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Meeting with French Interior Minister

3.32 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (by private notice): To ask the Home Secretary if he will make a statement on his recent meeting with the French Interior Minister.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): First, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on being elevated to membership of the Privy Council today. [Hon. Members: "Hear, Hear."] I am sure that it will make all the difference in the world.

Yesterday I held a meeting with the Minister of the Interior in the new French Government, Nicolas Sarkozy. The meeting was the first to be held between us and the new French Government on tackling illegal immigration across the channel. This is not something that needs to divide the United Kingdom and France; it is not an adversarial contest, but a matter of finding a joint solution to shared problems. Migration has global causes and global consequences. No single country can solve its problems alone.

Yesterday was a satisfactory start to the process, especially bearing in mind the fact that the National Assembly elections were held only 10 days ago. We have made concrete progress in a number of key areas. First, we agreed to install at the port of Calais British detection technology, including acoustic heartbeat detectors and millimetric wave imaging. A start will be made within weeks. We shall also provide the latest forgery detection technology in order to tackle the use of false identity documents.

In addition, a package of measures to increase security at the Frethun freight depot was agreed. The success of the security investment at Coquelles has put increased pressure on the Frethun yards. Services have been disrupted and a great deal of cost has been incurred. It is therefore crucial that we close that loophole for illegal immigration as quickly as possible. We agreed to use our best endeavours to complete the double fencing at Frethun by 31 July, substantially speeding up the earlier timetable. The French Government will accelerate deployment of additional gendarmes and security personnel in the depots. A financial contribution will be made by the Strategic Rail Authority. That will allow the reintroduction of a full and reliable service no later than the end of September.

We also agreed to enable our intelligence and operational officers to work together in joint teams. We are determined to work in partnership to detect, arrest and prosecute the criminal gangs who profit from the barbaric trade of people trafficking. To monitor progress, we shall establish a joint reporting system to track illegal immigration on both sides of the channel, and publish the statistics every six months.

I also outlined yesterday the comprehensive measures that we are taking to reduce the pull factor to the United Kingdom, in particular by clamping down on illegal working and by spelling out the new measures in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. That was welcomed by the French Government, who committed themselves to the closure of Sangatte, which is now a joint objective of both Governments.

As I said yesterday, this is a marathon, not a sprint. I did not expect to secure full agreement on every issue yesterday. I specifically indicated that I did not expect an

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immediate resolution of a timetable for closing Sangatte. However, we made significant progress and a number of issues are now on the table for the next meeting, which will be held in Paris on 12 July. I know that the House will welcome this long overdue progress in resolving those difficult issues.

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the Home Secretary for his statement, and for his congratulations. We of course welcome the promises that he has received on security and joint monitoring from the French—without welcoming nearly so much the fact that Britain will be contributing millions of pounds to paying for that security. How is it that the French managed to persuade the Home Secretary that it was our responsibility to pay for security on their side of the channel? On how many occasions in the past years have promises been made to increase security on the French side of the channel, and what assurances does the Home Secretary have that on this occasion they will actually be fulfilled?

How real was the offer to construct, in due course, a timetable for delivering the possibility, in due course, of closing the Sangatte camp? How did the Home Secretary manage to persuade the French Interior Minister that his accommodation centres—which, at the present rate, it can be calculated may cure the backlog of asylum applications in the UK over a period of 40 years and 11 months—would be sufficient, in his words, substantially to reduce the pull factor?

I now turn to what is overwhelmingly the most important question, which the Home Secretary specifically avoided mentioning in his response: the bilateral agreement that used to be in place between Britain and France, which at one time provided that those coming from France to the United Kingdom would be returned to France within 24 hours, to have their asylum applications processed there. The Home Secretary has described me and my party as the "militant tendency" in pressing for a resurrected bilateral agreement, and I have therefore three specific questions to ask him.

First, if it was always impossible to negotiate such an agreement with the French, how was my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the former Home Secretary, able to do so in 1995? To which miraculous powers does the Home Secretary ascribe that achievement? Secondly, if it is impossible to negotiate such an agreement with the French, is it not also impossible to negotiate it with other Governments—and if it is impossible to negotiate such an agreement with any Government, why did the Home Secretary take the trouble to legislate in the House and in the other place to provide for such bilateral agreements to be compatible with UK law?

Thirdly, if it is impossible to negotiate such an agreement, why did the Home Secretary write an open letter to me on 23 May, in which he said:

Is it not time for the Home Secretary to make an application to his right hon. Friend the former Home Secretary—the current Foreign Secretary—who is the agent who brought chaos to an asylum system that was once in order—[Interruption]. That person is now responsible for our diplomatic efforts; might he not be

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expected, notwithstanding the Home Secretary's brilliant assault on all the policies that he pursued when he was Home Secretary, to assist the current Home Secretary in negotiating with the French to achieve successfully what this country desperately needs—a new bilateral agreement?

Mr. Blunkett: The right hon. Gentleman's first question was: why are we prepared to negotiate a commitment to the technology and security at the French border? The answer is very simple: this is a unique position—we are trying to persuade a country to prevent people not from getting into its territory, but from getting out of its territory. We are trying to persuade the French to stop people leaving France and entering Britain.

We are prepared to use British technology—advanced as it is—to assist in the process precisely because if we can use the technology that we have at Dover in Calais, to prevent people from crossing the channel, they will not be able to claim asylum, so we will not incur the substantial costs of processing their applications for the first decision or the adjudication decision, or for the judicial review, the appeals tribunal or the further review, or the cost of removal. If we stop just a few dozen people wrongly claiming asylum—those who cannot show that they are at risk of death or persecution—we will save the amount invested in the millimetric and heartbeat technology several times over.

The second question related to Sangatte. It was fairly obvious from the negotiations and from studying the French papers that it is necessary to persuade the French that actions taken concerning the closure of Sangatte will resolve the pull factor and the signals that are sent to individuals and traffickers, so that they do not end up with hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Calais and surrounding areas. That is necessary not because this is not a French problem—it is—but because it becomes our problem if those people continue to try to get through the tunnel or across on ferries.

In resolving and helping to sort out the French problem, we substantially resolve our problem. That is what an intelligent approach seeks to offer, and it is why I was prepared to spell out what we were doing in our own legislation and in non-legislative matters, which the French believed required legislation, to reduce the pull factor to this country. That is why, of course, I spelled out aspects of the new Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, as the House would have expected me to, and those proposals were welcomed and understood.

The reports in this morning's French papers, which I have looked at, were accurate and the quotes from myself and Nicolas Sarkozy were in line with what we actually said yesterday, as opposed to what someone made up along the way.

The substantive question related to returning people to France. In 1995—two years before the Dublin convention, to which the then Conservative Government signed up—there was an interim gentleman's agreement to see the situation through to what was presumably believed to be a very welcome Dublin convention. I presume that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who is sitting along the Bench from the shadow Home Secretary, will recall that very well.

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He will recall that, as he believed that the Dublin convention would solve the problems, he was right to agree in 1995 that the gentleman's agreement would cease once the Dublin convention was introduced. When it was implemented, of course, the gentleman's agreement ceased. I must say that the gentleman's agreement was not all that it was cracked up to be—last year we returned to France 6,000 people who had not claimed immigration status, whereas in the last year of the gentleman's agreement, just over 500 people were returned to France—[Interruption.]

The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is right to say, sotto voce, that many more people tried to get in last year than in 1996. That is true, and that is precisely why we have a much more substantial problem than we had when we inherited the Dublin agreement, which we had not signed up to. It is precisely for those reasons that I am taking steps now to reach agreement with France. I want an agreement on returners to original countries when the first decision has been turned down, and, as I said in my letter of 23 May to the right hon. Member for West Dorset, I want an agreement that will be workable and acceptable.

I describe the right hon. Gentleman's words as coming from the militant tendency because in the 1980s and 1990s, the Labour party went through a process in which impossible demands and unsurmountable barriers were placed in our way—everyone knew that the demands would be unachievable—so that a handful of people could claim failure before we had even started on the policy concerned.

That is what the right hon. Member for West Dorset did when he announced on the "Today" programme yesterday morning that I should simply turn people who arrived in Britain round and send them back to France. Any Member who seriously believes that every person arriving in this country who we believe might have passed through France can simply be turned round and sent back without negotiating terms of reference, and without an understanding that we have considered the case—as we are doing with the non-suspensive appeals and clearly unfounded cases—does not deserve to be in government.

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