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Thursday 5 February 2004
Mr. David Chidgey
Procedures for Granting and Withdrawing Refugee Status
[Relevant Document: European Union Document No. 14686/03.]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): I am pleased that we have this opportunity to debate some very important issues concerning the last phase in the ongoing negotiations that aim to put in place the package of minimum standards envisaged by the Tampere European Council. We have been in favour of that package as it helps to provide a framework to prevent asylum shopping and unhelpful competition between some member states. We would all agree that having fair and effective asylum systems in place throughout EU countries is in the interest of all member states. I am pleased to say that the UK has participated fully in discussions on that issue.
As the Committee will be aware, the procedures directive has had a long and difficult history. The underlying issues faced by member states are the same, but we are all affected in different ways. That has led to frank exchanges on how to tackle common issues. Like other member states, we wish to see some final changes to the directive and we will no doubt discuss them in more detail later. In particular, we need to ensure that the appeals provisions are compatible with our common law system. We also feel that there is work to be done to ensure that the safe third country and safe country of origin provisions reflect current accepted practice.
Other member states have similar concerns about safe country provisions. They also have difficulties with the final shape of the appeals chapter. However, the Irish presidency, like its predecessors, is working hard to find common ground even if we still face some tough negotiations. Overall, it is agreed that we need to tackle the problems of irregular migration flow and the misuse of asylum systems at three levelsthe national, European and wider international levels.
On the domestic front, we have already made significant progress in reforming the UK asylum system. Along with wider reforms in the immigration and nationality system, that has reduced by half the number of asylum claims, increased the number of failed asylum seekers who are removed and reduced to the lowest for a decade the number of asylum cases awaiting a decision. More work obviously remains to be done.
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The Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill sets out the third phase of reforms to the asylum and immigration system and builds on the action that we took in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, and on the ongoing operational improvements. It also responds to the continuing and increasingly sophisticated abuse of the system.
We have a progressive policy of welcoming migrants where that helps our economy and offers people from less developed countries opportunities to contribute to the economy. I will stand by that view. We are also committed to finding better ways to integrate refugees in the UK and to help refugees worldwide. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration has been engaged in many discussions with the United Nations on that issue. However, we cannot expect to make the case for managed legal migration and the provision of more help for refugees unless we deal effectively with the misuse of the asylum system by those who are economic migrants, and return it to the purpose for which it was intendedthe protection of people fleeing persecution.
For that reason, we welcome the package of measures that has been brought forward to implement the Tampere agenda and, in particular, a procedures directive that puts in place standards for a fair and speedy asylum process across the EU. However, international co-operation cannot be at the expense of our ability to implement and, where necessary, to improve our existing asylum system. Our system already delivers a high standard of protection to genuine refugees. We intend to continue that while at the same time tackling the opportunities that still allow the system to be abused.
There have been recent suggestions that the procedures directive does not go far enough towards ensuring adequate minimum standards. However, we should remember that this directive is a first step and that in some areas it is a considerable step forward. At the same time, the Select Committee on Home Affairs argued in its latest report that harmonisation must be flexible to allow member states to deal speedily and effectively with the changing asylum situation. The UK has participated actively and constructively in negotiations on all EU asylum initiatives to date. For example, we played a major role in shaping the Eurodac and Dublin 2 regulations, which have helped us to identify and to return asylum shoppers to EU countries where they first arrived or claimed asylum.
The Irish presidency is looking forward to reaching a general approach on the directive by the Tampere deadline of 1 May 2004. We will continue to work hard with the presidency, the Commission and other member states to reach an agreement that we believe will provide real guarantees for asylum applicants throughout the EU, while enabling individual national Governments to tailor their systems to meet their particular current and future circumstances.
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The Chairman: We now have until 3 o'clock at the latest for questions to the Minister. I remind Members that questions should be brief and asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for all Members to ask several questions.
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): The directive, as I understand it, requires legislation to be implemented in the UK. However, I also understand that the Government want to secure amendments that would remove the need for implementing legislation. Is that right, and does the Minister agree that, in truth, the House should debate a document of this magnitude, whatever amendments the Government table? In particular, does she agree that we should have a chance to debate the final agreed draft?
Caroline Flint: We believe that part of our parliamentary scrutiny process is to ensure that we reflect the views of Parliament in negotiations. That is one of the reasons why we are here today and one of the reasons why we have the European scrutiny procedures. We very much seek amendments that are in line with the thrust of our policy in this area. For that reason, we do not believe that we have to implement legislation in the House. Everything that we are doing in relation to the directive, and our signing up to it, is tied in with our legislative requirements under previous Acts, under the Bill that is going through Parliament and under our general thrust of policy in dealing with immigration and asylum issues.
Mr. Malins: Following that, it is plain that at least a dozen different countries have tabled about 100 amendments or reservations. Will the Minister give us a report on the state of play with regard to those amendments and reservations? Will she also say whether each of the 12 countries is moving faster than us, and will they agree shortly or not?
Caroline Flint: I do not intend to go through the 100 amendments to which the hon. Gentleman referred. As I said in my opening statement, the debate has not been easy. We are dealing with countries that have very different systems for dealing with these things. In this country and in Ireland, for example, we have common law procedures and judicial review. As he rightly says, discussions continue behind the scenes. At last week's meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, we had further discussions about safe countries of origin and safe third countries. There is, however, much more to be discussed before we reach the point at which the directive will be signed, sealed and delivered. There is a hope that we can meet some of the aims of the directive. We have issues to deal with that are different from those of other countries, but we are working hard on the areas that are of particular concern to ussafe countries of origin, safe third countries, and the appeal systemwhile other countries attend to theirs.
I cannot provide any more detail than to say that officials from all member states are working hard behind the scenes to reach conclusions on their areas of concern.
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Mr. Malins: The Minister is accepting that there is much more to be discussed and that there are many more amendments to be tabled. Can I take it, therefore, that she will guarantee that there will be an opportunity for the House of Commons to debate whatever final agreed draft is reached, with a view to a Committee, or preferably the House itself, deciding on the merits or otherwise of the agreed package?
Caroline Flint: I will have to let the hon. Gentleman know. I do not control parliamentary time, as he will know, and no business manager is present to advise me on that. Clearly, as the draft is changed in the coming months, new drafts will be scrutinised by Committees of both Houses of Parliament so that we can be kept up to date with what is happening. I assure the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues in the House and in another place that I will ensure that any changes and updated versions are sent to them as soon as possible.
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am reassured by my hon. Friend's opening statement. However, to make this new agreement meaningful, will it not require fairly strict border controls throughout the European Union that are akin to our own, and does that not mean that the Schengen agreement would have to be re-examined?
Caroline Flint: I am not sure whether that would be the case. We are trying to ensure that there are minimum standards across the EU. There have clearly been border issues between Germany and Poland, but that will no longer be the case after 1 May. However, there will be issues about accession countries' borders and the EU's widening borders with the rest of the continent.
We have sought at every step to opt into discussions about asylum and immigration measures. We have had no problem fully engaging in those discussions so far, despite not being fully signed up to the Schengen agreement.
Obviously, this is a developing issue, and we are taking a first step towards ensuring that there are minimum standards across the EU for those seeking asylum. The debate will go on, and we will have to deal with a much enlarged EU, which may have many more countries in it. There is no doubt that we shall have to return to border control issues. At this stage, however, they are not causing the UK undue concern.