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Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): It is no secret that over a number of years, and over the course of several Bills, I have often regarded this Government and the previous Government as being far too tough on asylum. The move towards common policies across Europe is desirable. I look at the issue from the point of view of the people who come to Europe and ask for protection. It does not make sense that if two people who came from the same country and who faced the same conditions went to two different EU states, they would be treated in totally different ways and go through totally different procedures, and that totally different criteria might be used in determining their asylum applications. Such a situation will lead to shopping around. It will lead to people who come to Europe trying to see which country is the softest touch.
One of my concerns about common procedures across Europe was that they might start to drive standards down, rather than up, so I am pleased that the Green Paper focuses on putting protection back on the agenda. Some of us feared that moves towards common procedures and standards would have the opposite effect. In many ways, the Green Paper is saying that refugee protection should be back at the top of the agenda.
I listened to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who spoke for the Opposition, talking about what has happened so far. He said that what the Government have done caused problems, but I found his arguments difficult to follow. He picked a couple of examples. He mentioned safe countries, but his interpretation of the directive concerned was wrong. Be that as it may, I do not agree with the concept of safe countries and white lists. It is clear in the Geneva convention that each claim has to be considered on its merits. Whatever anyone does, we cannot prevent people from saying, I want to claim asylum. We may look at the claim and decide that it is nonsense, to refuse it and to remove the personwe may do so quickly, if it is obvious that the claim is nonsensebut we cannot stop someone saying that they want to claim asylum. It is impossible.
The hon. Member for Ashford talked about subsidiary protection. We have always had subsidiary protection in the UK; we used to have a system in which people might be given asylum or exceptional leave to remain, or be refused. That has always been the case. All right, the terms have changedhumanitarian protection is the term that we use nowbut there has always been subsidiary protection, so I do not know what problem he was referring to. The argument seemed to come down to his saying, We welcome genuine asylum seekers, but we dont want non-genuine asylum seekers. The suggestion is that other EU countries
are quite happy to have lots of non-genuine asylum seekers, and to have a common process that encourages them, which is utter nonsense. Every EU country has the same interest in accepting people whose claims are justified and rejecting those whose claims are not justified. I should be glad if the hon. Gentleman showed me that the common asylum system has so far generated more non-genuine claims in this country; I cannot see that any such thing has happened.
As I say, in many ways, the Green Paper puts protection back at the top of the agenda, and that is welcome. I understand why the Government say that we need to proceed with caution; it is too soon after the introduction of the first phase to evaluate it. We cannot evaluate something that has not yet been fully introduced. The Commission needs to do that before proceeding to further proposals. However, I hope that we will proceed, because some proposals in the Green Paper really do matter and could improve things for people who come here for protection. The rights given to people who have subsidiary protection have always been inferior, and I have never understood why. I refer to the right to family reunion, the length of time that people had to wait before their family could join them and the ability of people who have been given protection to move within the EU.
I have dealt with ridiculous cases from time to time. I remember dealing with the case of a family who became divided as they fled from their country of origin. One of them, a 17-year-old, ended up in my constituency. The rest of his family were elsewhere in Europe and there was no way of bringing them together. It was stupid that two halves of a family had asylum claims being considered in different countries and there was no way of bringing them together. Even when they had been given asylum, there was no easy way immediately for that person to move and join his family.
There are things that can be done outside the judicial processoutside the framework of the law. Some of those have been mentioned this afternoon and none of us has any problem with them or with trying to achieve greater practical co-operation. It may be a good idea to try to get greater practical co-operation with, say, the French Government, but that does not diminish the good sense of considering common systems on asylum. It is part of an answer, not the whole answer.
Some of the suggestions in the Green Paper are eminently sensible, such as the suggestion that we examine reception criteria, criteria for detention, whether people have rights to work and what those rights should be. If they are eminently sensible in the UK, I do not see why they are not eminently sensible across the EU and why we should not be talking to other EU countries about reaching common standards in those areas. There are areas in which we should be doing a much better job than we are doing, especially on detention. I still think that we detain far too many people, for far too long, and we are still detaining children. But it does not make sense to have that debate within one EU country.
Finally, I hope that if the Green Paper proceeds and there are further proposals from the EU, we will be able to have full consultation and a full debate in Parliament. It is right that such important EU proposals are debated on the Floor of the House, not just in a European
Committee. Whatever comes back and whether the Government propose to accept it or not, I hope that we can have a proper debate on it in the House as early as possible.
Meg Hillier: With the leave of the House, I shall reply to some of the points that arose in the debate. I should start by saying how nice it is to observe the new-found unity of the Conservative party on the issue of Europe. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) rightly summed up the difficulties often faced by the Conservatives on the issue.
It was disappointing to hear from the Conservatives that their policy was not to tackle immigration across Europe. It is worth stressing at the outset that the Green Paper is a discussion document. Some of the contributions painted it as a hard and fast policy document. However, it lists a number of questions and does not give the answers. It is a shame that some of the contributions to the debate did not contribute, as my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) said, to the debate that Europe is having on the subject.
The hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) began by being very rude about my belief that our asylum process is getting better, but asylum claims are at their lowest since 1992. Last year we removed more people than ever before, while the number claiming asylum has fallen to levels not seen since 1993. The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of relations with France. My hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration met his French counterpart, Brice Hortefeux, earlier this month following Monsieur Hortefeuxs visit to London in October. The meeting was constructive, and both Ministers agreed on the importance of continuing the working relationship at all levels, particularly on the maintenance of juxtaposed controls.
I want to correct a factual point. The hon. Member for Ashford discussed the issue of safe countries, and it is worth stressing the letter of the law. Article 30 of the procedures directive allows the national designation of third countries as safe countries of origin. In the UK, that is our non-suspensive appeal process, which we continue to operate.
As ever, my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk made an informed and passionate contribution. He rightly pointed out, in a way that I do not need to, the incoherence of the Conservative position. He also raised the issue of children in detention. Rather than detaining the House, I am happy to write to him about the progress that we are making in that area and the work of the Clannebor project and the Kent pilot to establish programmes that will hopefully reduce the need to detain children; the Kent pilot starts next week. Last week, I met MEPs and had a constructive discussion about our detention estate, including the issue of children. I look forward to their report on the matter.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made a number of predictable points. His partys policy is to have an amnesty to allow all comers to work in the UK. His speech included the outrageous slur that the Government are starving out asylum seekers, which I must contest. There is always support for people who are going through the claim process. Those who cannot be removed for various reasons outside their own control also receive support. Once a decision is made
and someone is told that they must leave the country, if they do not leave voluntarily, we enforce deportation. Even with voluntary removal, we provide a package of support to enable such people to establish themselves back in their home country, if they want to do so. I also need to correct him on a fact: in quarter three of this year, 23 per cent. of appeals were allowed, rather than the 40 per cent. figure that he suggested.
The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) raised a number of points. It is worth saying that the total number of people awaiting a decision on asylum has decreased by more than 1,000 compared with last years figure. We are reducing the backlog, which arose on his partys watch. We are taking measures to tackle the backlog, which we take very seriously. [ Interruption. ] I am the second largest customer of the Home Office for my constituents on this issue in terms of correspondence to the Border and Immigration Agency and Ministers, so I know the facts and the reality on the ground. The number of new applications processed under the new model is increasing. We are improving our targets to grant or remove new asylum cases within six months. The target for the proportion of cases that are concluded within a six-month period will increase in steps to 90 per cent. by the end of 2011. We are addressing the issue in steps, because it would be foolish to promise what we cannot do, but we are determined to deliver.
As ever, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) made sensible and well-informed contributions. I look forward to continuing the constructive debate on asylum with them, unlike Conservative Members. I wonder what the motive is behind the amendment, which seems confused and contradictory. Much of what Conservative Members have said agrees with Government policy. I wonder whether they have another motive outside this House and what they will do with the outcome of the vote, if they press the amendment to a Division. I urge them not to do so, because our positions on this issue are not radically different.
Question put, That the amendment be made:
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of European Union Document 10516/07, Commission Green Paper on the future Common European Asylum System; notes the continued importance of working collectively on asylum issues with other Member States; further notes the importance of the Dublin II Regulation, the current responsibility mechanism to deal with asylum seekers; and supports the Governments position that proper implementation and a full evaluation of first phase instruments should take place before embarking on a second phase of legislation.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 145(3) (Liaison Committee):
That this House agrees with the Report [27th November] from the Liaison Committee. [Mr. Michael Foster.]
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): It will be appropriate to impose a time-limit. Front Benchers are allowed 20 minutes; they may consider taking rather less. A time limit of five minutes is imposed on Back-Bench speeches.
The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): I beg to move,
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