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I have already explained that the role of Frontex is to co-ordinate. For these exercises, it relies entirely on the men, ships, helicopters and other equipment of the member states. This has not always worked as well as it might. Some of our witnesses suggested that Frontex should acquire its own operational assets, which would be allowed under the current regulation. There are severe legal and practical difficulties about this. Our view was that, while the position might change over time, it was premature to consider it for the present. I am glad to see in the response which came last Friday that the Government support this view.

Frontex had its origins in the failure of member states to agree in 2002 on the long-term aim of setting up a European border guard, yet there are already some, including the Commission, who would like to discuss the possibility of Frontex developing in the longer term into a European border guard of the type on which agreement could not be reached six years ago. The committee regarded this suggestion as ill conceived and at best entirely premature. Frontex is still finding its feet. Its workload and budget have doubled every year so far and we believe the quality

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will suffer if this goes on. We recommend a period of consolidation, allowing it to develop and improve the work it was set up to do. This is an important recommendation, but for some reason the Government have not commented on it in their response. Mr Byrne appears to have ignored it. I ask again whether the Government agree that this is the right way for Frontex to develop in future.

Even though co-ordination of controls at the United Kingdom’s borders is no part of the duties of Frontex, an examination of those controls was certainly part of the committee’s duties. It was this that led to the conclusion, with which the Government appear to have the most difficulty, that the way in which the United Kingdom’s borders are at present safeguarded is inadequate and unacceptable. I repeat and draw particular attention to the words we put in our report, the way they “are at present safeguarded”. That means the situation they were in at the time our report was published. For example, in January the committee visited the Eurotunnel terminal at Coquelles and the ferry port at Calais, both of which have juxtaposed French and British border controls. We were very impressed by what we saw, which included all sorts of state-of-the-art technology which can detect a heartbeat inside a 40-tonne container lorry, carbon-dioxide probes which can detect the increased levels exhaled by human beings, and sniffer dogs.

Yet once the lorries have passed through these highly sophisticated controls and any illegal migrants have been removed, one would hope that the lorries would remain closely guarded so that they are still free of clandestine illegal migrants when they board the ferries. That is not what happens. The lorries are placed in a large area where they wait, often for many hours, before they load on to the ferries and sail. At the time of our visit that area was surrounded by a single perimeter fence of considerable length which would be no great obstacle to a determined person. Indeed it has been no great obstacle since we heard that 1,500 persons a year found their way through it and on to lorries bound for England. They were apprehended when the lorries landed in England. Goodness knows how many more than that were not apprehended at Dover. That was what we found and reported. We recommended that more effective fencing should urgently be put in place.

The Government told us in their response, three months later, that the Calais port authority has introduced external perimeter foot patrols with dogs “in recent months”. Could it be that these recent months are the three months since the publication of our report? I suspect they are. We were told at the time we were there that come dusk, as night comes on, you can see people walking round the edge of the fence waiting to get over it. The Government also told us that the French authorities have announced that a higher, double layer of fencing is to be erected “within the coming weeks”. Has that been decided since the committee’s report and when is this likely to be completed?

Turning from this example to the wider picture of UK border controls, we accept that much has been done over the last two years to improve matters. The Minister for Borders and Immigration lists in his

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response to us some of the achievements of 2007: the numbers of illegal immigrants stopped; the creation of the new UK Border Agency and the resources devoted to it; and many other matters which the noble Lord will no doubt expand on in his reply.

As a committee, we visited Heathrow in December last year to examine the border controls there, and as recently as last week we visited the Joint Border Operations Centre at Heathrow to see the practical use made of passenger name record data, the subject of our most recent inquiry.

All of these are welcome developments. Yet the fact remains that after the successful trial of Project Semaphore, the e-Borders system is still only in its relatively early stages. By the end of December 2009, it will process only 60 per cent of passenger movements. By the end of 2010, that will have risen to 95 per cent, but the full processing of 100 per cent of all passenger and crew movements is not planned until March 2014.

When all these plans are in place, I hope it may be safe for the Government to say that our borders are adequately safeguarded, but that is many years away. This was why we strongly recommended that the work on e-Borders should be brought forward as a matter of urgency to protect Britain's territorial integrity. As I said, our report's assessment looks at things as they are now, and for the present it would not have been right for the committee to suggest that the position is acceptable.

It seems to me that, by listing these improvements in the next few years, Mr Byrne has most successfully shot himself in the foot in trying to refute the committee’s view that “at present” our border controls are inadequate and unacceptable. He tells us all the things that will happen in the future to make them acceptable. Therefore, I insist very strongly on the reservation in the report. The committee is extremely unhappy about the attitude of Mr Byrne to the European Union Select Committee. I remind noble Lords that this is the Minister who was uniquely described by the Leader of the House on 10 June, only two weeks ago, as the culprit in failing until June to reply to a Parliamentary Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, laid on 24 January.

Furthermore, my committee is exceptionally irritated by the attitude of Mr Byrne, who received two letters from the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, the first of which was dated 26 July last year. The noble Lord at last received a reply 10 and a half months after he wrote the letter. I understand the Chief Whip hiding her head in her hands. I know what attitude I would have taken when I was the Government Chief Whip at the other end. The reply to the first letter came 10 and a half months after the letter was sent and overshot an opt-in deadline which expired last September. The second letter sent by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, is still, to this day, awaiting a reply. I do not know what goes on in that department. Is it surprising that the Home Office is described as “unfit for purpose” when a Minister as dilatory as that looks after such affairs and the relations between the department and the European Union Select Committee of your Lordships’ House? I commend the report to the House.

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Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the European Union Committee on FRONTEX: the EU external borders agency (9th Report, HL Paper 60).—(Lord Jopling.)

8.34 pm

Lord Teverson: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, for his leadership on this report, which is important for Europe. We all found the inquiry instructive and enjoyed putting the report together. I concur with his remarks about the way in which the Home Office has responded to a number of the questions asked by the sub-committee.

What really struck me about this report was the trip, which the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, mentioned, to see Frontex in action in a bureaucratic sense. Having struggled through the usual Schengen barriers to keep United Kingdom citizens out of the rest of Europe, we arrived in Poland. Although I have travelled much in eastern Europe, mainly before the Iron Curtain came down, it was a great privilege, particularly in relation to the Lisbon treaty, which we have talked about today, to be in a state that had so recently entered the European Union and then to go down to a border with Ukraine. I remind the House that that border was previously the Soviet Union border, to the east of the European Union. It was fantastic to see no military installations or hardware of any kind on either side of that border. As a European citizen, I could have walked across the border without a visa to Kiev and beyond. What a fantastic achievement that has been over the past 10 or 20 years since the fall of the Soviet empire.

Frontex has a big task. There are 34,000 kilometres of southern maritime border and 8,000 kilometres of eastern land border. That is quite a task in terms of controlling people coming in. Since our visit, I think that 10 member states have now become part of the Schengen process. There has been confidence among the existing Schengen states to push that border outwards so that now we have a much broader Schengen area of freedom of movement in Europe. With that freedom of movement comes a need to ensure that borders are secure. We were shown that Frontex is a small organisation at the moment. The expectations of it on the part of the European parliamentarians whom we met, many of its staff and the Commission need to be held back, as almost too much might be expected of it in trying to solve all the difficulties concerned with securing borders against crime, trafficking, illegal immigration and all the other matters that are so important to our territorial integrity.

The other irony that came out in our inquiry related to the fact that Britain, although it wanted to be a complete part of this organisation, effectively became excluded because of our decision not to be part of the Schengen acquis. Although we are an important operator—I congratulate the Government on the extent of the participation that we manage—we are unable to become a full partner of Frontex, which is an important organisation for the future. The United Kingdom, in this important policy area of freedom of movement, is half in and half out of Europe.

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When Liam Byrne, the Minister, came to the committee, I asked him whether Britain would move towards Schengen. I expected him to say, “No chance”, so I was delighted when he said, “Possibly, but not yet”. I congratulate the Government on that response, because this is an area where one has always felt that the door has been completely closed. One has felt that the Government did not want to risk the Daily Mail and Daily Express headlines saying that opening our borders at some point in the future would be a step too far. We at least had a positive response, which might give some hope that we can participate more fully in Europe in the future.

A practical issue came up concerning the southern maritime border operations. As the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, said, these are important and have worked well, it seems, as joint operations. There are a number of issues to do with sea rescue operations and refugees—how and where refugees are landed and sent back and, in terms of their human rights, consistency in the way in which they are processed. On many occasions, Frontex resources have been completely taken up—quite rightly—by the international law requirement to rescue refugees in peril of losing their lives. That needs to happen. The issue of the migration routes in the southern Mediterranean needs a lot more consideration, to bring all the different strands of rescue, refugees, asylum seeking and border work together. Frontex is adequately starting to approach that, but I think that the issues need to be sorted out at member-state level.

Lastly, I am always intrigued, when we talk about these subjects, about the status of Gibraltar. Gibraltar felt strongly about a number of issues to do with Frontex. It was clearly excluded. The Frontex agreements fudged the issue altogether. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what discussions there have been with the Gibraltar Government about Frontex and whether any of the issues that came up in our correspondence with Gibraltar have yet been resolved.

8.41 pm

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, for giving me this opportunity to speak on the committee’s report. At last we are talking about something real. Following the hours of debate on the Lisbon treaty and the grandstanding that we have continuously heard from party politicians on the Bill, it is refreshing to discuss the more fundamental issues facing Europe. I have been waiting a long time to say that.

On behalf of my noble friend Lord Wright, I also thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. I note what he said about my noble friend Lord Grenfell’s position. This is a most informative report and I expect that the Minister will express the gratitude and relief of the whole Government for it. It is a tribute to this House. It is also a tribute to the EU’s flexibility. I especially commend it to Eurosceptics, who do not seem to understand the extent of the network of collaboration across Europe today.

One thing that emerges from this forensic account of Frontex is that much still has to be learnt in this country about police operations and border controls in Europe, as they can concern us directly. Frontex is

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growing fast but is brand new. The UK, having opted out, is entitled only to very limited representation. Therefore, even our officials are still far from understanding, let alone participating in, the many aspects of its work. I agree with the committee that, as Frontex expands, the UK should extend its relationship with it as far as is possible within the legal framework.

I think that the UKBA is the only UK agency directly linked with Frontex. We have much to gain from it in detecting illegal immigration and, besides its role in tracking criminals, we could use it in a more positive sense to improve our recognition of genuine asylum seekers. As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, just said, at the same time we and European parliamentarians have to be careful not to expect too much of it. We must allow it to develop naturally; my noble friend Lord Listowel, who was on the committee, reminded me of that. I do not share the view of some witnesses that it should become yet another arm of counterterrorism and I am relieved that the committee has come to the same conclusion. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. The committee also discourages Frontex from dealing with issues such as forced returns, or refoulement, and has asked for safeguards in any agreement with third countries to which asylum seekers are repatriated.

My interest in refugees goes back to 1956, when my sister was an Oxford student helping Hungarians. I have taken part in many discussions in the House and again feel frustrated that in the European debates we have not discussed asylum and international development at all. However, now is not the time for that. I am a member of the Independent Asylum Commission, which is recommending improvements in our present reception and treatment of asylum seekers.

I am pleased that the committee recommends more co-operation with UNHCR, as High Commissioner António Guterres himself said this week in London when he warned of the slowing down of any common asylum policy as a result of the loss of the Lisbon treaty. We in the UK may have opted for handling our own borders, but we benefit greatly from the activities of UNHCR and the other refugee agencies both here and in Europe. The Refugee Council and its European partner, the ECRE—the European Council on Refugees and Exiles—submitted evidence to the committee and have already generally welcomed the committee’s recommendations on behalf of asylum seekers. However, they are concerned about the present level of training of border guards acting under Frontex. How do those guards now respond to refugees fleeing persecution on the external frontier? Do they have the necessary legal knowledge and back-up to cope with them? In other words, will the RABITs—the rapid border intervention teams—in turn require expert teams that they can call on at short notice? I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that; the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, also raised the subject.

As we have heard, tighter border controls and the vastly expanded frontier of Europe mean that there is still no efficient means of distinguishing the genuine asylum seeker from the large numbers of illegal immigrants, including the migrants escaping poverty in Africa. The Iraq conflict is one example. It has

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caused the exodus of something like 2.4 million refugees since 2003, thousands of whom pass through Syria and Jordan heading for Europe. According to the ECRE, Frontex is specifically targeting Iraqis, including those fleeing persecution in Iraq for whom there are still no legal routes into European countries.

The committee’s report recommends that there should be better and more detailed information on people crossing EU borders and the reasons behind their journey. However, the UK’s immediate recognition rates for Iraqis have been as low as 13 per cent in 2006 and 11 per cent in 2005, compared with higher rates in Germany and other countries. Meanwhile, forced returns of Iraqis have continued in five European countries, including our own. The UK potentially has, as a result of pressure from the voluntary organisations, a much better record on resettlement. Can the Minister confirm that, with the new UNHCR quota, the UK has done or intends to do more than other countries to welcome genuine refugees from Iraq?

I was impressed by the range of work carried out on the external frontiers described in the report. Few British citizens can be aware of major maritime operations such as Hera around the Canaries, Hermes and Minerva, in all of which the UK participated during 2007, though far from home. Having sailed through those seas many times, the Minister is the only one of us who can appreciate the scale of the operations, which 150 years ago might have been our responsibility alone; we can be thankful that they are not now. Malta’s rescue services deserve special mention, covering a vast area of the Mediterranean while coping with an annual migrant population equivalent to half the island’s birth rate. I agree with the committee that the effectiveness of the Dublin II regulations on third-country nationals, which places a disproportionate burden on states such as Malta, should be reviewed by the EU at an early opportunity. I expect that the Minister will also say something about our special legal position and accountability.

Considering that we are not part of Schengen, we are not doing that badly through Frontex. The committee and its expert adviser in particular need to be congratulated on producing such an excellent report.

8.49 pm

Baroness Ludford: My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that it is a relief to look at the real work of the European Union. I also agree with him in commending the knowledge of the work of Frontex to Eurosceptics who are probably not aware of how much is being done. I provide a sort of personification of links between the European and Westminster Parliaments. I welcome the positive efforts that the European Committee of your Lordships’ House makes to link up with and acquire evidence from MEPs—it is much better than the other place.

It is not inconsistent to want the European Union to be open to the world but to have robust border controls. We are not a fortress Europe: at least 2 million immigrants a year come into the EU, but we have to have well managed borders. As I had a chance to say in debates at some stage on the Lisbon Bill, the Committee

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says that improved co-ordination of border management of Schengen states will be of direct benefit to the UK even if we are not in it.

I also very much agree with the Committee’s report that this concentration on practical co-operation of national border guards is the way to go, certainly for the foreseeable future, rather than the idea of a European border guard that was discussed a few years ago. We are not ready for that and I do not know whether we ever will be, but Frontex is a pragmatic and sensible approach. I agree with my noble friend Lord Teverson that it is possible but not yet, as the UK Government’s position on Schengen is progress conditional on there being soundly managed external borders. It is not an absolute rejection.

The European Court of Justice said that we could not legally go into Frontex. There is a view, certainly in the European Parliament, that we cannot just cherry pick what we want out of Schengen because that is not terribly helpful. However, I believe—I am sure that other MEPs do as well—that the case-by-case participation of the UK in Frontex operations is valuable, as it is in RABITS, the Rapid Border Intervention Teams. I recently met Lyn Homer, the director of the UK Border Agency, and learnt that we have set up a video link for Polish border guards for interpretation, because they have not been used to coping with the current volume of migrants. They do not have the language facilities, which we are providing through a video link. As well as all the training, risk analysis and help with forgery detection and mobile freight searching that we are helping with, that is an interesting practical measure.

In fact, members of Sub-Committee F were at the Joint Borders Operation Centre at Heathrow last week on Wednesday. MEPs were there on Thursday. The Minister, Meg Hillier MP, is keen to come to Brussels to talk to the European Parliament in some forum, and I suggested to Lyn Homer that it might be a good idea if she came as well. The idea of having maximum interchange with the Schengen arrangements is a good way forward.

I also picked up the fact that the UK is active on returns. The European Parliament was not keen on joint return operations until we had common EU rules on returns. I am glad to say that today, despite my absence from Strasbourg, the European Parliament approved a return directive, after three years of negotiations between the Council and the Parliament. It was very controversial, and there was a lot of lobbying. I support it; its rules are not perfect, but they will raise standards in many member states. Sadly, the UK is not taking part. One has to wonder whether that is because it feels it would be constrained by some of the rules in the return directive, such as the limits on detention.

The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, made a point about the state of UK border controls. The Government refute the report’s charge of inadequate and unacceptable safeguarding of UK borders. I cannot add to what he said. The state of the fencing at Calais seems rather curious. I look forward to the Minister’s answer to the question about when it was decided to reinforce those fences.

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