Monday 17 June 2002
[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]
Reception of Asylum Applicants
The Chairman: I understand that a Division in the House is imminent. If there is a Division, I will suspend the Committee for 15 minutes.
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): Members of the Committee will be aware that, at the Justice and Home Affairs Council in Luxembourg last week, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary proposed an action plan for European Union member states to step up their commitment to act to strengthen EU borders, fight illegal immigration and people trafficking, and prioritise agreement on asylum measures, leading to a common European asylum policy.
The Committee will also know that the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of calls for such concerted action, which is the only way to address the concerns of the people of Europe on the matter. The priorities will be high on the agenda at the European Council in Seville later this week, which underlines that asylum is increasingly an EU-wide issue, as we have consistently said since the introduction of the treaty of Amsterdam five years ago. We need to co-operate with our EU partners if we are to take collective action to tackle it.
Following that broad introduction, I want to thank the Committees of both Houses for their detailed inquiries into the proposal to establish minimum standards on reception conditions. I welcome the opportunity to discuss it further today. From re-reading reports of previous debates on the subject, I know that hon. Members have made a valuable contribution that has informed our negotiating position, and helpfully and constructively raised points that we have taken into consideration and moved forward. The Government especially welcome hon. Members' endorsement of the concept of a common European asylum system, towards which the measure represents one of the first steps.
Hon. Members will be aware that the extraordinary European Council at Tampere in October 1999 reaffirmed our commitment to setting minimum standards required by the treaty of Amsterdam, and in the longer term to establishing a fully comprehensive common approach to the subject. The UK has actively participated in that work. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary demonstrated in Luxembourg, he has consistently pressed for swift completion of the minimum standards package.
I shall briefly update the Committee on our progress on the other elements of the package, and on how far we have fulfilled our commitment under the treaty of Amsterdam. I am pleased to report that Eurodac, the computerised central database of
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fingerprints, is on schedule to go live in early 2003. That will enable the fingerprints of all asylum seekers to be compared, in order to support the application of the Dublin convention and its replacement.
The European refugee fund was established in September 2000 with the aim of supporting and encouraging member states' efforts in receiving, and bearing the consequences of receiving, refugees and displaced persons, and helping to provide for their reception, social and economic integration and education.
The temporary protection directive was adopted in July. It enables member states collectively to decide to provide short-term protection in response to any mass influx of people fleeing a specific crisis. The directive aims to ensure that temporary protection is granted quickly and promotes a balance of effort between member states in bearing the consequences of any mass influx.
I am also pleased to tell the Committee that negotiations are under way on the qualification directive and the draft regulation—known as Dublin II—on determining which member state is responsible for examining an asylum application. The Committee will be aware that negotiations are all but concluded on the draft Council directive before us, which lays down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers in member states.
The principle around which the draft directive is built is that, regardless of which member state considers their applications, asylum seekers should be able to expect similar treatment and to be guaranteed a dignified standard of living. That has clear benefits for the United Kingdom. In particular, introducing a more level playing field for the living conditions to which asylum seekers are entitled should reduce secondary migration and the disproportionate burden on some member states.
The draft directive gives member states a degree of discretion in achieving minimum standards. For example, it does not impose a formula for calculating the level of financial assistance given to asylum seekers, but places an obligation on member states to provide sufficient assistance to allow asylum seekers a dignified standard of living. Member states can decide exactly what assistance to provide to achieve that.
The draft directive also suggests compromises in areas where member states' practices differ greatly. For example, member states grant access to employment in different circumstances and for different reasons. Some regard work as a significant pull factor, while for others it has been a form of reception condition in itself. That is now changing, and all member states will have to grant asylum applicants access to employment at some point in the procedure.
We hope that the proposal will enable member states with less well developed reception arrangements to build on and improve conditions. Reception conditions in the UK are broadly at or above the minimum standards proposed in the draft directive, and we do not expect to need to make significant
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changes to our reception procedures to comply with it once it is adopted.
Quick agreement is important. Negotiations across the package have not been easy, and deadlines have been missed. On its own, the draft directive will not make all the difference that is necessary, but it will have an enhanced effect when combined with the other directives in the package. We cannot realistically expect to jump to full harmonisation in one go. Member states' practices vary widely, which is why we support the Commission's general approach of introducing minimum standards in the short term and moving towards greater harmonisation of those standards later.
The draft directive tackles asylum seekers' needs in every area. It provides for the provision of information on entitlements, and sets standards for residence, freedom of movement, family unity, education, employment, housing and health care. It also makes provision for those with special needs. It is not open ended, however, and the proposals make it clear that asylum seekers will have responsibilities. Provision is made for member states to withdraw reception conditions if they think that their systems are being abused, and such provision already exists in the UK. That approach is balanced by allowing cases in which reception conditions are withdrawn to be reviewed—again, as in the UK.
We hope to maintain our high standards on the treatment of asylum seekers in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, which is going through Parliament. We shall, however, have to make no major legislative changes to comply with the draft directive, because the UK has always been at the higher end of the scale in providing for those in need.
I do not agree with those critics who have described the directive as providing for the ''lowest common denominator'', and who have suggested that harmonisation would be a ''race to the bottom'', leading to a lowering rather than an improvement in standards. That is not the case. There is no reason why a member state would need to use the new proposals as an excuse to lower standards.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Beverley Hughes: I have few concluding remarks to make. I was talking about the concern expressed in some quarters that the minimum standards might lead to a ''common denominator'' approach, which could lead to a reduction of standards in some countries. I do not think for a moment that that will be its effect. The directive makes it clear that the standards set are the minimum and that member states are expected to build on them. In that sense, I do not agree with the argument that raising the floor for standards will of itself lower the ceiling. We have no intention of lowering our standards in those areas where minimum standards are below UK levels.
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The directive will have the overall effect of raising standards throughout the European Union. I know that the matter is already being considered in several member states, which recognise that they will have to make significant provision where before they had made none. That can only be good for asylum applicants who find themselves in those countries. They will not have to consider whether to stay in those countries, which could have seriously disadvantaged them and their families. It will be good also for member states such as the UK. We have relatively high standards of provision and care, which we intend to maintain and improve on, but asylum applicants will not feel disadvantaged, as the same or similar provisions will be made elsewhere.
I hope that the Committee will support the Government's efforts to secure agreement on the directive, and that it notes our commitment to make progress on the first step of asylum measures in the time scale envisaged in the treaty of Amsterdam.
The Chairman: We have until 5.43 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and that they should be asked one at a time. There is ample time for hon. Members to ask more than one question.
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): Can the Minister give examples of cases in which the minimum standards might result in changes to the practice of member states? Which countries might change their practices for the better as a result of the regulations?