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The use of the Eurodac database allows the UK and other EU nations to check the fingerprints of those seeking asylum. In this way we can identify, and have
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identified, those who have previously made claims in other countries. We have used the Dublin II regulations to good effect to remove people to their country of original claim. Under that mechanism, about 100 people a month have been returned to the member state responsible for considering their claim. It has discouraged multiple claims from individuals looking to play member states off against each other and reinforces the important collective responsibility between member states.

We look forward to the Commission’s evaluation of the regional protection programme and to the expansion and further development of the policy, underpinned, of course, by appropriate funding. We are keen to share our experience of resettlement work. The UK is one of the few member states to have a formal resettlement programme. We will continue to be proactive in providing assistance. Through our gateway programme, we have provided space for 500 people a year, and that number will rise to 750. We look to other member states to establish formal programmes through mentoring and shadowing the work within Europe that we are pioneering in the UK. We will assist them in doing that.

The green paper considers the first phase of legislation, some of which I have discussed, and asks what amendments need to be made. In our response, which was submitted at the end of the summer, we made it absolutely clear that we believe it is too early to make those judgments. We stated that a timely evaluation must not be rushed and needs to consider the extent to which the provisions of the minimum standards directives have been adopted within national legislations, how they are operating in practice, and whether they have had the desired outcomes. We believe that it would be unwise to embark on introducing new legislation without a firm understanding of what works and what does not work within the existing instruments. That view is shared by many other member states, by non-governmental organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and by the European Scrutiny Committee. The Committee rightly acknowledges that the green paper raises important questions. We in the UK see the current regulations and our opt-in right as “borders plus”—strong UK borders being strengthened, when we use the opt-in, to allow us to work with partners to strengthen the wider EU border, as well as what we do through informal co-operation.

It is important that we keep the best of what the current regulations provide. We are not saying that the review is wrong but that further proposals for legislative changes are premature. However, that is not to say there is no work to be done on reducing the discrepancies that exist between member states, as the Committee’s paper rightly acknowledges. Some variance is to be expected, as types of cases received vary across the Union, but, as we know from experience, significant divergences in practices will only encourage secondary movement, whereby someone arrives in a country because they know that it is easier to get into that country through an asylum route, and then moves to the country of their choice at a later date. Common treatment is important.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): My hon. Friend is talking about disparities among different member states. I am concerned about the disparities among rates of recognition of people applying for
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asylum in the EU from the same country. Iraq is an example of where there are huge differences in the percentages of claims that are recognised. Does not that need to be addressed, whether in this legislation or through discussions among the member states?

Meg Hillier: As ever, my hon. Friend raises a very pertinent point. It is one of the reasons we are keen to see what the Commission comes out with in its response to the green paper. Although we want UK sovereignty to be preserved, we recognise a common interest in ensuring that the best of what we have is rolled out throughout Europe.

We welcome the publication of the green paper. We will continue to seek to influence developments and will participate in developments, or opt in, if it is in the UK’s interest to do so. We look forward to the Commission’s proposals being published in early 2008. I reiterate that the Government remain committed to strong UK borders, but we are also keen to ensure that the European border is strong. We will work with the Commission, the European Parliament and our EU partners to ensure that this works.

3.10 pm

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I beg to move, To leave out from “seekers” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I listened to the Minister’s speech with interest, particularly the first few minutes, when she was dealing with more general immigration policy rather than the document before the House. As gently as possible, I say to her that if she really believes that the current system of immigration control we have in this country amounts to “borders plus”, she is the last person left living on fantasy island.

I start by setting out the principles by which we should operate in deciding what is proper with regard to using our membership of the European Union as a way of improving our asylum policy. I shall then move on to some of the problems that we have with the Government’s approach and the details of the document before us.

The basis for our asylum policy should be that we do need proper co-operation—indeed, better co-operation—among the member states of the EU because a prosperous and free Europe is inevitably an attractive destination for genuine refugees, whom we all welcome, but also for those who use the asylum system that has been built up since the second world war as a disguise for economic migration or occasionally something worse, such as crime or terrorism.

We all agree that asylum shopping is harmful and that sharing the burden of support for genuine refugees in Europe is sensible. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that sharing some of the burden in combating illegal immigration is sensible, and I suspect that the Minister would agree. Many of us remember last year’s crisis, when thousands of west Africans took a dangerous sea voyage to the Canary Islands to get inside the EU. Those poor, wretched people had, in many cases, paid their life savings to people traffickers and many died on the journey. Spain wanted help from us and her other
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European partners and it was sensible to give it because, to some extent, the borders of the Canary Islands are Britain’s borders as well.

We are, therefore, absolutely convinced of the need for intelligent co-operation, and we can accept the principle that anyone arriving at the border of a member state of the EU claiming asylum should be treated in roughly the same way, under the same set of rules. However, it is not sensible to say that the only way we can achieve that is by handing over powers of rule making to the Commission, which is what the document suggests. It is also what the Government are doing, even though anyone who had not followed what they had been doing, but merely went on what the Minister said they had done, would think they were doing something different.

That is the difference between us and the Government on this issue, which is the point of our amendment. Since the treaty of Amsterdam, the EU has had the competence to legislate in this field, but with a British opt-out, or a possibility to opt in—whichever way one wishes to describe it. However, in practice the Government have not chosen to exercise the opt-out on asylum matters, so it has been pointless. The Minister explained that the Government had taken the opportunity to opt out in some immigration matters, in order to preserve the integrity of our borders, as she put it, and they have. But on asylum matters, the Government have always opted in, and I was quite surprised that the Minister did not take the opportunity to explain why they had taken such a radically different approach in those two fields.

Mr. Gerrard: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell us the measures that he thinks that the Government should not have done that on.

Damian Green: I shall deal with the details in a second.

I am genuinely puzzled, particularly after having listened to the Minister’s speech, by the Government’s stance. It is clear from the Government’s motion that they recognise that the Commission is trying to take all power in asylum matters and that they think that that is the wrong way to go. The motion states that we should not move to the second phase in which we will have a full “Common European Asylum System”. That phrase is at the heart and, indeed, at the start of the EU document, but, unless I missed it, it did not cross the Minister’s lips in the course of her speech.

The motion says that proper implementation of the first phase must happen, followed by a full evaluation of the first phase instruments. They clearly do not want to move to a common asylum system, but in the past five years they have not lifted a finger to stop us doing so. Is that a cock-up, or a conspiracy? As so often with the Government, it is hard to tell.

Let us take a look at what the Government have opted into, to address the point made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). Directive 2004/83/EC defines minimum standards on qualifications for refugee or other international protection status and sets out the same core criteria for being a refugee as the Geneva convention, which is not a matter of controversy. It also stresses that each application must be determined individually, which prevents the designation of certain countries as safe. The ability to say that a country is safe
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would at times be found desirable by any Government when operating an asylum policy, so that puts a constraint on Ministers that they might not want.

Mr. Gerrard: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands the way the designation works. When we started to apply that in the UK, some of us opposed it. We said that it was not a good idea to say that certain countries were safe because it involved making assumptions about individuals. The Government held to the position that even when a country was designated as safe, individual cases needed to be considered. The fact that a country might be regarded as safe in general terms does not mean that an individual from that country cannot present a good case.

Damian Green: I suspect that we would rapidly get out of order if we pursued the point. The debate would be interesting, and the hon. Gentleman and I simply disagree on that detail. However, it goes beyond the scope of what we are discussing.

Kelvin Hopkins: Let me reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). If, for example, a secularist or leftist is sent back to an Islamist country that is otherwise regarded as safe, is that acceptable?

Damian Green: The only time that it is acceptable to designate a country as safe is when that country is safe. We have had asylum applications in this country during the past few years from citizens of the United States of America. It is patently absurd that our asylum system should spend time and resources on applications from functioning, friendly democracies rather than those from people who come from countries where many citizens are, sadly, in danger. Although it may be more comfortable to say that anyone from anywhere can claim asylum at any time, the practicalities of what has happened to the asylum system over the past few years suggest that that is an unrealistic approach. That is why I take issue with those Labour Members who support the Commission on that matter.

While we are going through the details, I point out that the directive also created a whole new category of people to whom the member states owe a duty of protection above and beyond those categories encompassed by the 1951 refugee convention: those who qualify for what the Commission calls subsidiary protection. Whether that is desirable is another legitimate cause for debate. The directive also goes beyond the convention in respect of the rights that refugees can exercise while they are in this country.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): My hon. Friend makes an important point about the current state of our immigration policy. The Government have indeed opted into more than 40 asylum measures, as shown by recent parliamentary answers. We effectively have a European common policy, which greatly restricts our national freedom of action. Is it still my hon. Friend’s policy that:

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That was our manifesto promise in 2005. Is it still his policy?

Damian Green: The amendment states that it is for the British Government to make such decisions. My right hon. Friend says that we have already lost all powers. That is going too far. Clearly, considerable powers remain in the hands of British Ministers and we want to retain them. That is the point of the amendment, as my right hon. Friend knows.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman mentioned subsidiary protection. However, as I understand it, the green paper asks how a single procedure for assessment might work and what uniform protections might be entailed in that, and I am at a loss to find a difference between the Conservative and the Government position. The Minister suggested that she and the Government wanted to ascertain how all the countries’ procedures came out in the wash when they were enacted before making a decision. I am struggling to find a difference between the Government’s position and that of the Tories.

Damian Green: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s confusion as, if he simply listened to the Minister’s comments, he would believe that the Government’s position was considerably more robust than it is. I am pointing out that, for all the Government’s cautious words, in practice, over the past five or six years since the implementation of the treaty of Amsterdam, they have simply gone along with everything and effectively attempted to help set up an entirely centralised one-size-fits-all policy. Although co-operation is sensible and we should answer the questions in the green paper, we should not contract out the ability to make decisions to the Commission. That is the point of our amendment, for which I hope the hon. Gentleman will vote later.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am greatly encouraged by my hon. Friend’s comments because the words in the amendment

mean just that. The corollary, to follow up the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), is that, although we want to give protection to genuine asylum seekers, many are not genuine, and when difficulties arise we want to ensure that we have our own Westminster legislation so that we control matters, as the amendment suggests.

Damian Green: I am deeply grateful that my hon. Friend supports the amendment—that is a source of unalloyed joy.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): We do not want to have an argument about people’s atavistic views of the European Union but to discuss how to achieve our end. The problem with the Government is that we do not trust them on asylum seekers because they have never given us cause to trust them. When the Government are trustworthy, we might go along with them, but, given that they are untrustworthy, we will not go along with them. I wish that some of my hon. Friends would stop trying to bring their views about Europe into a simple issue about asylum seekers.

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Damian Green: I am deeply grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is right to say that the discussion is about how we run a fair, firm, humane and civilised asylum system. Proper co-operation on aspects of such a system is essential among the member states of the European Union. As all of them are prosperous democracies—many of the new democracies of central and eastern Europe are becoming increasingly prosperous—they will attract genuine refugees and those who are, frankly, not genuine. However, the desire for that degree of co-operation does not mean that we need to contract out decision making to the European Commission on the measure.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: My hon. Friend is making an important speech and his words will be studied. He has already said that we have contracted into 40 or so directives that restrict our freedom of action. Is there not a conflict between that and the amendment, which says that such powers

I should therefore like to ask my hon. Friend whether he thinks the directives that we have opted into are reversible and whether we should reverse those opt-ins where necessary, in order to regain the national powers that the amendment so rightly asserts we should regain.

Damian Green: I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks, but I am also determined to stay in order. I have moved an amendment to the motion before us, which concerns a project of the Commission on the next steps. I am sure that there are things to be said about previous steps that have been taken, by both the Commission and the Government, but they are not desperately germane to this debate.

Keith Vaz: I shall study the hon. Gentleman’s speech very carefully in Hansard tomorrow. Will he clarify current Conservative party policy in respect of the processing of asylum applications? Is it still the Conservative party’s policy that asylum applications should be processed on an offshore island?

Damian Green: The world has moved on since 2005 and the Conservative party has moved with it. Sadly, the right hon. Gentleman appears to have failed to do so, although I do not blame him. He is nostalgic for the days when the Labour party was an election-winning machine, rather than the increasingly disreputable shambles that it has become in 2007. We in the Opposition will continue to move on, with constructive and creative policies for Britain.

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