HC Deb 14 February 2000 vol 344 cc585-6
1. Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

How many lorries which contained clandestine immigrants have been stopped by the police in the last six months. [108235]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

The police do not keep records of that information. However, I can tell the House that the records of the immigration and nationality directorate show that 11,500 clandestine illegal entrants to the United Kingdom were identified between July and December 1999.

Mr. Prosser

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Does she recall visiting the port of Dover last September with me, and the discussions that we had with immigration officers? Is it not right that those dedicated, hard-working, experienced professionals in the port of Dover were all convinced that the single most effective measure that Government could take to deter the racketeers and those who would smuggle clandestines in the back of their lorries was the introduction of civil penalties? Against that background, does she find it extraordinary that the Conservative party is still opposed to that measure?

Mrs. Roche

First, I was very grateful to my hon. Friend for accompanying me when I visited Dover, and immigration officers are very grateful for, and pleased about, the very strong support and commitment that he has shown them as a local Member of Parliament. That makes it all the more astonishing that Conservative Members should have spent their time in the Committee on the Bill that became the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 filibustering to deny the introduction of that civil penalty. Even now, they continue to oppose it. I would ask the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), if she and her colleagues returned to office—if the country were unfortunate enough for that to happen—would she reverse that legislation? What would she do?

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

What would the Minister's advice be to a haulier who suspects that he has illegal immigrants in the back of his truck? Should he drive to a police station and say, "They are in the back of the truck," or should he try to tackle those people, some of whom might be armed?

Mrs. Roche

This is the refrain that we constantly hear from the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and her colleagues. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] If they care to be a little patient, I will tell them what the answer is. First, hauliers should check that they have the systems in place to ensure that such a situation does not arise; but then they should check before they drive on to the ferry.

The aim of the civil penalty is to encourage road hauliers to carry out effective checks on their vehicles to prevent the carriage of clandestine entrants to the United Kingdom. Defences are built into the system to protect the honest and careful driver, but may I say to the right hon. Lady, the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) and their Opposition colleagues that their mealy mouthed opposition to this important penalty does nothing at all for the hard-pressed people of Kent or the immigration service and just goes to show why it would be so inappropriate for the Conservative party ever to hold office again.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Does the Minister share my view that those who pay money to be illegally smuggled into this country should forfeit their right to claim asylum, given that those with a real fear of persecution or who are subject to a real threat to themselves and their families simply have to come to a port of entry and make clear their wish to apply for asylum at that point?

Mrs. Roche

I know of my hon. Friend's great interest in this subject, and of course he is Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. The Government are determined to do two things; first, to say that of course Britain will always uphold our international obligations; but, secondly, not to put ourselves in a position where those who engage in the absolutely illegal trade of human smuggling receive any encouragement. That is why I say to my hon. Friend that we have increased the penalty for criminal acts in this area from seven to 10 years, why we shall continue, with the immigration service, to take very firm action indeed, and why we say to all those people who are thinking of making unfounded applications, "Do not do it."