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Northern France: Illegal Immigration

3.51 p.m.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary on illegal immigration from northern France. The Statement is as follows:

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    block on all immigration to this country, and I challenge the Shadow Home Secretary to join me in this.

    "This agreement with the French Government is a further piece in the jigsaw of radical reform to our asylum, immigration and nationality programme. Taken together with the new Act which was passed in the House of Lords and in the other place, this will give us the capacity to manage properly entry into this country.

    "I do not today pretend that we have reached the end of the road. We have only just passed the new legislation; we have only just reached agreement with the French. We cannot therefore be expected yet to have achieved the results which will only come from the implementation of these policies. This is a substantial step forward which no one predicted just six months ago.

    "However, I want to finish with this warning. We can put legislation in place, we can reach agreement with our French counterparts, we can debate these issues in this House; but they will come to nothing without a substantial change in the administration of the system.

    "I am making it clear today to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate that we expect a step change in the operation, efficiency and competence with which the system is handled. I shall hold to account senior managers in my department for an entirely different approach and a step change in the results achieved".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.58 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement.

We welcome the news that Sangatte is closing. The Minister will know that I am not being churlish but am simply observing a fact when I say that noble Lords would have been happier had they heard the news first in this House rather than earlier on the one o'clock news.

Sangatte is indeed a symptom, not a cause, of the growing asylum disaster in this country. Its closure, though welcome, will have little effect on the overall problem. What we need is a new treaty with France—like the one in force until 1997—to ensure that anyone who crosses the Channel is sent back within 24 hours, thereby deterring people from using northern France as a staging post for entry to the United Kingdom in the first place. Today's announcement will, we fear, make little difference to the overall tide of migration into Britain.

The figures issued by the Government last week reveal the real state that we are now facing. In the last quarter, from July to September this year, over 29,000 men, women and children arrived at our shores to seek asylum—the highest quarterly level on record. The real question is why that number is so high.

We know that the processing of claims under this Government is in chaos. There are 16,000 initial decisions still outstanding for resolution after a year.

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That does not help the real asylum seekers who have a genuine basis for their claim during their time of waiting. The Government have even failed to remove most of those who have sought asylum who should not even be here. They have simply abandoned their targets on that.

The Sangatte agreement today has to be welcomed, but against a background of real concerns about the Government's policies. On what legal basis have they now decided to sidestep the Dublin agreement and take up to 1,000 Iraqis from Sangatte? After all, they are already in a safe country where they should make their asylum application. Are they all people currently resident in Sangatte, or do they include some who have passed through the centre since the summer and been given registration badges? By accepting them now, are we not signalling to the world that we will give way under pressure in the future and allow others to come here as their country of choice?

The Minister has carefully said that the Iraqi Kurds who will come here will do so on work visas, so they are not being accepted as needing asylum. Others who are claiming asylum and work visas might then be justified in seeing these people as jumping the queue. The Minister says that the Iraqi Kurds will be here for three months while they look for jobs. What happens at the end of that period, whether or not they find employment? We certainly hope that they find employment if they come here. At what stage will their families be allowed to join them?

We are told that about 1,000 people will be allowed to come here, but who decides how many and which ones will be successful? It is a very difficult decision. Will it be our officials?

The Government also say that they have agreed to take a proportion of Afghans who have family in the United Kingdom. On what basis will that grant be made? Is it on the basis of asylum? When the UNHCR makes that decision, does it decide how many? Having decided the number, does it decide which individuals will come? Again, that is a very difficult decision.

Finally, the Minister challenges my right honourable friend in another place, Oliver Letwin, to say whether we believe that there should be a complete block on all migration to this country. He knows as well as anybody that we have never said that there should be a complete block. The Home Secretary talked in another place about opposition in this House to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. Like many of your Lordships, I worked through 14 days on that Bill. Our opposition throughout was never to the objectives behind the Bill, only to the Government's ineffective attempt to solve the problems. I am glad that the Government listened to some of our objections to improve the system, but not enough to make the system work as well as we hoped it would.

Today we have one good headline on the one o'clock news, but one good headline today will not solve the real problems facing people who need to seek asylum in this country, nor will it solve the problems

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of people already in this country. My challenge to the Government is to look beyond the headlines in future and solve the problems.

4.3 p.m.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I add my thanks to the Minister for repeating the Statement in your Lordships' House. It cries out for a Europe-wide policy on asylum matters. We opted out of Schengen, yet here we are making bilateral arrangements with France. As I read the Statement—correctly, I hope—this is likely to happen with Belgium as well at some stage.

The problem will not go away simply because the human parcel has been passed to another country. Last week's figures proved that there has been an 11 per cent increase in the number of people seeking asylum in this country. The Minister mentioned that 1,000 Iraqis would be given work permits to come to this country. There again lies the confusion, which we repeatedly explained during the passage of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, between economic migrants and those genuinely seeking asylum to this country. Nobody could deny that the Iraqis whom we take into this country are the victims of terrible persecution in their own land, as was evidenced by Jack Straw's statement this morning on the report that has been published about torture in Iraq.

What is the exact number of people registered at the camp near Calais who do not want to get back to their country of origin? When the matter is carved up between Britain and France, what happens to those who are left behind? Is it correct that, despite the closure of the camp next April, there are still 1,800 people in and around Sangatte? There is newspaper speculation today that France is also pressing our government to take some of the group of 5,000 others who have passed through Sangatte since the summer. Are those individuals included in the talks? What is the Government's view on that?

What would be the role of the British immigration officers whom the Minister mentioned, who are to operate on French soil at ferry ports? Would those refused be granted leave to appeal from abroad? What safeguards are there to ensure that the decision does not work to the detriment of victims of torture and persecution? What role is envisaged for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees? Would he be involved in relation to those people who may not necessarily form part of the present allocation, yet who are victims of torture and persecution?

4.6 p.m.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the starting point, which I hope both Opposition Front Benches recognise, is that this is an achievement. Despite the good intentions behind it, Sangatte was a significant draw and a significant help to the traffickers who were extorting money from people who, for a variety or reasons, wished to get to this country. That is the context in which one has to see what we are announcing today.

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This was not a situation of our making or our choosing, but it was causing considerable problems to British society and to British people as a consequence of there being such an effective staging post for large numbers of clandestine entrants, able to make repeated attempts to penetrate into the United Kingdom.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked a range of questions. We debated why the number of claims is so high many times during the passage of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. I shall not repeat all the reasons, but we believe they include the prosperity of our economy, the English language, the decency and legal protections that this society offers to people who are seeking refuge and the presence of other nationals, who can provide support to people if they get into this country. Clearly, some people are fleeing persecution, while others are, understandably, seeking work.

The noble Baroness referred to the number of outstanding claims. The very significant issue is that the speed of processing those who have applied for asylum this year has been rising rapidly. We have spoken about that on a number of occasions. The latest figure that I have seen is that 75 per cent of those who had applied this year or were applying currently were being dealt with within two months.

The noble Baroness also asked why we had not renegotiated a bilateral readmission agreement with France. I believe she was referring to the so-called gentleman's agreement that has been much spoken about, signed in 1995. The first clause of that gentleman's agreement said that it would be superseded by the Dublin convention when it was implemented. The former government signed that. Furthermore, the agreement did not achieve results on the scale needed. In 1996–97, only 516 asylum seekers were returned to France under it.

In short, we think it is better to prevent illegal entry of people reaching the United Kingdom in the first place, hence the importance of closing Sangatte and strengthening security at the French end of the Channel Tunnel and in Calais, effectively moving border security operations to France. I am sure that the noble Baroness supports the common sense of that approach in principle, rather than allowing people in and then trying to move them back.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, also asked who will decide who comes in and who does not. Essentially, this was an agreement with the French on how to manage and end the current situation. It was therefore in the nature of a discussion and agreement between two sovereign powers on how to resolve the situation in their mutual interest and in the interest also of those in Sangatte while seeking to deter others from vainly attempting to get in by those means. Accordingly, the French felt, and we agreed, that it would be useful for the UNHCR to carry out a range of interviews to seek to document all the Sangatte residents and to identify their origin.

As part of the agreement, we are to take the Iraqis seeking to enter this country. We agreed—on a basis which we think sensible, rather than going through a

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charade of asylum seeking—that they should be accepted in this country on a visa that allows them to work here.

The UNHCR also identified Afghans who were vulnerable because they needed to be reunified with their families in the United Kingdom or had other particular vulnerabilities. The UNHCR therefore thought, and we agreed, that, as part of the settlement of the problem, we should take them into the United Kingdom. We felt that it would be right and sensible to do that.

The deal does not sidestep the Dublin convention. The convention does not apply in this case because the people in Sangatte have not claimed asylum in France. If they had, the problem would not have arisen. This is a special agreement to resolve a special set of circumstances.

I acknowledge the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, that there should not be a complete block on migration. I am glad that she made the point; I did not expect to hear her say otherwise. I think that all sides of the House recognise that managed migration has a sensible part to play in our economy and our society. However, the crucial word, on which I hope that we agree, is "managed".

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said that the matter highlights the need for a Europe-wide asylum policy. In many ways, he is right, and in many ways, that is precisely what we are quite vigorously working on in the Justice and Home Affairs Council. I shall not detain the House with what we are doing in regard to reception, the framework agreement, the qualification agreement and the renegotiation of Dublin II. However, there have been a string of measures which we hope will soon be agreed in the Council. We may, with good fortune, agree many of them by the end of this year, but I shall not hold my breath.

We would, however, be foolish to think that agreement on those issues was the end of the matter. As one might imagine, Europe-wide agreements which form the basis of intergovernmental treaty agreements and in which every state has a veto tend to take a long time to negotiate. Although they are not quite pitched at the level of the lowest common denominator, they require the consent of all. Consequently, they do not always move as radically far forward as one might wish. Although there is more work to do, I am glad to inform the House that the United Kingdom is playing a very strong and vigorous role in developing the elements of a Europe-wide asylum policy.

Nothing in what we have agreed with France slows down progress on a closer working relationship at EU-level. We have, if anything, deepened our relationship with both France and Belgium. We feel that France has behaved very honourably in very efficiently addressing the issue with us. The links between my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and Nicolas Sarkozy are strong and good, which is in Britain's interest as well as the interests of Europe more widely. The same type of relationship is developing with Antoine Duquesne, Belgium's home affairs and interior minister, who is similarly keen to

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participate with us in supporting effective controls on illegal migration to the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to the contributions he has made.

As this is an exceptional situation, Iraq's victims of persecution are, exceptionally, being allowed entry under a visa arrangement. We shall try to ensure that they have accommodation and that best efforts are made to find them work, which, we believe, is their wish. Consequently, they will be given a four-year residency as part of the agreement. As the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, is aware, at the end of that time they will be entitled to apply for settlement.

Others may well remain around Calais; at one stage, 4,500 people, I think, were registered as part of this process. I believe we have acted properly in taking 1,000 to 1,200 or so of those people. We think it right to do that although none of them had entered the United Kingdom or lodged a residence, work or asylum application here. Nevertheless, in the spirit of collective agreement, it seemed right to us that we should play our part. If other people emerge, the French authorities will process their asylum applications should they choose to make one. People have been entitled throughout this period to make an asylum application in northern France; it is just that many have not sought to do so.

I trust that that answers many if not all of the questions. As these issues develop, I shall be happy to keep in touch with Opposition Front-Benchers if it would be of assistance.

4.16 p.m.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the time has come when we have to face up to some very unpalatable facts? Is it not correct that the UN Convention on Refugees has been so widely interpreted by the courts that, time and again, the clear intention of Parliament has been frustrated? Cannot the Home Secretary be excused for fuming—as he was reported to be doing the other day—at decisions such as that about the Ahmadi family? Although they had no right to be in this country and no right to claim asylum here, their deportation was ruled unlawful because they were suffering from stress. Is it not all too plain that the courts will continue to make it impossible for the Home Secretary to control immigration so long as the refugee convention stands in its present form? Somehow or other we have to grapple with that problem and initiate debate on the ways in which remedies can be made more rational to suit present circumstances.

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