Eu Co-financing (Asylum and Immigration)


The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Katy Clark 

Bryant, Chris (Rhondda) (Lab) 

Clarke, Mr Tom (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab) 

Connarty, Michael (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab) 

Fovargue, Yvonne (Makerfield) (Lab) 

Gilbert, Stephen (St Austell and Newquay) (LD) 

Harper, Mr Mark (Minister for Immigration)  

Kelly, Chris (Dudley South) (Con) 

Mosley, Stephen (City of Chester) (Con) 

Neill, Robert (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con) 

Opperman, Guy (Hexham) (Con) 

Paisley, Ian (North Antrim) (DUP) 

Syms, Mr Robert (Poole) (Con) 

Winnick, Mr David (Walsall North) (Lab) 

Lloyd Owen, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(6):

Chope, Mr Christopher (Christchurch) (Con)   

Rees-Mogg, Jacob (North East Somerset) (Con)   

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European Committee B 

Tuesday 20 November 2012  

[Katy Clark in the Chair] 

EU Co-Financing (Asylum and Immigration)

2.30 pm 

The Chair:  Does a member of the European Scrutiny Committee wish to make a brief explanatory statement about the decision to refer the relevant documents to this Committee? 

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab):  It is a great honour to be in a Committee, I think for the first time, with you in the Chair, Ms Clark, and I am happy to put before the Committee the thoughts of the European Scrutiny Committee. 

The EU has responded to the deepening economic and financial crisis by creating a number of financial support mechanisms. They include, for member states within the euro area, the European financial stabilisation mechanism, the European financial stability facility and the European stability mechanism. For member states outside the euro area, a balance of payments facility provides medium-term financial assistance. Romania, Ireland, Portugal and Greece all receive financial assistance under those instruments. 

Despite that assistance, several member states are struggling to make the best use of EU funds. One reason is that many existing EU funding programmes operate on the principle of co-financing, which means that there is a cap on the percentage of funding that the EU may provide. The draft decision that we are debating today seeks to make it easier for member states that have been hit hardest by the economic and financial crisis to access and utilise EU funding intended to support the implementation of EU border control, asylum, and immigration policies. It applies to three funds: the European refugee fund, the European return fund and the European fund for the integration of third-country nationals. Under the existing rules on EU co-financing, the EU contribution is capped at between 50% and 75% of eligible expenditure, but rises to 80% for temporary emergency measures to tackle a sudden influx of third-country nationals. 

The draft decision would enable member states receiving assistance from the EU’s financial support mechanisms to request an increase of up to 20% in the EU co-financing rate with a consequent reduction in their national contribution. The increased rate is intended to provide the liquidity needed to ensure that national programmes utilising the funds can continue to be implemented. It would be budget neutral—there would be no extra EU funding for the beneficiary countries—and it is intended to be a temporary measure. The draft decision expressly states that it is without prejudice to ongoing negotiations on the EU’s multi-annual financial framework for 2014-20. 

The European Scrutiny Committee has previously considered, and cleared from scrutiny, a Commission proposal to increase the EU co-financing rate for structural

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and cohesion funds. Although the issues are similar, the draft decision that we are debating today is different, because it is subject to the UK’s title V opt-in, and the UK therefore has the option of deciding not to participate. On the one hand, the Government have told the European Scrutiny Committee that the UK has a direct interest in ensuring that member states have access to funding that is intended to strengthen the EU’s borders. They have reminded us of continuing migratory pressures on the Greek-Turkish border and of the benefits to the UK of improved border management to reduce the flow of illegal migrants heading for the UK. However, the Government have also acknowledged that an increase in the EU co-financing rate would inevitably mean that EU funds would be spread more thinly in the beneficiary countries and generate less value for the EU. 

The European Scrutiny Committee considers that the factors for and against exercising the UK’s title V opt-in are finely balanced in this case. On the plus side, a decision to opt in would demonstrate solidarity with member states most severely affected by the economic and financial crisis—especially Greece, but also Ireland, with which the UK shares a common border. However, a decision not to opt in would simply mean that the Council could adopt the draft decision without UK participation. 

Those member states qualifying for a higher EU co-financing rate would be entitled to request that. Meanwhile, the UK would continue to receive its allocation of EU funding on the basis set out in the original draft decisions establishing the three funds to which I referred. Although the UK would not, as a result, be eligible for the higher EU co-financing rate, it is doubtful whether it would in any case meet the qualifying conditions, as the Government do not anticipate that the UK will require assistance from the EU’s financial support mechanisms before the end of 2013. 

It seems that a decision to opt in to the draft decision would primarily have a symbolic rather than a practical significance for the UK. Today’s debate provides an opportunity to weigh the factors to be taken into account by the Government in determining whether the UK should opt in to the draft decision. We trust that the Minister will be in a position to provide a clearer indication of the weight that the Government attach to each of the factors and how they are likely to influence the Government’s opt-in decision. 

The Chair:  I call the Minister to make the opening statement. 

2.35 pm 

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper):  I am grateful to you, Ms Clark. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk put the issues facing the Committee well, which enables me to make my speech a little shorter than would otherwise have been the case. 

I am grateful to the Committee for initiating the debate to discuss the Commission’s proposal concerning the co-financing rates for EU solidarity mechanism funds. As the hon. Gentleman said, the UK participates in three such funds, known as the SOLID funds: the European refugee fund, the return fund and the European fund for the integration of third-country nationals. We have been allocated approximately £240 million from

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the current funds. The general objective of the draft proposal is to increase the co-financing rates so that those member states benefiting from financial support mechanisms—those in particular financial difficulty—can access the funds more easily to continue to implement their programmes in the areas of migration and asylum. 

As the hon. Gentleman said, the proposal is pursuant to title V of the treaties and therefore triggers the justice and home affairs opt-in protocol, which means that we can choose whether to participate. As he also correctly said, it is likely that the proposal will proceed with or without our participation, as other member states have voiced broad support for the amendment. The debate provides us with the opportunity to discuss the proposal and will inform the Government’s decision on whether to opt in. I will listen closely to the views expressed by Members. 

The need for EU budgetary constraint is a top priority. As the hon. Gentleman correctly said, whatever we decide on opt-in, the proposal will not result in additional UK budget commitments. Should the UK opt in, we would be bound by the amendments to the co-financing rate. However, not only is it not envisaged that the UK will seek recourse to a financial support mechanism by the end of 2013, but I think I can confidently say that it is not envisaged that we will ever need to seek recourse to a financial support mechanism. It will not affect how we draw finance. 

We of course have strong reservations about certain EU legislation in the area of justice and home affairs, not least in the area of asylum and migration, where we continue to defend our national competence. However, while we continue to make those views clear, we also continue to point to solidarity and practical co-operation as an area where a joint approach can achieve results. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Greece-Turkey border. I had the opportunity last week, on a visit to the region, to meet with both Governments and to see some practical co-operation on the ground. That was very helpful. 

From the UK’s perspective, many of those who enter our country illegally have travelled through other member states and in through the EU’s external borders. Improving some member states’ capacity in the area of asylum mitigates the pressures on us. 

It is worth saying before I conclude that we already provide bilateral support for Greece, and on EU funding through the European Asylum Support Office. We demonstrate our solidarity and practical co-operation with Greece. The proposal supports the Government’s view that practical co-operation, solidarity and the support of well-managed migration can be a powerful tool for securing British objectives. I welcome the debate on the proposal. As the hon. Gentleman correctly said, the decision is subject to the UK’s opt-in decisions. I look forward to answering Members’ questions and listening to the ensuing debate. 

The Chair:  We now have until 3.30 for questions to the Minister. I remind Members that those questions should be brief. 

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab):  I have only two questions to ask the Minister, he will be relieved to hear, unless he makes a hash of the answers. First, the Government said in his predecessor’s note: 

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“The Greek-Turkish border is the entry point for more than half of all illegal migrants to the EU, and many of these migrants travel onwards to the UK.” 

The Minister effectively referred to that just now. Can he quantify the “many”? How many of them travel on here? I fear that sometimes we presume such things to be the case without basing them on fact. 

Mr Harper:  I can answer that in a way that the hon. Gentleman might or might not find satisfactory. I cannot quantify the “many” exactly. The nature of illegal migration is such that we do not know the totality of the situation. When we catch illegal migrants and debrief them, we can then build a picture of how they got to the United Kingdom. We know that a number of them come into the EU via the Greece-Turkey border, make their way across the EU and reach the United Kingdom. We do not know the totality of that—the percentage of those who enter the EU through that border. We know that it is a significant number, but we cannot put an exact figure on it. It will remain somewhat unquantified. 

It is clearly important to stop illegal migrants entering the EU in the first place. I had the opportunity last week to look at the physical border that Greece is putting in place along its land border with Turkey. It is putting in a fence and some very sophisticated monitoring equipment, and it plans to roll that out along the river border as well. It is taking the matter seriously, as are our Turkish partners, and that border is being strengthened, protecting the interests of the EU, Greece and the United Kingdom. 

Chris Bryant:  I have gained a question now. I can understand why we do not know the unknown illegals—the uncaught illegals—and how many there are, but we must surely know the number of caught illegals. Will the Minister quantify how many people who have been caught as illegal immigrants to the UK have come through that route? 

Mr Harper:  I may be able to do that, but I cannot do that this very moment. I will therefore write to the hon. Gentleman and copy the letter to the Committee. 

Chris Bryant:  It does not look as if any inspiration is coming from over there, so may I ask another question? The Minister referred to a figure of €240 million, but the report refers to €129.2 million as the amount of money that we receive. Which is the correct figure and what do we spend that money on? 

Mr Harper:  I believe that the €240 million figure is correct. I could have set out in my speech the things that we spend the money on, but I was detecting a sense from the Committee that it wanted me to be brief. Perhaps I should now set out for the hon. Gentleman some of the things that we spend the money on. The European return fund partly finances the UK Border Agency’s charter flight programmes and has enabled the UK to expand the range of destinations and methods of working. We also have a well established resettlement programme, which is assisted by the co-financing from the European refugee fund, and the European integration fund has provided an important source of funding for

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third-country nationals seeking to integrate into British society by, for example, improving English language skills. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con):  I am not actually on the Committee, but am attending out of great interest in this subject, and I see that everyone else has, too. Does the Minister agree with the European Scrutiny Committee’s report, which said that opting in would be primarily symbolic? 

Mr Harper:  Yes, that is indeed the case. I think that I set it out in my remarks that if we do not opt in, it is likely that this amendment will be taken forward anyway, given that it has broad support. Opting in does not affect our contributions to the resources or what we get out of it. It simply enables those countries that are in financial difficulty to pay for a larger proportion of projects, which, in theory, spreads the money more thinly, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk set out when he introduced the debate. In practice, it is likely to enable more programmes to be financed, since the countries in financial difficulties simply do not have the resources to pay the larger share themselves. The amendment is largely symbolic as this is likely to go ahead anyway, but it will effectively mean that more practical projects take place on the ground. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  May I follow that up? If it is therefore symbolic and the Government decide to opt in, we could read into that the Government’s pro-European fervour. 

Mr Harper:  No, I do not think that that is the case. I set out clearly that we think that asylum and migration policy remains a national competence that we defend strongly. It is also the case with migration and asylum that our national interest is protected by working with partners who can help reduce the impact on the United Kingdom. As I saw for myself last week, we need to enable the Greeks and some of those outside the European Union, such as our partners in Turkey, to have a more effective border that makes it more difficult for illegal migration to the EU. That will, albeit in a way that is not entirely brilliantly quantified, improve the situation for the United Kingdom. Therefore, working together with those countries is just a sign of protecting our national interest, but in a practical, thoughtful way. 

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con):  May I ask the Minister whether he was able to find out on his recent visit to Greece what use the Greeks are making of those funds? For example, how many people have been resettled in Greece as a result of the use of those funds, and how many people have been returned from Greece to the country from whence they came? 

Mr Harper:  I am not sure I can give my hon. Friend that precise information. I can tell him that the border fund, which admittedly is not the subject of this debate because we do not participate in it, has been financing the lion’s share of the physical border that Greece has put in place on its land border with Turkey. It has made

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a significant difference. It has driven the migration across that land border to almost zero from hundreds of migrants per day. It has had a significant, practical effect. The evidence is that the use that is being made of those funds in Greece and in some of our other EU partners is significant. That is not just of benefit to Greece and other EU member states, but of practical benefit to the United Kingdom. 

Mr Chope:  I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that response. Recently, in answer to one of my parliamentary questions, he said that we are still a long way away from being able to establish a system of Dublin returns to Greece because its asylum system is so chaotic. What did he see on his visit to suggest that there might be an early return to enabling us to send illegal immigrants back to Greece? 

Mr Harper:  I certainly saw that, in terms of what the Greek Government intend to do, they are making steps to get their asylum system in good shape. I was able to go to one of the centres for initial asylum screening, which is well organised and uses support from a number of non-governmental organisations. The Greek Government’s intentions are sound. They are starting to put those measures in place. I do not think I can give a robust assessment of how far we are from once again being able to return asylum seekers through the Dublin regulations to Greece, but Greece is making progress. I hope to be able to update the House in due course as it takes steps towards being able to do so. 

Mr Chope:  Does my hon. Friend know what is happening in Lesbos? It is said that as a result that tightening of the land border, to which he referred, there are now increasing numbers coming by sea to Lesbos, and that is creating a separate problem. 

Mr Harper:  Actually, because I visited Greece last week, I am able to say that my hon. Friend has set out the issue very well. Due to the improvements on the land border and the work that is being carried out on the river border between Greece and Turkey, there is pressure and increased migration from Turkey to Greece across the sea lanes. The coastguard is now paying attention to that and is putting in place operations to deal with that threat. Both Greece and Turkey are alive to the fact that, once pressure is put on particular migratory routes, it is necessary to look at where migration will take place. 

Of course, it is more difficult to use those sea routes, so the numbers are lower. There is also a challenge for the safety of those migrants because unprincipled and unscrupulous people traffickers issue instructions to those migrants that, as they get closer to land, they are to hole their rather flimsy crafts in order to put their lives in danger to force the Greeks and the Turks to rescue them. That is indeed what has been happening, and both countries have taken great pride in the fact that they have saved the lives of a lot of unfortunate people who have been exploited by unscrupulous people traffickers and smugglers. It does present problems, but both countries are seized of that risk and are putting increased enforcement in place across the sea routes as well as on the land routes. 

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Mr Chope:  Does my hon. Friend think his motion reflects adequately the distinction between, for example, a genuine asylum seeker and an illegal migrant who has been trafficked for money? 

Mr Harper:  I am not entirely certain what my hon. Friend is driving at. I think it does. I think we make clear the difference between those seeking asylum and those coming here for other purposes. I am not entirely certain what my hon. Friend is driving at. If he wants to set his point out in more detail, I will try to give him a better answer. 

Mr Chope:  The resettlement programme and the integration programmes are designed to look after the best interests of genuine asylum seekers, whereas the European return fund is designed to encourage people here illegally to go back to the place from whence they came. I welcome my hon. Friend’s reference to illegal immigration—an expression that almost cannot be used in European Union circles any longer; we talk about irregular migration—which recognises that some are illegal migrants and some are genuine asylum seekers. Does his motion reflect the distinction? 

Mr Harper:  The motion certainly does. It refers to illegal migration, which I hope will please my hon. Friend. It is important to look at all the aspects. Those who seek and are granted asylum are obviously then able to stay in the country. Those who seek asylum, but do not have a successful claim, do not have a basis on which to stay and should return to the country from whence they came. Some do not have an arguable claim in the first place, but come here for other reasons. We must bear down on all those sources of migration. If we deal with only one of them or part of the problem, all we will do is encourage people to seek one of the other routes or reasons for entering the country. We need all the tools at our disposal to manage the situation properly. 

Mr Chope:  My last question: in that case, does my hon. Friend think that the Greek Government are using the tools sufficiently? People who seek to claim asylum in Greece are not processed efficiently. Even with the help of Frontex, the fingerprinting and so on often does not get anywhere near Athens, but is abandoned en route. People who have been refused asylum in Greece can move on to the UK without any available records, but that was the original intention of the European Union measures. 

Mr Harper:  It is certainly the case, and the Greek Government would admit themselves, that the Greek asylum system is not in great shape. They are in the process of putting in place a new agency to manage the asylum process. I had some discussions about that when I was there last week; they have some good plans and they have had some good advice from Frontex and other EU member states about establishing a robust system. The Greek system absolutely has problems at the moment, in the sense that people go into the system, but they cannot be detained, because the claims cannot be processed. People are not managed properly and are able to go to Athens and move on to the rest of the EU. The Greeks recognise that problem and they are seeking to tackle it with their new system. If their intentions

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come to fruition, I think they will have a much more robust system, in which they and their EU partners can have confidence. 

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con):  There are potentially six member states able to draw on the extra funding. The Minister has concentrated on Greece, and given the sheer numbers I understand why, but does he foresee the other five making claims for additional funding? 

Mr Harper:  They may well; my hon. Friend is correct. Greece, Ireland, Hungry, Latvia, Portugal and Romania can take advantage of the extra co-financing rate. I concentrated specifically on Greece, because it is the most obvious part of the EU’s external border where there is a significant challenge and where the funds have been most effectively deployed. The other countries may draw on the funds, but the nature of the amendment is that it does not change our contribution into the fund or the overall amount of money. It enables those countries that are financially challenged to do more projects in practice, because they simply do not have the co-financing money available under the existing rules. If they draw on it, in practice, but perhaps not in theory, they can do more practical projects on the ground. 

Stephen Mosley:  Okay, I can fully understand and support that as well, but there could be a concern. I do not know how much of this money has previously been spent, but, if it is almost 100%, if the amount given to certain countries is increased, there will be less available for other projects. Has my hon. Friend made an assessment of how much has been spent, and, if the money does run out, what happens then? 

Mr Harper:  The proposal does not change the amount of money available to each country, but it means that they do not have to find as much of their own money to match fund it. That means that in practice, if the money is made available to them, they are more likely to be able to develop projects on the ground, because they do not now have to find as much of their own money. Before, the money would have been theoretically available to them, but, because they could not match funding, they would not have been able to draw on it and do anything with it in practice. The proposal does not increase the overall total of money available, but it probably means that more of the money will be spent on actual projects. Given the point of these funds is to have an impact on migration and asylum and improve the system, they are to the benefit of the United Kingdom. 

The Chair:  If no more Members wish to ask questions, we will now proceed to debate the motion. I call the Minister to move the motion on the paper. 

Motion made, and Question proposed,  

That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No 14123/12, a draft decision of the European Parliament and Council amending Decision No 573/2007/EC, Decision No 575/2007/EC and Council Decision 2007/435/EC with a view to increasing the co-financing rate of the European Refugee Fund, the European Return Fund and the European Fund for the Integration of Third Country Nationals as regards certain provisions relating to financial management for certain member states experiencing or threatened with serious financial difficulties with

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respect to their financial stability; notes that the draft decision would be subject to the UK’s opt-in; notes that the draft decision may increase the ability of certain member states, including Greece, to fully utilise solidarity funds, which have been severely impacted by the ongoing economic crisis; further notes that the Greek-Turkish border is the entry point for more than half of all illegal migrants to the EU, and many of these migrants travel onwards to the UK; agrees that the UK has an interest in seeing an improved response to migratory pressures in Greece, and that the effective use of solidarity funds can play an integral part in this improvement; and supports the Government’s view that this draft proposal would also provide benefit to Ireland with whom the UK has a shared border.—(Mr Harper.) 

2.56 pm 

Chris Bryant:  It is a delight to sit under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. The last time there was such a Committee, Ms Dorries was in the Chair, but she is unaccountably unable to join us this afternoon. I hope that you are not planning any trips around the world—I would not advise it. 

In a sense, this debate is a bit of dancing on the head of a pin, because in the end I think all Members accept that it is right to have the SOLID funds. Everybody also accepts that, particularly in relation to Greece, it only makes sense that member states are able to draw down the funds to be able to engage in work that we know may not be of direct benefit to us, but it is certainly of indirect benefit to us. Potentially, although we are not able to quantify exactly how much, it is actually of direct benefit to the United Kingdom, because we know that many of the trafficking routes through to the UK that have been used over the last 20 years have gone either through the Balkans, or though Turkey and Greece and then up into the rest of the European Union. The Minister is absolutely right to say that it is important that we enable our brothers and sisters in the European Union to do a better job. 

The amount of money that is actually spent on the SOLID funds is relatively minor compared to the rest of the EU’s budget. Many of us would want to say that it is ludicrous that 41% of the EU budget is still spent on agriculture. It would be better if it was spent on issues such as this, where there is a material benefit to the people of this country and all the other countries, and few taxpayers would object to the work that is being done. 

Of course, the big problem for Greece in particular is twofold. There is not only its economic situation, but the fact that, after centuries of being a diaspora nation that exported people around the world—they invented the word “diaspora,” apart from anything else—over the last 14 years they suddenly became a country that attracted large numbers of migrants, first from Albania in particular, and then from further afield as well. 

The faces of Greece have changed dramatically in a very short period of time. That has provided all sorts of problems for Greece itself, but also handed on problems of illegal immigration and being able to cope with genuine asylum seekers and settle them properly so that they have a chance to live a decent life and are rescued from the oppression and danger from which they have fled. The country itself and the local community also need to be able to absorb those people properly without social conflict and all the rest of it. 

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It was good that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) referred to the Lesbian problem, because lately there is indeed an issue that has arisen in relation to several of the islands in Greece. Italy, of course, and Malta have had big problems with migration from the Maghreb, such as people coming in boats, risking their lives and sometimes being trafficked, but sometimes putting their own dangerous travel arrangements together. There is no guarantee that, just because a wall or a fence has been put up or there is better patrolling of the land border between Greece and Turkey, that will put an end to the issue. 

Given that many of the islands in Greece are so small and difficult to patrol, it is a complicated matter for Greece. The more that we can do in any circumstance to enable Greece to take up the available funds to be able to do a better job of dealing with such issues, the better and, in particular, to be able to do so at this time is important. Why I describe matters as dancing on the head of a pin is because the Government have not tabled a motion. They do not have a view on whether we should opt in or not. 

I come now to the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) or rather the hon. Member for 1628—that is more or less his preferred year of parliamentary democracy; we still had the Stuarts on the throne and, broadly speaking, they were still in control and did not consider that they always had to hold Parliaments. The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that it would be mainly symbolic whether Britain did not or did sign up to the proposal. Everyone accepts that it is good to take such action, so the symbolism is purely and simply about whether Britain has signed up to it. It does not affect the amount we spend; it does not affect the amount we receive. 

It would be merely symbolic not to opt in, but so far the Minister has not told us his view. So far he has absolutely no view. I cannot even read it from the way in which he is holding on to his chin or from his body language, and whether that detects an ardent—oh no, he is doing that “face”, the one my mother used to do when she said, “And, worst of all, you’ve let yourself down”. 

The Government will be best just to say that they are in favour of opting in, because that is the truth of the matter. There can be no logic to not opting in, other than to make some kind of appeasement of the hon. Member for 1628. I say to the Minister that, down the route of appeasing, madness lies. It simply will not work. If he wants a voice on whether we should opt in or opt out, my vote is in favour of opting in. I wish that that was the terms of the motion today, but today’s sitting is meant broadly to be a general chit-chat. The danger of general chit-chats is that then, because of the process, the European Scrutiny Committee will ask us to hold the debate all over again when there is a proposal from the Government, which would be a bit of a waste of our time. 

3.2 pm 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  May I agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda on one thing, and say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark? That is about the limit of my agreement. 

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I want to praise and congratulate the Minister on bringing the decision to Parliament to discuss before the Government have said what they will do. It is actually a great courtesy to the House. It is a proper way in which to conduct business, as the Government can be informed of the views of Members of Parliament before deciding on an opt-in, which is a very important constitutional step, even when it is on a little matter, because it brings issues into the ambit of the European Union on a permanent basis and subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. It is an erosion of sovereignty whenever it happens, and over what is sometimes a minor matter, when it has symbolic importance, but it is none the less something that changes our relationship with Europe and cedes power from us to Europe. 

The issue under contention is simple. There is money that is not being spent because the people who are being asked to spend it do not themselves have any money. It is akin to the national lottery fund that used to demand high levels of co-financing, found that it built up huge surpluses because no one was able to raise the rest of the money and therefore eased those regulations. All of that is perfectly sensible and uncontentious. 

However, the opt-on is crucial. We have already discovered that the British Government do not expect this nation to benefit from the opt-in. They do not consider that we will be in a state of such financial distress that we will be eligible for the funds and, as we are a net contributor, even after our rebate, it seems highly unlikely that we would ever be in such a hard-up position that we could not draw more money back from Europe than we are giving in. It does not actually help us in any particular way. 

Once we opt in under title V, we do then allow things to pass under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and we therefore take away powers that we have previously kept securely in the United Kingdom. What will we achieve by doing that? We will allow something to happen that will happen anyway in countries that go ahead and do it, so there is no advantage to opting in and there is a symbolic disadvantage. 

Is symbolism important or is it as trivial as the hon. Member for Rhondda suggests? I argue that symbolism is important, because in my view it is where trust has so much broken down between the British people and their Governments in relation to the European Union. That is to say that we have been told that many things are merely symbolic—the Lisbon treaty was called a tidying-up exercise, and then it turns out that something quite important had happened. If the Government will go along with the symbolism of being a good European and do something as a friendly gesture to maintain our position in the councils of Europe and do it on that basis alone, the British electorate will be suspicious that the Government talk a tough Eurosceptic game, but— 

Chris Bryant:  I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman has got it all wrong about what we are discussing. We are already opted-in to the original measure. The only decision is on whether we should be able to sign our assent and affect any future development that happens. There is no erosion. The cliffs of Dover will not collapse into the ocean because of this proposal and suddenly be part of Lesbos or something. It is a simple little issue. The danger is that every time we spend a little bit of goodwill, we have to earn it elsewhere. 

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Jacob Rees-Mogg:  That is not strictly accurate. The opt-ins that we have previously agreed are all subject to our block opt-out, which comes up in 2014. Any opt-ins that we currently make are not subject to the block opt-outs, so therefore we establish ourselves in a new and more-opted in position than we are currently in. Of course the white cliffs of Dover are not going to fall in, and the forces required for the white cliffs to merge with Lesbos would be so quite extraordinary that the issues of the European Union would be secondary, and even I would not be standing here as the Thames was afoam. 

The key issue, however, is whether the Government ultimately believe in maintaining authority in the United Kingdom or whether, when it comes to an action, rather than words, they will go along with the pro-European thinking of, “Let’s show some goodwill, let’s do this because it will improve our negotiating position”, which has been so dangerous before and has led to a continued erosion of British sovereignty. It has left the British people very unhappy with the relationship with Europe, so that a majority in opinion polls now say that they would like to leave altogether. It is my view that an opt-in should only be used if it is absolutely, clearly and determinately in the interests of the British people. If it is merely symbolic, that is an opportunity to say, “No, we do not want any further European integration.” 

3.8 pm 

Mr Chope:  It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. Because I am not a member of the Committee, I will keep my remarks reasonably brief. 

I came along because I am currently on a sub-committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that is looking into the issue of migratory flows from north Africa and the east of Europe into the European Union. In January, I am expecting to be able to go and see, as a member of the sub-committee, the Greek-Turkish border and the programme that is being drawn up. 

Chris Bryant:  And Lesbos? 

Mr Chope:  I have been told that Lesbos will be very much on our itinerary, as well as Athens. As somebody who has never been to Lesbos, I am very much looking forward to that opportunity. There is a serious side to this, however, which is that the European Union is spending €4,000 million in the current financing period on these four funds and nowhere is there any evidence that these funds are achieving their avowed objective. It would be fair to say that the immigration and asylum crisis in Europe is worse than ever. We have porous borders. We have opted out of this, but the Schengen external borders fund is designed to try to ensure that there are secure borders around the Schengen area. There clearly are not at the moment, and the weakest point of entry is probably Greece. 

The more the European Union uses its funds to try to support individual members of Schengen, the more it undermines the first responsibility of any country, which is to look after the security of its own borders; one could not think of anything much more fundamental than that, yet we know that the Greeks have not been able to do that. They keep saying that they need more money from someone else to help them do what should

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be the first obligation of their Government, particularly when one has regard to the riots and serious crime wave in Athens and some of its suburbs, thought to be caused by a whole lot of undocumented migrants, whether they be asylum seekers or illegal migrants. 

Chris Bryant:  Or, indeed, by vicious racists. 

Mr Chope:  I do not know about racists in Greece; I am not an expert on racism there. All I know is that there seems to be an enormous amount of unrest in Greece, and quite a lot of that is associated with the presence, in Greek territory, of people who should not be there. That causes a lot of resentment among the host, as indeed we know that it causes resentment in our own country if people are here illegally and undocumented, supposedly with impunity. 

We have the big funds. There is no evidence that they are being well used. The reason why I put some of the questions I did to the Minister is that I would be quite interested to know what use the Greeks are making of the return fund. How many illegal immigrants are being returned using the money in that fund? What use are they making of the resettlement fund, which is designed to ensure that genuine asylum seekers can be resettled in Greece? What about the integration fund? What use is being made of those funds? My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset speculates that the Greeks cannot afford to take up their quota under the grants because they cannot afford to contribute their 50%, 25% or 20% contribution. It would be interesting to know the extent to which they are making any use of the funds anyway. 

Like many things in this House, this short debate gives us the opportunity to raise some wider issues. Underlying all that is a pretty anodyne statement from the Minister in the terms of a motion and a question that verges on the academic. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset. Why opt in to something if there is no benefit from opting in to it? I do not think that any benefit from opting in to the measure has been demonstrated. Perhaps the best thing to do is to sit on the side lines and to opt out of it. Like a lot of European programmes related to migration, there is a lot of talk and a lot of money is produced, but there is precious little evidence of results—that all the money being spent by the European Union is giving us secure borders. 

On a radio programme last week on what was happening to people from Syria who are in Calais, they were asked why they were not seeking asylum in Calais—they were French speakers. They said that it was because they were so badly treated in Calais that they wanted to get to the United Kingdom. That is not how the EU co-operation funds are meant to be working. Obviously, the French are not making any use of the funds that they should have for resettling genuine asylum seekers. Too much of a burden is being placed on the good people of this country to deal with such issues, many of which should be sorted out at the point of entry at the European Union border, whether it be in Greece or in Hungary. I am pretty sceptical about all this, as is probably apparent. I do not see that there is any point

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in our showing that we think that the European Union is going along the right lines by supporting it in wanting to opt into the measure. 

3.15 pm 

Mr Harper:  The hon. Member for Rhondda asked a question and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset answered it. This is a debate, and the Government are interested in listening to Members’ views. 

Chris Bryant:  Tosh! 

Mr Harper:  I note that when the Labour party was in government, they did not pay much attention to the views of Parliament. We actually try to listen to Parliament, so we are clear that we want to listen to Members’ views. We have said that we will look at each of the justice and home affairs opt-in decisions on a case-by-case basis before we decide whether we will opt in. We look at every proposal on the grounds of security, civil liberties, the integrity of our common-law system and the control of immigration. In the past 12 months, as we have taken such a case-by-case approach, we have opted in to 17 JHA measures, and we have not opted into 12. 

Our view will become clear in due course. We have listened to the views of Members, which have been very helpful and will help to inform our view. I will attempt to reassure my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset and for Christchurch. It is worth remembering that we are not talking about opting into a new area of policy that we have not previously opted in to. We are already opted in to these three funds; we already draw money from them and pay money into them. All we are talking about here is an amendment to those funds concerning the co-financing rate that is available to member states that have financial difficulties. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch might have a point if we were talking about opting in to a new area that we were not currently involved with, but that is not the case. I do not think that we are crossing any Rubicons, so he should be reassured if he studies the wording of the motion in detail. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  That is, to some extent, reassuring. Are our earlier opt-ins subject to the block opt-out, and would this one, if we opted in at this stage, not be subject to that block opt-out? 

Mr Harper:  The decisions we have already opted in to in this area of asylum and migration are not covered by the 2014 opt-in decision that the Government will take. In this case, however, we are already opted in to the principle and the existence of the funds; all we are talking about here is whether we opt in to the amendment. Given that the other member states have indicated that they are likely to go forward, the process is likely to happen anyway. That is why I referred to its being largely symbolic. Given that we are not opting in to a new area of policy, I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured. 

Mr Chope:  Surely, as we come to discuss the next multi-annual financial framework, we need to take a view on whether we think the funds are well invested. I have not heard anything from my hon. Friend the Minister to suggest that the Government think the

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funds are well invested; indeed, there seems to be significant paucity of evidence about how they are invested. Surely, that is what we should be focusing on. If we opt in willy-nilly, could we be seen to be endorsing the existing arrangement by default? 

Mr Harper:  I was just about to deal with my hon. Friend’s questions, but he intervened on me and prevented me from doing so. He would have a point if we were talking about a new fund that we were not currently involved in— 

Chris Bryant:  That we did not draw from. 

Mr Harper:  —that we did not draw from, as the hon. Gentleman said, and we were asking the House to consider that and decide whether we broke new ground. This is an existing fund that we are already involved with. 

On what the fund currently does, it is fair to say that, as far as Greece and one or two other member states are concerned, it is their responsibility, and they recognise that it is their responsibility, to deal with their external border, but it is also fair to say that, for those EU countries of which the external border is also the EU’s external border, that presents extra pressure because people try to enter the country as an entry point into the European Union. It is reasonable to say that those countries have the first responsibility to deal with the security of their border, but they do face increased pressures and some simply do not have the financial resources to deal effectively with those pressures. 

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch asked what Greece had specifically done with some of the money. Greece has done a number of things, but I will pick two examples that I was able to see for myself. Assisted voluntary returns, which Greece does with the International Organisation for Migration, is one area that is funded, and it is very effective. I saw that for myself last week, and it is a good process through which, on a voluntary basis, significant numbers of people come into the organisation to be redocumented. They are helped to do that, and in some cases they are provided with support when they return to their country of origin. IOM organises their flights home, and it organises and manages the process. I was there the day before a flight back to Bangladesh. Some 65 Bangladeshi nationals were being assisted to return to their country of origin. So I think that that is working effectively. 

The second area where Greece has used some of the funds is in creating a pre-removal detention centre to hold people ahead of their removal from the country. Greece has used some of the money well. I recognise that I may not have the specific figures, as I did not earlier for the hon. Member for Rhondda, on the numbers of people, but I do think Greece is using the money effectively. 

Clearly, as we get into the debate—I am not going to spend too long on this—on the next multi-annual financial framework, which is well above my pay grade, our negotiating teams will be asking questions, with this being one of the debates in which the total amount of money is settled, on how effectively money is being spent across all the various policy areas. The general point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is well made, but in this particular area there is some evidence of success. 

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I had the opportunity to meet the Greek Minister for public safety while I was in Greece. I can certainly say that he has taken such matters very seriously since he has been in post, and he has a robust, can-do attitude. He is trying to deliver exactly the sorts of things that my hon. Friend wants to see, and he takes the Greek Government’s responsibilities for border security very seriously. 

Finally, I want to touch on my hon. Friend’s final point on asylum seekers in France. The number of people seeking asylum in France is currently significantly higher than the number of people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. In fact, the work we do with France—to be fair, the work was put in place by the previous Government—to juxtapose the controls on Eurostar, for example, for which we depend on co-operation from the French authorities, is actually very successful in ensuring that we stop people entering the United Kingdom and being able to claim asylum. 

Chris Bryant:  I intervene because I think the Minister is about to stop. Clearly, the key issue here is whether Britain is going to opt in or opt out—or not opt in, which may not be the same as opting out. What does he estimate the view of Parliament to be? Is the view of Parliament that we should opt in, or that we should not? 

Mr Harper:  Let me finish the point I was making, and then I will address the hon. Gentleman’s point before I sit down. He spotted that I was moving towards a conclusion, as I think I had indicated. 

Picking up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, we depend to some extent on the support of the French Government, who take their responsibilities very seriously. I hope that this does not sound like a travel guide, but in my job I have gone on two overseas visits, and the previous one was to France to meet the interior Minister. I had a productive meeting with him and his officials. Certainly from my perspective, the work done by the French in supporting us to put some controls in place has enabled us to defend our border more effectively in the context of a European Union in which there is relatively easy movement between member states. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset and for Christchurch will have views, but that goes beyond the realms of the motion. 

In conclusion, to answer the question that the hon. Member for Rhondda asked, the Government will consider each measure against the tests that I have set out. I have listened carefully to his views and those of other hon. Members. The Government will now go away and consider those views, together with other evidence gathered in the light of our tests, and we will reach a conclusion. 

Chris Bryant:  Should we not have a more formal process to establish what the view is? The hon. Members for North East Somerset and for Christchurch who spoke earlier—they sounded as though they were anti-in—said that they were not members of the Committee. Unless we consult the whole of Parliament, all we have is the membership of the Committee. I can see at least two inners on the Government Benches, and there are three inners on the Opposition Benches. How will the Minister decide what the will of Parliament is? 

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Mr Harper:  The Government will listen to the views that have been expressed—it is more of a qualitative discussion—and we will weigh those up against the tests that we have set out before we reach a conclusion. All we ask the Committee to do today is to take note of the documents. 

Mr Chope:  Will the Minister give way? 

Mr Harper:  I will give way to my hon. Friend, and then I will conclude by urging hon. Members to support the motion. 

Mr Chope:  I hope that the Minister will weigh heavily in the balance the fact that every Member of Parliament was entitled to attend this Committee, and to speak and ask questions. I hope that he will note that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset and I are a representative sample of all the people who wanted to come to the Committee to ask questions and express their view. 

Mr Harper:  I certainly accept that my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset are representative of those who are passionately concerned about the issues and have therefore taken the trouble to come along to the Committee and set out their views. I have listened carefully to such views and the points they have made. I will consider carefully, as I always do, the sensible points made by the hon. Member for Rhondda; one or two I may not pay much attention to, but I certainly will to his sensible ones. The Government will then reach a conclusion. 

For the purposes of this debate, I urge hon. Members to support the motion on the Order Paper. 

Question put and agreed to.  

Resolved,  

That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No 14123/12, a draft decision of the European Parliament and Council amending Decision No 573/2007/EC, Decision No 575/2007/EC and Council Decision 2007/435/EC with a view to increasing the co-financing rate of the European Refugee Fund, the European Return Fund and the European Fund for the Integration of Third Country Nationals as regards certain provisions relating to financial management for certain member states experiencing or threatened with serious financial difficulties with respect to their financial stability; notes that the draft decision would be subject to the UK’s opt-in; notes that the draft decision

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may increase the ability of certain member states, including Greece, to fully utilise solidarity funds, which have been severely impacted by the ongoing economic crisis; further notes that the Greek-Turkish border is the entry point for more than half of all illegal migrants to the EU, and many of these migrants travel onwards to the UK; agrees that the UK has an interest in seeing an improved response to migratory pressures in Greece, and that the effective use of solidarity funds can play an integral part in this improvement; and supports the Government’s view that this draft proposal would also provide benefit to Ireland with whom the UK has a shared border. 

Chris Bryant:  On a point of order, Ms Clark. I want to check exactly what we have decided. The Minister keeps referring to a motion on the Order Paper. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg:  If the hon. Gentleman will turn to today’s Order Paper, he will find it. 

Chris Bryant:  I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. That motion does not say anything about taking note; it simply states, “to consider”. 

Mr Harper  rose—  

The Chair:  The hon. Gentleman is well aware of the procedure for referrals from the European Scrutiny Committee, and of the format of motions that are referred to European Committees for consideration. 

I believe that the Minister also has a point of order. 

Mr Harper:  Further to that point of order, Ms Clark. I spared the Committee my reading out the motion in full, but it clearly states that the Committee “takes note” of the European Union document that amends other European Union documents. That was why I referred to it as I did, which I thought was fairly clear. 

Chris Bryant:  I apologise. 

The Chair:  I think we have clarity. I am grateful to both Front Benchers. 

3.29 pm 

Committee rose.  

Prepared 21st November 2012