HC Deb 22 March 2001 vol 365 cc568-78

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McNulty.]

5.43 pm
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

The United Kingdom terminal of the Eurotunnel service through the Channel tunnel lies in my constituency. For some time now, I have been disturbed by numerous reports of the frequency with which illegal immigrants into the United Kingdom are being apprehended in my constituency, both within the United Kingdom terminal and elsewhere. I have also been concerned about the increasing frequency of the reports which I read about the ways in which illegal entrants have gained access to Eurotunnel at the French terminal at Coquelles.

Last week, I decided to go through the tunnel to France, to see for myself what things were like on the French side. I travelled through the tunnel in the company of Bill Dix, the managing director of Eurotunnel, and I am very grateful to him and his colleagues for their co-operation.

I looked at the security arrangements at the terminal in Coquelles, and I visited the Red Cross centre at Sangatte. I applied for this debate so that I could report on what I found to the House and, indeed, to the Minister, for, as far as I am aware—no doubt she will correct me if I am wrong—neither she nor any of her ministerial colleagues in the Home Office have yet made a similar trip.

I hope that no one is in any doubt about the seriousness of the situation. I was told, for example, that the number of illegal immigrants apprehended within the United Kingdom terminal was running at a rate that would mean that as many would be apprehended in this month of March as were apprehended in the whole of last year. The number apprehended in the French terminal in the first 12 days of March was no fewer than 1,082. I am sorry that, through a misunderstanding, I gave that figure for the United Kingdom terminal on the radio this morning, but the true number affords no grounds for complacency, and is a matter of grave concern.

At the Red Cross centre in Sangatte, about which I shall say more in a moment, the number of people passing through during the past 18 months was no fewer than 25,000. I do not know whether the Minister was previously aware of that astonishing figure. It certainly brings home the scale of the problem that I want to discuss this evening.

The Eurotunnel terminal at Coquelles is a big place. I was told that it covers roughly the same area as Heathrow airport. It is obviously a very difficult area to make secure. I think that Eurotunnel has made a genuine attempt to do what it can to make it difficult for unauthorised entry to its trains, or the lorries that use its trains, to be obtained. It has not, however, been wholly successful in this endeavour—far from it.

When I talked to Eurotunnel about its problems, it identified two ways in which matters could be improved. First, the fencing of a part of the area is the responsibility of SNCF, the French national railways. SNCF has, I was told, been promising since last June to put up in respect of the area for which it is responsible the same kind of high security fencing that Eurotunnel is in the process of erecting—and, indeed, has now largely erected—in respect of the area for which it is responsible. Despite these assurances, no such action has yet been taken by SNCF.

SNCF is a nationalised concern. If there were any political will on the part of the French Government to take action on these matters, they could ensure that SNCF took the necessary action. If relations between the United Kingdom Government and the French Government are anything like as good as we are constantly told they are, it should be an easy matter for the United Kingdom Government to make representations to the French Government to ensure that this is done. I hope that the Minister will tell us during her reply to what representations the United Kingdom Government have made to the French Government on this issue and what response they have received.

I should mention that if this action were taken, it would have a positive effect not only on those who abuse Eurotunnel's services but on those who use the rail freight services through the tunnel. I am aware of the many difficulties faced by the operators of that service, largely caused by SNCF, although they lie somewhat outside the scope of the issue on which I want to concentrate this evening.

The second step that could be taken to improve security at the Coquelles terminal relates to the personnel who are employed on security duties at the terminal. As a result of the combined effect of the agreement under which the terminal is policed and French law, Eurotunnel's own security personnel have, as I was told last week, very limited powers. They are unable to use force in respect of those who seek unauthorised entry to the terminal and they are unable to detain any who are apprehended there. However, British police officers, including the Ministry of Defence police, would, as I understand it, have such powers. Eurotunnel therefore believes that personnel with those powers should be made available to undertake security duties at the terminal. The most obvious candidates seem to Eurotunnel and to me to be Ministry of Defence police. I understand that that option is currently being considered by the United Kingdom Government. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what progress, if any, has been made in considering that option.

The Red Cross centre at Sangatte is a remarkable place. It is evidently well run, and I entirely accept that the provision of the facilities that are available and the work that is carried out are motivated by the highest principles. However, the inescapable—and astonishing—fact is that this large facility exists solely for the purpose of providing food and shelter for those who are seeking illegal entry into the United Kingdom. Those who use the facilities are there only because of the proximity to the terminal at Coquelles. If they were able to obtain legal entry into the United Kingdom, there would be no need for them to stop off at Sangatte in the first place.

I can quite see why no one in France has any incentive to do anything to change the present situation. They are only too happy for these people to leave France, gain entry to the United Kingdom and apply for asylum in this country. They make little secret of that fact. The Minister will know, however, as everyone who pays any attention to this subject will know, that the international convention on refugees, which is the fundamental source of our obligations on this matter, provides that asylum seekers should seek sanctury in the first safe country in which they find themselves. Self-evidently, for those arriving from continental Europe into this country by any method of transport other than air, that first safe country is never the United Kingdom.

The obvious question that arises is why those who congregate at Sangatte and elsewhere are so determined to seek asylum in the United Kingdom, rather than in France or any of the other countries through which they have travelled on their way to the United Kingdom. I asked that question of those whom I met at the Red Cross centre at Sangatte. Their answers were illuminating. They listed three factors—the English language, more money and better accommodation.

I understand that there is nothing that the Minister can do about the English language, but there is a very great deal that the Government can do to deal with the other factors that attract asylum seekers to this country.

I repeat that this country is never the first safe country arrived at by asylum seekers who use the channel tunnel. They therefore have a wide choice of countries in which they can apply for asylum. By definition, all those who use the Red Cross centre at Sangatte could apply for asylum in France. No amount of statistical obfuscation on the part of the Government can obscure the extraordinary fact that last year, for the first time, more people applied for asylum in the United Kingdom than in any of the other member states of the European Union, including Germany.

The Liberal Democrats say that nothing can be done to affect the number of people who apply for asylum in this country, so they do not propose to do anything at all about the problem. The Government's position, however, is different. They accept that measures can and should be taken to deal with that aspect of the problem. That, indeed, was the purpose of the legislation that eventually found its way on to the statute book last year.

I am on record as wishing the Government well with that legislation. I expressed the hope that it would work. Clearly, if it had worked, that would have been greatly to the benefit of my constituents, but the conclusion is now utterly inescapable that the Government's legislation has not worked. So, far from moderating the number of people who apply for asylum in the United Kingdom, that number has continued to increase.

The evidence that I discovered during my journey through the channel tunnel last week is that this problem is now completely out of control. What is more, the greater the extent to which it becomes apparent that it is out of control, the greater will be the numbers coming to the Red Cross centre at Sangatte and trying to effect illegal entry into the United Kingdom.

There are two other aspects of the problem with which I want to deal before I sit down. On both sides of this House, there is unanimity that genuine refugees should be granted asylum, although it is noteworthy that the Home Secretary has recently called for another look at the international conventions that govern our obligations in that respect.

The residents of the Red Cross centre at Sangatte do not give the appearance of people fleeing from persecution. They were described to me by those who run the centre as, typically, young, single, male and middle class. It costs, on average, £7,000 for them to get to northern France from their starting point. That is money not readily available to poor, downtrodden victims of persecution.

The truth is that the arrangements that exist in this country for asylum seekers are significantly more favourable to them than those that exist in other member states of the European Union. That is something for which the Government are responsible and which, now that the failure of their recent legislation is apparent, they should address. It is clear that action can be taken to deal with this problem. When I was Home Secretary the effect of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 and the associated benefit changes which we introduced was to reduce the number of asylum seekers to the United Kingdom by 40 per cent. The present Government could have continued with that policy, but chose not to. That is why the number of asylum seekers has increased from 29,000 in 1996—the last full year of the last Government—to more than 76,000 last year. That is why the situation is now out of control.

There is one final point that I should make before I sit down since it is frequently made but distorted by Government spokesmen. Indeed, the Minister attempted to make it on the "Today" programme this morning. The Dublin convention was agreed in 1990. That was long before I became Home Secretary, but more importantly, long before the asylum problem had reached the dimensions with which we are faced today. The underlying principle of the Dublin convention is that asylum seekers should apply for asylum in the first member state of the European Union in which they find themselves. It is a principle, to which, at least in theory, all subscribe.

The convention came into force in the summer of 1997. There is evidence to suggest that it is not working as it was intended to work and that, far from facilitating the application of that fundamental principle to which I have referred, it may in some cases be obstructing it. If that is so, the present Government have had almost four years since the convention came into force to revise it or withdraw from it. They never cease to tell us how warm their relations are with other member states of the European Union. Let this issue be a test of those assertions. If relations are indeed as good as we are always told they are, it should not be a difficult matter for the convention to be applied as it Was always intended to be applied, to ensure that asylum seekers make their application for asylum in the first member state in which they find themselves.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Howard

Yes, of course, I give way to my hon. Friend, who is a member of the Home Affairs Committee.

Mr. Howarth

I would have been here at the outset, had the earlier business not broken up sooner than anticipated. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on drawing this extremely important issue to the attention of the House. Will he address himself to a problem that has arisen in respect of the Dublin convention? The United Kingdom courts are now saying that even if the Government wished to return people to some continental countries, those countries are not deemed to be safe in terms of their future handling of those asylum seekers whom we wish to return to the continent. Is this not a serious issue? What advice can my right hon. and learned Friend give the Government to address the problem vis-à-vis our own courts?

Mr. Howard

This is a serious issue. It is an astonishing development on the part of the courts which say that only they can decide whether France or Germany is a safe country, that only they can decide what the proper interpretation of the convention is to be and that they know better than any other courts in any other European country. The answer is simple: the Government should legislate to overrule the decisions of the courts. If the Government say that they may not be able to achieve their objective in that way because of the Human Rights Act 1998, I ask who was responsible for it.

My constituency is at the sharp end of this problem. The problem is getting worse and must be dealt with. I have made what I believe are constructive proposals to the Minister this evening. The problem is out of control and action must be taken to deal with it.

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

Perhaps I could deal first with the point raised by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). It refers to an old batch of cases that have now progressed through the courts. My understanding is that the 1999 legislation dealt with that point and that those cases referred to matters that arose before that legislation came into force. If my understanding of the matter is not correct, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members present.

The United Kingdom has a long tradition of offering sanctuary to those fleeing oppression. For genuine refugees, we are committed by the international convention to provide protection from persecution, and we shall continue to do so. Indeed, not only are we obliged to do so by our international convention commitments, but I believe strongly that we have a positive moral duty to do so. The right to seek asylum did not just happen in 1951; it is much more ancient and fundamental than that. It is embodied in all the great world religions and I am proud that we, too, discharge our obligations.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Does the Minister agree that the 1951 convention, which is 50 years old, applied to wholly different circumstances from those that apply at present? Nowadays, someone can get on an aeroplane in Afghanistan, fly to Moscow, hijack the plane to London and, the next thing we know, become the Minister's responsibility at Stansted. What was the Home Secretary saying last year in Lisbon if it was not that the convention was out of date and that the problem of asylum seekers should be dealt with in the nearest safe country to the country where the persecution is occurring? Can the hon. Lady update us on the Home Secretary's comments last year?

Mrs. Roche

Not only did my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary make that speech in Lisbon last year; he spoke on the subject more recently in London. It is appropriate that we should be discussing this matter, as the Select Committee on Home Affairs—of which the hon. Gentleman is a member—considered some of these issues recently and produced a report that gives an extremely helpful background to them.

We continue to abide by the principles of the convention. Indeed, European Union Heads of Government affirmed that commitment at Tampere. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the context in which the framers of the 1951 convention operated was different from present circumstances—my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have made similar points. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recognised that and has initiated global consultation on the convention. The UNHCR says firmly that the convention is not—and was never intended to be—a migratory instrument. I always make a clear distinction between legal migration—on which I have recently made speeches—and asylum, which I strongly believe must be ring-fenced. Such an important concept cannot be undermined.

That is the background against which the Government introduced the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to strengthen immigration control and the asylum system, making it fairer, faster and firmer. The aim of the Act was to improve the asylum process across the board and to tackle the problem of illegal immigration to the UK

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) will forgive me if I do not quite share his analysis of past history on this matter. By the end of the previous Government's term of office, it was clear that asylum applications were rising—as they were across the whole of Europe. Indeed, according to current figures, some countries are experiencing greater pressure than us; compared with other EU countries, we are in the middle of the table showing numbers per head of population.

There was also a tremendous problem with support. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will know that areas such as Kent and London were faced with the difficult responsibilities of support as a result of his own failed legislation, which was struck down by the courts.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Lady will know that that happened as a result of the intervention of the courts, which said that the duty, which had fallen into disuse, on local authorities under the National Assistance Act 1948 was still relevant, and that it was open to the Government to legislate—it would have taken a one-clause Bill—to restore the interpretation that Parliament had always intended under the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, which led to the 40 per cent. decrease in the number of asylum seekers applying for entry to this country.

Mrs. Roche

The right hon. and learned Gentleman puts a good gloss on it, but his legislation was absolutely defective because he did not realise what would happen as a result of the 1948 Act, which was prayed in aid by several authorities, including Westminster council. He was prepared to allow in-country applicants for asylum—men, women and children—to be left destitute, with no support whatever.

Illegal immigration is an international and European problem, which we can solve only through close co-operation with other countries. For that reason, the United Kingdom co-operates within the framework of the EU, as well as bilaterally, to solve the problem of illegal immigration.

One of the major new measures introduced under the 1999 Act is the imposition of the civil penalty, which the Conservative party has resolutely opposed. The measure was brought into force last year to tackle the problem of clandestine immigration in road vehicles. As a result, those held to be responsible are now faced with fines of £2,000 for every clandestine illegal entrant carried. The legislation encourages hauliers to take responsibility for the security of their vehicles and prevents them from being used to conceal illegal immigrants. It has been successful in encouraging hauliers and ferry operators to introduce better security systems.

In response to the growing number of immigrants who attempt to enter the United Kingdom illegally every day, P amp; O Stena Line has introduced carbon dioxide checks on all freight vehicles using its ferries. Provisional figures indicate that those checks at Calais have contributed to a 37 per cent. reduction in the number of undocumented arrivals found in Kent in the 12 weeks since checks began. However, the recent increase in security at the port of Calais has had a displacement effect in the area, and that is, of course, the subject of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's concern. We have seen an increase in clandestine immigration on the rail freight services and on the shuttle as a result. That not only undermines our immigration control but is highly dangerous to those who seek to enter and gives rise to a public safety issue.

The increased security at Calais has also led to a rise in undocumented arrivals at Cheriton involving people who have boarded open-sided freight shuttle trains. In February, there were more than 400 undocumented arrivals at Cheriton. The Government are co-operating closely with Eurotunnel and the French authorities in sharing intelligence and information to prevent clandestine entry and human trafficking.

My officials maintain close links with the company. On 8 March, I met the then president of Eurotunnel, and other executives, to identify the weaknesses of the site. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right to say that it is a very large site indeed. We discussed how to improve security there, and we have looked at ways in which to achieve that aim.

I am pleased to say that, yesterday, I received a letter from Eurotunnel telling me that it had examined the suggestion that I had made at the meeting on 8 March that the inner cordon at Coquelles should be extended to include the freight reservoir area. We have identified that area as a particular target by those seeking to enter illegally.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

This is a slightly unusual Adjournment debate and the hon. Lady's willingness to give way is much appreciated. I received a letter today from EWS—English, Welsh and Scottish Railways—saying that, since 1 March 1999, it has been fined no less than £182,000 as a result of illegal immigrants being found when they arrive in the United Kingdom. The letter says that EWS has installed and operates a sophisticated inspection and detection system at our Dollands Moor yard near Folkestone", which is, no doubt, in the constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). It points out that that is the first opportunity EWS has to inspect Channel Tunnel international freight trains arriving into Britain. At its own expense, EWS has installed the equipment but, as soon as it finds someone, along comes the immigration and nationality directorate and slaps a £2,000 fine on the company. What incentive is there for private sector companies to invest in the detection equipment if, as a result of the success of the equipment, they get a £2,000 fine for each immigrant they discover?

Mrs. Roche

The hon. Gentleman raises the related but different issue of the rail freight that might come from Italy, pass through the tunnel and arrive in the yard. EWS works in partnership with SNCF in bringing the trains through the tunnel, and we are working with EWS; I have had a couple of meetings with the company. I have also spoken to SNCF about the way in which CO2 devices can carry out checks in the freight yards.

We are grateful for the partnership that we have with EWS in carrying out the checks at Dollands Moor, but the difficulty is that, by the time they are done, it is in a sense too late because people have already come through the tunnel. That is why we are working with the company to see what we can do about the problem.

We are pleased with the response that we have had from Eurotunnel and it has said that, once the precise details are worked out, it can do as we have suggested to reinforce security. That is to be welcomed.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman also mentioned the use of Ministry of Defence personnel.

Mr. Howard

Before the Minister moves on to that issue, will she deal specifically with my first point about the importance of SNCF strengthening the security fencing in that part of the Coquelles terminal for which it is responsible?

Mrs. Roche

I will deal with that point. The issue was raised at my meeting with Eurotunnel on 8 March. We shall certainly see whether we can take the matter forward and we shall work in partnership with SNCF to do that. The issue has been raised, and I accept the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point that it is a serious one.

On the question of military assistance and Ministry of Defence personnel, our clear understanding is that there is no provision in the Sangatte protocol to support the deployment of United Kingdom armed forces at Coquelles. I am afraid that that is the position.

Mr. Howard

As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) said, the Minister has been generous in giving way, but we have some time available. She said that the protocol does not cover the use of United Kingdom military personnel, but is that also the case for the use of UK police officers, including MOD police officers who have been mentioned to me by Eurotunnel and whom I have mentioned to the Minister?

Mrs. Roche

It is our understanding that the permission applies only to immigration officers.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the Red Cross centre at Sangatte, which is effectively a holding centre for people who are seeking to enter the United Kingdom clandestinely to apply for asylum or work illegally. I accept that people who think that they have a well-founded fear of persecution under the convention should apply for asylum in the first safe country that they reach. We must reject asylum shopping. However, the key consideration is that if we ring-fence asylum as the ancient, noble and honourable concept that it is—I make no bones about describing it in that way—it must not be undermined.

I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will forgive me for making this point again, but we disagree on it. He will recall that from April 1995, we were able to remove all illegal entrants back to France under the gentleman's agreement. Although that still works for non-asylum cases, it no longer works for asylum cases. That is a problem. The Dublin convention was a long time in its implementation, and was signed and imposed by the previous Government. It was always going to be difficult to prove where a claimant for asylum had first entered the EU. We believe that the Dublin convention is not working properly. That is widely accepted in the EU and the Commission is reviewing it.

We are determined to continue to work with our European partners to stamp out people smuggling.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Has the Minister been to Sangatte?

Mrs. Roche

indicated dissent.

Mr. Howarth

Well, my right hon. and learned Friend, my colleagues on the Home Affairs Committee and I have. If the Minister has read our report, she will know that we were appalled by what we saw. This issue cuts across party lines. Not only are people being kept in less than adequate conditions, but they are being warehoused by the French authorities under the noses of French officials until they manage to make an illegal journey across the channel, where they land on us and become our problem. Those people are the responsibility of the French authorities. If the much-vaunted co-operation that the Government say they have with the French authorities exists, why do they not persuade them that it is their responsibility to deal with those 25,000 people instead of supervising their illegal crossing of the channel?

Mrs. Roche

That is partly the fault of the abject failure of the Dublin convention. We cannot make someone apply for asylum. The hon. Gentleman's point supports my case. We need to clamp down on the people smugglers and the traffickers, who are taking part in an evil trade. That is why our initiative for action in the western Balkans is making good progress and drawing support from other member states. The aim is twofold: to send operational teams of immigration and police officers to work in support of the authorities in Bosnia and Croatia and to create a wider network of immigration liaison officers to gather information and to target and encourage operational activity by host countries. The objective is to break up the networks involved in people smuggling and to prevent smuggling at source and on transit routes.

We are working with the French authorities. I am sure that during their visit to Sangatte, hon. Members were told of the number of successful prosecutions in France and England of the facilitators behind the trade. We have supplied intelligence to the French authorities. Successful prosecutions have taken place and people have, rightly, received prison sentences.

We are determined to do everything that we can to extend that bilateral co-operation. That was confirmed at the successful United Kingdom-France summit on 9 February, at which the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and other Ministers had full discussions with their French counterparts. The summit confirmed the introduction of juxtaposed controls at Eurostar terminals. We recently introduced an order on that subject in the House, and in future, there will be a juxtaposed control at Gare du Nord, which will stop people buying a ticket to Calais, getting on the train and staying on it until they reach the United Kingdom, as some have been doing. We are pleased that the French Government have confirmed that they will introduce domestic legislation to ensure that all passengers will have to pass through juxtaposed controls regardless of whether their stated intention is to travel to the UK or to Calais. That will be a major change in French law, and it is a good illustration of the co-operation that exists.

This is an important debate. The legislation that we have passed, especially on the civil penalty, enables us to clamp down on the trading and smuggling of people. We are using the increased resources that we have given to the immigration service to disrupt criminal gangs. We are also reducing the backlog of cases. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe did not mention the backlog of undecided cases that had been left to us. One of the key factors in encouraging people to make unfounded applications is a system that is mired in delay. We are determined to eradicate that delay. Last year, a record number of decisions, 110,000, were made by the immigration and nationality directorate, and I am grateful to all the staff who have given so much of their time and dedicated effort.

This has been an interesting debate, which has taken place at an earlier hour than most Adjournment debates. It has exposed several issues, but the key point is that the Government are determined to deter those who would make unfounded applications, but will continue to offer sanctuary to those who are genuinely fleeing persecution.

Question put and greed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Six o'clock.