Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20.  I am sorry to pursue it, but we are a Parliamentary Committee, not Government and we have a different job to do and are looking at the pros and cons of border checks which are first class. I quite appreciate that the Government has taken a policy decision which is firm, but all I am really seeking is a list of the advantages and disadvantages to British citizens as they travel abroad and to the national interests of this country of that decision. In other words, given that this is the Government's policy, it was the previous Government's policy, what detriment does that incur for me when I travel elsewhere in the European Union? What advantages do I get out of it as a British citizen when I travel abroad? What benefits and costs are there to the central interests of the United Kingdom in continuing to opt out or ceasing to do so in terms of border controls? I quite appreciate the other matters are less contentious but since we are dealing with border checks it would certainly help me to know the arguments on both sides seen on the basis of evidence as well as argument.
  (Mr Warne)  If I may, my Lord Chairman, I will put that to my Immigration and Nationality Department colleagues, see what is available and see if when they come to see you in two or three weeks' time there is more information available.

Lord Bridges

  21.  Rather approaching Lord Lester's question from a slightly different angle, it seems clear to me that he said in his last comment that what the Government did was to take a policy decision about what they thought was the best situation for us on this matter and that is in the protocol and we have got a protocol and we have got to make it work as best we can. I do not think that is a particularly easy thing to do. It seems to me that you are quite right to be worried about the leaky external frontiers of the European Union. I have seen some examples of this myself. I remember in Sicily a few years ago when visiting a fishing port on the south-western coast a weekly steamer happened to arrive from Tunis and it disgorged a very large number of Tunisians who simply walked off into the countryside, there was not any control at all. Clearly we have to have the controls of which you speak in this country. What I wonder is whether we have enough resources to make them work properly. The Government, having wished this policy, has an obligation to make sure that there are sufficient resources to make it work. I happen to live on the east coast of England and I notice that the Coastguard seems to have a very much diminished presence. The Coastguard station on my estuary is closed, it is open only at summer weekends when it is manned by volunteers. To judge from the gossip one picks up there is a certain amount of illicit movement of people and goods and nothing is being done about it at all. Do you feel confident that we have got the resources to make this rather difficult policy work in practice?
  (Mr Warne)  I think, my Lord, it is quite easy for a civil servant to say that we never have quite enough resources but difficult choices have to be made by the Government. If we matched the resources in immigration control to the increase in the volume of passenger traffic we would be paying a very, very heavy bill indeed. I think what we have to do is get our resources in the right place to make sure that we are maintaining our control systems where they will deliver the best results. If I may illustrate the point: I think there may not be much point in examining in detail the flight from Brussels on Friday night at Heathrow which will be full of a number of bureaucrats and plenty of Brits amongst them. Really you have to make a study of where the immigration problems are arising, where you can best invest your effort and how you can manage the deployment of staff to ensure that they are available at the right time and in the right place. It is a rather more complex question of managing a limited amount of resources in the best way and that is a real challenge.


  22.  I think clearly this is a question that we will have to ask the Minister when he comes in terms of if one is committed to maintaining border controls what sort of resources should we commit to them as the traffic goes up. If I understand you correctly what you have been saying is that the argument for maintaining frontier controls is above all an argument about immigration much more than an argument about organised crime or about drugs, and if one is looking to control organised crime or drugs then intelligence operations with other forces in other countries is a great deal more important. Do we have any communication sufficiently reliable about patterns of illegal immigration into this country, how many are people who come here on tourist visas and then disappear into the country, how serious a problem that is? I think Mr Abbott suggested that people smuggling has become a much more serious problem in the last five years with organised groups sponsoring it, which again I suspect means one has to have an international response to these various routes from Istanbul and elsewhere to come through. How far are people turning up at the internal countries of the EU, coming through from Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and being picked up at the frontier or getting through without being picked up at the frontier? That is clearly one of the questions if one is particularly wishing to maintain the internal frontier for immigration control reasons.
  (Mr Warne)  I think I will have to ask my immigration colleagues to produce rather more chapter and verse on the impact of our immigration controls, especially in terms of the controls operated on arrivals from within the European Union. On illegal immigration, yes, we do detect a growth. We do detect a growth in the sense that the criminals involved regrettably see human traffic as another commodity in which they can deal. There is money to be made, and it seems to be very much the same category as drug smuggling or gun running, it just happens to be a human commodity. That needs to be tackled in different ways from pure immigration control, I think, because one needs to attack the organisations involved in promoting the trafficking and not simply rely on immigration controls to throw up particular examples of these cases where we are dealing with wholly innocent victims. I turn to Mr Abbott at this point because the National Criminal Intelligence Service is directing quite a lot of attention to this particular problem.
  (Mr Abbott)  Thank you. My Lord Chairman, there is increasing evidence, and a number of significant operations have been undertaken, where organised criminal groups have been involved in facilitating illegal immigrants into this country from varying distant parts of the world using certain parts of the European Union as staging posts before they come on to the United Kingdom. There are indications that they are being quartered in certain countries within the European Union before they come on to us. Organised crime groups are in it for profit and it has become more profitable to get involved in illegal immigration and the attraction for the organised crime group is that it is high profit, low risk and relatively low penalty. That is our analysis of why illegal immigration has increased and why we believe that it will continue to be a major problem for this country.

Lord Inglewood

  23.  I was interested in listening to the remarks we have heard. We began, it seemed to me, by saying what border controls provided were effective controls and it was contrasted with elsewhere in Europe where it was felt that the arrangements were not adequate and an example was given about increased illegal immigration. A possible explanation for increased illegal immigration may simply be that more people are trying to come in illegally, for very obvious reasons, than they might have done a decade ago. Equally in the case of drugs we have heard how many seizures which are made at borders are in fact as a result of prior intelligence. First of all, what is the definition of an effective control as opposed to one that is ineffective? How do you actually know it in the real world? Are we sure that what we are doing is in fact effective? It may be that the reasons why certain things we do may not appear to give the results that we would like, or other people do, is not because the control per se is in any way deficient, it is that the people trying to ellude those controls are changing their habits and/or the pressures on them may be much greater. I began by thinking that the test for all this was going to be that our controls must be effective controls however then something Mr Warne said made me wonder further because talking about resources he then talked about the nature of deploying what limited resources we have got. Are we sure that given the resources we have got that if we are using them in the context of effective border controls that is the most efficient use, albeit you could do a much better job with more money, that we can use for deploying them?
  (Mr Warne)  I would agree with the proposition that the test of border controls as a control system for entry is to whether they are effective, that is to say whether they ensure that those who are admissible are admitted quickly and efficiently, the vast majority without delay, and the same controls identify those who may not be admissible and ensure that they are denied entry where they do not qualify. I think there is also a factor of geography here to be taken into account. If you have many land borders with adjacent countries it is very difficult to mount crossing control systems at all points. There are hundreds, thousands of roads and crossing points. We have an advantage in our island geography that people arrive at airports or through sea ports largely. We know that there are a few entrepreneurs who may try other means, but largely that is where they come in and that is therefore where the check can most easily be made. So I think the test is not simply does it work, but does it work in our circumstances in the most desirable way? I think there is a strong argument for saying that, given the island geography and given the natural funnel points, this is the most convenient way of exercising control. There are also the cultural dimensions, i.e. we have a history of exercising control in this way and no internal checks, no production of identity documentation and so on. So there are historical reasons for operating this system as well. The question still remains ?Are we doing it in the best way?? and that is a question that we continue to ask ourselves and as we look at performance and the evidence of illegal immigration. I am afraid on the facts and the figures I have to look to immigration colleagues to deliver those to you. We use them to and see if we are being effective. There really is no point, as I said earlier, in simply maintaining a control which is not delivering anything. You can put in controls in depth where you have particular problems or you can have a very light control where historically there are very few problems. These judgments have to be made often on a week-to-week, even on a day-to-day basis. The tests of effectiveness are have we got the right people admitted quickly without delay, are we providing the right level of customer service and are we stopping those who should not be allowed access under the Immigration Rules?

  24.  You have described the measure of effectiveness. Is our system effective?
  (Mr Warne)   I believe that it is. There will always be a degree of illegal immigration. You cannot have a system that is 100 per cent perfect even by stopping every passenger and interrogating them at length. It is quite impractical to do so, of course. There will be those who find ways of slipping in. It is really finding the best system in the light of the factors that I have mentioned, including our geography.

Lord Bridges

  25.  Could our system be made even more effective if we joined the Schengen Information System? Would that improve our intelligence?
  (Mr Warne)   I think there is a case for saying that the Schengen Information System could be of value to us, but one has to do again a rather more detailed analysis of the elements of the Schengen Information System. It is not, I suspect, very helpful for us to know that France wants someone excluded from the Schengen system if we are already doing that, as it were, independently, but there may well be information there on criminal suspects, on stolen vehicles, on other such matters where access to the system could provide added value for policing purposes quite independently of immigration control. But one has to assess that also in the light of what would be the obligations on the United Kingdom police authorities in putting in information, in responding to requests for action and in contributing to the cost of running the system both domestically and in the Central Schengen Information System.

  26.  That is a question we would certainly welcome as much as you can give us on because it seems to be rather close to the heart of this particular inquiry. I suppose another way of looking at it is can we get from the informal arrangements we have with Schengen at the moment information which we most need which they have got?
  (Mr Warne)   I do not think that we can continue to rely on informal arrangements for production of all the material available. I think the Schengen countries will say, "We are happy to work as closely as we can with the United Kingdom but there comes a point at which you have to contribute as well." I think there will be different views. I think some countries would say, "I am afraid you have opted out, as it were, on immigration grounds and we are not sure that you should be in at all." I think a number of others will view the position differently and say there may well be advantages for them and for us in being involved in other parts of the system. We need to understand the full implications of that. The costs could be very considerable, but we are working on this. We need also to work with our Irish colleagues because they are in the same position as we are in a common travel area.

  27.  Something you said just now implied that we might have some hesitation in making available to the Schengen partners the information which we could put into it.
  (Mr Warne)   No, I did not mean to imply that, my Lord. I think that if there were no other considerations of the costs, duties, obligations and pressures involved we would have little or no difficulty in providing information in accordance with the current requirements for information to be held in certain forms, on types of individual, types of stolen goods and so on. I think we could do that and indeed I would not want to suggest that there would be no benefit. We would have other countries possibly identifying people for us and stolen vehicles for us. I prefer to look at it as a more collective enterprise, not simply judged on national interest alone.

  28.  This is then an active question in the Home Office?
  (Mr Warne)  A very active question. We are working on it currently and very hard because we need to come to a view as to whether we wish to participate in Schengen and specifically the SIS in the parts where we can do that without damage to our frontiers position.

Lord Elibank

  29.  Is it purely a question of costs? You say it would be very costly to join the SIS system and Schengen. Presumably the other countries involved put up the money and do so fairly willingly, one supposes. Clearly there would be costs. Bearing in mind the sort of databases we have on criminals, immigrants and so forth, would it be enormously costly to integrate that with the central system in Strasbourg?
  (Mr Warne)  My Lord, no, I do not think the cost is an insuperable problem but it is a significant one. What we have got to do rather more of is talk with our police service colleagues, and we have already begun that process, about what exactly the implications would be for running the system and responding to checks adding to our police national computer base. It is a matter not only of cost. I would not want to suggest that cost would be the sole determinant here, although it would be a consideration, and it is one that we have to put on the scales.


  30.  This is part of the background of our enquiry but having talked through the whole Schengen dimension it seemed to us that in a few years' time it might not prove practical from a policing point of view to stay out of these information systems and that indeed once the Treaty of Amsterdam is ratified the problems of which system is which and what comes under the First Pillar and what comes under the Third, which bits we think we are in and which bits we think we are out, could itself impose a number of additional costs on the British and confusion on others such that I am not sure that in the long run it may be practical for us to retain an opt-out of that sort.
  (Mr Warne)  My Lord, I am not sure that I can subscribe entirely to that analysis as to why we might wish to be in but I think there are a number of other reasons as to why we may wish to be in and I will invite my colleagues to talk about them. The key one seems to me to be that systems in future may develop in different ways. Coming back to your central point, if that makes working with the United Kingdom more difficult there would be a problem. There may be significant advantage to being on the inside in relation to future developments. Of course, if we do opt in and that is agreed then we stay opted in and we stay with future developments. My colleagues may wish to express a view on these important issues.
  (Mr Abbott)  Thank you, Lord Chairman. Anticipating that question I have a list of benefits and drawbacks. I will not delay you too long. The first point I should perhaps make is that it is the Schengen Information System and that is different from intelligence. There is a difference between information and intelligence. The benefits of SIS are that they give you real-time answers with a much broader database of information about wanted persons and stolen or wanted property, including vehicles, firearms, bank notes, blank documents and forged documents, all things that are used by criminals to perpetrate their crime. Quite clearly the fact that the rest of the EU, with the exception of Ireland, are into this system is a benefit for us. We know that the system works. We have looked at a number of Sirene Bureaux. Only this morning I was talking with the BKA from Germany who were visiting both Mr Penrose and myself and they are extremely positive about the benefits of SIS. It does provide a flagging system where you can flag your interest over suspects and that in itself does aid intelligence development too. It undoubtedly is secure and that is clearly a benefit. It has a number of fast track options. Mr Warne has mentioned that once the EU conventions have been ratified perhaps the fast track extradition option may not be as attractive as it seems to me sitting here now today to be. There are also a couple of drawbacks. There is some duplication between the immigration database and also the Interpol databases that exist. That is a challenge that can be worked out, I do not see that as being overriding. I just wonder if we go down the Schengen route in total, however, whether or not consideration will have to be given to the carrying of identity cards because checks are not only made at ports where people are carrying passports, they are also made elsewhere. Another significant benefit of course would be the ability to search a wide database quickly and I have a very practical example, I am reliably told by one of my colleagues in Kent that one in eight cars on the M20 are foreign registered and to be able to search the SIS database when you have suspicions would clearly be a significant advantage. I would not under-estimate my concerns about costs and resourcing because frequently such things are entered into without giving sufficient weight to those considerations. Thank you, Chairman.
  (Mr Penrose)  My Lord Chairman, if I could just add to and support entirely what Mr Abbott has said. The issues around it having got the hard and factual data, the benefit which the Germans see of course is the ability very often to continue their hot pursuit or surveillance across a six inch white line that separates them from another country. We need to take into account that we have at least a 35 minute journey through a tunnel or, an hour and a quarter across water. So there would be time for United Kingdom forces to respond to a request for something that was coming towards us, as indeed we do now and we work very well with our counterparts on the west coast of Europe and indeed the north coast of Spain. There is an issue around that as well of allowing officers carrying weapons into this country that they do when they are on duty. That has been dealt with through the protocol around the Channel Tunnel but that is a confined area, to what degree. Compatible communications is another issue and technology applied to a target vehicle is another issue, none of which are insurmountable. I would add that I see the benefits that have been set out and I can see the implications but I would just add these issues as well which need to be considered and discussed and answered in order to arrive at something that would be acceptable.


  31.  Can I just add to that in terms of practical policemen. In some earlier enquiries we have had a very strong indication that other delegations do not always have someone who knows how to operate the systems sitting alongside them. What you are talking about is some very rapidly developing shared information systems. Is there the danger that there are not practical British policemen sitting around the table and the design of these systems without us will become less and less easy for us to take part in?
  (Mr Penrose)  I think, my Lord Chairman, Mr Warne's point is correct, that being able to influence future development from the inside would be an attraction if that were the way that on a political basis it was felt that we should go forward. I think we would all see that the United Kingdom's involvement in the development of Europol and its forerunner, the EDU, has meant that we have been able to influence the forward direction of that organisation to its benefit.

  32.  Mr Abbott, do you want to add anything?
  (Mr Abbott)  I agree entirely. My example would have been Europol but I would add to it Interpol, a longer running organisation but the United Kingdom has played a significant role in moving Interpol forward. The same would apply to the World Customs Organisation and to some of the G8 meetings that we attend. I think it is better to be inside the tent as you suggest.

Chairman:  We have taken an hour of your time and there are a great many questions that others around the table wish to ask, perhaps we might take another 20 minutes.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  33.  Can I ask two questions, one on what we are on at the moment, the SIS system, and going back to border checks. On the SIS system, when Mr Eland gave us the benefit of evidence in February in relation to our earlier enquiry he said that he thought we had already participated informally in the SIS to some extent, not formally but informally, that there was some information sharing. He also said that there would undoubtedly be cost benefit analysis of full participation. I would be grateful to know whether that informal exchange is continuing because it is obviously relevant and whether we could have a cost benefit analysis on that. Then I will come to my second question when we have dealt with that one.
  (Mr Warne)  I always find it helpful to deal with one at a time. On informal arrangements, I have never known an arrangement where there are police officers operating in different countries who do not co-operate informally. That always happens as a matter of professional pride, and therefore they do always seek to help each other. They also have to have regard to the controls that operate on these systems. They have to respect those controls. Yes, you can get information very often simply on a bilateral basis by being in touch with colleagues and there is no harm in that. I think that there may be some risk that, in the law enforcement as opposed to the immigration area in particular, you will have developing enhanced databases which will contain information which without our being involved would largely be denied to us. It might be obtainable on a bilateral link or if you know you have got a particular problem you can find it out, but you may not have access to the database. So I think those are among the considerations we have to weigh and yes, we are undertaking this analysis of the benefits of being involved, and what the costs would amount to. We have not completed that. Part of the issue is that, since we have a system largely of local policing in this country, with now two national organisations represented either side of me, there is quite an extensive requirement to consult on the implications of being a full member of the SIS. Where would the sirene be? We think in the National Criminal Intelligence Service. How does it link to the police national computer? How do we ensure that forces and officers on the ground can have access with sufficient speed to obtain the information? These are complex technical issues which need to be fully explored and we are very much involved in that process. As one of my colleagues mentioned earlier, we are comparing experience, we are talking to the central system, we have talked to other countries who are operating the system. I, as a non-practitioner perhaps ought to relay to you that whenever I have spoken to police officers on the ground, they think that this is a good system. These are the people who can obtain access quickly to the data that is available when they have stopped someone and I think we, rather more at the policy end in the Home Office, have to listen carefully to that experience.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill:   I am very grateful. Going back to the cost-benefit analysis on border checks, I think it would be very helpful, again without asking for new work to be done, if we could be given some comparative picture based on the information exchange that already goes on with other Member States of the European Union on immigration and asylum in the United Kingdom compared with France, Germany or Italy, to take three large countries. Granted that they have identity cards and we do not. Suppose that we decided we would have identity cards and identity checks in this country—what I am trying to get at is to compare what it would mean in practical terms, costs and benefits, were we to put ourselves in exactly the same kind of situation as the other major countries of the European Union and become a full part of the Schengen system. What would it really mean practically? One answer might be well, you cannot do it without identity cards and proper effective controls within and so on, but if it were possible to base it upon the information that the Home Office already has from exchanging information to provide us with a comparative picture—I am not asking for it to be very widespread but just some comparison, perhaps taking one country, the one with the greatest problem, which is probably Germany in terms of asylum and immigration—

Lord Bridges:  What you are asking for is supposing we were to join up to the whole system of Schengen whereas the earlier part of our discussion has been on the implicit assumption let us look at the possibilities of joining the SIS without necessarily joining Schengen.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  34.  That is right. What I am trying to get at is not, as it were, should we join Schengen, but what are the costs and benefits of not being in Schengen compared with a comparable country which is within Schengen because otherwise I cannot get my mind around what it really means in terms of what Mr Warne calls chapter and verse as it were, the actual factual comparison that could be made. Is that possible to do?
  (Mr Warne)  My Lord, I will gladly take that away. I have heard Ministers say that from the Front Bench on occasion because they feel that they cannot enter into a commitment. In this case I feel that way simply because here is a clear Government policy that has been articulated in favour of the present arrangements and it may be that Ministers do not feel that we should invest further effort in this area. A lot of the decisions made earlier represent considered judgments not always in the form of a cost-benefit analysis. They are judgments about public perceptions of our ability to manage immigration controls and so on. So I will take your point away without commitment. I may need to refer to Ministers on that, but I will gladly do that.

  35.   My difficulty is I do not understand how as a Parliamentary Committee we can inform the public about the implications of being out of Schengen unless we are able to have some kind of information about the pros and cons.
  (Mr Warne)   I understand entirely, my Lord.

  36.  I am not trying to argue that we should be within Schengen.
  (Mr Warne)  That is an entirely reasonable enquiry, but I hope you will not think that I was unreasonable in recognising my role as a servant of the Government.

Chairman:  There are some questions we may have to ask the Minister. I think we understand that.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill:  I appreciate the way in which Mr Warne has answered already. If it could be looked at, I would be most grateful.

Lord Dholakia

  37.  How does NCIS perceive the control that already exists in Schengen countries? I ask this because there are a number of factors that have come out in the discussion to date. One accepts that obviously you are talking about immigration in the same light as importation of drugs, firearms, etcetera, human beings being used and money being made out of that. Obviously there must be safe houses or staging posts in Schengen countries for these people coming to this country. What that effectively tells us is that they are less effective in controlling illegal immigration in Schengen countries than we are in this country. That is the first assumption. The second is that maybe the level of intelligence they have is much weaker than the intelligence we have in this country, or they adopt different policies in terms of dealing with illegal immigrants than we do in this country. I do not know which one is true. Do we have a much tougher policy in terms of control and immigration and does that effectively result, unlike in Schengen countries, in not only controlling the immigrants but that those who are lawfully entering this country have to go through a process which is devised to control illegal immigration rather than allowing in those who have a right to come to this particular country, in other words making it much more of a hassle? I say these things because my personal experience often tells me that despite having been "born with a British passport in my mouth", I still have to go through the procedure and I have often been singled out from queues, etcetera, and my passport looked at through various lights, etcetera.
  (Mr Abbott)  My Lord, I am sorry to be so abrupt about this but I agree with your analysis entirely. I do not think that it is an either/or in your three points. All of them contribute to our analysis of what we may call weaknesses, but I think they are difficulties rather than weaknesses. I think that your analysis is completely accurate. I would just reiterate what has been said before. We do have a natural barrier by virtue of the fact that we are an island and countries such as Holland, Germany, Belgium, France and so on, it really is just a six inch white line on the pavement. I think that we do have a natural break point that we can exploit and I think that we do that with reasonable effectiveness.

Lord Inglewood

  38.  I think probably this question is for Mr Warne, please. If you were doing your job not in this country but in the Schengen countries, do you think you would consider that the move towards Schengen had made it easier for you to achieve your objectives or the opposite?
  (Mr Warne)  That is a very good question, if I may say so. It is the kind that requires a little time before one tries to respond.

  39.  Fair enough.
  (Mr Warne)  I can only apply a United Kingdom perspective in answering that question and I have to say that I would be concerned that I had lost a significant control mechanism at the frontiers looking at it from a policing, law enforcement, etc., angle. I think I would be justified in saying that because those Member States said that while removing the internal boundaries there must be suitable flanking measures. That, of course, includes the exchange of information, SIS, cross-border activity etc. I think the question to which we have not yet got an answer is are they working as flanking measures, are they truly compensatory measures? I have an open mind on that. I really do not know the answer to the question as to whether they adequately compensate for the removal of border checks. The trouble is that you cannot address this question on a 13 country basis because some countries rely to a greater extent on border controls than others and some rely on internal mechanisms, so the picture is uneven. I think the only other point that I would make is this: so far the adoption of the Schengen Convention within the Schengen countries has been uneven. France has frequently re-imposed border checks for a number of purposes—for terrorism purposes, for drugs control purposes—and it therefore seems that there is even within the Schengen countries some lack of confidence as to whether the compensatory measures are indeed adequate. It may be that this is a matter of practice over time. It may be that the measures can be adequate but it is a matter of how they are put in place. I think to go back to your question, my Lord, I would remain to be convinced that the compensatory measures were in themselves adequate given the current experience of their operation, but that is not to say that I could not be satisfied over time that they could do the job.

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