Reception of Asylum Applicants

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Beverley Hughes: I have every sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. I have held this brief for a relatively short time, and I, too, have been unable to get my head around the variance and detail of asylum application arrangements in all EU member states, but as I shall have to do that, I will be happy to share such information with the Committee. On the impact of these measures, towards the end of the document, it states that the Commission will evaluate and report on the directive—after the first year, if I remember correctly. I may be wrong about that, but there will certainly be an evaluation at Commission level, and the Committee will have access to that report.

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Mr. Malins: My understanding is that, in the UK, an asylum seeker cannot take up employment for six months. When the matter was debated in the European Parliament, Labour Members of the European Parliament supported an amendment that would reduce the period to four months. Do the Government side with their MEPs on that?

Beverley Hughes: It is this Government who will decide those issues for the country, not Members of the European Parliament. In formulating the directive's conditions, employment was one of the most difficult matters for negotiation between member states in the working groups. That is because employment has played a different role in the arrangements of various member states. For example, Greece allows people to work immediately, but as an alternative to giving them any support. In the UK, the possibility of employment is a pull factor in attracting people here, which is why we do not want to allow people to work at an early stage in their application. Were we to allow them to do so, that may attract even more people to come here for economic reasons. Therefore, we were happy with a compromise. We would have been happy with a condition that allowed people to work at six months, because that is the position here. We do not want to reduce that period at the moment and, clearly, as the directive is drafted, the current rules in the UK can continue to operate.

Mr. Hopkins: There is a perception that Britain is a target for secondary migration, but it is, perhaps, overstated, because the whole of the European Union is, relatively, much better off than some poor parts of the world. If people must flee from their own countries, it is understandable that they want to go somewhere more secure in every sense. Given that levels of unemployment and benefit tend to be much higher on the continent of Europe, especially in the eurozone, than in Britain, will the measures help to ensure that asylum seekers will be sustained at a civilised and decent level in the eurozone nations, whether by employment or by benefits, so that they will not necessarily be so keen to come to Britain but will stay in other countries, once there is more equal treatment?

Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend has explained the situation clearly. In harmonising conditions relating to employment and benefits in European countries, the intention of the directive is twofold. It will ensure that we have minimum standards that reflect common notions of decency and allow people to be sustained in a decent manner while their applications are considered. Secondly, to deal with the point about harmonisation, the draft directive seeks to reduce people's perception that conditions will be better if they travel to another country.

Mr. Wilkinson: In her speech and in answer to questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) and the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), the Minister referred to the mass phenomenon of secondary migration. Is not that phenomenon, ipso facto, a breach of the Dublin convention? Why have Her Majesty's Government not taken to the European Court the

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EC nations from which those secondary migrants came? Can we be sure that commitments made under Dublin II to deal with applications for refugee status in the country of entry into the EU will be more effectively implemented?

Beverley Hughes: I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Conservative Government concluded the long negotiations on the Dublin convention. France is the most prominent country in our minds when it comes to secondary migration, but a Conservative Home Secretary tore up the gentlemen's agreement that preceded the Dublin convention. If that bilateral agreement were in place now, we would have something to build on. [Interruption.] I am sure that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) tore up the gentlemen's agreement with France when the Dublin convention was agreed. The hon. Gentleman cannot hold up the Conservative Government's record on ensuring that we had a workable system, and we shall certainly not seek to emulate it as we negotiate Dublin II, the alternative to the Dublin convention. We shall seek to achieve something that works much better than anything the Conservative Government introduced.

Dr. Palmer: There was a time when more Europhobe members of the public and Members of Parliament opposed a common European policy on immigration, but those reservations have vanished as xenophobia has overtaken Europhobia. Does the Minister agree that there is now a pretty broad consensus that it would be good to move on from the directive and to take steps towards common immigration and asylum policies throughout the European Union to avoid the problems about which we have heard?

The Chairman: Order. Before the Minister replies, I should remind the Committee that we are talking about the reception of asylum seekers, not about a policy.

Beverley Hughes: I shall bear that in mind, Mr. Atkinson, although my hon. Friend is right. The UK and one or two other countries have pushed for common European asylum policies and procedures. The time for such measures has come, and support has been gathering momentum. We need the other directives, the implementation of Eurodac and the proposals dealt with by the Home Secretary in Luxembourg, which will be discussed further in Seville this week. Those are all important elements in establishing the common European asylum policy and procedures that every European Union country needs.

Mr. Malins: May I put the Minister right and ask her to accept that the last Conservative Government did not tear up any agreement? My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe and Timothy Kirkhope, who is now an MEP, negotiated the agreement. It was a bilateral agreement, not a gentlemen's agreement, and it lapsed. It was not torn up. The Government have had five years to deal with the issue, so why have they not renegotiated the agreement?

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Beverley Hughes: I do not want to persist with the note of discord introduced by the hon. Gentleman. However, I felt it necessary to correct his impression. As I recall, the Conservative Government allowed the first paragraphs of the Dublin convention to agree to the dismantling of the bilateral agreement—the so-called gentlemen's agreement—that the UK had with France. The fact that that agreement was dismantled—

Mr. Malins: It lapsed.

Beverley Hughes: It was dismantled by agreement of the then Conservative Government within the terms of the Dublin convention to which they agreed. Because that bilateral agreement was dismantled, it has been difficult until recently to get France to the point of replacing it. However, France is now talking positively with us and I am sure that the negotiations between my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the French Interior Minister will be productive.

Mr. Wilkinson: Is the Minister aware of the admirable work already done in setting appropriate standards for the reception of would-be refugees by the Council of Europe? Would that not be a better forum in which to evolve an appropriate policy, in that it has 44 member nations, many of them countries from which would-be asylum seekers originate? Is she pleased that the United Kingdom's practices in the field, which have always been commendable, should be dictated by the European Union, since this country has been, candidly, a model in fulfilling our obligations under the UN convention on refugees?

Beverley Hughes: In terms of the forum, we are where we are. We are members of the EU, which is working hard to set common standards in various aspects of asylum procedure and policy. Therefore, that is the forum in which the standards are being discussed. I have never understood the view expressed by some Conservative Members that our membership of the EU, by definition, involves our being dictated to. This is an excellent example—as the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged—of the way in which the UK's handling of matters has been a model that has influenced the conclusions coming from the process and the standards that are contained in the directive. As I have outlined in some detail, those require other member states to change their practices in some of the most significant areas of employment and support. Far from being dictated to by other European countries, we are leading the change and improvement.

Mr. Hopkins: My hon. Friend's answer seems apposite. Does she agree that if standards are, as far as possible, equalised across the EU, the propensity of asylum seekers to migrate to another country within the EU will lessen? Is that not likely to diminish the difficulties that are experienced, particularly in Britain?

Beverley Hughes: Absolutely. Not only have we led the process, but the way in which arrangements are made here has influenced the outcome of the work that has gone into producing the directive. That clearly benefits the United Kingdom to a significant extent, in

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that we experience a high level of secondary migration, which the directive is designed to reduce.

Mr. Walter: Will the Minister clarify a response that her predecessor, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), gave to the Scrutiny Committee? Paragraph 3.6 of the Scrutiny Committee's report states:

    ''we have twice asked the Minister how the UK is able to honour its international obligations if it allows food and housing support to be withdrawn, even if only in certain circumstances.''

The then Minister's reply, in reference to the Asylum Support Regulations 2000, was:

    ''If a centre resident breaches his or her conditions of residence, they may be required to leave the centre . . . In some cases where conditions have been breached the person may be detained''.

Will the Minister give us some clue as to what she thinks the effect of that will be on the numbers of asylum seekers who are not detained, but who disappear into the general populace? Will we lose touch with those people, or does she have another proposal?

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Prepared 17 June 2002