. Members for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard).

Twenty years ago, or even 10, asylum was not a political issue in this country. Today it is. Why? Perhaps the answer is simple. It is because of the dramatic increase in the number of applications, and the publicity, some of it rather inflammatory, given to the topic by the media and others.

The world has changed. Today millions of people are on the move: many are displaced by conflicts and war, but many are simply seeking a better life. We are witnessing a steady march of genuine asylum seekers from war-torn areas and regimes that persecute—but there is also a steady march of the poor and desperate, who seek no more than the chance to work, to live decently and to support their families. Both those categories of people deserve our respect—and, I venture to suggest, our help.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) referred in an intervention to the appalling criminal gangs that smuggle people into this country—and there is, of course, another date that should be impressed on all our minds: 19 June 2000, when 58 Chinese people were found dead, suffocated, in the back of a lorry at Dover. Yes, they were illegal immigrants, but we should never forget—I am sure that none of us, on either side of the House, will ever forget—that they were also ordinary people who sought no more than a better life, to which who would say that they were not entitled?

A glance at the figures illustrates the changed world in which we live. In 1990 there were 26,000 asylum applications; in 2000 there were more than 97,000, including dependants. There is also the backlog. I cast no blame for this, but in August 2001 more than 43,000 applicants were awaiting an initial decision. We were—and still are—faced with the sadness that several Members have referred to when people are refused asylum and have to leave this country having been here for months, even years. Those people have put down roots, and many of us have seen in our surgeries the human tragedies that sometimes result.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset rightly drew the attention of the House to the bilateral agreement that we had with France. As he said, it worked well for two years and would work well again. The Opposition support without reservation my hon. Friend's call for the Government to do their utmost to reinstate that agreement. The hon. Member for Slough suggested that we were saying that that would be a short-term solution, but we were not. I do not think that any of us thinks of it as a solution; it is simply one step that we could and should take, for the benefit of all concerned.

In the Westminster Hall debate last week I tried, not forcefully but in a rather laid-back way, to press the Minister to tell us what the Government had done over the past four years to try to persuade France to reinstate

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the agreement that had worked so well. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden would agree that the Minister could not tell us much. She spoke of the

and when pressed further she simply said that the two Governments

I hope that when she winds up the debate she will be able to tell us in more detail what the Government have done over the past four years to try to reinstate the agreement.

France has co-operated well. I hope he will forgive me if I am wrong, but I think it was the Home Secretary who mentioned the French legislation which means that passengers using an international train service with a domestic leg—Paris to the UK via Calais, say—have to submit to UK entry controls in Paris. I congratulate the Government on the work that they have done with the French in that respect, and I believe that that law comes into force either yesterday, today or tomorrow. Such co-operation is important, and should be repeated with the bilateral agreement.

I must say a word or two about Sangatte. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, spoke movingly and accurately about the state of affairs there. When I visited Sangatte with the Home Affairs Committee, I saw almost 1,000 people herded together in what seemed like an aircraft hangar, gathered to make their attempt to enter this country. They were in a sorry state; it was cold, nasty and damp, people were cramped together, and the lavatory conditions were awful. Nobody on that all-party Committee could have failed to be moved by what we saw.

We saw thousands of people who had passed through a series of safe countries and arrived in France, which is itself a safe country. The obvious question to ask is, if they were asylum seekers, why did they not make their claim—indeed, why were they not obliged to make their claim—in the first safe country they reached, or in France itself? If they were not asylum seekers, what was being done to prevent their attempts to enter this country illegally?

I ask the Government to do all that can be done to persuade the French to close Sangatte—on humanitarian grounds, if for no other reason. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, perhaps there is an argument for centres to be further away from the French coast. I was sorry to read in the papers that an attempt by Eurotunnel to have the centre closed was rejected a few days ago by a French court, for the second time in about five months.

What advice can the Opposition offer the Government? I simply ask them, "Please do all you can to work closely with the French to reinstate the bilateral agreement that served us so well, and also work hard to ensure that Sangatte is closed." I also make the nuts-and-bolts point that they should put more detection equipment not only at Dover but at Felixstowe, and at Coquelles and Calais. There should be more equipment on the other side of the channel, where it would be so much more use.

The Opposition believe that the House is united in the aim of reducing the inflow of asylum applicants, and is also committed to a more equal distribution. We believe

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that a reinstated bilateral agreement is a most useful measure. Perhaps the issue that divides us is the Government's belief that a long-term, EU-wide distributional treaty is the whole answer, but we both accept that there is merit in the other's principle. All we say to the Government is that now is the time to act. With good will, the bilateral agreement, which could—and should—bring more order to our system, could be reinstated within months. Whatever we do, sooner rather than later we must adopt a policy that ensures that the tragedy of the 58 Chinese can never be repeated.

6.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): There has been considerable agreement during the debate on what needs to be done to address the problem of those who seek asylum in particular European Union countries. There has also been a great deal of discussion of wider asylum issues, to which we will be able to respond when the White Paper is published. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House mentioned the need to consider end-to-end processes and a more holistic system, rather than relying purely on asylum. Reference has also been made to illegal working and establishing international agreements to deal with this evolving issue, and I can assure right hon. and hon. Members that the White Paper contains such analysis. I hope that its suggestions will be welcomed on publication later this week.

I also welcome the tone of the debate, which has established at least one thing that we can all agree on—that the problem cannot be solved purely by unilateral action in the UK. This is a global issue with international and supranational aspects, and we need to co-operate internationally if we are to defeat the scourge of the people traffickers. While listening to today's debate, I was heartened to hear many hon. Members acknowledge that trade's criminal nature, its growth in recent years and its dire effects on those who fall into the clutches of the people traffickers. Again, the White Paper will have something to say about that.

I must, however, move away slightly from the warm glow of the cross-party approach, because I do not agree with the analysis that the bilateral agreement was a sunny upland that we should look back on nostalgically and attempt to repeat. Actually, it did not work very well, and I should chide the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) slightly for his article in today's Daily Express, the tone of which does not quite match his comments in the House today. In it, he states:

That is not true. Although there have been increases, our bilateral and co-operative agreements with the French have substantially reduced the numbers getting through, which is one reason why Sangatte is holding double the amount of people that it was designed to hold.

The hon. Gentleman's article also suggests that the bilateral agreement—it was called a gentleman's agreement, funnily enough—worked well. I can give him some figures on how well it worked. His article states that, when the Labour Government took office, the lower

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figure that was achieved under the bilateral agreement increased to as many as 43,000, and it implies that all of that increase was associated with France. However, in 1996, when the gentleman's agreement was in place, his Government returned numbers of people in the low teens every month. Overall, between 150 and 200 people were returned in 1996. The figures improved slightly in 1996-97, when 516 asylum seekers were returned to France under the terms of the bilateral agreement. Those figures are nowhere near being of the kind that his praise of the agreement would imply.

The plain fact is that the agreement was weakened and rendered even less effective by judicial action and suspensive appeals as soon as it came into force. It took longer for an appeal to a judicial authority to establish that a return was sensible than the 24 hours, seven days or one month that the agreement specified. As a result, there were an increasing number of judicial review challenges. Even after the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 and just before the end of the agreement, the monthly removal rate was 43 a month, but there were 127 judicial reviews. The agreement was faltering before it was superseded.

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