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Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): Earlier, my right hon. Friend said that he hoped that, after the summit, we would have a common policy in Europe on asylum seeking and illegal immigrants. I thought that we already had a common policy, and that the problem was that it was not implemented. Is not the basis of that common policy the idea that people have to register their status as asylum seekers in the country where they first arrive? Is not the problem for us the fact that our partners in Europe do not implement that existing common policy?

Mr. Straw: That is part of the problem. However, it is one thing to set out the principle and another thing to ensure that it operates in practice. One of the difficulties that I faced as Home Secretary from October 1997 was that at that time, thanks to decisions made by the Conservative Government during the previous seven years about which I could do nothing, the former gentlemen's agreement on asylum seekers who ended up in the United Kingdom was finished. Under that agreement, if we could establish within a seven-day period that someone had come from France—regardless of the EU country of their original entry—we could send them back. That agreement finished and in its place came the Dublin convention, which has turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare. We are now seeking to renegotiate it, but funnily enough, that requires the agreement of the other 14 member states.

Mr. Field rose

Mr. Straw: I should tell my right hon. Friend—I shall then give way again—that, meanwhile, under articles 62 to 67 of the Amsterdam treaty, with which he will be familiar, it was agreed, not least on the United Kingdom's initiative by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that there should be more detailed provisions requiring the introduction of what amounts to a common application of the asylum policy and common rules of procedure.

Mr. Field: I appreciate the fullness of that reply, but during the general election campaign and since, the view

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of many of my voters has been that the country that offends most against the common policy is France. As the Government are trying to get the French to play on a level playing field, I wonder whether they have considered sending our immigration officials to French camps so that the processing can take place on French soil. The two Governments could then agree on what to do with those people who are not asylum seekers, but are, quite understandably, economic migrants whom we may or may not wish to have.

Mr. Straw: During my period as Home Secretary and under my right hon. Friend the current Home Secretary, we have certainly been ready to send all kinds of advisers to France and other countries. Indeed, there is a great deal of contact between the two immigration and asylum services. I should add that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already met his opposite number M. Sarkozy, the new Interior Minister, and is due to meet him again next week. I have had a series of discussions with my new opposite number Dominique de Villepin. The new French Administration is so far—it is early days—showing a constructive approach to trying to resolve this issue in a mutually acceptable way.

There is however a difficulty in the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary does not dismiss it out of hand, but the difficulty is that, if we were to process applicants in France, we would have to accept responsibility for them, even though the appropriate country for them to apply for asylum in would be either France, because they were there, or the original EU country in which they arrived if that was not France. They might have arrived in a country further to the east.

I should also tell my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead that, as every EU country knows, even when a decision has been made to reject applicants, the question then arises of what to do about those applicants and how to get them back to the country whence they came. Unless such people were to be incarcerated in increasing numbers—

Mr. Field: They are in a camp at the moment.

Mr. Straw: I understand that, and it is a very suitable camp, too. As I say, I do not rule out my right hon. Friend's proposal. Obviously, all constructive suggestions, including my right hon. Friend's, are being considered by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: Yes, and then I shall make some progress.

Mr. Foulkes: I thank the Foreign Secretary for the representations that he has made regarding security at the Frethun camp. Will he give an indication of when he expects the French authorities to have adequate security protection at Frethun, so that the disruption to freight services to the continent from the United Kingdom can be ended?

Mr. Straw: I cannot give my hon. Friend an exact time scale, but I can say that my right hon. Friend the Home

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Secretary and all other Ministers, and their equivalents across the channel, are well seized of the urgency of taking action. My hon. Friend will be aware that the European Commission has threatened to take proceedings against the French Government for their failure properly to protect the freight terminal at Frethun, as well as to take other action to protect the channel tunnel's assets, and the Commission is quite right to do so. I am pleased that the present French Government have so far shown a constructive approach. I have to say that I found dealing with their predecessors extremely frustrating on this issue, because they did not deliver that which they said that they would.

I ought to make a little progress. The need for the new approach to a common asylum policy and to take tough action against illegal immigration is not about the creation of a fortress Europe. Immigration has made and continues to make a vital contribution to European cultural and economic life. We all now recognise, however, that if we fail to manage the flow of illegal immigration and unfounded asylum seekers, we risk destroying the consensus that we should provide refuge for those genuinely fleeing persecution. As we have seen in recent months, politicians on the far right across Europe have been only too willing to exploit this issue for electoral gain. In response, it is incumbent on us all to deal with the issue responsibly and sensibly.

As I have indicated, we have long recognised the importance of moving towards a common asylum system. Britain played a leading role in framing the action plan on asylum at the Tampere summit in 1999, in Finland, which I was privileged to attend; but the EU has since been unable to achieve many of the milestones that were agreed there almost three years ago. For all EU member states, progress has been slow on returning failed asylum seekers to their countries of origin, and in implementing measures to strengthen the EU's external frontier.

At Seville, we intend to inject new urgency into the Tampere commitments. We must reduce the numbers of illegal immigrants seeking to come to Europe in the first place, return more of those whose claims fail, and tackle the criminality behind this trade in human misery. We need a common asylum policy, a stronger external border for the EU, and a new approach to source and transit countries.

Again, as I have indicated, a common asylum policy would mean uniform standards for receiving asylum seekers arriving anywhere in Europe, and fixed procedures for dealing with those applications. That would prevent asylum seekers from "shopping" for the best point of entry and from making multiple claims in different countries. That also requires a co-ordinated information base and co-ordinated fingerprinting systems to track the claims.

At Seville, as well as arguing for a common administrative system and common standards, we will be calling for urgent action to strengthen the EU's external border. That should include joint work to identify weak points in the current and future external border, and on key transit routes for illegal immigrants into Europe; and joint operations to strengthen any such weak links. That should enable us to target trafficking gangs and track down forgers and transporters.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Three weeks ago, I was in Bulgaria with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I had

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discussions with the Interior Minister there. The Bulgarians in particular, because of their location and their potential in a few years to be the eastern border of NATO and the EU, will face great pressures. Can my right hon. Friend talk to his colleagues in Government about strengthening the support that we give to Bulgaria, Romania and other countries in the Balkans on these matters?

Mr. Straw: Indeed, I can. I was going to come on to say that we will also be calling for the strategic use of Community funding to assist countries, especially those on the eastern border—or what is likely to become the eastern border—of the EU. The cost of defending that border in an expanded EU should not fall disproportionately on those least able to afford it.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): My right hon. Friend has talked about extra Community funding for countries in eastern Europe. Would he consider whether there might be a way in which the Government can provide more support and help for boroughs such as mine in inner-city areas? Not a single person in my borough of Lambeth now has a chance of being rehoused, because every single empty flat is being allocated to an asylum seeker or an economic migrant. Surely the real problem is that we treat our economic migrants much less harshly than France does. No wonder they want to come to this country.

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