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Session 2008 - 09
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European Standing Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Miss Anne Begg
Burns, Mr. Simon (West Chelmsford) (Con)
Goodman, Helen (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)
Green, Damian (Ashford) (Con)
Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
Huhne, Chris (Eastleigh) (LD)
Mercer, Patrick (Newark) (Con)
Moran, Margaret (Luton, South) (Lab)
Rowen, Paul (Rochdale) (LD)
Salter, Martin (Reading, West) (Lab)
Steen, Mr. Anthony (Totnes) (Con)
Truswell, Mr. Paul (Pudsey) (Lab)
Woolas, Mr. Phil (Minister for Borders and Immigration)
Mick Hillyard, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended (Standing Order No. 118(2)):
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)

European Committee B

Tuesday 10 February 2009

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

4.30 pm
The Chairman: Does a member of the European Scrutiny Committee wish to make a brief explanatory statement about the decision to refer this document to the Committee? As nobody is here, I call the Minister to make an opening statement.
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): It is a pleasure to serve under you on this European Committee, Miss Begg, and it is a particular pleasure as this is my first attendance at one of these Committees, which were set up to allow the House to scrutinise European legislation. I am grateful to Members from both sides of the House for attending this important and riveting debate on this European legislative proposal. I am grateful to the European Scrutiny Committee for recommending that we debate these documents, which have been circulated to members of the Committee and are available from the Clerks.
I should like to explain the key principle that drives the policy approach towards asylum in these areas. The basic principle, for which there is a consensus in this House, is that those who need protection should receive it; those who do not should be sent home. That means that applicants should seek protection in the first European Union state that they arrive in: that is an important principle of policy. Those who do not—who move on to the United Kingdom from other member states—are what we describe as asylum shopping. We encourage fellow European member states to provide asylum processes for those who arrive on their shores to claim asylum.
4.32 pm
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
4.47 pm
On resuming—
Mr. Woolas: I was just explaining about those who do not seek protection in the first EU state in which they arrive; we refer to that as “asylum shopping.” They do not need our protection. Those are the principles on which we judge the Commission’s proposals; we use them when making our opt-in decision or not, and when negotiating the proposals.
We are debating the proposals about the second stage of the EU’s CEAS. The CEAS currently consists of, first, the Dublin arrangements, which allow us to return asylum shoppers to the first EU country in which they arrived, which should deal with their claims; secondly, the Eurodac fingerprinting database, which supports those arrangements; and thirdly, the three minimum standards directives which deal with reception conditions, qualification and procedures.
The UK takes part in all those arrangements. We have benefited significantly from the Dublin system, which enables us to return a net total of about 800 asylum shoppers a year to the countries that are responsible for determining their claims. We have also supported the concept of reasonable minimum standards, which have helped to lever up standards across the EU and thus reduce the incentive to asylum shop.
The current proposal seeks to develop the CEAS in order to achieve, as the Commission put it,
“higher standards and further alignment of asylum laws, effective and well supported practical cooperation and a higher degree of solidarity and responsibility.”
There is much in the proposals that we support. The proposal in articles 14 and 31 of the Eurodac instrument to allow member states to search for data on persons granted international protection is something for which we have been pressing for some time. That will help to ensure that someone who applies for asylum in the UK, but has already been granted protection elsewhere in the EU, can be detected and thus removed.
Article 1 of the Dublin proposal and article 2 of Eurodac both acknowledge that the regulations apply to people applying for subsidiary protection and not just to those seeking refugee status. That would close a loophole, under which applicants could try to avoid return under the Dublin procedures by saying that they only wanted subsidiary protection, and not be recognised as refugees under the 1951 convention. Next, under article 23(2) of the Dublin proposal, there is a two-month time limit for making requests to take back a person who has claimed protection in another member state. Finally, there are stronger implementation provisions under article 27 of the reception conditions directive. Sadly, not all member states have fully implemented the existing minimum standards, so it is helpful to see a greater focus being placed on that.
However, there are other aspects that we are less happy about, such as the restrictions on detention under article 27 of the draft Dublin regulation. We never take the detention of an individual lightly, but it is often necessary in order to achieve a successful removal under Dublin, as the rate of absconding is very high. A requirement to have all detentions authorised by a judge, or confirmed by one within 72 hours, would be hard to operate under our system. It would make removal under Dublin more difficult, and consequently make “asylum shopping” much easier.
The similar restrictions on detention that appear in articles 8 to 11 of the draft reception conditions directive also cause concern. They would make it extremely difficult for us to operate our detained fast-track process, which provides several thousands of applicants each year with a fast and fair decision on their claims, and also acts as a strong deterrent to the making of false claims. At the same time, that process complies fully with our obligations under article 5 of the European convention on human rights, and losing it would be an intolerable blow to the integrity of our asylum system.
The requirement in article 15 of the reception conditions directive, which allows asylum seekers access to the labour market after six months, is another worry. It may encourage people to make false asylum claims simply to get the right to work here. Articles 17 to 20 of that directive require us to pay asylum support at the rate awarded to social security claimants in the UK.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): The Minister mentioned the worry that if we allow asylum seekers to work after six months, it might encourage more bogus asylum seekers. At the present stage, how many asylum claims are not determined by six months? That would be informative for the Committee.
Mr. Woolas: That question is important. It is the policy of Her Majesty’s Government to deal with 60 per cent. of claims within six months, and I will provide accurate, up-to-date figures as soon as I can. The situation has improved, and the principle that lies behind our policy is that justice delayed is justice denied—a quick decision is the fairer one for the asylum claimer, the overall system and the taxpayer. That therefore is our intention, and we are on track to deal with 60 per cent. of claims within six months. Of course, where an asylum claim has been made, there is a level of support for the claimant until a decision is taken, and there are some levels of support for failed asylum seekers too, if they cannot be removed, perhaps because of the country that they are from.
The Chairman: Order. I made a mistake—the Minister is still making his opening statement, which he should give without interruption. There will be plenty of time for questions afterwards. I apologise for my mistake.
Mr. Woolas: Thank you, Miss Begg. I will remember that, if I ever get the opportunity to speak to a European Committee again.
I was talking about articles 17 to 20 of the reception conditions directive, which would pay asylum support at the rate awarded to social security claimants in each country—in our case, the UK. At current levels, that would cost around £5 million a year, which could be better spent elsewhere. The existing levels of support paid are fair, and the additional point is: what might the pull factor be were we to adopt the directive?
I have explained the overall issues about our opt-in decision. This is not a completely straightforward matter and I am not able to announce the Government’s decision this afternoon. Part of the purpose of European scrutiny is to judge the views of the House, and it is right for the Committee to sit in the run-up to that decision. I will elaborate on what I said in the explanatory memorandum about the criteria on which we wish to judge the decisions.
First, we are not legally required to opt in to or stay out of the proposals as a package. We will therefore be able to decide individually and in the national interest whether we wish to opt in to each one. Not all countries can do that. Secondly, the proposals will repeal and replace the existing Dublin and Eurodac regulations, and the reception conditions directive. If we do not take part, the existing legislation will cease to apply to the UK once those measures have come into force. That last point is particularly relevant to the Dublin and Eurodac proposals.
As the explanatory memorandum says, there are parts of the Dublin proposal about which the Government have reservations. However, not taking part in the Dublin and Eurodac proposals would be a major decision. We would no longer be able to use those arrangements to remove “asylum shoppers.” That would be contrary to one of our key aims.
The reception conditions directive raises different issues. We do not gain as directly from taking part in the existing directive as we do from our participation in the Dublin and Eurodac systems. In deciding whether to opt in to the directive, we must make a judgment about our chances of negotiating out those parts that are not acceptable to us. We must also consider the impact that non-participation might have on our ability to persuade our partners to agree to our European objectives.
Whatever decision we take, the Government will remain closely involved in the CEAS. Asylum is, by definition, an international issue and we must be involved with our European partners in dealing with it. Even if we do not opt in to one or more of the proposals, we intend to stay at the negotiating table. Should our concerns be met during the negotiating process, we have the option of applying to opt in after the measure has been adopted. We will continue to champion closer practical co-operation through such initiatives as the European asylum curriculum, the pooling of interpreters and the forthcoming European asylum support office.
As I said earlier, I am pleased that the Committee is debating these proposals and I look forward to questions and a debate on them.
The Chairman: We now have until 5.45 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind members of the Committee that those should be brief. Because of the change to the rules, questions can be grouped at my discretion so that we keep the flow of questioning going.
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): My first question applies to all three proposals, although I have grouped other questions with the relevant documents. In remarks made towards the end of his statement, the Minister implied that the Government must decide whether to opt in before the negotiations start, and certainly before they finish. That is what I understood from the last minute or so of what he said. Is it correct?
Mr. Woolas: Yes and no. As I tried to explain in my closing remarks, even if we do not opt into one or more of the proposals, we intend to stay at the negotiating table. Should our concerns be met during that negotiating process, we have the option of applying to opt in after the provision has been adopted. The answer is yes.
Damian Green: I am grateful for that answer, which leaves me marginally more confused than I was before. At what point are we irrevocably determined to opt in?
Mr. Woolas: Thanks to the wise leadership of the Government, we have the option of opt-in, unlike every other member state apart from the Republic of Ireland. We can declare that we do not want to opt in, take part in the negotiations and then decide whether to not opt in, if the Committee follows my logic.
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): The Minister was asked a question regarding claimant rates that are dealt with within six months. My understanding was that, according to 2006 figures, only 38 per cent. of applicants were dealt with within the six month rule. Will he confirm that figure and tell us the current position?
Mr. Woolas: I have no reason to doubt that figure; it sounds about right. If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I will give him the most up-to-date figure, which is in the information briefing given to the Select Committee. The inspiration is that we are very hopeful. We expect to meet 60 per cent. within the six months referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby. We do not have an exact figure—I can certainly provide one during the proceedings—but it is around 60 per cent. at the moment.
Mr. Grogan: Further to that, is there not a counter-argument to the Government’s reluctance to speak to this proposal for asylum seekers to be allowed to work after six months? If they are not allowed to work, there will be a substantial number of people here who will be encouraged to work illegally in the black economy, which will also increase the social welfare payments bill for the Exchequer.
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