HC Deb 04 February 2002 vol 379 cc605-56
Mr. Speaker

I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.31 pm
Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

I beg to move, That this House deplores the failure of the Government over the past four years to negotiate with the Government of France on the re-application of the bilateral agreement on immigration to the case of asylum seekers; and calls on the Government to ensure a more equitable distribution within the EU of the responsibility for assessing and meeting the claims of potential refugees. I hope that the House will bear with us if we try a minor experiment. Opposition day debates have almost always been used for bringing the Government to account by criticising an aspect of the Government's record and seeking some defence and explanation. That is a useful part of the work of the House, but on this occasion we want to follow a different pattern. It is not our intention to point to Government failure, although there is some in this area, but to seek to explain the cause of the difficulties that the Government have encountered, and try to suggest, in a constructive spirit, how those might be remedied.

This is an opportune moment to do that because the Home Secretary is about to publish, perhaps in the next few days, a White Paper on asylum and related matters, and it is our belief that, although some of the measures that he proposes are likely to prove effective and all are likely to be well intentioned, the package as a whole is very unlikely to achieve its aims, because it fails to address a huge lacuna in the current arrangements.

These issues were brought before Parliament by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) in a notable debate in Westminster Hall on 29 January 2002, and have been discussed on and off in the back corridors of Whitehall for some years, so I pretend to no originality, but it is also the case that most of the country has not been aware of the cause of the greater part of the problem with which the Home Secretary is wrestling on asylum.

Why was it only under this Government, who are perfectly well intentioned on asylum, that the issue suddenly attained such prominence? It was not the case that for the first time in recorded history there were many refugees and many people claiming refugee status. It is probably true that there has been something of an increase in the number of displaced persons during this Government's tenure, especially in Europe, owing to many causes of which the House is aware. However, that is by no means the largest part, or even a very significant part, of the explanation for the great rise in the number of those seeking asylum specifically in the UK.

I do not think that there is any dispute between the Government and ourselves— indeed, the answers that the Home Secretary just gave me in Question Time reinforced that point, and it is evident to both sides of the House— that towards the end of 1997 the bilateral agreement between the UK and France, which had governed both immigration and asylum, fell away, or at least those parts of it that related to asylum fell away.

I do not in the least seek to blame the Government for what happened. No doubt the Home Secretary will, rightly, point out that in the original bilateral agreement it was provided that at the inception of the Dublin convention those parts of the agreement would fall away. That was arranged by a Conservative Government, so no blame attaches to the present Government for the fact that shortly after they came to power, the bilateral agreement fell away.

However, the Government have now been in power not for a few weeks or a few months, but for almost five years. In any event, we now need to look forward rather than back. The cause of the vast increase in the number of people seeking asylum in this country is almost undoubtedly the falling away of the bilateral agreement and its supersession by the Dublin convention.

A moment or two ago, the Home Secretary answered my very specific question— about how many people coming from France and seeking asylum in the UK had been returned to France under the Dublin convention— by saying two things. I fully subscribe to one of them, namely that the Dublin convention is not working and he therefore does not know the answer to my question.

Secondly, he said that a considerable number of people— rather more than 6,000— who had sought entry to the UK had been automatically returned to France. I do not doubt it, but what the Home Secretary was not at pains to point out is that those people were not seeking asylum but were other sorts of immigrants. Of course, the bilateral agreement with the French authorities, which was signed by a Conservative Government, continues to operate with regard to those who are not seeking asylum. The problem relates to those who are seeking asylum.

Let me illustrate, in very broad orders of magnitude, the scale of the problem with which we are collectively dealing. The official statistics suggest that just over 90,000 people seek asylum in the UK annually. There are rather more than 30,000 people— about 5,000 more, I think— in a similar position in France, which is just over a third of the number here.

The astonishing fact is that nobody knows how many of the people who seek asylum in the UK come directly or proximately from France. I do not believe that the Home Secretary is concealing any information; there is no published information that allows one to establish the figure exactly. However, estimates have been made, and I believe that there are figures for specific ports. So far as one can make out, about 30,000 people probably come into this country from France seeking asylum every year.

If we subtract that figure of just over 30,000 from the just over 90,000 people who seek asylum in the UK, and add it to the 30,000 or so people who seek asylum in France, we come up with a surprising and illuminating result: by reinstating the effect of the bilateral agreement between the UK and France in respect of asylum, one could achieve a rough equalisation. I am not speaking in exact figures; I do not think that anybody knows those— I certainly do not. However, there would be a rough equalisation of the burden of dealing with asylum applications in France and the UK.

In other words, roughly speaking, 60,000 people would be seeking asylum in each of the two countries, rather than the present figures of about 30,000 and about 90,000 respectively.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that English is now a predominant language, especially in the countries from which those people originate, plays an important part? Is he not presenting a rather simplistic argument?

Mr. Letwin

The strange fact is that the position that the hon. Gentleman correctly alludes to was already undoubtedly true before 1997. None of us can calculate the numbers exactly. There is no doubt that most of those who were seeking asylum before 1997 would have preferred to enter this country, partly on linguistic grounds. However, until about September 1997, if someone travelled from France, for example, to seek asylum in this country on linguistic or any other ground, under the bilateral agreement they were automatically returned—to use the Home Secretary's phrase—to France. That no longer obtains, however. There has been a significant shift in the way the system works and has worked since late 1997.

The Home Secretary rightly said that the Dublin convention is not an adequate substitute. It does not work because, as the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), accepted in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on 29 January, it has proved quite impossible to establish that the first place in the EU that such people entered was France. The Dublin convention, which relies on the notion of the first place of entry, has not proved an adequate substitute for the bilateral agreement, and numbers have shot up.

Barring some slight quibble about exact numbers, nothing that I have said so far is a major cause of dissension between ourselves and the Government. I suspect that the position that I have outlined is one with which the Home Secretary himself has wrestled, and that like me he would prefer the creation of something resembling the bilateral agreement. Indeed, in replying to the Westminster Hall debate, the Under-Secretary eloquently sketched those very problems, and was at pains to point out how far the Government have gone in negotiating with the French. She referred to negotiations about Sangatte and many other matters, and I have no doubt that the Government are worthily engaged in repeated discussions with the French.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is adopting a constructive tone, which has not always been struck in past debates on this subject, but does he really believe that we can deal with the problems associated with movements of people within Europe purely through bilateral agreements with France, or any other country? To make progress on this issue, we need to develop common systems that involve not just the UK and France, but other European countries. Such systems are already being discussed in the EU.

Mr. Letwin

The honest answer to the hon. Gentleman's reasonable question is no—I suffer from no such illusion. I am sure that a bilateral agreement with France is not a complete solution and many of our recommendations, and many of the proposals in the Home Secretary's White Paper, go beyond that. Moreover, there is undoubtedly a place for multilateral negotiation. However, unlike under the bilateral agreement, France now bears about one third of the burden borne by the UK. France is also totally out of kilter not just with the UK but with Germany, Italy and other EU countries. It is therefore reasonable to propose—as I said, I suspect the Home Secretary and I could agree on such a proposition—that the problems with which the Home Secretary and the country are wrestling would be vastly ameliorated if the bilateral agreement were reinstated.

Mr. Gerrard

Does not the history of dealing with asylum issues and illegal entry by trying to plug a perceived loophole show that another route will be found? Unless we achieve multilateral agreements, no solutions will be found and people will simply move from place to place.

Mr. Letwin

There are facts of geography about which the hon. Gentleman and I can agree. France is rather near and rather large, and large numbers of people have always found their way there. A stubborn fact, difficult to ignore, is that when the bilateral agreement was in place, a significantly smaller number of people found their way into the United Kingdom seeking asylum and a rather larger number remained in, or returned to, France. The precise nature of those facts is difficult to pin down because the whole matter is shrouded in statistical obscurity, but the general outline is clear. I am not seeking to solve all problems in a trice by these means, but simply to solve a major part of the problem. That would be a constructive effort in itself.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that even if there were to be a bilateral agreement, and there is an argument for that, it would be a small contribution to the wider issue? According to the migrant helpline in Dover, the numbers coming through the channel tunnel are going down. According to the figures that I was given when I was in Sangatte last Friday, 98 per cent. of those attempting to come from France to England in the Calais area are stopped in France, and only 2 per cent. are found as illegal asylum seekers here. Therefore, the reality is that about 2 per cent. of people might be sent back. Of those, many keep attempting to come here, so sending them back is not a solution.

Mr. Letwin

The hon. Gentleman is right: it is not a solution in that it is not a complete solution. I do not think that he is right to speak purely of illegal efforts to enter this country. In many cases, we are talking about people residing in France who make an effort to enter this country, which may not, in itself, be illegal. None of us knows the exact numbers. As I said, the whole matter is shrouded in statistical obscurity. However, my suggestion could form a significant part of a solution. The hon. Gentleman is right to describe it as an advance and say that there is a case for it. As for whether, on reinstating the bilateral agreement, so much of the problem goes away that the rest of the Home Secretary's measures are enough to cure the problem, I do not speculate. However, it would be an advance if we could at least cure this part of the problem.

I wish to address two points that have been raised by people who reject the idea of reinstating a bilateral agreement. Interestingly, neither was raised by the Under-Secretary in her response to the debate on 29 January, which suggests that, quite rightly, the Government do not place any emphasis on these arguments. However, I want to dispel them before they are raised in this debate.

It has been argued that we cannot have a bilateral agreement because of the Dublin convention. The Under-Secretary was right to say on 29 January that that is a false argument. It is possible to have a bilateral agreement, notwithstanding the Dublin convention. It is possible not only in theory but in practice, as has been shown by Germany and Denmark, which have such an agreement in place. I accept that there are disanalogies as well as analogies between the Danish-German case and our own vis-à-vis France. However, the continued existence of the German-Danish bilateral agreement, never challenged, shows that it is possible to have such an agreement notwithstanding the Dublin convention. I think that we are agreed with Ministers on that point.

The second argument is that it is not possible to renegotiate a bilateral agreement when it would be so advantageous for the UK and so disadvantageous for France, which seems to bear out the strength of my previous argument. This is where I take issue with the doomsayers. I accept that we cannot expect the Home Secretary to find himself one sunny morning in Paris, alongside his opposite number in the French Government, and, over a croissant and cup of coffee, emerge, without cost to the UK, with a new, glistening bilateral agreement that resolves the problem.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

Or a bottle of burgundy

Mr. Letwin

Even a bottle of burgundy, as the Home Secretary says from a sedentary position, would not be sufficient to achieve this admirable result. I accept that the process of negotiation is difficult. What I do not accept is the proposition that because it is difficult, we should give up.

If I believed that, I should have to disbelieve the entirety of the Government's rhetoric about their relationship with our European Union partners. I have heard it said repeatedly over the past few years that the point of the Government's strategy vis-à-vis our EU partners was that it had put the Government in a position to achieve successful outcomes to difficult negotiations because it would be in our partners' interests to do diplomatic deals with us in the knowledge that we would do deals with them. In short, we would be part of the club, obey the rules and be good citizens so that we could achieve things of use to our country.

If ever an item would clearly be of use to our country, the bilateral agreement is one. If, therefore, there were ever a case, vis-à-vis a major European partner, for implementing the strategy on which the Government pride themselves, this is it. If the Foreign Office knew how to engage effectively in diplomacy, it would know what to trade and how to trade in order to achieve the desired result. It has, uncharitably, sometimes been alleged that just as the Department of Trade and Industry sponsors industry under the present Administration, and the Department for Education and Skills sponsors teachers, so the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sponsors foreigners. I do for one moment believe that lamentable accusation. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] In contrast to some of my hon. Friends, I am persuaded that the officials of the FCO and the Foreign Secretary—not least because he was a distinguished occupant not long ago of the Home Secretary's current office—are fully conversant with the fact that it is in our interest to achieve a renegotiated bilateral agreement. I imagine that they have all the skills necessary to identify the items—minor items, but significant to the Quai d'Orsay—that could be traded off for that desirable result.

It is not necessary for the French Government to accept a new agreement. As the Home Secretary pointed out during Question Time, the bilateral agreement still exists and applies to cases that are not related to asylum. All that is necessary is the adjustment, by reinstatement of one sub-paragraph, of an existing bilateral agreement. That should not be beyond the ingenuity of the Foreign Office.

My point is that if that action is not taken, the Home Secretary will produce his White Paper in good faith, we shall consider its proposals constructively and the country will hope that it will succeed. It is very likely, however, that it will turn out to be a car without an engine. A system that is under the greatest strain will not be able to implement its third system in just a few years—even the first of those systems has not yet been fully implemented—while the sheer number of applications continues at its present rate, largely because of the absence of the bilateral agreement. I am trying to provide the Home Secretary with a means to reduce the flow into the bathtub so that he may succeed in dealing with the water in the bath. That is a piece of constructive opposition, and I hope that the Home Secretary will take advantage of it.

Dr. Iddon

How would the hon. Gentleman answer the criticism made of the original bilateral agreement, that those who had knowledge of English procedures and the language were able to stay here long enough to implement judicial processes that meant that they spent longer on British soil than on French, making the French reluctant to accept them back in a transfer?

Mr. Letwin

I answer that point in the words of the bilateral agreement. Incidentally, the agreement has sometimes been misrepresented as being a gentleman's agreement. It was nothing of the kind. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh?"] I intend no adverse comment on either of the signatories. It was signed by officials of the two states on 20 April 1995, and it spoke of: Refusal of admission and removal within 24 hours of departure". That had exactly the automaticity of which the Home Secretary spoke so powerfully in the—irrelevant—case of those who are not seeking asylum. The very fact that the agreement works so well for those not seeking asylum—as the Home Secretary pointed out during Question Time—gives hope that it will again, as it did in the past, work well for those who are seeking asylum, precisely because of that speed.

My closing comments also relate to a point that was made during Question Time. The Home Secretary has not so far tried to deny the assertion—I shall be the first to withdraw if he does deny it—founded on a document in my possession that appears to be leaked, that the initial estimate for expenditures on the asylum support system in the UK for 2001–02 will be about £1.09 billion. The document notes that figures are estimates in advance of grant claims from local authorities. The allocation at the start of the year was £403 million, which was understood to be a provisional estimate.

I quite understand that provisional estimates are never accurate. I accept that a variation of 10 per cent., or even 20 per cent., especially in a demand-led service of this kind, would be normal. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), in his former role as the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, might have been willing to grant that a 30 or 40 per cent. increase was tolerable in such circumstances. When we are dealing with an increase of 150 per cent. compared with the provisional figure, however, it looks as though some accident has occurred: it looks as though some carelessness has crept into the system.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Does the hon. Gentleman think that that accident or carelessness is comparable with the accident or carelessness that occurred under the previous Government, when towns such as Slough were expected—with no prior warning—to maintain asylum seekers with no support at all from the Government? That decision put a £2 million hole in the budget of the council in the town that I represent.

Mr. Letwin

The figure seems large. However, I am more than prepared to accept that the asylum system has for a long time imposed serious strains on all Governments. I began the debate by saying that I did not seek, on this occasion, to use the Opposition day to prove a failure by the Government, but rather to suggest a way forward. I am willing to accept that the strains under which the present system of asylum, the lack of the bilateral agreement and the other deficiencies of structure have put the Home Office have made it well-nigh impossible for the Home Office to constrain the sums it spends—or even remotely accurately to predict them.

During Question Time, the Home Secretary said that the lack of the bilateral agreement and the numbers coming to us from France were no part of the explanation of the under-prediction. It will be interesting to learn whether that is because he does not believe that the under-prediction actually occurred. Perhaps he will tell us that there is some other cause.

My claim is simple. At present, neither the Home Secretary, for all the good will that he has displayed in this matter, nor his officials, for all the ingenuity that they are displaying and will display when the White Paper is implemented, are able to deal with the problems that we face as a nation, because the weight of the numbers and the speed of the arrival and the disproportion— [Interruption] Does my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) want to intervene?

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

My hon. Friend refers to the weight of numbers. I was observing that it was not a description that would apply to the number of Labour MPs attending the debate.

Mr. Letwin

That is not a point that I would have made—although it is nevertheless strangely true.

The disproportion between the burden being borne by this country and by our nearest and closest neighbour is so great that no group of men and women—however mightily they strive—is likely to conquer the problem. I hope, therefore, that rather than refuting and retorting, the Home Secretary will adopt what I believe to be the right posture in the face of such suggestions. I hope that he will entertain the possibility that he can persuade his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to get to work, with all the wiles for which our Foreign Office has long been known, to try to reinstate a bilateral agreement that, although it will not be a complete solution—I accept the points made by hon. Members on both sides of the House—will none the less make a constructive effort to help us bear and solve a problem whose solution has for so long eluded us.

4 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: 'notes that co-operation with France on immigration and asylum issues is greater now than it has ever been; recognises that there has been an overall drop from 13,527 in 2000 to 10,927 in 2001, a drop of almost 20 per cent., in the number of people crossing illegally to the UK from France; further notes that bilateral co-operation continues to address the problem of asylum seekers in Northern France, that the French have made significant investment in police reinforcements in the region and judicial action has been taken against human traffickers and that, as a result of the imposition of the civil penalty, the number of clandestine entrants was reduced by 27 per cent. in 2001; and further notes that the previous Conservative Government left the asylum system in complete disarray, with local authorities left to pick up the pieces.'. I take it from the manner and tone of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) in this afternoon's presentation that he—rather than his chief of staff, whom I have read about this weekend—wrote his speech. I understand that the Leader of the Opposition entered the Chamber a minute or two ago, so I also take it that the hon. Gentleman's speech is a follow-through from his leader' speech last week, but presented in a different tone. I now understand the hon. Gentleman's tone, and I like it. In fact, on Friday at Cardiff, I said, "You are awful, but I like you." Dick Emery used to say that, and the phrase seemed to fit very well.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

He used to get dressed up.

Mr. Blunkett

I am not going to do that even for my friend, the Leader of the Opposition—even though The Mirror reported that we dined together. We dined during the general election campaign at a secret meeting in North Yorkshire. We met, had a buffet supper and then debated on Radio 4's "Any Questions", and we both enjoyed it very much. At that moment, I thought that if one lad from North Yorkshire fails, this lad will succeed in leading the Tory party, but we have got nothing to worry about. That is what I thought at the time, and nothing has disabused me of it since.

We are debating an interesting issue: putting Britain first. I think that that was the thrust of the Leader of the Opposition's speech last week, so this debate is a follow-through. I am pleased that we are debating the issue this afternoon because this happens to be the day that the French Government have implemented legislation, which they had to push through their Parliament, known as the implementation of domestic juxtaposed controls at Paris. We already have juxtaposed checks in London and Paris because they were imposed when the channel tunnel opened, but those using the domestic rail route from Paris to Calais did not have to be checked by British immigration officials. As a consequence, people with domestic tickets used that loophole to stay on the train and travel through the tunnel. The British Government pressed the French to legislate; they had to change their law.

I want the House to consider what would have happened if the French Government had requested us to alter our internal ticketing and travel arrangements so that people travelling from London to Dover had to go through French passport and immigration controls just to be able to get to Dover, not France. The mirror image of that has been imposed by the French today, having legislated during the autumn. We should get into perspective what the French are prepared, or not prepared, to do.

Given the tone of the hon. Gentleman's introduction, I shall be honest with him. Who believes that we will achieve a major change in French immigration policy in the immediate run-up to the presidential and Assembly elections in April and June? I am prepared to have a go and ask—I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition will join me—President Chirac not to make immigration an issue in the French presidential elections. If he is prepared to do that, we can stand four-square together, and we can get somewhere. The French Prime Minister, the Minister of the Interior and Madame Guigou, the Minister with responsibility for the encampments and the accommodation, would be in a much better position—would they not?—to respond to our approaches.

I would obviously also have to take into account the very different situation that has existed in France over the years and that the hon. Gentleman undoubtedly knows about: the tolerated illegal presence. Part of renegotiating the Dublin agreement involves ensuring that that state of affairs does not exist. For those who are not totally familiar with the issue, the problem is that the position in France is unlike that in Britain. If the people at an encampment such as Sangatte seek to move on to claim asylum elsewhere and do not claim asylum in France, they are not arrested or removed. That policy goes back a long way in France and, as the hon. Gentleman said about another front, the position is not the same in Germany, Italy or most other European countries. Tolerated illegal presence means that people are not claiming asylum in France.

That point is relevant because of the agreement that Germany and Denmark reached in Dublin. It relates to those people who tried to claim asylum in Germany but failed and who then tried to move across the border to Denmark to claim asylum there. However, we are faced with a very different situation. We cannot persuade people to claim asylum in France for love or money. We have promised them free Burgundy, sunshine and all sorts of other things, but they will not do so.

With the best will in the world, I cannot compel the French Government to force potential asylum seekers to claim asylum in France. However, I can make it clear to the French Government that if asylum seekers refuse to claim asylum in France, they are tolerating an illegal presence. Under Dublin II, as it has become known, we need to be able to enforce the same approach across Europe, so that those who refuse to seek asylum in the country in which they are illegally present are removed to the place from where they came.

Holding this debate today is interesting, not least because I have had to do my homework on it. I always welcome that, as I did when I was the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. Doing our homework is good for us, and it enables us to enlighten others, such as the avid readers of Hansard across the country waiting for our every word to dribble out on the web.

Simon Hughes

I too welcome this debate, as I did last Tuesday's debate with the Under-Secretary. That too was a good-natured event that sought the truth.

Will the Home Secretary answer two questions to which I do not know the answers? First, apart from the agreement between Germany and Denmark—we know about that—is he aware of any other bilateral conventions between European Union countries that deal with people who have sought asylum and moved, or not moved, on? Secondly, how far have the discussions that the EU Commission initiated in September proceeded? They were an attempt to reach a more universal EU-wide agreement that would not rely on bilateral arrangements. Answers to those questions would provide relevant background information.

Mr. Blunkett

First, I am aware of no other countries that have such an agreement—and probably for the reasons that I have just enunciated. Secondly, the Commission set up a working party that continues to meet. We hope that, under the Spanish presidency, the process will be accelerated because Spain, like us, has a particular interest in this issue. Many people enter Spain from Morocco and north Africa, and Spain also wants a more rational and sensible Europe-wide agreement. Whatever the differences between me and Conservative Members, we all know and believe in our hearts that that is a sensible way forward. I hope that in future some sense will emerge.

I shall return to the well presented questions that arose after the Dublin agreement of 1990. There was a so-called gentleman's agreement between 1995 and 1997, but the difficulty was not that there was not reasonable intent, but that the time scales, as enunciated by the hon. Member for West Dorset, were very tight. People had to be turned back literally overnight. A difficulty arose before the gentleman's agreement because of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 and the wonderful terms in it, such as "statutory suspensive appeal", that related to whether people could exercise their right of appeal.

The Home Secretary tried to change the law in 1996, but as experts in this field will recall, he had difficulties with judges over withdrawal of benefits. The courts ruled that the National Assistance Act 1948 requires support to be given. As local authorities had become the conduit for that support, we decided to provide a more rational way of providing it by establishing the National Asylum Support Service. Incidentally, the local authority grant has grown over the years and is now £500 million, which is a tremendous amount of money.

The Government not only ran into problems with the courts in 1996 but had problems with my favourite legal ruse, judicial review. Having agreed to set aside the 1993 Act, they decided to have a judicial review of the removal of asylum seekers, thereby delaying deportation, a point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) alluded. People were therefore able to stay in this country longer than they had in France and were entitled to claim asylum here.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Surely the Home Secretary accepts that the legal difficulties to which he refers occurred at the very end of the last Conservative Government. His party has been in power for five years. Surely he and his predecessor should have found a way to address that gap in the law which, as he rightly says, was generated by judges perhaps over-reaching their authority.

Mr. Blunkett

That is an interesting observation. When we debated the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, I suggested that judicial review was used inappropriately, and we had an interesting discussion on whether the Special Immigration Appeals Commission should become a court of superior record. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House were deeply exercised by my concerns about judicial review. I suspect that we will return to that subject in the months and years to come because judicial review has been used over the past 20 years to thwart Parliament's decisions. There is no question about that. I look forward to receiving support from all quarters of the House if we think it necessary to introduce measures to clarify the situation and make the will of Parliament clear. The important consideration is whether the system in operation is fair and reasonable. It cannot be used simply to build in delays that frustrate the will of Parliament and therefore the democratic will of the country. That is an interesting test of what we need to do.

Of course there are problems, such as whether people are claiming asylum in France. If they are trying to get into this country, however, we have the problem of turning them around fast enough when they make a claim. As I said at Question Time, last year we sent back to France more than 6,800 people who, for a variety of reasons, either did not immediately claim asylum or did not have a substantive claim. The moment that someone claims asylum, they become part of the process.

It is interesting to consider how many people are coming through the tunnel or crossing the channel, and whether the number poses a serious problem. It is a worry, not least to a Home Secretary returning from his summer holiday. For example, the Daily Express—I do not want to pick on it; after all, it has only picked on me every other day since 10 June—highlights day after day the hordes of people who are supposed to be entering our country through the tunnel. What is actually happening is that they are not getting through, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) made clear. The visual signs in August and September, whether by photograph or television, vividly demonstrated the difficulty. At Christmas, 500 people stormed the barbed wire trying to get through, but they did not get through. Measures have been taken to help with that, and to help cross-channel carriers on the ferries.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, as Eurotunnel's attempts to reopen the route have failed on each occasion, the lives of many asylum seekers have been put at risk, and that freight carriers in the Vale of York and elsewhere in the country are being hugely disadvantaged because trains are to be checked only between 9 pm and 3 am? The escalation of the asylum seeker problem has ramifications for the transport industry as well as for his Department.

Mr. Blunkett

I am painfully aware of that. The measures that I announced on 19 September involved co-operation with those operating on the French side of the tunnel and the ports—working not only with Eurotunnel, for instance, but with SNCF and English, Welsh and Scottish Railways—to see whether we can assist in advance security measures and agree the steps that need to be taken.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing me to this point in my speech more speedily than I otherwise would have reached it. I am pleased to say that, after more than four months since a civil penalty was imposed on Eurotunnel, and owing to the measures that it has implemented and the dramatic fall in the number of people getting through illegally, we are lifting the civil penalty as from this afternoon. We will do so for SNCF for similar reasons, and we have withdrawn any claim concerning EWS, which we accept is not legally liable for its efforts.

That has been achieved because enormous strides have been taken. We want Eurotunnel and others to be able concentrate their time and resources on ensuring that they can operate commercially and effectively and on continuing to take with us the rigorous steps that have been taken. That illustrates that, as with SNCF and the French, we will reciprocate where there is co-operation, as with the juxtaposed checks at Paris that will operate from today.

A number of things are moving and there is improvement, but as I said to Elisabeth Guigou, there will be no progress until Sangatte is closed and no alternative is opened along the coast. She accepts, and indicated publicly that she had not advocated, and will not advocate, a further Sangatte in the Pas-de-Calais area, and that the long-term objective must be to close Sangatte. I believe that the short-term objective must be to close it, and we need to consider how we can do that, now or following the presidential and assembly elections, in a meaningful way.

All that leads me to believe that the problem is Europe-wide and international and that it needs to be set in the context of more widely managed migration and nationality policy and not simply asylum. We need a reasonable and rational debate. I therefore welcome the tone adopted by the shadow Home Secretary. In response to my statement on 29 October, he put his position in the form of questions. I failed to acknowledge all 15 of them, but I acknowledge now that he is entirely right to believe that I would accept that he is an honourable man and that the answers to most of the questions were yes. I believe that when we debate the White Paper the response will be similarly balanced.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

Does the Home Secretary accept that asylum seekers will keep on coming until the chaos of their processing is sorted out? Last month, two young Afghan lads came to see me at my surgery in Battle to say that they had arrived separately and applied for asylum in November 1999—one had paid $10,000 to be smuggled into the country on a lorry—but that more than two years later, they had yet to receive their first Home Office interview. For more than two years, they have been left in limbo, the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, unable to work, and a burden on the taxpayer. Whether they stay or go, it is in no one's interest—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)


Mr. Blunkett

That sounds like an Adjournment debate to me, but one that I would rather not inflict on my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I suggest that we take up the problem and do something about it. All hon. Members must recognise that I would have to be out of my mind not to want to change the administration and improve the effectiveness and operations of my Department's immigration and nationality directorate. I am determined to do so because, as I said last week, the Home Secretary is responsible and accountable for the actions of the thousands of people whom we employ. I am determined to get the matter sorted, and the system that we are to establish will help those people to do that.

That in no way undermines any of the points that have been made. We face a major challenge and we need to get Europe-wide agreement. In the meantime, we have to adopt rigorous measures ourselves to build trust and confidence in this country, and we need to ensure that our response is reasonable.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)

Will my hon. Friend give us some idea of what progress is being made with our European partners other than France?

Mr. Blunkett

I believe that there is a new spirit in the European Union's perception of immigration and asylum issues. In part, the desire to co-operate to deal with the threat of international terrorism has accelerated people's understanding of the need to co-operate on these issues. In part, global changes are having a major impact. The ramifications of the Taliban's fall have started a chain reaction that affects us all and that none can escape. The boat people trying to get to Australia and the changes in immigration law in that country and others illustrate that impact. We have a common purpose of trying to ensure that we get our systems right.

There are no more countries to which we can pass people on; it is therefore inevitable that we will have to have robust border controls. We need to recognise the implications of that. I hope that we will have got the balance right when the White Paper is published. However, if the spirit of the shadow Home Secretary's approach at the end of October and again today is indicative of future debates, although the issue—not least the effectiveness of the policies that I introduce—will never be taken out of politics, we might be able to have a rational debate. Although his history is inaccurate and the solution that he seeks is therefore not immediately attainable, at least we have had a rational debate today.

4.23 pm
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I welcome the debate and its constructive and rational tone, which I intend to do nothing to disrupt. I welcomed equally the similar debate initiated by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) in Westminster Hall last Tuesday. I hope that the Home Secretary agrees that that was a constructive and interesting aperitif to today's debate as well.

The hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is aware of my respect for him, but I am amused by the way in which renegotiation of the bilateral agreement between Britain and France, which appeared to be a Back-Bench policy last Tuesday, moved quickly on Wednesday and Thursday to become a Front-Bench policy that has now been aired in debate today. I congratulate the Conservatives on the speed of their response to their right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. Although entirely proper, the argument is not one that I had heard before last Tuesday in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Letwin

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to engage in a piece of honesty, which I shall perhaps regret later. The argument has been recent because we only recently asked ourselves, "Why did all this start going so terribly wrong shortly after the disappearance of the Conservative Government?" We came to the conclusion that it was not likely to be that fact which brought about the consequences, so we looked for other facts. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) must take the credit for raising the issue in the first place.

Simon Hughes

Let me continue to be honest, and, I hope, courteous to the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who is much respected for his expertise and knowledge. We greatly appreciate his contributions. There is nothing wrong. We are trying, too, to find factual explanations and to be constructive. I hope that now, when we get the White Paper and during the debates between then and the Bill, there can be the best possible answers to these difficult international questions.

I have some other introductory words for the Home Secretary. I welcome, but I am sure not nearly as much as Eurotunnel or the other operators, the announcement made by the right hon. Gentleman a short while ago of the withdrawal of the civil penalty. If I may say so, that is a proper reward and a proper response. Having expended quite a lot of effort over the past six months informing myself of the facts, I believe that considerable efforts have been made and millions of pounds invested, not least by Eurotunnel, to try to help the authorities on both sides, as well Eurotunnel itself, to deal with the clear difficulty of trying to prevent people moving illegally from France to the United Kingdom.

I do not want to repeat verbatim or in general the speech that I made in Westminster Hall on Tuesday. I shall however say a few words about the background before I turn to the foreground.

I was extremely helped by the time that I spent on Friday morning and Friday afternoon, only three days ago, in Sangatte and Calais, with the Red Cross, with its camp director and with staff. I had the opportunity to talk to asylum seekers, or would-be asylum seekers, or migrants in the camp, of whom there were many.

Secondly, I had the opportunity to talk to representatives of Eurotunnel on their site. I have talked to them in this place, but I was able to talk to them on site and to see the site itself. I spent some time with the company's officials and employees as vehicles were being checked. Like every other day, the checks revealed that people were trying illegally to get through. That happened last Friday morning, and those involved were intercepted by the twin efforts of Eurotunnel staff, who first engaged in electronic video imaging of vehicles and then a carbon dioxide test to determine whether humans were in the vehicles in question. In other words, there is a double check. That resulted in a number of people being found, even in the earlier hours of Friday morning before I had arrived. They were handed over to the authorities and made no further progress.

We must see the issue in the context of the pattern of refugees and asylum seekers and their movements throughout the world. For those who follow these debates—mercifully, there are quite a few—the most useful compendium that I have found is a large volume, which I often carry with me on these occasions, which is published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Oxford University Press. It sets out the state of the world's refugees and provides all the figures from 1950 to 2000. It shows that patterns of migration change; the countries from which people come change too.

The publication makes the telling point that, of about 12 million people who are refugees, most of them are near where they fled from. Most of them are refugees not in the rich north-west of Europe but in poor parts of the world—Pakistan, if they fled from Afghanistan, or central Africa if they fled from other countries in central Africa. When we confront these issues, we must remember how relatively few people make their way to the shores of Britain, or seek to come to Britain at all.

If we compare the number of people who apply for entry with the wealth of the country concerned, we are about 77th in the league table. If we take the number of people who seek to come to a country relative to its population, in terms of the European Union, we are about seventh, eighth or ninth. It is true that in recent years the numbers of people who have sought to come to the United Kingdom have increased. However, they have not grown without interruption over the past decade. They grew in the first part of the 1990s and then the numbers fell. They grew again and then again they declined, and they have now grown significantly in the past few years.

Although we have not seen a final version of last year's figures, in each of the last couple of years, about 90,000 people have sought to come to this country. The obvious next question is: how many have had their applications granted? The figures are not insignificant. Whatever the arguments about the many people who are not asylum seekers but economic migrants—the Home Secretary was right to say that, to be honest, almost everybody falls into one category or the other—if they are not asylum seekers, they are still seeking to better themselves, so it is right that the Government should think of ways of giving them a proper channel to apply to go through on the basis of economic opportunity. But in 2000, the last full year for which figures are available, 31 per cent. of asylum seekers had their applications granted and a further 18 per cent. had applications granted on appeal. So of those who arrived and put a case, just short of 50 per cent. of them, although the figure has been lower and occasionally higher, have had their case accepted by authorities.

I therefore hope that our debate will acknowledge that many of those people make a good case to come here and are fleeing awful circumstances. As a constituency MP, I have heard about enough awful circumstances from people from Sierra Leone whose families have been brutally murdered, as well as from people from Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Afghanistan and the middle east. Unless someone does our sort of job, or works with those people regularly, they would not understand that, unless we come to the debate with compassion and humanity, we are not doing our job properly as parliamentarians. I hope that people outside, including some of those who write for national daily papers, have as much interest in presenting that side of the story as they do in presenting the somewhat distorted picture of people trying to break through and come illegally to the United Kingdom.

One other preliminary point—[Interruption.] I heard the Home Secretary. I beg his pardon; one other linked point is that it is imperative that we seek—and I hope that the Bill to be introduced after the White Paper will do so—first, to provide a way for people who want to come here as economic migrants to put a case; and secondly, to provide a route for asylum seekers who reach the European Union to put their case when they get here. I agree that the Dublin convention, which may have been conceived with the best intentions, has failed, for obvious reasons. If somebody first comes to the attention of the authorities in, for example, northern France, it is unlikely that they will know exactly where they entered the EU and which was the first country in which they arrived. Even if they knew, they might not tell the authorities; and if they did tell them, they would probably not have any papers to confirm it. The theory that they could be sent back to the country in which they first arrived is unlikely ever to work in practice.

The arrangements are also nonsense because, by definition, most people arrive across the landmass from the east and the south; enforcing them would put all the burden on Greece, Austria and Germany, and very little on other countries to the west. That international issue is sometimes created by European migration—for example, owing to civil war in the former Yugoslavia—and sometimes by events like the terrible troubles in Afghanistan; but we need to address it collectively so that we share the burden responsibly. We therefore endorse the reference to that aim in the Conservative motion; indeed, we adopted it in our amendment, and it is a shared European objective. Generally, the number of people applying in France appears to be going up; the number applying in Britain may be going up too. In any event, we must realise that we are in this together.

The Home Secretary is of course right that it is probably more likely that agreements with the French, or agreements to which the French will be party, will be made after the two sets of elections than before. We are political realists. Immigration issues register quite high in domestic politics, for obvious reasons, so we will probably have to wait until after the presidential and parliamentary assembly elections in the spring and early summer, and until the new Administration have the confidence to answer such questions anew.

In the light of my experience last Friday, I have five practical suggestions. My experience at Sangatte confirmed that it is not a holiday camp: it is not luxurious. It is a completely unheated hangar, in which there are twice as many people as there are beds, and in which there are mainly men aged between 16 and 30, but a considerable number of women, teenagers and children also. They queue for hours for a shower. The hot water is on for about four hours a day—two hours in the morning and two in the evening. The people queue for many hours for their two meals a day. There is one small television, which broadcasts in French. I did not see a single newspaper, magazine or piece of educative material.

I had conversations with some of the people there—all of whom, as it happens, come from Afghanistan—who spoke English; the majority do not. They made it clear to me, first, that they left Afghanistan because at the time the country was extremely disrupted and had a history of almost 25 years of war; secondly, that they left with the support of their families, because their families wanted them to escape and to better themselves; and thirdly, that although they understood that things had settled in Afghanistan, they were unlikely to believe, about a month after the interim Government took office, that there was in place the stable peace that they hoped for, given that all the other stable peaces for which they had hoped over the past 25 years had been false dawns.

We cannot persuade people to go back the minute peace comes to a country or part of a country. It is just not a credible argument that things will not be as bad again if they go home. A belief that we can immediately say, "If you come from Afghanistan, you will all now feel comfortable about going back", struck me as an unrealistic option. It might be much more realistic in the medium or long term, but as of today, this month and next month, very little in the world will persuade those people that they ought to go home.

Secondly—the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) made a similar point—when I asked the people how they had come to Europe, most said that they had paid about $10,000. Most had put themselves in the hands of the traffickers. Most of them chose to say that they wanted to go to the UK, either because, from their own information back in Afghanistan or wherever else they believed that that would be the best place—with the highest principles, respect for human rights, opportunities to work and decent treatment—or because, having listened to the World Service and so on, they spoke English and felt more comfortable with the language than with any other.

Those were practical reasons, but I asked people whether, if Denmark, Germany, France or another country offered them the same prospects, they would consider going there, and many said yes. I suggest to the Home Secretary, and I will suggest to the French ambassador when I see him next—I hope to see him again soon—that the most immediately useful step would be to establish an education and information programme at Sangatte, to give people the facts about what is happening in the countries from which they come, about the options for them now, and about what would happen to their case if they came to the UK. Many of them ought to know that even if they came, their case might be unlikely to succeed.

If, in the two hours I spent speaking to people at Sangatte, I was able to begin a dialogue which, I think, was effective in sharing some information, surely such an information flow could be provided on a regular basis. Certainly, the French Government have principal responsibility. The Red Cross is happy to facilitate it, and I would hope that other EU Governments will be able to help.

Thirdly, no one has apparently done objective research—so the director told me—into the routes, the motivation of the people coming and so on. A few journalists have asked a few questions, but nobody has checked the facts which, as the hon. Member for West Dorset reminded us, often are not known. There ought to be some scientific random sampling of the people at Sangatte now, so that we can find out where they are coming from and who is bringing them, and so that we can deal with some of the causes of their being there.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it may be a good idea to ask asylum seekers precisely those questions? Should we not ask them who brought them here and try to find out who the traffickers are? Perhaps we could persuade them by saying, "Look, if you tell us, you may have a better chance of getting here." I know that that approach is a bit hard, but it is so important to find out who is making all the money that we should perhaps tie consent to the giving of information.

Simon Hughes

The hon. Lady raises a perfectly proper question. Indeed, I asked such questions myself. My understanding is that many of the traffickers come from eastern Europe. They are around and about in northern France and shuttle between there and elsewhere regularly. Certainly, they should be picked up by the authorities on the basis of such information, where that is possible.

One of the things that came across very clearly is that the showing of a video to try to dissuade people from attempting illegally to cross the channel was a complete disaster. It failed for two obvious reasons. First, I understand it included images of the white cliffs of Dover, which made coming here even more appealing instead of putting people off. Secondly, it showed people trying to break into vehicles, which gave ideas about how to do so. No wonder it did not succeed in putting anybody off, but had the reverse effect. Everybody told me that the last thing we should do is go down that road again. People with authority and experience are needed to talk to those who are waiting individually in order to persuade them and offer options for the way forward.

My judgment is that Sangatte will probably not close in the very near future, for reasons that have been tested in the French courts. The camp probably should not be located where it is; it is within sight of the channel and the ferries are visible from it. I understand that that is an incentive for people to leave. However, there is no way on earth that the safeguards that Eurotunnel and others have introduced—they now pick up and stop 98 per cent. of people who are trying illegally to come through the tunnel—can be perfect. I spoke to people and I know that the evidence shows that, if a fence is built 2 km from the coast, people will come in 2.5 km from the coast, and the problem will merely be pushed back.

Some 70 per cent. of all freight coming through the tunnel is not container freight, but is open-sided, so people can get in at some stage. It will probably happen at an overnight stop. Most lorry drivers do not know what has happened. Most people are picked up and dealt with, but they will try again, as in their heads is the intention to try to come to Britain. We know the consequences. Most of them do not succeed and terrible injury and occasional death occur in the process. If and when Sangatte closes, we need instead several accommodation centres in and around Europe of the sort that the Government are proposing for this country to deal with the flows of people. The Home Secretary is absolutely right that that there is such a need on the southern Spanish coast, where hordes of people come into the country from the straits of Tangier and north Africa. The Spanish authorities cannot handle those people. Frankly, they process them and turn them out on to the streets of Spain the following day.

Finally—I have just asked the Home Secretary to take advice and I am very happy to contribute further—I come to a very effective point that was put to me by the director of the Red Cross centre at Sangatte. None of these people has any status at all in the world. If somebody is a refugee, they will have a passport saying that that is their status, but people who are seekers of asylum have no status. If we were to expect them to have some obligations in return for our giving them a status and papers, we would at a stroke take them out of the hands of the traffickers—the only people with whom they currently have a status—and put them into the hands of a system that could deal with them. I do not claim that that is my idea, but it struck me as an extremely telling point. If we could recognise people as wanting to be either asylum seekers or economic migrants—and if they could put the case for being either—we would have a chance of getting them into the system and processing them. Yes, in some cases, when peace has returned after a decent interval, whether in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone or—let us pray—Sri Lanka, they would have to go back, but a proper interval has to be allowed to ensure that that peace has been tested.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

The hon. Gentleman has made a number of interesting points, but will he address the one central point before he concludes his speech? Is his position and that of the Liberal Democrats that we should use some of our negotiating capital in Europe to get a bilateral agreement with France for the return of asylum seekers?

Simon Hughes

That is a perfectly proper question, and I shall end with a reply to it. I have nothing against trying a bilateral agreement. However, as I said in the recent debate in Westminster Hall, I do not believe that it is the way forward, not for any great theological reasons but because it simply passes the problem down the line or returns to France people who will try to come back again for the reasons that I gave earlier.

In northern Europe, the Schengen agreement means that there are no border controls and people do not therefore wait at other frontiers. They wait near the channel because we have border controls; Liberal Democrats, like the Conservatives, are in favour of retaining them. However, it means that the problem appears locally, at our frontiers, and nowhere else. Sending people back to France will simply lead to recycling, because they will not disappear. Even if the French could find out whence they entered France, we would simply pass the problem to somewhere else, such as Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium or Luxembourg.

I understand the argument that a bilateral agreement may not do any harm in the short term, but we need a Europe-wide solution as soon as possible. I have tried to offer some practical suggestions about what to do now, such as starting to educate people who get to the edge of the frontiers around the United Kingdom so that they understand the options. We should then deal with them humanely and fairly and help all those who have spent millions of pounds building their fences to realise that all the fences in the world do not change the aspirations of people who have paid $10,000 and travelled from Afghanistan to Calais. Telling such people that they cannot go any further will not persuade them that their journey should end and that they should return home.

4.46 pm
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

I apologise to the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) for missing some of his opening remarks. I welcome the measured and reasonable tone of the debate. I am sorry to say that the race card was played in the general election campaign, so it is gratifying that pejorative terms such as "bogus asylum seekers" have not been used in today's debate. When people use such terms, and make asylum deeply party political, the only beneficiary is the British National party. There was evidence of that in my constituency in the general election campaign, when race and immigration were raised. I therefore welcome the change in the tone of our debates since the hon. Gentleman took over as shadow Home Secretary.

The system has difficulties, many of which were acknowledged in the opening speeches and many of which occur in and around Calais because of Sangatte. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that his ultimate goal is the centre's closure, because its existence means that people congregate at the closest crossing point to the United Kingdom.

I represent a port area. We often talk about Dover and Calais, but I represent Immingham, one of the busiest container ports in Britain. Grimsby is nearby, and Hull is across the river. A huge amount of container traffic comes to Britain via the Netherlands and other countries. We often overlook the problems that are perpetuated at all the gateways to the United Kingdom, not only at Calais. I therefore believe that the debate should move beyond France, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said. It is too easy to point the finger at our nearest neighbour, and it is not fair. The Government have been doing their best in difficult circumstances.

Our close relations with the French have paid off in some respects. We should examine the figures and get away from the screaming headlines about floods of immigrants and the pictures of 500 people storming the tunnel. Between 2000 and 2001, the figures show about a 20 per cent. drop in the number of people crossing illegally to the United Kingdom from France. They also show that about 6,000 people were refused entry and returned to France. It is unfair to cite France as the key to all the problems. There are problems with Sangatte, but France is trying to provide solutions.

We need tighter controls at Eurostar stations and more UK immigration officers in France, and we must pursue the facilitators and racketeers, mainly from eastern Europe, who congregate in Sangatte and use that route to facilitate the prostitution of very young girls from eastern Europe in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

Mrs. Ann Cryer

Trafficking in young women for the purpose of prostitution was debated at length in the Council of Europe two weeks ago. Many of the people who enter the country in the backs of lorries and never seek to legitimise their position are women. Some drift into prostitution, while for many that is part of the deal, although they are not told that beforehand. Many others go and work effectively as slave labour, thereby putting employers who pay at least the minimum wage—I am talking here not about prostitution but about legitimate businesses—out of business. Often, those women owe the traffickers a great deal of money and are forced to repay it by working in slave workshops.

Shona McIsaac

My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. Many of the women who end up working as prostitutes for many years are not aware that that is the fate that awaits them when they agree to pay the traffickers many thousands of pounds to take them to western Europe. That is all the more horrific when we consider the age of some of those involved—girls of 13 and 14.

Simon Hughes

To reinforce what the hon. Lady said about numbers, figures released on Friday show that in January 93 people got through to the UK, but 3,985 people were arrested on the site in northern France and a further 592 were uncovered by the carbon dioxide method of detection. Very many people are stopped, and very few manage to get through the system.

Shona MeIsaac

I am grateful for those up-to-date figures. We must maintain a balance. The measures that the French have taken are not perfect and more needs to be done, especially in Sangatte, but they have prevented many clandestines from entering the UK.

The figures for clandestine entrants arriving in the freight shuttle wagons reveal a steady decline. In July 2001, 808 people entered in that way; in October, 133 did so, but by November the figure had fallen to only 40. We have worked with the French authorities, and the action that the French have taken has led to some reduction.

Legislation ensures that all passengers on Eurostar trains, whatever their destination, have to pass through UK immigration controls before boarding. That is another vital aspect of the debate.

As I have been trying to demonstrate, I disagree with the comments of the hon. Member for West Dorset that appeared in the paper about France being the key, and the core of all our asylum problems. France is a link in an international chain, and the problems are more complex than some people think.

We have already mentioned the people traffickers, who also often deal in prostitution. One reason why they entered that business is that there is big money to be made from it, and the penalties for people trafficking are far lower than those for other types of smuggling, such as smuggling drugs or guns.

We must do something about the organised gangs involved in people trafficking. I do not know whether we would have to do that via Europol, or what methods we would have to use, because few of the gangs that operate in Europe and prey on people at Sangatte seem to be based in the UK.

We must look at the pattern of people arriving in France and trying to get to the UK. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, when people are locked up in a truck, they often do not know where they are heading. They pay their money and are merely dumped somewhere, which creates a lot of problems when we have to decide where to return them. For example, there is a big trade based in the former Yugoslavia, where people pay vast amounts to cross to Italy in a rickety boat and are then taken on in trucks.

That must be considered in the context of the debate, but we must bear in mind that although only a small number of people get through to the UK, there are 12 million or 13 million refugees in the world, most of whom are in countries neighbouring their home country. We must look for solutions to those problems, and I have some sympathy with the idea that we should have proper accommodation centres in the European Union. That is not up to the British Government to decide, but we could facilitate the idea through the various European institutions, and encourage other European countries to adopt a policy similar to that announced on 29 October in the House—a system of induction, accommodation and removal centres. I understand that there are such centres in the Netherlands, and that although there have been some problems, they are now dying down.

A site in my constituency is being considered as an accommodation centre. My Cleethorpes constituency, and north-east Lincolnshire itself, has few ethnic people and is a very white community. That is not to say that there has been no immigration, but because the region is to the east of the country, and because of the presence of the former fishing industry, such immigration has consisted of white—for want of a better word—people from Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Denmark.

I appreciate that such proposals will always cause people concern, but some of their fears are based on myth rather than fact. As I have tried to stress, in discussing what we can do about asylum we must maintain a balance. Stark headlines about floods of immigrants and images of people storming the channel tunnel can often give rise to fears that should not exist. Many people have expressed concern to me about the pressure that dispersal placed on services in north-east Lincolnshire, which was part of the dispersal system. If the new system of accommodation centres takes the pressure off local authorities, it should be explored.

We must demonstrate compassion and humanity in this debate, because there are real-life stories behind the headlines. As elected representatives, we have probably heard about the horrors that some families have been through; indeed, it is impossible to imagine how they have survived those experiences. As the hon. Member for West Dorset said in the debate on 29 October, it is one of the British state's highest duties to offer a safe haven to those fleeing persecution, and we have a long and honourable tradition of doing so. I hope that we maintain that tradition—but without resorting to pejorative language and screaming headlines.

I am gratified that today's debate has been constructive and I hope that it will continue to be so, but blaming France is not the answer. This is an international problem that requires international solutions through working with European countries and other countries around the world.

5.3 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the United Nations convention on refugees—the international law that has underpinned the policies of successive Governments of both major British political parties, and which has commanded the almost universal support of all democratic politicians in that time. Indeed, one striking feature of several debates on asylum in the past few years is that although there have been occasional heated disagreements between Members on both sides of the House about asylum policy, there has been a common wish to uphold and defend the convention and its underlying principles.

As the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) said in her concluding remarks, it is the duty of a country that claims to be civilised to offer a safe haven to people who are genuinely fleeing persecution. However, if that convention and those principles are to be successfully defended and upheld, it is of the utmost importance that we are seen to have a fair and efficient system for handling asylum claims, at both the European and national level. Our normal requirements of immigration control must not be evaded—all too often they are—by people claiming asylum in order to extend their stay or establish themselves for a considerable number of years, if not permanently.

If I had a disagreement with the hon. Member for Cleethorpes, it was that at times I felt that in her understandable wish to express reassurance, she underestimated the scale of the problem in this country and the genuine nature of public concern about it. Each year, about 90,000 people come quite lawfully as immigrants to settle permanently in the United Kingdom. In 2000, there were about 80,000 applications for asylum. Those applications were made by the head of the household, and if we include dependants we realise that the figure was somewhat larger. The number of applications for asylum roughly equates to the yearly number of lawful applications to settle in this country, which poses a significant challenge to the integrity of our immigration controls and to our ability fairly and honestly to implement the 1951 United Nations convention, as we would wish it to be implemented.

The greatest danger from an organisation such as the British National party—and the history of Europe in the 20th century bears out my contention—arises when democratic politicians of the left, right or centre appear indifferent to or ignore the genuine concerns of the electorate whom they represent. We must be careful about the language that we use and the policies that we advocate, but we must clearly show that we recognise that public concern springs from much more than racist caricatures; it springs from deep-seated worries about the scale of the applications for asylum.

Simon Hughes

The hon. Gentleman has had much experience of Home Office matters. Does he agree that it would be reasonable for those who seek asylum here or anywhere else in the EU to put their case outside the country to which they were seeking to travel? People would not then have to break into countries before being able to put their case. Instead, they could apply from somewhere that was safe, without being required to make it to the country where they wanted to end up.

Mr. Lidington

It is perfectly sensible for us to explore how such an idea would work in practice. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) will look at such matters over the next couple of years.

A number of difficult practical issues would have to be addressed if we were to adopt the approach advocated by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes).

As the hon. Gentleman has often and rightly said, the number of refugees and asylum seekers throughout the world is large by historical standards. Sadly, it continues to grow. It is difficult to see how any quota system could match the number of people who might wish to migrate to a western or northern country in which they and their families would be safer and might legitimately hope to have a better chance of material prosperity. We should have to engage with some awkward practical questions if we followed through on the hon. Gentleman's idea.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset for bringing this matter before the House. I have no doubt that a new bilateral agreement between the United Kingdom and France would be a useful tool that would help us to deal effectively with the problem of handling asylum applications, but I do not think that it would be a panacea. I agreed with the point made by the hon. Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) that as soon as an asylum law loophole is closed, people—particularly among the organised gangs that are well supplied with lawyers—find a new loophole to exploit.

In a world of mass migration, in which international communications mean that millions of people in poor countries know about the greater opportunities for prosperity and security in western Europe and north America, and in a world of great disorder, there is unlikely to be a permanent solution to this problem in the foreseeable future. It will remain an issue that successive Governments will have to seek to manage as best they can in this and other countries.

None the less, the measure advocated by my hon. Friend would help. The Library note on asylum shopping tells us that between January and August 2001, just under 7,300 applications for asylum were made by people arriving from France at Dover or Waterloo. That figure is clearly at the bottom end of the true figure: it cannot, by definition, include those who came from France and claimed asylum after having arrived, either because they went to the authorities or because they were detected and then made a claim. Nor does that figure include those who may have come from France, by whatever means, and vanished without trace.

We have heard about the enormous pressure on rail operators. Like the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, I welcome the Home Secretary's common-sense decision to lift the civil penalty from Eurotunnel and EWS. However, even if the figures for those who apply at port of entry from France have fallen in recent months, and even if the majority of would-be applicants are stopped in France before they ever reach the UK, we cannot believe that everything in the garden is fine. There is huge financial pressure on those rail operators: Eurotunnel estimated that the cost of disruption last year was £20 million.

Shona McIsaac

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House who, in this debate, has suggested that everything in the garden is fine? Hon. Members on both sides of the House have said that there are problems that need to be addressed.

Mr. Lidington

I take the hon. Lady's point. Everybody has admitted that there are problems that need to be addressed. However, it is not enough to argue—as has been argued during the debate—that, because the majority of people who want to seek asylum in this country are, it is claimed, being stopped on the French side of the channel, that should cause us to relax our attention to the issues. We need to ask why large numbers of young men go to Sangatte to live in the dreadful conditions described by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. An advantage of the bilateral agreement is not only that it would provide a means for the swifter and more effective return to France of applicants whose claim was unfounded, but that its existence—and its effectiveness, once it was established—would act as a deterrent to others who were tempted to follow that course of action.

There appears to be no legal or treaty barrier to the British Government taking such an initiative. Reference has already been made to the bilateral agreement between Germany and Denmark, which operates in tandem with the Dublin convention. The Government are certainly right to say—as the Under-Secretary did in the debate in Westminster Hall on 29 January—that the politics of that agreement are different. That agreement boils down to the fact that Germany recognises that the problem is primarily hers and accepts the responsibility for preventing its export in large measure to Denmark. That gives rise to the question of how seriously the French Government take their responsibility not to export their problem to the United Kingdom.

Let us look elsewhere in Europe—not at a full member but at an applicant member of the European Union. According to a report published by the Select Committee on Home Affairs about a year ago, people crossing from the Czech Republic to Germany are returned, without the question of asylum being raised or given substantial consideration, because under German law the Czech Republic is deemed a safe country. Although I stand to be corrected if the Minister has more up-to-date information, I am not aware of any proposal that that arrangement should be rescinded if the Czech Republic in due course becomes a full member of the EU.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

The hon. Gentleman refers to the Czech Republic as a "safe" country, but is he not aware that the Czech Roma are being driven out of the democratic Czech Republic, having survived under communism and under the Nazis?

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

They are being driven out by the Slovaks.

Mr. Lidington

I am aware of the allegations that have been made although, as my right hon. Friend reminds us, those allegations are more usually made about the Slovak than the Czech authorities. However, if the Czech Republic cannot be trusted as a guardian of civil liberty and human rights, what on earth are we doing saying that the Czech Republic should be—as it is—a full member of the Council of Europe, or that it should be admitted to the European Union? If it were a member of the EU it would, presumably, participate in the pan-European arrangements that the Government are proposing. There is a broader question as to how we treat European countries whose respect for human rights we nominally acknowledge through our participation with them in the Council of Europe and the EU.

Mrs. Ann Cryer

The Czech Republic is already a member of the Council of Europe and has been for some time. However, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) is right: the country has a terrible track record on its treatment of the Roma. The Roma leave the country because of that and many of them come to the UK as refugees. I imagine that that will continue, whether or not the Czech Republic joins the EU.

Mr. Lidington

I do not want to have a long discussion about the Czech Republic, but the point is that a country has to sign the European convention on human rights to become a member of the Council of Europe. If a remedy has to be sought against the Czech Republic, or any other member of the Council of Europe, that should be done by applying the ECHR, to which that country has subscribed.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I want to return my hon. Friend to the point that he was making previously—the comparison between ourselves and France, as opposed to Denmark and Germany. The German understanding is that, overwhelmingly, Germany is the first safe country entered by those who travel to Denmark. The French contention is that that is not necessarily the case. However, given the absence of border controls in the Schengen group of countries, should not those countries collectively realise that such refugees will have entered one of them as the first safe country? Should not those countries begin to negotiate with us on that basis to share burdens?

Mr. Lidington

My hon. Friend makes an important contribution, and it certainly would fit logically with the Schengen members' conception of their own political arrangements, with a common area for immigration, asylum and, increasingly, criminal justice arrangements.

I said earlier that I felt at times there had been a lack of urgency in tackling the issue on both sides of the channel. The Home Secretary referred in his speech to recent French legislation to make it easier to carry out immigration checks on certain cross-channel routes. I have obviously not been able to leave the Chamber to check the facts since hearing his speech, but if my memory is correct, we in this country made good our side of that agreement about 12 months ago, under a statutory instrument that was briefly debated in Committee. If almost a further year has elapsed before such legislation has been implemented on the French side of the channel, some questions remain. I am happy to give way to the Minister if she wishes to correct me.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle)

I do not want the hon. Gentleman to be confused. The Home Secretary referred in his speech to a change in French domestic legislation, which comes into effect today and ensures that United Kingdom immigration officers can control all passengers who board UK-bound train services that travel through France. That change in law will close the Paris-Calais loophole. It is entirely beneficial, and we are very grateful to the French for changing their domestic law to allow that to happen.

Mr. Lidington

I do not deny that that change is beneficial, but I wonder whether such a change could not have been introduced more speedily.

Let us consider the position this side of the channel. In July 1998, the Government published a White Paper on asylum and immigration, entitled "Fairer, Faster and Firmer", which stated: There is a common appreciation among most Member States that the Convention"— the Dublin convention— is not working as it should. The White Paper continued: The Government— the present Administration— made the operation of the Convention a key priority for the United Kingdom's Presidency of the EU, which ended in June 1998. The Government secured agreement to a comprehensive programme of action designed to improve the operation of the Convention, and is committed to work with our European partners in that task. It is now three and a half years since the publication of that White Paper, which would have been drafted and framed shortly before July 1998, but the Government do not yet show the degree of urgency that is justified by the circumstances that we now face.

Fiona Mactaggart

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that seven years elapsed not just between the negotiation but the signing of the Dublin convention and its coming into force? By that standard, we are operating really fast.

Mr. Lidington

If the hon. Lady looks back at what is becoming rather ancient history, she will see that there were problems with the ratification of the Dublin convention because one or two other signatories had fairly profound objections that needed to be sorted out before the convention could proceed to ratification. My point is that there was an acceptance by the Government, very early in their term of office, that the Dublin convention was proving ineffective, and a declaration that their concerns about the convention in practice were shared by the majority of their EU partners. Against that background, the progress to date has been tardy.

Last September, the Home Secretary met his counterpart, Mr. Vaillant, the French Interior Minister. The package of measures that were agreed seemed, to my eyes, somewhat ambitious. It was agreed that British officials should go to Sangatte and, with French support, try to deter would-be migrants. It was agreed that both countries would take action to persuade would-be refugees to seek asylum in the first country of arrival. I do not know whether the video to which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey referred was the fruit of that summit meeting—

Simon Hughes

It was.

Mr. Lidington

If that video was the outcome of that meeting, I hope that, when the Minister replies to the debate, she will tell us a little about what those initiatives, about which the Government made much at the time of the summit, have meant in practice over the last few months. I also hope that she will be able to flesh out the comments that she made at the conclusion of the debate in Westminster Hall on 29 January about a successor to the Dublin convention now existing in draft. Will she give some indication of the content of the draft convention, and of the time scale for its introduction and implementation?

Both the motion and the Government amendment recognise that the issue of migrants coming to the United Kingdom from France is intimately bound up with the overall effectiveness of our asylum system. Why are many thousands of young men going to Sangatte with the sole objective—which they declare themselves—of using it as a base to reach the United Kingdom? As other hon. Members have said, it is partly due to the attraction of the English language, and partly due to the existence of communities in this country who are willing to provide support to compatriots who come to Britain. However, it is also due to the fact that many of those young men know that, once they reach here, effective action to remove them if their claim is unfounded is unlikely or, if it happens, is likely to be delayed for a long time.

Last year, after visiting Sangatte and exploring the question in considerable detail, the Select Committee on Home Affairs concluded that administrative and legal measures in the United Kingdom made an appreciable difference to the readiness of applicants and people smugglers to try their luck in the United Kingdom rather than elsewhere. If we look back at the history—the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, the introduction of the bilateral agreement in 1995, the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 and the court ruling in 1996 that significantly weakened the effectiveness of the arrangements introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley)—we see that the number of people applying for asylum in the United Kingdom has altered over the years as a consequence of different Acts of Parliament, administrative actions and judicial rulings. In that context, I have three questions for the Minister on the operation of the system and whether she believes it adequately deters people such as those who live in Sangatte.

My first question is on initial asylum decisions. I welcome the fact that the backlog is down to about 43,000, but it is still far too high. What concerns me is that a large proportion of decisions are refusals on non-compliance grounds, perhaps because not all sections of the form have been filled in or it has been returned to the Home Office late. In 2001, 17 to 20 per cent. of all Home Office decisions were refusals on those grounds alone. Although that is down on the high 25 to 30 per cent. total of 2000, it represents a massive increase on the 3 per cent. of such decisions in 1999.

Can the Minister explain what is going on? Is it the case that people who are not genuinely fleeing persecution and who vanish into the community are not bothering to return their forms properly completed, because that would be cause for concern; or is it that people who have an arguable case for asylum are struggling to fill in unfamiliar forms in a strange language, because that would mean that the improvement in initial decisions as reflected in Home Office statistics conceals the fact that the substantive determination of such cases is being shunted down the line to the appeals system and not being dealt with by the Department in the first instance?

My second question relates to appeals. Home Office figures for the third quarter of last year show that it received more than 16,500 appeals, but, as only 10,950 were determined, about 5,500 were added to the backlog. There was also a big increase over the 2000 figures in the proportion of appeals that were allowed by the adjudicators. What does that mean? Either the adjudicators are taking a softer line, which I find difficult to credit, or there are serious doubts about the quality of decisions taken by the Home Office at initial determination and the adjudicators are feeling obliged to reverse them in a greater number of cases.

My third question is on removals. A bilateral agreement with France will work only if we have an effective system for removing people when we decide that they are not entitled to remain here. The number of removals of failed asylum seekers was lower in each quarter of 2001 than in the corresponding quarter of 2000. Although more than 75,000 people were refused asylum in 2000, only 8,900 were removed from this country. There are still questions to be answered about the state of our domestic asylum system. Getting that right is an essential counterpart to the sort of international agreement that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset advocates.

Looking back to the preface to the 1998 White Paper, written in the name of the previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), I find it ironic that it says: Despite the dedication and professionalism of immigration staff at all levels, the system has become too complex and too slow and huge backlogs have developed. Perversely, it is often the genuine applicants who have suffered, whilst abusive claimants and racketeers have profited. The cost to the taxpayer has been substantial and is increasing. I am sorry to have to say that little seems to have changed in the four years since the former Home Secretary wrote those remarks.

My right hon. and hon. Friends' motion represents a constructive start to building a fairer, faster, firmer and more effective and trustworthy system of asylum, which will enable us to discharge our responsibilities under the United Nations convention.

5.35 pm
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

I had not intended to speak in the debate, but I have been tempted to do so by the fact that, in the main, it has been constructive. That makes a pleasant change from some of the asylum and immigration debates that I have sat through here over the past few years.

The debate has not been 100 per cent. constructive. I know that the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) did not say that everything that had gone wrong had been since 1997, but he got close at times. I think that I am the only Member who served on each of the Committees that considered what became the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 and the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. On every one, the Minister concerned told us how the legislation would provide all the solutions to the asylum system. I treated the Bills in the same even-handed, objective way: I voted against all three of them. It looks as though I might have the opportunity in a few weeks to consider my attitude to the 2002 legislation.

It has sometimes been implied in the debate— to some extent, the motion implies it—that the United Kingdom shoulders an unfair burden in comparison with other European Union countries. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) pointed out, that is not so. Between 1997 and 1999—the last complete set of figures across the EU that I have seen—there were twice as many asylum seekers in Germany as there were in the UK. Certainly when measured against population, we come nowhere near the top of the league. Figures obviously vary from year to year, but in most years we are probably eighth or ninth in the number of asylum seekers per head of population.

To suggest, as has been frequently suggested in the debate, that a bilateral approach with France would go a significant way towards making big changes is to take a very narrow view. I understand the arguments about closing Sangatte, but let us look back at why it opened in the first place. It was because there were large numbers of people on the streets of Calais and neighbouring towns who, exactly like those now in Sangatte, had every intention of trying to make their way to the UK.

We perhaps ought to have learned some of the lessons of the past 10 or 20 years, in that policies that are simply based on putting up barriers will not work. Each change that has done that has not worked. I know that numbers fell between 2000 and 2001, but it has been claimed today that since 1997, there has been an increase in the number of people coming to the UK from France who could otherwise have claimed asylum in France. However, that change is just one that has occurred since 1997. At the same time, we have changed carriers' liability and put airline liaison officers in many overseas countries whose specific job is to stop people getting on to planes to come directly to the UK. As I said, when one route is closed, people try to find another. We should not assume that putting up ever higher barriers will solve the problems.

In the past couple of years, significant changes have taken place within the EU, involving not only Britain and France, but other EU countries. Moves have been made toward a common asylum policy across Europe. The 1999 Amsterdam treaty made immigration and asylum policy an EU competence for the first time. There is provision enabling the UK to opt out, but I think that we should be closely involved in those discussions, because it is foolish to think that if common asylum or immigration policies were achieved across other EU countries, the UK could stand outside with different procedures and standards.

I appreciate that the hon. Member for West Dorset would encounter problems with some of his Back-Bench colleagues if he tried to suggest that EU-wide agreements were desirable. He therefore tries to limit the debate to France.

Mr. Letwin

I hesitate to strip away an illusion, but the Conservatives would be delighted with a more EU-wide agreement. We welcome Dublin II and the prospect of the shared burden being distributed more evenly. The problem is that it might take years. The question is not whether multilateral agreement is a good idea, but whether it might be worth trying in the meantime to reinstate a bilateral agreement as one helpful approach.

Mr. Gerrard

I am not sure that all the measures would take as long as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I am glad that he agrees that we should seek wider agreement—most people welcome in principle moves towards harmonisation of asylum policies across the EU.

There is danger in the fact that the debate so far has focused on harmonisation rather than on the more important issue of standards. We have focused far too much on how to get policies to converge, rather than on what the policies should be and what the aims of EU-wide policies should be.

Despite the fact that the tone of today's debate has been mainly constructive, I am worried. If the attitude of every EU country is to say, "We want common standards, agreement and harmonisation, but we also want fewer people coming to our country to claim asylum," we will never reach agreement, and no progress will he made. The debate is couched in terms of wanting harmonisation and agreements—bilaterally with France, and perhaps multilaterally involving other countries—but at its root is the desire for fewer people to come to the UK to apply for asylum. If every EU country adopts a similar attitude, we will either get nowhere or end up with a policy that does not work.

I was interested in some of the suggestions of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey about how we might examine the issue of applications made from another country. I strongly agree with the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), although it was greeted with scepticism by some hon. Members. Factors such as knowledge of a particular language, or family connections, or friends who are already asylum seekers or recognised refugees, have a great influence on an asylum seeker who is deciding the appropriate point at which to make an application.

There are so many complex factors of that nature involved in the process that I find it difficult to envisage the "first safe country" concept ever really working, whatever arrangements along the lines of the Dublin agreement are reached. There are those who flee wars and end up in a neighbouring first safe country but when people travel halfway round the world to come to the European Union, I seriously doubt whether a policy based purely on first safe country will achieve the results that some people wish.

Mr. Lansley

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's great experience in these matters but is he not falling into the trap of confusing asylum policy and immigration policy, as if they were not separate matters? At the heart of asylum policy must be the concept that those who seek asylum are genuine refugees. Therefore, the first safe country principle must have a role to play in that when someone has left a place where he is in fear of persecution or risks losing his life, the first safe place that he comes to is a valid country in which to claim asylum, even if it is not his final place of residence.

Mr. Gerrard

I hope that the hon. Gentleman's last couple of words are an acknowledgement that there may be family connections and family ties, which presently are not recognised. I recently met an asylum seeker from Sri Lanka who had been given exceptional leave to remain in the United Kingdom. He has family members who have been given refugee status in Switzerland. However, it is impossible in the EU for that family to come together. That strikes me as ludicrous. Different countries have recognised different members of the same family, but there is no mechanism to bring them together within the EU. We need to go beyond saying that the first safe country is the only thing that matters.

It is highly unlikely that any of us in this place will have to seek asylum. However, if I were in that position, I am not sure that France would be the first country to which I would want to go to live. That is not because I have anything against the French. I would think about language and where I might have a friend or relative whom I might want to reach.

We shall have to consider gateways from other countries. During the Kosovo crisis, the humanitarian evacuation programme brought people who had gone from Kosovo to Macedonia to the UK and other EU countries. But only in major crises have we tried to operate mechanisms to allow approaches through an organisation such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in another country. We must think about such situations if we want seriously to deal with traffickers and cut their routes.

As long as we erect barrier after barrier, someone will always be trying to find their way round them. He or she will try to make money by doing so and bringing in people illegally. I hope that we shall start to think about mechanisms that will allow people from other countries to make applications rather than causing them to try to smuggle themselves through the channel tunnel, for example.

We must remember that the UN convention on refugees does not let us say that we must regard someone as a bogus asylum seeker or failed asylum seeker because he has come to this country illegally. The present position is that it is virtually impossible to come to the UK legally to make an application.

When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary publishes his White Paper, I hope that that will allow us to have a sensible debate on some of the wider issues. The debate must not focus on a narrow bilateral question but consider what happens throughout the EU. We must consider the links between asylum and immigration policy and economic migration. We have started to have that debate today. I hope that we can develop it when the White Paper is published in the same constructive tone that has characterised much of this afternoon's debate.

5.50 pm
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) for rescuing this subject from the comparative obscurity of Westminster Hall, where I raised it early last week, and introducing it in the Chamber, where it is assured of a blaze of publicity and packed Benches—at least for his speech. I am glad that my hon. Friend has done so, and that he adopted a positive and constructive tone which has infected most of the subsequent speeches. There was however a degree of complacency in the Government's response, which is reflected in their amendment.

It is generally accepted that the flow of asylum seekers to this country represents a significant part of a major problem. I do not want to repeat in the Chamber what I said in Westminster Hall, but we must reaffirm what we mean by the problem, which is not about individual asylum seekers. In so far as they are genuine asylum seekers genuinely seeking refuge from persecution elsewhere, Members on both sides of the House endorse and accept our responsibility to take them into this country and give them the security that they need. Even in so far as they are economic migrants who constitute a great proportion of those who come here allegedly seeking asylum, we should respect the fact that they are trying to do their best for their families. They often come from impoverished and troubled countries and, by definition, they have shown themselves to be entrepreneurial and ambitious even to have got here in the first place. As individuals, they could no doubt make a sizeable contribution to this country.

The problem is one of numbers. We cannot be a country of unlimited immigration, and must therefore limit the number of those who come here; we must try simply to meet our obligation to those who are genuine refugees and perhaps, beyond that, those who are given exceptional leave to remain. We must restrict and prohibit entry for those who are not true asylum seekers.

There is plenty of evidence available to all of us that the flow from France is a major part of the problem. There are continual newspaper stories of people being discovered in the back of lorries; people waiting in the Sangatte camp and repeatedly trying to get in; large numbers of people trying to break into the tunnel at Christmas; and gangs trying to rig the signals so that people can get on the trains before they reach the tunnel. All those stories provide qualitative evidence of a sizeable problem. The quantitative evidence, however, is less clear. The Government amendment cites the figures for 2000 and 2001, when 13,500 and 11,000 would-be asylum seekers, respectively, came here illegally from France.

Those figures are puzzling. First, why did the Government just give us figures comparing 2001 with 2000? Our debate is about the situation between 1995 and 1997, and whether we could replicate and reproduce it if we restored the bilateral agreement that obtained then. Will the Minister give us the figures, comparable to those that the Government gave for 2000 and 2001, that applied during 1995, 1996 and 1997? The Government amendment says that there was a 20 per cent. reduction between 2000 and 2001, which is obviously welcome. It then says that the number of clandestine entrants was reduced by 27 per cent. in 2001". Can the Minister tell us the distinction between the number of people crossing illegally into the United Kingdom, which showed a drop of almost 20 per cent., and the number of clandestine entrants, which showed a drop of almost 27 per cent. in 2001? Is there a distinction that we need to know about? We also need to be told whether either category—illegal entrants or clandestine entrants—is the whole story? Do not a number come here legally, then claim asylum? In addition, are there not people who come illegally, but about whom we subsequently know nothing? And are there not people who claim asylum, but we do not know which route they took?

Are there not also dependants of claimants, since the practice is simply to give the number of claims, not the number of people covered by those claims? In addition, are there not people who will subsequently be brought here as dependants of claimants? Once people are given the right to stay here they ask, not surprisingly, whether their dependants can join them. We need to know those figures in more detail if we are to understand the size of the problem constituted by the flow of people from France to this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset rightly pointed to the fact that we had a bilateral agreement between 1995 and 1997. So far as I know, no one denies that it was pretty effective. It may not have been 100 per cent. effective; it did not seal this country hermetically and stop the flow of immigration from France. However, it was effective and gave us the capability to return people either within 24 hours or, if we lodged a statement that we might have difficulty doing so within that period, within seven days. In certain circumstances there was a month's further grace, if I understand the agreement correctly.

If the agreement was effective then, why cannot it be renewed now? A number of reasons have been given by the Minister and the Home Secretary. The first is that France will not agree. But France agreed in 1995 or, to be precise, the agreement was drafted in 1994 and came into force in 1995. France continued to agree, even though it had the right to resile from the agreement with a month's notice. Indeed, it continued to agree with terms that did not lapse when the Dublin convention came into force. Are the Government saying that our influence over our French friends and partners is less now than it was then? Are they saying so despite the fact that, in the interim, they have made many unilateral concessions to our partners in the European Union, including signing up to the Amsterdam treaty, unilaterally agreeing the social chapter, and agreeing with the French to co-sponsor a European rapid reaction force? All those unilateral changes, we were told, would increase our influence and take it to previously unknown heights. If that is the case, why cannot that influence now bring about something that we could achieve in 1994 and 1995?

The Government argue that everything was stopped by the Dublin convention; the agreement was superseded by the convention, so we cannot rely on bilateral agreements any longer. As my hon. Friend pointed out, that is not the case. Germany and Denmark have, subsequent to the Dublin convention, entered into a bilateral arrangement. We are told that Germany is different from France; it is in a different geographical location, which means that, more frequently than France, it is the first place of entry into the community; and more people have made a claim there before making a claim in Denmark. All those things were true in 1995; the relative geography of France and Germany has not changed since 1995, and the arrangements have remained rigidly in place. What was possible in 1995 must surely be possible now.

The Minister has also said that the agreement was not much use because action had to be taken within 24 hours, which has become more difficult. I am glad that some of the difficulties created by the courts have subsequently been overridden by legislation introduced by the Government, which specifies that the courts cannot treat France or Germany as unsafe countries, in the sense given in the Geneva convention. That would make it easier for us automatically to return people within 24 hours if we restored the agreement and renegotiated bilaterally.

I repeat to the Under-Secretary, who has the misfortune of facing me once again, the questions that I put to her in the previous debate and which she did not answer. Have the Government tried to renegotiate the bilateral agreement? If so, when, where, with whom and on what terms? Why was it refused? As all of us are more interested in the future than in the past, an even more important question is whether the Government will try in future.

The Home Secretary made the legitimate point that the French are facing elections and that, in the immediate run-up to an election, it is more difficult to get an agreement with them. That may or may not be true, but may we at least have an assurance that once those elections are out of the way, the Government will not rule out trying once again to resume the bilateral arrangement with the French, or something like it?

A characteristically thoughtful and even more characteristically lengthy and unfocused speech from the Liberal Democrat Benches failed to address the question whether there should be a bilateral agreement. When pressed on the point by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the view of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) was that there was no point. If we sent people back, they would keep trying to enter the country, so we might as well let them in in the first place. That was the logic of the hon. Gentleman's position.

That highlights an important point. We must ask why the United Kingdom is so attractive to so many people who, having got to France—a country which I love and in which I would willingly spend more time, if the House would allow me—do not want to stay there, but want to come to this country. Theoretically, under the terms of the Geneva convention and the obligation of those seeking asylum to seek it in the first safe country to which they come, the United Kingdom should, for that reason and because it is an island, probably have the smallest flow of asylum seekers of any major country in Europe. Instead, it has the highest proportion of asylum seekers per head of any major country, though not as high as some smaller countries, such as Ireland—that is even more strange, as reaching it requires crossing two stretches of water—and Denmark.

Why, then, is the UK so attractive? It is not just language; it is not just the generosity of our benefits. I have made it clear in the past that our benefit levels are not supremely generous, compared with those often available on the continent. It is not just because jobs are relatively available in the UK, although that obviously is a factor. When one asks asylum seekers, they say, and all the surveys show, that it is because they know that when they get to this country, they face the least likelihood of being returned to their country of origin.

That is demonstrated by figures quoted in one of the court cases, which was held to prove that France was not a safe country and the UK was. Five per cent. of claimants who come to the UK seeking asylum from Algeria are returned to Algeria, and 80 per cent. of those from Algeria seeking asylum in France are returned to Algeria. There is a great disparity between the likelihood of their being returned once they get to the UK, and the likelihood of their being returned from other countries.

That has not come about intentionally or wilfully. The House did not decide to make this the most attractive country in Europe for economic migrants. It has come about by accident, because we moved from a system that was essentially administrative to one which was put in the hands of the courts. In so doing, we have effectively extended to every inhabitant of the globe who can find his way to these shores the right, once he has done so, not just to seek asylum, but during the period of seeking asylum, to obtain benefits; after six months, to obtain a job; after refusal, to appeal; after the appeal being turned down, to seek a judicial review; and after the judicial review failing, to seek remedy under the Human Rights Act. By that time the person will have been here so long that he will have put down roots in this country, become part of the community, perhaps have married and probably have had children.

The people who come to my surgery expressing generally racist views about asylum seekers one day will come the next day about Mohammed who lives next door, whom they want to stay because he has been here five years already, he is part of the community and a member of the parent-teacher association, his children go to the same school as their own, they like him, he is a good chap, and they worship in the same church, or whatever. They are right, of course. It would be inhumane to send such people back, and it becomes increasingly inhumane the longer they have stayed in this country and the deeper their roots are.

Effectively, we have created a system for ourselves under which we cannot send people back because the whole process takes too long. They know it, so they come here and will go to great lengths to come here, including running great risks and facing great dangers to do so, because once here, they are pretty confident that they will not have to return.

We know, although no one expresses it with as much bluntness as I perhaps can, now that I am on the Back Benches, that there are only two ways to solve the problem. One is to make the UK a less attractive place for economic migrants and asylum seekers to stay. The other is to make it a more difficult place for people to stay.

The options for making the UK less attractive include those which apply in the period during which people may not take a job—the experiment tried by the previous Home Secretary and scrapped by the present Home Secretary to introduce voucher payments instead of benefits, and the changes that I introduced to the benefits system, which meant that if people had entered the country with a visa, to get which they had had to convince the visa authorities that they had the means to support themselves, they would not be entitled to benefits.

All those measures were designed to make the UK a less pleasant place for asylum seekers to be. On the whole, I would prefer not to rely on such methods, even though I was responsible for one of those that I mentioned. I would prefer to make it legally more difficult for people to exploit all the loopholes in our legal system to stay in the UK when they are essentially economic migrants, not asylum seekers.

Bob Russell

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the Home Office figures which show that people born outside the UK, including asylum seekers, contribute 10 per cent. more to the economy in taxes and national insurance than they consume in benefits, which is worth about £2.5 billion a year to the British economy?

Mr. Lilley

I will not comment on the figures, most of which are pretty dubious, but I accept the hon. Gentleman's general point, which I made earlier. As individuals, not just genuine asylum seekers but economic migrants can make a positive contribution to this country. However, I do not believe, and I should be interested to know whether the hon. Gentleman and his party believe, that we can open up the country to unlimited immigration. We cannot—there must be some restriction.

The number of asylum seekers coming to the UK last year approached 100,000, taking into account their dependants. The vast majority will stay, under our present arrangements. That equates to the population of my constituency. It means that every year we will have to house the equivalent of the population of my constituency. One of the great issues in my constituency is the constraint on housing and building in the green belt. I would be hypocritical in the extreme if I said that all those people should be allowed to come into the country as they would make a wonderful contribution to the economy, but that we would not provide extra houses for them, or extra towns or settlements.

We cannot have it both ways. Not being a Liberal Democrat, I will not even try to have it both ways. We must accept that we have to make this country less pleasant in terms of the magnets of attraction, or less easy for people to stay in by exploiting legal loopholes. We need to review the way in which the Geneva convention has been enshrined in law, rather than the process of dealing with asylum seekers being essentially an administrative one, relying on a judgment of officials which will inevitably prove fallible and difficult.

The reason is that, ultimately, the courts cannot, while meeting the usual standards that we require of them, assess what happened in a distant country on the basis of evidence supplied by the people who are coming here. It is nonsense to suggest that we can prove beyond reasonable doubt that such people have no case or that they can prove beyond reasonable doubt that they have a strong case. An assessment must be made as to whether they are genuine asylum seekers, but ultimately it cannot be made to the normal, rigorous standards that would apply in the court in relation to events that happened in this country.

We must also realise that the process of dealing with asylum seekers has specific problems. I had to look into the matter in some detail when I was Secretary of State for Social Security. My right hon. Friend the then Home Secretary and I conducted an analysis—it was carried out by my officials and his—of the whole process. We established that there was a series of bottlenecks, arising in respect of initial asylum applications, appeals, judicial reviews, further appeals and deportation and removal orders. All the effort of the bureaucracy tends to be spent on widening the bottlenecks that are already widest, but as anyone who has ever understood process engineering will know, that is the wrong way of going about things. One should try to widen the narrowest bottleneck first. In this case, that is the process of removal and deportation. Until we enhance and speed up that process and reduce the length of the pipeline—the period between an initial claim and liability for deportation and removal—we will not solve that problem, or at least we would be able do so only by taking the less humane approach of making this country less attractive for people to live in. I do not think anybody in the House would like to do that.

I hope that the Government will take the small step that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset pressed upon them so eloquently and endeavour to renew the bilateral agreement. In the longer term, I hope that they will look to see whether we need more fundamental changes in the process and the legal structures through which we handle the asylum problem, if we are to gain some control of it in future.

6.12 pm
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I welcome this very reasonable-sounding debate. I hope it is a sign that the approach that the Opposition adopted on asylum during the election campaign—certainly in my constituency—is now behind them. The issue was used to create fear among residents in an attempt to generate support for the Conservatives, but I am glad to say that it was unsuccessful, and I hope that such tawdry exploitation of people's genuine anxieties about the way in which asylum is administered will be a thing of the past.

I also hope that the positive tone of the debate reflects a recognition that such discussion cannot be based on the assumption that the presence of one extra asylum seeker is inevitably a problem. Such assumptions have always damaged the debate on asylum and immigration in Britain. Let us not forget that Einstein was a refugee, or that many of the most entrepreneurial and dynamic communities in Britain started their lives here as refugee communities and have contributed hugely to Britain's success and international reputation in many different fields. We should celebrate that. The tolerant character of this country in welcoming people who flee persecution is one of our great strengths, and we should be proud of it.

I fear that, in trying to present itself as being very reasonable, the Conservative party is portraying an issue that I think of as a matchbox lid as a vast set of gates comparable to those at St. Stephen's entrance. Although better bilateral arrangements with France could make some difference to the number of people seeking access to Britain to claim asylum, let us not pretend that it would make a huge difference. Such an assumption would once again contribute to the sort of misinformation that has dogged debates on asylum.

What would most improve the situation in terms of the numbers of applicants and of the way in which we deal with asylum applications? The answer is pretty straightforward. More than anything else, we must improve the speed and integrity of the current system. I know that the one-stop appeal introduced under the most recent legislation was an attempt to reduce delays, but it was established on top of a failing administrative system. The current delays benefit only bogus applicants. Some people are making bogus claims, and are aware that they are doing so. It is they who benefit hugely from bad administration, lost files and delays. We must remind ourselves constantly that that is the case. I hope that in his statement later this week my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will make proposals that put speed, efficiency and integrity back into the asylum system.

I was both depressed and amused to hear the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) tell the Minister about an Afghan who had sought asylum in his constituency in 1999 but had received no decision. I felt like sending a note to my office asking for details of a bunch of cases in which people have been here for a decade without receiving a decision. I promise hon. Members that it is possible to find such cases. Before this debate, I looked at the cases of the people who have come to see me in the past week about asylum claims, as well as the letters that I have received in that time. One letter from the Minister said that I was slightly wrong in connection with a point that I had made to her about a constituent who has been served with a notice of decision. I was glad to receive the letter, but in the meantime another development had occurred. I had been trying to ensure that my constituent's case was considered with her husband's. That did not happen. Her husband was given asylum and she was again refused it in the letter with which she has now been properly served.

Similar examples of failure in the administrative system are common. At my advice surgery on Friday, I spoke to a Sri Lankan family who appealed in May 1997, before I was elected as Member of Parliament for Slough. Their decision was received in June 1998, so it took more than a year for it to be promulgated. It gave them asylum. The husband received his status letter confirming the decision in July 2000, but his wife and children have still not had that notification, even though I have been re-elected in the meantime. Those examples are not extreme—I picked them because they were recent—but they illustrate problems that have developed over time and that are so serious that they in turn create new problems.

A properly administered decision-making system is more important than an agreement with France. Expert decision makers should operate early in the system, thus leading to fewer stupid decisions, such as refusals because of out-of-time returns of applications, to which other hon. Members have referred. The quality of initial decisions should be good so that adjudicators do not overturn so many decisions. The system should enable us to recognise genuine refugees early and reduce delays for them.

Mr. Letwin

Does the hon. Lady share our hope that the forthcoming White Paper will propose to include in accommodation centres, or even reception centres, a full suite of the experts, ranging from doctors and lawyers to decision makers and adjudicators, who are required to make on-the-spot, effective decisions, for the sake of those who try to get into the country because of dire circumstances?

Fiona Mactaggart

If the hon. Gentleman reads the question that I asked when the Home Secretary made a statement several months ago, he will realise that I made the point that there should be proper advice in reception centres. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend make the same point in Question Time today. I am not sure whether adjudicators are needed in reception centres, but expert advice is required to enable people to present their best case. Adjudication is not necessary in the first week, but we need to ensure that people can present the best case and that the decision makers have sufficient training, autonomy and sense to make the best decisions.

In addition, I hope that the White Paper will include proposals for good-quality documentation about countries' circumstances that is accepted by those who represent asylum seekers and Home Office decision makers. Such a provision exists in Canada, where both sides accept documentation about countries' circumstances. That means fewer arguments about whether a country from which people have fled is safe because both sides depend on internationally recognised, independent human rights monitors, which gets rid of some confusion. It is important to include the right people early.

Let us consider the proposition that a bilateral agreement will make a substantial difference to the number of people who seek asylum in Britain after travelling from France. There is a chronic problem about knowing through which countries people have travelled, and it will not go away for two reasons. First, many people travel in sealed containers; sometimes that has tragically led to their deaths. Secondly, some people believe that admitting through which countries they have travelled is likely to lead to their being returned to a place where they have a well-founded fear of persecution. We must deal with that in the long term; I accept that it is difficult in the short term, but we must do it.

The necessary changes involve not only a bilateral agreement between Britain and France, about which I do not feel optimistic, but a better agreement between European countries about common procedures for dealing with asylum applications. It is currently possible for France to remove those who have not applied for any status: the people at Sangatte. The French authorities choose neither to remove them nor to require them to apply for asylum, although they know that the people in Sangatte are seeking refuge.

If the French authorities held the positive views that Conservative Members are slightly overstating, they could adopt a simple method of tackling the problem. They could require those who reside in Sangatte to make asylum applications. They do not, partly because the people there do not want to do that. However, such a requirement would have the same effect as a bilateral arrangement. I accept the Home Secretary's points, but one of the sensible requests that we could make to the French Government would be to encourage the people in Sangatte to make asylum applications.

If the Dublin II arrangements were implemented, the people in Sangatte would have to make an application to France within two months, or, if they remained for two months, France would become responsible for them. We must acknowledge that France has not always honoured agreements to the extent that is being suggested. I was involved in immigration in the period when, according to Conservative Members, a bilateral arrangement worked perfectly. On many occasions, France did not accept people whom Britain attempted to return under it. I can also think of current examples of France unilaterally repudiating agreements. For example, it continues to refuse to recognise United Kingdom-issued stateless travel documents for people with exceptional leave to remain.

The tenor of the debate has been of people preferring to remain in Britain rather than France, but let us be clear that France operates as I described. The French authorities refuse to allow people with refugee travel documents and refugee status here to visit France without visas. We should not become too confident that France is enthusiastic about a bilateral agreement or that it would abide by it.

We will solve the problem not only by improving our systems and making bilateral agreements with France but by working energetically for full harmonisation throughout the European Union on the definition of a refugee and the process that people undergo to determine their status. I appreciate that we cannot do that in months, and it is not therefore the short-term solution that the Conservative party wants. However, it is necessary because the minor differences between EU countries' methods of deciding applications often determine the places to which people choose to apply. People do not apply to Britain simply because there are more jobs here; they feel fearful about some countries' treatment of them. There is no reason for not achieving an EU agreement on interpreting the convention and proper procedures for dealing with applicants.

There are stumbling blocks, such as Germany's refusal to accept oppression by groups and forced marriages as grounds for refugee status, but working on EU agreement is important. If we put a lot of energy into that, we would be able to create a genuinely level playing field in the system to define who is a refugee within the European Union, and then we could work towards equality in procedures for granting and refusing status, reception conditions and so on. That must be the Government's priority.

The final line of the amendment reminds us of the difficult situation that the Conservative party put many local authorities in through its chaotic arrangements. Some authorities are still suffering from that, and I urge the Minister to ensure that there is fair treatment for local authorities close to London that are still burdened with high costs because they have to provide for large numbers of asylum seekers.

6.31 pm
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to a debate in which some very important points have been made. I was surprised that, in responding to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the Home Secretary did not tell us more about what is being done to try to achieve an effective border control between ourselves and France.

The Home Secretary was in France on 19 September last year and spoke about the juxtaposition of different regimes and the introduction of new equipment to try to improve the detection of people attempting to enter illegally. It would have been a service to the House if he had given us some more detail on that. Perhaps the Minister will do that; otherwise, a few months on from 19 September, people will still be in the dark about the effectiveness of those new technologies.

Some of the more aggressive attempts to get into the tunnel and on to the trains may in fact be the result of successful new measures, and people should be made aware of that. One of the things that I would like this debate to achieve is to deny the Daily Express a headline. If we can add to public information and show that there is a system in place to try to deliver effective border control, that will be all to the good.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) spoke about the Government's failure to secure bilateral agreement with France. I offer him a suggestion as to why it did not happen. Back in February 2001, the Prime Minister had a discussion with President Chirac about these issues. The principal result was that the French Government offered the Prime Minister a cross-channel commission. The French Government have noticed that a commission—rather than the delivery of substantive measures—is our Government's solution to most problems, so it is hardly a surprise that they offered him rhetoric and a procedural solution, rather than a substantive one.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) asked about juxtaposed immigration officials. That was reasonable, and not at all churlish, because back in February 2001, when the decision was being made, Downing street said, according to the BBC, that the scheme would be in place by summer 2001—so where is it?

We should have an agreement with France. It is perfectly clear that such an agreement was relatively successful in the past but fell down under the implementation of the Dublin convention. The French Government simply cannot abandon their responsibility. People who have entered a Schengen country, which is where they should have made their asylum application, and who are illegally in France are seeking to come illegally to the UK. France has a moral, if not a legal, obligation under the Dublin convention to do something about it. It should work with the Schengen group and the British Government to deliver. Dublin II is a lengthy process, and something needs to be done in the meantime.

The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said that the most important thing was to deliver an efficient and quick system of asylum decision making that has integrity. I entirely agree, but frankly that is not separate from the problems in France. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said, the fact that our system has not been effective and we have not been able to offer asylum rapidly to genuine refugees, while those without a valid claim remain here with no realistic prospect of removal, has led to the problem of large numbers of people in France making repeated efforts to get here, because the reward is seen as worth the risk. We must reduce the reward for illegal entry into this country and ensure that only those with a well-founded fear of persecution seek asylum here.

At the heart of that is whether the Government can deliver on their promises. I acknowledge that many more caseworkers have been taken on—finally, last year—but we need to know how quickly the Government will start reducing the backlog not only of initial decisions but of appeals. On 29 October last year, the Home Secretary promised us 6,000 appeal decisions a month. How quickly will we achieve that and the 2,500 removals a month which, as I understand it, he promised would be delivered by spring 2002? How soon will we be able to establish in our own minds and the minds of those who might wish to come to this country that we understand the difference between those who have a claim to asylum and those who want to come here on grounds of economic migration?

We must distinguish between the two, although that does not mean that we put up a "Closed" sign and refuse to allow anyone to come here on economic grounds. I hope that the White Paper will set out a reasonable basis for offering economic migration to the UK, because that can be of considerable benefit to us. This country spent a couple of hundred years in the 18th and 19th centuries exporting people to various parts of the world, so we ought at least to understand that there might be occasions when it is reasonable for people to come here.

We need to have a system whereby those with a reasonable claim to asylum have a confident expectation of securing a welcome here, with good accommodation, delivered through a quick system of decision making, while those who want to come here as economic migrants know that it is far better to put in a claim from their country of origin or, if they have left countries such as Afghanistan or Somaliland, that they will be part of an international system of sharing the burden of looking after such migrants, and that if they have a special reason for wanting to come to the United Kingdom, we will acknowledge it.

Those who put themselves in the hands of the traffickers should be increasingly sure that illegal entry to the United Kingdom will be prevented or reversed, and they will be rapidly returned to their country of origin. If people knew that trying to secure illegal entry here would not pay, we would have a much more successful system. That is what my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset put to Ministers. My debate in Westminster Hall on 24 October 2000 was designed to secure answers to the same questions, and it took the Home Secretary only five days to respond in large measure to that. I hope that the Government will respond positively today.

6.39 pm
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)

This has been a thoughtful and constructive debate. Measured contributions have been made in a non-party political way from all parts of the House, and we should all be grateful for that. I begin by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who introduced this topic in what might in sporting terms be described as a warm-up match in Westminster Hall the other day.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle)

The second XI?

Mr. Malins

Is the hon. Lady talking about her own side? Surely not.

Some of the players in that debate are here again today. I was grateful for the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who has great experience in home affairs. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) made a thoughtful and well-argued speech, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden outlined many of the issues that we raised together in Westminster Hall last week. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)—decided that after last week, I was not to have a quiet afternoon today but would have to do the same thing again—for the constructive way in which he put our arguments to the House.

I hope that I shall be forgiven, Madam Deputy Speaker, for reminding the House that in 1992 I was privileged to found the Immigration Advisory Service, the largest national charity that gives free legal help and advice to those with rights of appeal under immigration law. It does excellent work throughout the country, and I am proud of my association with it. As the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said, expert advice for asylum seekers is important, and the IAS is one of the bodies that provides it.

We would all agree with the proposition that any country with decent values—I am thankful to say that we remain such a country—must speedily and happily grant refugee status to those who are entitled to it. Further, we must display not just good sense but humanity, not only in what we do but in what we say—and, most important, in the way we say it. That point was reinforced by the hon. Members for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard).

Twenty years ago, or even 10, asylum was not a political issue in this country. Today it is. Why? Perhaps the answer is simple. It is because of the dramatic increase in the number of applications, and the publicity, some of it rather inflammatory, given to the topic by the media and others.

The world has changed. Today millions of people are on the move: many are displaced by conflicts and war, but many are simply seeking a better life. We are witnessing a steady march of genuine asylum seekers from war-torn areas and regimes that persecute—but there is also a steady march of the poor and desperate, who seek no more than the chance to work, to live decently and to support their families. Both those categories of people deserve our respect—and, I venture to suggest, our help.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) referred in an intervention to the appalling criminal gangs that smuggle people into this country—and there is, of course, another date that should be impressed on all our minds: 19 June 2000, when 58 Chinese people were found dead, suffocated, in the back of a lorry at Dover. Yes, they were illegal immigrants, but we should never forget—I am sure that none of us, on either side of the House, will ever forget—that they were also ordinary people who sought no more than a better life, to which who would say that they were not entitled?

A glance at the figures illustrates the changed world in which we live. In 1990 there were 26,000 asylum applications; in 2000 there were more than 97,000, including dependants. There is also the backlog. I cast no blame for this, but in August 2001 more than 43,000 applicants were awaiting an initial decision. We were—and still are—faced with the sadness that several Members have referred to when people are refused asylum and have to leave this country having been here for months, even years. Those people have put down roots, and many of us have seen in our surgeries the human tragedies that sometimes result.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset rightly drew the attention of the House to the bilateral agreement that we had with France. As he said, it worked well for two years and would work well again. The Opposition support without reservation my hon. Friend's call for the Government to do their utmost to reinstate that agreement. The hon. Member for Slough suggested that we were saying that that would be a short-term solution, but we were not. I do not think that any of us thinks of it as a solution; it is simply one step that we could and should take, for the benefit of all concerned.

In the Westminster Hall debate last week I tried, not forcefully but in a rather laid-back way, to press the Minister to tell us what the Government had done over the past four years to try to persuade France to reinstate the agreement that had worked so well. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden would agree that the Minister could not tell us much. She spoke of the considerable bilateral work with France, centring mainly on the Sangatte issue", and when pressed further she simply said that the two Governments meet regularly to discuss immigration issues."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 29 January 2002; Vol. 379, c. 19WH.] I hope that when she winds up the debate she will be able to tell us in more detail what the Government have done over the past four years to try to reinstate the agreement.

France has co-operated well. I hope he will forgive me if I am wrong, but I think it was the Home Secretary who mentioned the French legislation which means that passengers using an international train service with a domestic leg—Paris to the UK via Calais, say—have to submit to UK entry controls in Paris. I congratulate the Government on the work that they have done with the French in that respect, and I believe that that law comes into force either yesterday, today or tomorrow. Such co-operation is important, and should be repeated with the bilateral agreement.

I must say a word or two about Sangatte. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, spoke movingly and accurately about the state of affairs there. When I visited Sangatte with the Home Affairs Committee, I saw almost 1,000 people herded together in what seemed like an aircraft hangar, gathered to make their attempt to enter this country. They were in a sorry state; it was cold, nasty and damp, people were cramped together, and the lavatory conditions were awful. Nobody on that all-party Committee could have failed to be moved by what we saw.

We saw thousands of people who had passed through a series of safe countries and arrived in France, which is itself a safe country. The obvious question to ask is, if they were asylum seekers, why did they not make their claim—indeed, why were they not obliged to make their claim—in the first safe country they reached, or in France itself? If they were not asylum seekers, what was being done to prevent their attempts to enter this country illegally?

I ask the Government to do all that can be done to persuade the French to close Sangatte—on humanitarian grounds, if for no other reason. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, perhaps there is an argument for centres to be further away from the French coast. I was sorry to read in the papers that an attempt by Eurotunnel to have the centre closed was rejected a few days ago by a French court, for the second time in about five months.

What advice can the Opposition offer the Government? I simply ask them, "Please do all you can to work closely with the French to reinstate the bilateral agreement that served us so well, and also work hard to ensure that Sangatte is closed." I also make the nuts-and-bolts point that they should put more detection equipment not only at Dover but at Felixstowe, and at Coquelles and Calais. There should be more equipment on the other side of the channel, where it would be so much more use.

The Opposition believe that the House is united in the aim of reducing the inflow of asylum applicants, and is also committed to a more equal distribution. We believe that a reinstated bilateral agreement is a most useful measure. Perhaps the issue that divides us is the Government's belief that a long-term, EU-wide distributional treaty is the whole answer, but we both accept that there is merit in the other's principle. All we say to the Government is that now is the time to act. With good will, the bilateral agreement, which could—and should—bring more order to our system, could be reinstated within months. Whatever we do, sooner rather than later we must adopt a policy that ensures that the tragedy of the 58 Chinese can never be repeated.

6.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle)

There has been considerable agreement during the debate on what needs to be done to address the problem of those who seek asylum in particular European Union countries. There has also been a great deal of discussion of wider asylum issues, to which we will be able to respond when the White Paper is published. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House mentioned the need to consider end-to-end processes and a more holistic system, rather than relying purely on asylum. Reference has also been made to illegal working and establishing international agreements to deal with this evolving issue, and I can assure right hon. and hon. Members that the White Paper contains such analysis. I hope that its suggestions will be welcomed on publication later this week.

I also welcome the tone of the debate, which has established at least one thing that we can all agree on—that the problem cannot be solved purely by unilateral action in the UK. This is a global issue with international and supranational aspects, and we need to co-operate internationally if we are to defeat the scourge of the people traffickers. While listening to today's debate, I was heartened to hear many hon. Members acknowledge that trade's criminal nature, its growth in recent years and its dire effects on those who fall into the clutches of the people traffickers. Again, the White Paper will have something to say about that.

I must, however, move away slightly from the warm glow of the cross-party approach, because I do not agree with the analysis that the bilateral agreement was a sunny upland that we should look back on nostalgically and attempt to repeat. Actually, it did not work very well, and I should chide the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) slightly for his article in today's Daily Express, the tone of which does not quite match his comments in the House today. In it, he states: the flow of people crossing the Channel from France reached unsustainable levels and brought our asylum system to its knees". That is not true. Although there have been increases, our bilateral and co-operative agreements with the French have substantially reduced the numbers getting through, which is one reason why Sangatte is holding double the amount of people that it was designed to hold.

The hon. Gentleman's article also suggests that the bilateral agreement—was called a gentleman's agreement, funnily enough—worked well. I can give him some figures on how well it worked. His article states that, when the Labour Government took office, the lower figure that was achieved under the bilateral agreement increased to as many as 43,000, and it implies that all of that increase was associated with France. However, in 1996, when the gentleman's agreement was in place, his Government returned numbers of people in the low teens every month. Overall, between 150 and 200 people were returned in 1996. The figures improved slightly in 1996–97, when 516 asylum seekers were returned to France under the terms of the bilateral agreement. Those figures are nowhere near being of the kind that his praise of the agreement would imply.

The plain fact is that the agreement was weakened and rendered even less effective by judicial action and suspensive appeals as soon as it came into force. It took longer for an appeal to a judicial authority to establish that a return was sensible than the 24 hours, seven days or one month that the agreement specified. As a result, there were an increasing number of judicial review challenges. Even after the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 and just before the end of the agreement, the monthly removal rate was 43 a month, but there were 127 judicial reviews. The agreement was faltering before it was superseded.

Mr. Letwin

We have acknowledged during this debate that the judicial review caused difficulties, but have not the actions of the Minister's own Government rightly limited the scope for such reviews? Surely the real measure of the bilateral agreement's effectiveness is not how many were returned, but how many were deterred from moving in that direction in the first place.

Angela Eagle

Deterrence is a major theme in the forthcoming White Paper, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome some of the things that we have to say about that issue. I am merely saying that the gentleman's agreement was probably put in place in the absence of the Dublin convention, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) rightly pointed out, was not brought into effect until seven years after it was negotiated because of difficulties arising from negotiation. To say that the gentleman's agreement would solve all our problems is therefore simplistic, to say the least. Any agreement that we reach, be it Dublin or Dublin II—which we hope will replace the first convention—will always be challenged by changes in behaviour that result from its coming into force.

In his Daily Express article, the hon. Gentleman says that the agreement, which was negotiated by the previous Conservative Government, was allowed to lapse when … Labour came to power". I shall read to him the last sentence of the first paragraph of that agreement, which states: in relation to asylum seekers, it"— the gentleman's agreement— shall be superseded by the relevant provisions of the Dublin Convention once that Convention has entered into force. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to point that out to the House, but that is not quite what his Daily Express article says.

If we are to debate this issue, we need to get the facts on the table. We must not cling to the gentleman's agreement as if it will solve problems that we have spent three hours debating today, and which we all know are very difficult to solve. There are no simple and easy answers to global migration and the question of how to deal with asylum. I would be the last to say that our systems are perfect. The White Paper will be a substantial step in the right direction, but I am not going to argue that, even if the White Paper's proposals were put in place tomorrow, we would not face substantial difficulties in dealing with global migration. We have to deal with the issue at source country. We have to negotiate bilateral and multilateral agreements, where that is necessary, that we can put in place. It has to be in everyone's interests, however, so burden-sharing in the European Union is an important part of our plans.

I am glad to have had the chance to debate this. It has been a fair and interesting debate, and I hope that it is a taster for what is to come with the publication of the White Paper later in the week.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 138, Noes 325.

Division No. 151] [7 pm
Amess, David Grayling, Chris
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Green, Damian (Ashford)
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Greenway, John
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Grieve, Dominic
Bacon, Richard Gummer, Rt Hon John
Baldry, Tony Hague, Rt Hon William
Barker, Gregory Hawkins, Nick
Baron, John Hayes, John
Bercow, John Heald, Oliver
Beresford, Sir Paul Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Boswell, Tim Hendry, Charles
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Hoban, Mark
Brady, Graham Horam, John
Brazier, Julian Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Browning, Mrs Angela Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Burnside, David Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Butterfill, John Jenkin, Bernard
Cameron, David Johnson, Boris (Henley)
Cash, William Key, Robert
Chapman, Sir Sydney(Chipping Barnet) Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Knight, Rt Hon Greg (E Yorkshire)
Chope, Christopher Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Clappison, James Lansley, Andrew
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Leigh, Edward
Collins, Tim Letwin, Oliver
Conway, Derek Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Cormack, Sir Patrick Liddell-Grainger, Ian
Cran, James Lidington, David
Curry, Rt Hon David Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) McIntosh, Miss Anne
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Djanogly, Jonathan Maclean, Rt Hon David
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen McLoughlin, Patrick
Duncan, Alan (Rutland & Melton) Malins, Humfrey
Duncan, Peter (Galloway) Maples, John
Duncan Smith, Rt Hon lain Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Fabricant, Michael Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Fallon, Michael May, Mrs Theresa
Reid, Mark (Cities of London) Mercer, Patrick
Flight, Howard Mitchell, Andrew (Sutton Coldfield)
Rook, Adrian Moss, Malcolm
Fox, Dr Liam Murrison, Dr Andrew
Francois, Mark O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Gale, Roger Osbome, George (Tatton)
Garnier, Edward Ottaway, Richard
Gibb, Nick Page, Richard
Goodman, Paul Paice, James
Gray, James Paterson, Owen
Pickles, Eric Swire, Hugo
Portillo, Rt Hon Michael Syms, Robert
Prisk, Mark Tapsell, Sir Peter
Redwood, Rt Hon John Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Robathan, Andrew Taylor, John (Solihull)
Robertson, Hugh (Faversham) Taylor, Sir Teddy
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry) Tredinnick, David
Roe, Mrs Marion Turner, Andrew (Isle of Wight)
Ruffley, David Tyrie, Andrew
Sayeed, Jonathan Viggers, Peter
Selous, Andrew Waterson, Nigel
Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian Watkinson, Angela
Whittingdale, John
Simmonds, Mark Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk) Wiggin Bill
Soames, Nicholas Willetts David
Spelman, Mrs Caroline Wilshire, David
Spicer, Sir Michael Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Spink, Bob Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Spring, Richard Yeo, Tim
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Steen, Anthony Tellers for the Ayes:
Streeter, Gary Mrs. Cheryl Gillan and
Swayne, Desmond Mr.John Randall.
Ainger, Nick Caton, Martin
Ainsworth, Bob (Cov'try NE) Cawsey, Ian
Allan, Richard Challen, Colin
Allen, Graham Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Anderson, Rt Hon Donald Chaytor, David
(Swansea E) Clapham, Michael
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Clark, Mrs Helen (Peterborough)
Atherton, Ms Candy Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Atkins, Charlotte Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Austin, John Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Bailey, Adrian Clelland, David
Baird, Vera Clwyd, Ann
Baker, Norman Coaker, Vernon
Banks, Tony Coffey, Ms Ann
Barnes, Harry Cohen, Harry
Barron, Kevin Coleman, Iain
Battle, John Colman, Tony
Bayley, Hugh Cooper, Yvette
Beard, Nigel Corbyn, Jeremy
Begg, Miss Anne Corston, Jean
Beith, Rt Hon A J Cotter, Brian
Benn, Hilary Cruddas, Jon
Bennett, Andrew Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Benton, Joe Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Berry, Roger Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack
Best, Harold (Copeland)
Blackman, Liz Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Blizzard, Bob Cunningham, Tony (Workington)
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Borrow, David Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Bradley, Rt Hon Keith (Withington) Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Bradshaw, Ben David, Wayne
Breed, Colin Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Brooke, Mrs Annette L Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Brown, Rt Hon Nicholas Dawson, Hilton
(Newcastle E & Wallsend) Dean, Mrs Janet
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Denham, Rt Hon John
Buck, Ms Karen Dhanda, Parmjit
Burden, Richard Dismore, Andrew
Burgon, Colin Dobbin, Jim
Burnham, Andy Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Burstow, Paul Donohoe, Brian H
Byers, Rt Hon Stephen Doran, Frank
Cairns, David Dowd, Jim
Calton, Mrs Patsy Drew, David
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Drown, Ms Julia
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
(NE Fife) Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Carmichael, Alistair Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Casale, Roger Efford, Clive
Ellman, Mrs Louise Khabra, Piara S
Ennis, Jeff Kidney, David
Farrelly, Paul Kilfoyle, Peter
Field, Rt Hon Frank (Birkenhead) King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Fisher, Mark King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Fitzpatrick, Jim Kirkwood, Archy
Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna Kumar, Dr Ashok
Flint, Caroline Lammy, David
Flynn, Paul Laws, David
Follett, Barbara Laxton, Bob
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Lazarowicz, Mark
Foster, Michael (Worcester) Leslie, Christopher
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Levitt, Tom
Foulkes, George Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Francis, Dr Hywel Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
Galloway, George Linton, Martin
Gapes, Mike Llwyd, Elfyn
Gardiner, Barry Love, Andrew
Gerrard, Neil Lucas, Ian
Gibson, Dr lan Luke, Iain
Gilroy, Linda McAvoy, Thomas
Godsiff, Roger McCabe, Stephen
Goggins, Paul McCartney, Rt Hon lan
Green, Matthew (Ludlow) McDonagh, Siobhain
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) MacDonald, Calum
Grogan, John MacDougall, John
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) McFall, John
Hamilton, David (Midlothian) McGuire, Mrs Anne
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) McIsaac, Shona
Hanson, David McKechin, Ann
Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet Mackinlay, Andrew
Harris, Dr Evan (Oxford W) McNulty, Tony
Harris, Tom (Glasgow Cathcart) Mactaggart, Fiona
Harvey, Nick McWalter, Tony
Havard, Dai McWilliam, John
Healey, John Mahmood, Khalid
Heath, David Mahon, Mrs Alice
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Mallaber, Judy
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Mann, John
Hendrick, Mark Marris, Rob
Hepburn, Stephen Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Heppell, John Martlew, Eric
Hermon, Lady Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Hesford, Stephen Michael, Rt Hon Alun
Hill, Keith Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Hinchliffe, David Miliband, David
Hodge, Margaret Miller, Andrew
Hoey, Kate Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Holmes, Paul Moffatt, Laura
Hope, Phil Mole, Chris
Hopkins, Kelvin Moonie, Dr Lewis
Howarth, Rt Hon Alan (Newport E) Moran, Margaret
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Mudie, George
Howells, Dr Kim Mullin, Chris
Hoyle, Lindsay Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Hughes, Beverley (Stretford) Naysmith, Dr Doug
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Humble, Mrs Joan O'Hara, Edward
Hurst, Alan Olner, Bill
Hutton, Rt Hon John O'Neill, Martin
Iddon, Dr Brian Organ, Diana
Illsley, Eric Owen, Albert
Jackson, Glenda (Hampstead) Palmer, Dr Nick
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Pearson, Ian
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) Perham, Linda
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Pickthall, Colin
Jones, Lynne (Selly Oak) Pike, Peter
Jowell, Rt Hon Tessa Plaskitt, James
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Pollard, Kerry
Keeble, Ms Sally Pond, Chris
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Pope, Greg
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Kemp, Fraser Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles Prescott, Rt Hon John
(Ross Skye & Inverness W) Price, Adam
Primarolo, Dawn Stuart, Ms Gisela
Prosser, Gwyn Stunell, Andrew
Purnell, James Taylor, Rt Hon Ann (Dewsbury)
Quin, Rt Hon Joyce Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Quinn, Lawrie Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Reed, Andy (Loughborough) Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Rendel, David Thurso, John
Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW) Todd, Mark
Roche, Mrs Barbara Touhig, Don
Rooney, Terry Truswell, Paul
Ross, Ernie Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Ruddock, Joan Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Ryan, Joan Tyler, Paul
Salter, Martin Tynan, Bill
Sanders, Adrian Walley, Ms Joan
Sarwar, Mohammad Ward, Ms Claire
Savidge, Malcolm Wareing, Robert N
Sawford, Phil Watts, David
Sedgemore, Brian Webb, Steve
Sheerman, Barry White, Brian
Shipley, Ms Debra Whitehead, Dr Alan
Short, Rt Hon Clare Wicks, Malcolm
Simon, Siôn Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Skinner, Dennis
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Williams Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Williams, Hywel (Caemarfon)
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Willis, Phil
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S) Winnick, David
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Woodward, Shaun
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns) Woolas, Phil
Soley, Clive Worthington, Tony
Southworth, Helen Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Spellar, Rt Hon John Wright, David (Telford)
Stevenson, George Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Stewart, David (Inverness E) Younger-Ross, Richard
Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Stinchcombe, Paul Tellers for the Noes: Mr. Ivor Caplin and Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe.
Stoate, Dr Howard
Stringer, Graham

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.


forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House notes that co-operation with France on immigration and asylum issues is greater now than it has ever been; recognises that there has been an overall drop from 13,527 in 2000 to 10,927 in 2001, a drop of almost 20 per cent., in the number of people crossing illegally to the UK from France; further notes that bilateral co-operation continues to address the problem of asylum seekers in Northern France, that the French have made significant investment in police reinforcements in the region and judicial action has been taken against human traffickers and that, as a result of the imposition of the civil penalty, the number of clandestine entrants was reduced by 27 per cent. in 2001; and further notes that the previous Conservative Government left the asylum system in complete disarray, with local authorities left to pick up the pieces.