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If we consider what the Government do, rather than what they say they do, it is clear that Ministers are happy for important parts of our asylum policy to be set through directives, rather than by the Government reporting to the House. I imagine that they are a little embarrassed about that, given the chaos of wider immigration policy. Although the number of asylum seekers has been declining in recent years, as the Minister pointed out, largely because wars in the Balkans are thankfully just a bad memory, we cannot know that that will remain the case. It is therefore important, as part of the wider changes that are desperately needed in the immigration system, to have a fair and robust asylum system. It will be easier to achieve that if decisions are made by the Government
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in co-operation with our European partners than if policy is made by the Commission, with the Council making decisions under qualified majority voting on whether to implement them.

As the Minister said, the Commission has asked a number of pertinent questions, some of which this and subsequent Governments will inevitably have to address. She said that she had objections to some of the Commission’s ambitions, but without the exercise of our opt-outs, her objections are pointless. The Government seek to delay movement into the second phase, when we would indeed lose any control over our asylum policy, but her stance would be a lot more credible if she or her predecessor had taken any effective action over the past five years.

Such action can be taken without our signing up to a fully centralised policy. The Minister mentioned our relationship with France in this regard. The Government should be making more efforts to impress on the French authorities that it is unacceptable to recreate in Cherbourg the conditions that used to obtain at Sangatte. Sangatte camp has been closed, but many of the problems have moved along the coast, which the Minister will be aware is a growing issue. I should like more Government action in co-operation with the French authorities on that.

A second piece of action that I would recommend to the Government would be to do more to protect British lorry drivers, increasing numbers of whom are reporting that they have been attacked or threatened by people trying to use their trucks as a way of coming into Britain illegally. Even more worryingly, I have received reports that officers at Calais are more concerned with keeping the trucks rolling on to the ferries than with allowing British drivers to go through the channel that allows their trucks to be properly checked by the heat scanners. There is clearly much work to be done by the British authorities in this area, and I am sure that the French Government would be receptive.

Those are two concrete examples of how British policy in this area could certainly be improved by greater co-operation among member states. They do not require new directives or any other kind of legislation. They simply need effective action by the British Government. Asylum policy need not be an area that divides the two sides of the House. My essential message to the Minister is that it is not her words or her stated policy that are deficient; what is not working is the policy that she is, in fact, following. Having negotiated an opt-out from these provisions of the Amsterdam treaty, the Government have behaved as though the opt-out were unnecessary. They have been wrong in that presumption. We have tabled our amendment because it would send a powerful signal to present and future Ministers that British policy on asylum—which should be fair, humane, and competently run—was ultimately the responsibility of the British Government. I commend our amendment to the House.

3.31 pm

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I have heard so much about general immigration policy from the Opposition Front Bench that I wondered whether the Conservatives had read the Green Paper or the Government’s response before they
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tabled their amendment. They seem to have tried to push enough in to make the amendment credible. In reality, however, they seem to be agreeing entirely with the Government’s submission on the Green Paper. But perhaps they did not read it.

The point of the European Scrutiny Committee sending this document to the House is partly to illustrate the service that we believe we provide to the House in summarising important and complex documents, recording the Government’s view of them—all of which are available for people to read—and allowing the House to debate the issue. We need to debate the issue, but not to pile into the debate anything that the Conservatives might want to use to pad out their speeches. We have had much padding from the Opposition today. This debate is about asylum and about the Green Paper from the Commission on asylum. That is quite specific; it is not about immigration, border controls or anything else. It is about how we deal with people who eventually reach an EU country and apply for asylum.

The 1999 Tampere European Council agreement established the aim of working towards a common European asylum system. That is clearly something that the Opposition may wish to resist, and that would be a valid point for them to make in this debate, rather than all the other things about general immigration that they threw into the mix. The first phase involved putting in minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers and procedure for considering their applications. It was decided at Tampere that, in the longer term, there should be a common asylum procedure with uniform status throughout the EU for people being granted asylum.

The Council of Ministers has put forward and adopted four directives and three regulations since 1999. At the end of 2004, the European Council invited the Commission to evaluate the existing legislation and proposed legislation to implement the second phase by 2010. There might be serious points of contention about that. The Green Paper deals with this issue.

The Green Paper was issued in June 2007, and it asks that we should introduce common standards. It also talks about mandatory rules. This would mean that asylum seekers would be treated equally and that standards of protection would be fairer and higher. The Government, and the Opposition, would say that, in principle, those are good aims. None of us would wish anyone who had genuinely fled from a threatening situation and come to this country or any other part of the EU as an asylum seeker to be treated any less well than anyone else, although there are suspicions that some of them are not treated well enough at the moment.

Many people are allowed to stay in this country after suffering incarceration. Sadly, more than 60 children are incarcerated with their families in Harmondsworth at the moment. Thank goodness that, in Scotland, we have driven out that terrible blight on our society by not having asylum seekers’ children in Dungavel. I was happy to be part of the leading group that convinced the Government that it was not a good idea to make that rule binding in Scotland because it would have breached the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. In fact, believe it or not, this country actually takes a derogation from the UN convention on the rights of
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the child so that we can lock up the children of asylum seekers. That is an appalling situation under any Government, but it is an even more terrible shame, sadly, under a Government whom I support.

The Green Paper invited some views on more equitable sharing among member states of administrative and financial burdens and on assessing asylum applications. It went as far as putting forward the idea of actually sharing the physical burden by redistributing people across Europe if too many people landed in one country. In the example given, Spain was overloaded with west African asylum seekers. It is possible that in the Commission’s vision of the long-term future, those asylum seekers would need to be redistributed throughout Europe.

More effective EU support for developing countries is another theme. People flee countries that are near points of conflict and then go beyond them to the next country of safety, ending up in Europe. In fact, it would be possible to provide support for countries that are located alongside violent areas or areas where there are threats of violence. It might be possible for people to be supported to stay there rather than be driven forward and end up being trafficked. As the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) accepted, people sometimes pay their life savings to get dumped on an inflatable dinghy in the middle of the ocean.

We also want more practical data co-operation between members and views were sought on improving the EC’s capacity collectively to participate in international agreements. There is some criticism in other parts of the world that we are not doing as well as we could in that respect and we are encouraged to respond to it. That was the Green Paper.

We are happy that we are having this debate now because the Commission had a public hearing on 18 October. It will now move forward to presenting a policy plan, which is what the Government responded to and what our debate is all about. Quite frankly, at this moment, I am not sure that much has been said on the Floor of the House that will help to develop that policy plan.

Mr. Gummer: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is suitable for the European Union to get involved with the two issues that he raised? It is difficult for all the member states individually to deal with the countries neighbouring those where there are conflicts, so it is much more sensible for the EU to do that. Similarly, it is much more sensible for the EU to put forward to international organisations the general policies that we share in common. We really must not allow our particular views about the EU in general to make it difficult for us to make sensible decisions, but it is still quite reasonable to say that in the particularities of asylum seeking in our own countries, it is also reasonable for the national Government to feel that it has an important—in this particular case, absolute—role as well. There is a sensible way out of this, instead of the head-banging position that we so often get into.

Michael Connarty: I strongly welcome that contribution, which I believe also reflects the Government’s position. The response to the Commission that was sent to our Select Committee and the explanatory memorandum, of which everyone presumably has a copy, makes it
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clear that the Government are saying that good common progress has been made so far, without any mandatory decisions being taken. There are also four directives and three regulations.

The Government are clearly saying that we should not move forward with any other legislation at this moment. The Government motion ends by saying

but I would have been happier if it were changed to “before considering” a second phase of legislation. We are in now in a period when it is necessary to let the legislation sink in.

Let me make one specific point. The Government pointed out in their response that the qualification directive came into force only in October 2006, whereas the procedures directive will not be implemented until December 2007. One of the first-phase proposals is not yet in operation, so I believe that the Government had taken the right position in saying that we need a serious period of reflection.

Damian Green: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, particularly given that he seems to have written his speech before listening at all to mine. He has not addressed my central point, which is that whatever the Government say in their response to his Select Committee or anything else, their actions—since Tampere and the Amsterdam treaty—make it clear that they are quite happy in practice to move towards a fully centralised system. It is the disparity between words and action on the part of the Government that I sought to point out. From everything that the hon. Gentleman has said so far, I rather think that instead of encouraging my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) to vote for the Government motion, the hon. Gentleman should be voting for our amendment.

Michael Connarty: The conflation of the Schengen agreement which emerged from Amsterdam and the asylum decisions at Tampere is completely false. The Schengen agreement involved conditions that we are steadily opting into, and—particularly in relation to information transfer—we are the keenest on its implementation. SIS I, the first Schengen information system, has not been implemented as we wished it to be, but SIS II is now being introduced. I believe that the way in which we are inserting ourselves into the Schengen process is justifiable, given the great benefits that we will gain.

On asylum, the subject of the Tampere proposals, it is a different matter. The Dublin agreement, which allows people to be returned to the country where they first applied for asylum, was a major breakthrough, and we use it again and again. We have made fundamental progress by securing right-of-return agreements with other countries from which people have come and applied falsely for asylum.

There is no open door in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who has intervened several times today, has many constituents who feel abused by the strictness of our asylum-seeking process. But I know of many cases in Scotland of people who, having been incarcerated and threatened with expulsion, were eventually granted the right to stay when a reasoned view was taken about the
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conditions that they had left and the danger posed to them should they return. Is that not what we are about, as a civilised nation? Is that not what we have been about for many years?

I am reading a book the first word of whose title I cannot use because it is unparliamentary, but the second word is “foreigners” and the first begins with B. It is an excellent study of immigration, and of people seeking asylum who add to our community. For hundreds of years waves of people have arrived here: the Huguenots driven out of France and the Irish driven out of Ireland by poverty and starvation, the first wave of Jewish people driven here before the pogrom. followed by the second wave of people from the Jewish nations, driven out of Russia and elsewhere before the war. All those people have fertilised and grown in our island in a very, very positive way, but each time they arrived there was xenophobia. The same phrases were used about the Italians, the Irish and the Jewish people when they came here, and they were used about the Huguenots when they came. We keep doing it, and I am sorry to say that the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman and some of his supporters are doing it again now.

Mr. Gummer rose—

Michael Connarty: The reasonable comments of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) are leading us, in a balanced way, towards progress, but it must be progress; it cannot be stagnation.

Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) has been making the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, but in what I consider to be a much more sensible way. What my hon. Friend is saying is that the Government could have had our support if they had managed to make the distinction that the hon. Gentleman is making. If the Government were a Government whom we trusted on asylum, we might be able to go along with them when they told us that some things would be done more effectively on a wider basis. If, however, they say that to us in the context of their total failure to deal with the asylum situation at home, we have to remind them of their responsibility towards this country in this country. People like me, who can hardly be accused of xenophobia, are enthusiastically in favour of the amendment because the Government have got it wrong, not because the European Union has got it wrong.

Michael Connarty: Whether the right hon. Gentleman recognises it or not, the amendment is all about the Government’s retreating from the positive, open approach of working co-operatively across Europe. It is a typical marker to win the support of xenophobes and people who think that the motion means “Let us retreat behind barriers and”—as suggested by the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory)—“rescind the opt-ins.” That is why the amendment was tabled, and people will have recognised that view in the right hon. Gentleman’s speech.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Michael Connarty: Not yet.

The amendment is predicated on an argument about emigration into which as much as possible could be thrown to frighten the people. However, our Government have been seen in some quarters—such as Positive Action in Housing, which campaigns in Scotland—as being far too tough on people genuinely seeking asylum. The idea that we should retreat behind a barrier and say, “This will always by something we do at UK level without co-operating with anyone” is frightening.

Damian Green rose—

Michael Connarty: I shall take one more intervention, and then I will want to get on with my speech.

Damian Green: As the hon. Gentleman has monstrously accused me of xenophobia, I am glad he has given way. Does he not recognise that if we do not have controlled borders, which would include a confident asylum system under which we could accept refugees who are in genuine danger, our country will be more likely to have problems with real xenophobes? Those who argue that anyone attempting to discuss in a sensible and moderate fashion controls on immigration is themselves xenophobic are not only absurd but, frankly, dangerous, because they are the people who leave the field clear for the real racists and the real bigots. Moderate, mainstream politicians must address these issues, because if we are driven off the field to the dressing room there are nasty people out there who would much prefer to address them.

Michael Connarty: If the hon. Gentleman was trying to say that, I apologise. It did not sound like that to me, but if that is what he was trying to say I fully agree, and that is also the Government’s position. The Government’s response to the Green Paper was clear. They said that “a mandatory single procedure”, which we already have, would be useful, but they also said that the idea of speeding up integration—in other words, of giving money to integrate people more quickly, before their asylum decisions are made—would be negative. They continued in similar fashion: they say it would not be appropriate to share the physical burden—to share people out across Europe—but they also say that sharing the financial burden of a proper asylum process would be sensible, and they support the idea of giving people in countries where there is conflict or terror security in nearby countries. The Government take a balanced view on this matter. They say that it is far too early to move to phase 2—that we are still implementing phase 1, and that we want a period of reflection on that before deciding what to do in the longer term.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he on reflection withdraw the implication, which I think he made in relation to me, that either the Opposition amendment or the proposition that national control is desirable is the same as xenophobia? It is a modest proposition to state that a country should define who its citizens are and defend its own borders, if necessary in co-operation with other countries. Will the hon. Gentleman withdraw any implication that I or my hon. Friends are in any sense racist or xenophobic in advancing that proposition?

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