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Illegal Immigration (Channel Tunnel)

1 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to draw to the Government's attention once again my constituents' concerns over the level of illegal immigration through the channel tunnel. The English terminal of the tunnel is situated in Cheriton in my constituency. The facilities for the freight terminal are situated at Dollonds moor, also in my constituency. As my constituents know only too well, the situation is now completely out of control. It is the gravest possible indictment of the Government that they have failed totally to get to grips with the problem.

It is worth reminding ourselves of what the situation was in 1997. As a result of a combination of measures taken by the previous Government, when I was Home Secretary, the number of people seeking asylum in this country had fallen by 40 per cent. The backlog of outstanding asylum applications was coming down fast. There was in place an agreement between France and the United Kingdom, under which France agreed to take back those who came from France to apply for asylum here. There was no camp at Sangatte. There were no stories of people seeking nightly to break into trains coming through the tunnel in order to get to this country.

Five years on, there is no agreement with France. There is a camp at Sangatte, which exists simply and solely as a staging post for those who seek illegal entry into the United Kingdom. There are nightly reports of people breaking into the trains coming through the channel tunnel, endangering their own safety and the safety of others by doing so. The number of people seeking asylum in this country has tripled during that time. The situation is completely out of control.

Nothing that I say today bears upon the entitlement to asylum of those fleeing persecution. That principle was certainly adhered to throughout the period in office of the last Conservative Government. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that the Minister for Asylum and Immigration, Lord Rooker, said last week that only one in 10 of those who apply for asylum in this country are entitled to it and get it. Indeed, if any of those seeking to enter this country illegally through the channel tunnel are fleeing persecution, there is no reason whatever why they could not apply for asylum in France, or in any of the other countries that they have to travel through to get to the United Kingdom.

The reason they are here, as they told me when I visited Sangatte just over a year ago—apart from the English language, about which I accept the Government can do nothing—is that they think that they can get more money and better accommodation in this country than in any other country in Europe. That is doubtless why the number of people seeking asylum in this country has, in the lifetime of the present Government, exceeded those seeking asylum in any other European country. Given our geography, and the lengths that people have to go to in order to get into Britain to claim asylum, that statistic is truly astonishing.

It is worth examining in some detail the Government's lamentable record in dealing with the problem. Instead of pursuing the benefit policies that

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had, in part, contributed to the reduction in the number seeking asylum in this country prior to 1997, they refused to do so. Indeed, they did nothing at all for three years until the Home Secretary's predecessor introduced his ill-fated and wholly unsuccessful legislation, now entirely disowned by the present Home Secretary.

Less than two years after those measures were introduced the present Home Secretary acknowledged that they had not worked. He is introducing his own measures to deal with the problem; the signs are that they will be no more successful than those introduced by his predecessor.

To cap it all—almost incredibly—we hear reports that the Government have agreed to surrender their veto on European Union decisions relating to asylum. Those reports emanate not from a statement to this House, nor from an answer to a parliamentary question, but from a speech made by the Foreign Secretary to Dutch dignitaries and politicians in The Hague on 21 February. He called for the national veto to be scrapped in some key areas such as asylum and immigration, arguing that majority voting by EU countries would speed decision making. The sheer irresponsibility of that argument beggars belief. It means that decisions could be taken, against the opposition of the Government of the United Kingdom, that had far-reaching consequences for communities in our country.

The Government will have rendered themselves powerless to deal with one of the most serious problems we face. Let us examine some of the consequences of that extraordinary capitulation. It has always been accepted, at least in principle, that those who claim to be fleeing persecution should seek asylum in the first safe country that they enter. In the EU, that has meant applying for asylum in the first member state in which they find themselves.

That was the principle underlying the Dublin convention, agreed as long ago as 1990. I entirely accept that the convention, which did not come into force until summer 1997, after the general election, has not worked well in practice, but at least it was based on the right principle.

What if, now, a majority of member states of the European Union decided to agree a different principle? What if they decided that asylum seekers should have complete freedom to choose in which country to make their claim? We know that more of them want to come to this country than to any other, for reasons that I have already given. If the Government surrender their veto, we will be powerless to resist such a change.

What if a majority of members of the European Union decided to realise the long-standing ambition of many of them to introduce a quota system for dealing with claims for asylum, and that quota system was grossly unfair to the United Kingdom? The Government of the United Kingdom will be powerless to resist.

I cannot recall a more irresponsible, unnecessary and wanton surrender of power than that. I cannot imagine what possessed the Government to contemplate taking that step. I hope that the Minister, in his reply, will deal fully with that astonishing decision, which remains wholly unexplained, and give Parliament, for the first time, a full account of why the shift in the Government's position has occurred.

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Meanwhile, on the ground, things go from bad to worse. The number of freight trains operated by English, Welsh and Scottish Railway Limited continues to fall. That means that more goods have to be carried by lorries on our roads, adding to the congestion and the environmental detriment that we all wish to avoid. The future of EWS as a going concern has been called into question. It faces great uncertainty; the number of trains that it can run through the tunnel has been severely reduced and the basis of its operations is uncertain. The number of asylum seekers on the freight trains that they operate has reached unprecedented heights, and approached 200 in one week last month. Those are the ones who were caught.

I pay tribute to my constituents. Fortunately, my constituency has not witnessed a significant number of difficulties or incidents of trouble between asylum seekers and local residents, and I hope that that continues. However, my constituents feel considerable and mounting frustration, as they see evidence all around of a situation that is wholly out of control.

It is clear what the Government should do. They should reconsider some of the measures that make this country a relatively attractive place for asylum seekers. They should reinstate the bilateral agreement with France, which was so helpful in dealing with the problem before 1997. They should persuade the French Government to close the camp at Sangatte, and urge them to instruct French railways—which, after all, remains a nationalised company—to put in place at Fréthun the security arrangements that it has promised for the past two years.

The Government pretend—I hope that the Minister will not persist in this pretence—that they cannot reinstate the bilateral agreement with France because the Dublin convention has come into force. The convention was signed in 1990, when asylum was much less of a problem in this country. It is true that it has not worked as effectively as it could and should have done. As I said, its underlying principle is that asylum seekers should apply for asylum in the first European Union member state in which they find themselves. If that principle were respected, the problem facing this country and my constituents would be much less severe.

There is nothing in the convention to prevent a bilateral agreement from being concluded. Germany and Denmark are both signatories, and have put in place an agreement that is similar to that which I negotiated with the French before 1997, when I was Home Secretary; so much for the Government's paper-thin excuses.

The Government are constantly telling us what wonderful relations they have with our European partners. If they are only half as good as the Government say they are, it is about time that they used them. It should not be too difficult to put in place arrangements similar to those that I have precisely identified.

The truth is that the political will is lacking. I have no great hopes of the Minister's reply, although I shall leave him ample time to deal with all the points that I have raised. Against all expectations, my constituents are looking for a belated indication that the Government are not as lacking in political will as their record on this issue demonstrates.

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1.13 pm

The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham) : I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) on securing this Adjournment debate and on raising a series of serious issues on which he has invited me to reply. He outlined four issues that I should seek to address. The first is the question of the bilateral agreement with France, the second the issue of Sangatte, the third that of security at Fréthun and the fourth the objectives of Government policy with regard to co-operation in the European Union on issues of asylum.

I should like to start with the bilateral agreement, or so-called gentleman's agreement. That agreement, to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman so often refers, allowed for returns of asylum seekers to France only in limited circumstances. It covered arrangements for the return of asylum seekers, refused passengers and illegal entrants arriving at the channel ports or via the channel tunnel.

The agreement was always going to be superseded by the Dublin convention once the latter was implemented. The first paragraph of the agreement on the bilateral arrangements with France, reached when the right hon. and learned Gentleman's party was in power, states:

In other words, the ending of the bilateral agreement was planned for and put in place by the previous Conservative Administration. It makes no sense to suggest that it is simply a matter of political will that the agreement is no longer in place.

Having reached a gentleman's agreement, the previous Administration at the same time ensured that it would cease to operate when the Dublin convention came into force. That means that the agreement was effectively in operation for only a short period of time. When it was first in place in 1996, between 150 and 200 people were returned to France. It gives a wholly misleading impression of what the bilateral agreement did to suggest that the return of between 150 and 200 people is the answer to the challenges that we face with asylum. The issues are serious and they require serious responses. It does not help the debate to suggest that an agreement that returned between 150 and 200 people in an entire year somehow holds the key.

The following year, the total number of people returned under the agreement reached 516. That was it. By that stage, the system was becoming bogged down in the process of judicial review, by which asylum seekers who did not wish to be returned could thwart the system.

Mr. Howard : Does the Minister not understand that the deterrent effect of the agreement was wholly disproportionate to the numbers to which he referred? If people knew that they were going to be returned to France from this country, they did not bother to make the efforts that they are now making in order to get into this country. The Minister must face up to the fact that on the ground, the situation before 1997 was nothing like what it is now. The agreement was not the only factor, but was one of the most important factors that led to that completely different state of affairs.

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Does the Minister not also appreciate that although it is true that the agreement was to come to an end when the Dublin convention came into force—everyone hoping that the Dublin convention would be effective—the existence of the Dublin convention has not prevented Germany and Denmark, who are both signatories to the convention, from reaching an agreement similar to the one that existed between Britain and France? Why cannot we do the same?

Mr. Denham : The right hon. and learned Gentleman is wriggling in the face of the fact that he has made claims for the impact of the bilateral agreement that are not justified by the facts. With regard to the agreement between Denmark and Germany, my understanding is that that is an agreement for the facilitation of the Dublin convention, not as an alternative to it or a provision separate from it.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Denham : I will, but I am aware that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe asked a number of questions.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton): Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be very brief.

Mr. Swire : Will the Minister reverse up a bit and address the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard)? What is important is not that the bilateral agreement got between 150 and 200 people back to France, but that it sent out a message that Britain is not a soft underbelly on immigration and that we had agreements in force that meant that we would be harder to approach across the channel. The issue is the positive signals that we give out.

Mr. Denham : I do not believe that there was the impact that was claimed. The substantial numbers of people who seek asylum throughout Europe reflect developments in the wider world rather than the existence, or otherwise, of the agreement. It was clear that people soon realised that its effect—I do not say that it had no value—could be thwarted through judicial review.

I turn to the situation at Fréthun. We are worried about the disruption to train services and the number of illegal immigrants who come through the tunnel. We have repeatedly stressed to SNCF and all levels of the French Government the need for rapid security improvements. We are aware of the serious effect on UK business that has been caused by the disruption to freight services through the tunnel. That is why we will continue to monitor the situation and we will take further concerted action until the overall policing and security levels are adequate.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary told the House that he will begin immediate discussions with the French Government on the situation in northern France when the French elections have finished in June and a

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new Administration is formed. He has spoken with Nicolas Sarkozy, who is the new French Minister of the Interior. I understand that they had a constructive discussion last week that especially focused on the problem of clandestine immigration in the Calais region.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe discussed the continuing problems at the SNCF freight yard at Fréthun with the French ambassador last week. He made it clear that the situation is intolerable. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has raised the issue with his new French counterpart, and contacts have been made at official level. In response to our representations, the French Government have agreed to increase police cover at Fréthun. Since March, an additional gendarme squad of 50 men who are dedicated to the security of Fréthun has been in place at the freight yard.

It is essential to restore a viable rail freight service and to deter would-be stowaways. We continue to press SNCF to complete the physical security improvements to its freight yard. We welcome last week's announcement by the head of SNCF that the company is to spend 7.5 million euro on improved security measures at Fréthun. They will include greatly improved fencing with razor wire, detection equipment, improved lighting and closed circuit television monitoring. We welcome even more his statement that the measures, some of which have been promised for more than a year, will be put in place over the next two months. The improvements should reduce the likelihood of the site being overrun by clandestines as occurred in the past.

However, at the same time, it is essential that the level of police cover is maintained. Recent newspaper reports that the French police were pulling out of Fréthun were untrue. Regrettably, one squadron of gendarmes was temporarily assigned to other duties and replaced only several days later. The new French Minister of the Interior gave my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary his personal assurance that that will not happen again.

We are grateful for the French Government's efforts on improving security in the Calais area. We know that a combination of effective anti-intrusion measures and effective policing works. For example, the measures taken by Eurotunnel at its Coquelles terminal reduced the number of clandestine entrants arriving in freight shuttle trains from 808 in July 2001 to seven in April 2002. That shows that it is feasible to implement effective measures to deter would-be illegal immigrants. We are also grateful that the French Government have assured us that there has been no change to their overall policing policy at Fréthun. However, during all our contacts with the French authorities we will continue to stress the need for the police presence at Fréthun to be continuous—all day, every day.

The civil penalty and carriers' liability regimes are important and successful elements of our border controls and they will remain important parts of our strategy to prevent illegal entry. Prior to their introduction, the number of clandestine entrants being dealt with at Dover increased at a rate in excess of 170 per cent. a year. That upward trend has been halted and reversed, and the number of entrants detected at Dover in 2001 was down 27 per cent. from the previous year.

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We believe that it is the fundamental right of any nation to require those who enter it to say what goods or people they are carrying, and to bear responsibility for goods or people that they should not be carrying. Although we welcome the Court of Appeal's recent findings that this important regime is lawful and valid, it is our intention to modify the civil penalty regime to ensure that it is fully compatible with the European convention on human rights. In order to comply with the Roth ruling and maintain the strength of our borders, a new system of variable penalties for carriers and hauliers will be introduced. The revised regime will retain all the important elements of the existing one and will be tough but fair.

The United Kingdom is also deploying new technologies to good effect in strengthening us in our fight against illegal immigration. Various forms of sophisticated detection equipment are already in use at our ports, and we are in local discussions with the French authorities about partnerships to share our expertise and equipment.

Addressing cross-channel illegal immigration, and the unsatisfactory case of Sangatte in particular, is a priority for the Government. The existence and location of the Red Cross centre in Sangatte is clearly not helpful. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made no secret of his wish that it should, ultimately, be closed down. We also recognise the social impact of the 1,500 migrants in the area. Together with French colleagues, we are considering solutions to the problem of large numbers of would-be illegal immigrants congregating in northern France.

Those issues will be at the top of the Home Secretary's agenda when he speaks to the new French Minister of the Interior after the elections in France. He will make it clear, as he has done before, that we are keen to work closely with the French to combat the flow through the channel tunnel and to help to create conditions in northern France that would render the centre unnecessary. I do not suggest that that will be easy, particularly as many of the immigrants are not returnable to their country of origin at present, but we are determined to find ways of alleviating the problem. A key concern is ensuring that any arrangements between the UK and France do not result in attracting even more immigrants to northern France.

As well as considering specific bilateral solutions, an important part of the process will be co-operation within the European Union. Sangatte is a symptom of a shared European problem of people-smuggling and illegal immigration. The occupants of the Sangatte centre must have crossed several of the European Union member states to reach northern France. We need to work with our European partners to strengthen the EU's borders, to address the root causes of illegal immigration, and to return those who do not, or no longer, have a right of residence in the EU.

The comprehensive plan on illegal immigration and people-trafficking in the EU was adopted by Ministers at the Joint Home Affairs Council on 28 February. It

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covered several matters that are to be implemented by February 2003 in the short term, and by February 2005 in the medium term. The UK considers all the issues to be important but is particularly keen to make progress on the subjects of return and operational co-operation on the EU's current and future external borders.

We think that there is a strong need to work with the border services of member states to combat illegal immigration into the EU. The UK-led initiative to assist the state border service of Bosnia-Herzegovina is an excellent example of what that type of co-operation can achieve.

Mr. Howard : I hope that the Minister will deal with the veto.

Mr. Denham : I intend to set out the practical measures that we would like to agree with our European partners and have in place to deal with the problems that we are debating. It is important that the EU continues its work with source countries of illegal immigration. We have to address the root causes of illegal immigration. We support the continued strengthening of the approach of the high-level working group on asylum and migration. It is important to stress the strong lead that the UK is taking in pushing the issues forward; it has asked that they be included on the agenda for the Seville European Council.

Last week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote to the Spanish Prime Minister, José Maria Aznar, to underline the need for the EU to redouble its efforts on speeding up progress on asylum measures and on joint work on returns, and on taking rapid action to strengthen the EU's external frontiers. It has been well publicised that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister met the Spanish Prime Minister yesterday to discuss these matters and to underline the importance that we attach to them.

There are other issues about which I will write to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Howard : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I am unsure whether it will be a point of order, but I shall give the right hon. and learned Gentleman an opportunity to speak.

Mr. Howard : I seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as to whether it is in order—especially when the Member who has initiated a debate of this sort has taken less time than the allotted 15 minutes—for the Minister completely to ignore in his reply one of the most substantive points—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I must ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to resume his seat. The Minister's response is his responsibility; As the Chair, I am not responsible for it.

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