HC Deb 26 June 2002 vol 387 cc879-87 3.32 pm
Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (by private notice)

To ask the Home Secretary if he will make a statement on his recent meeting with the French Interior Minister.

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

First, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on being elevated to membership of the Privy Council today. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, Hear."] I am sure that it will make all the difference in the world.

Yesterday I held a meeting with the Minister of the Interior in the new French Government, Nicolas Sarkozy. The meeting was the first to be held between us and the new French Government on tackling illegal immigration across the channel. This is not something that needs to divide the United Kingdom and France; it is not an adversarial contest, but a matter of finding a joint solution to shared problems. Migration has global causes and global consequences. No single country can solve its problems alone.

Yesterday was a satisfactory start to the process, especially bearing in mind the fact that the National Assembly elections were held only 10 days ago. We have made concrete progress in a number of key areas. First, we agreed to install at the port of Calais British detection technology, including acoustic heartbeat detectors and millimetric wave imaging. A start will be made within weeks. We shall also provide the latest forgery detection technology in order to tackle the use of false identity documents.

In addition, a package of measures to increase security at the Frethun freight depot was agreed. The success of the security investment at Coquelles has put increased pressure on the Frethun yards. Services have been disrupted and a great deal of cost has been incurred. It is therefore crucial that we close that loophole for illegal immigration as quickly as possible. We agreed to use our best endeavours to complete the double fencing at Frethun by 31 July, substantially speeding up the earlier timetable. The French Government will accelerate deployment of additional gendarmes and security personnel in the depots. A financial contribution will be made by the Strategic Rail Authority. That will allow the reintroduction of a full and reliable service no later than the end of September.

We also agreed to enable our intelligence and operational officers to work together in joint teams. We are determined to work in partnership to detect, arrest and prosecute the criminal gangs who profit from the barbaric trade of people trafficking. To monitor progress, we shall establish a joint reporting system to track illegal immigration on both sides of the channel, and publish the statistics every six months.

I also outlined yesterday the comprehensive measures that we are taking to reduce the pull factor to the United Kingdom, in particular by clamping down on illegal working and by spelling out the new measures in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. That was welcomed by the French Government, who committed themselves to the closure of Sangatte, which is now a joint objective of both Governments.

As I said yesterday, this is a marathon, not a sprint. I did not expect to secure full agreement on every issue yesterday. I specifically indicated that I did not expect an immediate resolution of a timetable for closing Sangatte. However, we made significant progress and a number of issues are now on the table for the next meeting, which will be held in Paris on 12 July. I know that the House will welcome this long overdue progress in resolving those difficult issues.

Mr. Letwin

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for his statement, and for his congratulations. We of course welcome the promises that he has received on security and joint monitoring from the French—without welcoming nearly so much the fact that Britain will be contributing millions of pounds to paying for that security. How is it that the French managed to persuade the Home Secretary that it was our responsibility to pay for security on their side of the channel? On how many occasions in the past years have promises been made to increase security on the French side of the channel, and what assurances does the Home Secretary have that on this occasion they will actually be fulfilled?

How real was the offer to construct, in due course, a timetable for delivering the possibility, in due course, of closing the Sangatte camp? How did the Home Secretary manage to persuade the French Interior Minister that his accommodation centers—which, at the present rate, it can be calculated may cure the backlog of asylum applications in the UK over a period of 40 years and 11 months—would be sufficient, in his words, substantially to reduce the pull factor?

I now turn to what is overwhelmingly the most important question, which the Home Secretary specifically avoided mentioning in his response: the bilateral agreement that used to be in place between Britain and France, which at one time provided that those coming from France to the United Kingdom would be returned to France within 24 hours, to have their asylum applications processed there. The Home Secretary has described me and my party as the "militant tendency" in pressing for a resurrected bilateral agreement, and I have therefore three specific questions to ask him.

First, if it was always impossible to negotiate such an agreement with the French, how was my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the former Home Secretary, able to do so in 1995? To which miraculous powers does the Home Secretary ascribe that achievement? Secondly, if it is impossible to negotiate such an agreement with the French, is it not also impossible to negotiate it with other Governments—and if it is impossible to negotiate such an agreement with any Government, why did the Home Secretary take the trouble to legislate in the House and in the other place to provide for such bilateral agreements to be compatible with UK law?

Thirdly, if it is impossible to negotiate such an agreement, why did the Home Secretary write an open letter to me on 23 May, in which he said: I am committed to negotiating a new bilateral agreement with the French government. But I intend to negotiate something that will work". Is it not time for the Home Secretary to make an application to his right hon. Friend the former Home Secretary—the current Foreign Secretary—who is the agent who brought chaos to an asylum system that was once in order—[Interruption]. That person is now responsible for our diplomatic efforts; might he not be expected, notwithstanding the Home Secretary's brilliant assault on all the policies that he pursued when he was Home Secretary, to assist the current Home Secretary in negotiating with the French to achieve successfully what this country desperately needs—a new bilateral agreement?

Mr. Blunkett

The right hon. Gentleman's first question was: why are we prepared to negotiate a commitment to the technology and security at the French border? The answer is very simple: this is a unique position—we are trying to persuade a country to prevent people not from getting into its territory, but from getting out of its territory. We are trying to persuade the French to stop people leaving France and entering Britain.

We are prepared to use British technology—advanced as it is—to assist in the process precisely because if we can use the technology that we have at Dover in Calais, to prevent people from crossing the channel, they will not be able to claim asylum, so we will not incur the substantial costs of processing their applications for the first decision or the adjudication decision, or for the judicial review, the appeals tribunal or the further review, or the cost of removal. If we stop just a few dozen people wrongly claiming asylum—those who cannot show that they are at risk of death or persecution—we will save the amount invested in the millimetric and heartbeat technology several times over.

The second question related to Sangatte. It was fairly obvious from the negotiations and from studying the French papers that it is necessary to persuade the French that actions taken concerning the closure of Sangatte will resolve the pull factor and the signals that are sent to individuals and traffickers, so that they do not end up with hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Calais and surrounding areas. That is necessary not because this is not a French problem—it is—but because it becomes our problem if those people continue to try to get through the tunnel or across on ferries.

In resolving and helping to sort out the French problem, we substantially resolve our problem. That is what an intelligent approach seeks to offer, and it is why I was prepared to spell out what we were doing in our own legislation and in non-legislative matters, which the French believed required legislation, to reduce the pull factor to this country. That is why, of course, I spelled out aspects of the new Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, as the House would have expected me to, and those proposals were welcomed and understood.

The reports in this morning's French papers, which I have looked at, were accurate and the quotes from myself and Nicolas Sarkozy were in line with what we actually said yesterday, as opposed to what someone made up along the way.

The substantive question related to returning people to France. In 1995—two years before the Dublin convention, to which the then Conservative Government signed up—there was an interim gentleman's agreement to see the situation through to what was presumably believed to be a very welcome Dublin convention. I presume that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who is sitting along the Bench from the shadow Home Secretary, will recall that very well. He will recall that, as he believed that the Dublin convention would solve the problems, he was right to agree in 1995 that the gentleman's agreement would cease once the Dublin convention was introduced. When it was implemented, of course, the gentleman's agreement ceased. I must say that the gentleman's agreement was not all that it was cracked up to be—last year we returned to France 6,000 people who had not claimed immigration status, whereas in the last year of the gentleman's agreement, just over 500 people were returned to France—[Interruption.]

The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is right to say, sotto voce, that many more people tried to get in last year than in 1996. That is true, and that is precisely why we have a much more substantial problem than we had when we inherited the Dublin agreement, which we had not signed up to. It is precisely for those reasons that I am taking steps now to reach agreement with France. I want an agreement on returners to original countries when the first decision has been turned down, and, as I said in my letter of 23 May to the right hon. Member for West Dorset, I want an agreement that will be workable and acceptable.

I describe the right hon. Gentleman's words as coming from the militant tendency because in the 1980s and 1990s, the Labour party went through a process in which impossible demands and unsurmountable barriers were placed in our way—everyone knew that the demands would be unachievable—so that a handful of people could claim failure before we had even started on the policy concerned.

That is what the right hon. Member for West Dorset did when he announced on the "Today" programme yesterday morning that I should simply turn people who arrived in Britain round and send them back to France. Any Member who seriously believes that every person arriving in this country who we believe might have passed through France can simply be turned round and sent back without negotiating terms of reference, and without an understanding that we have considered the case—as we are doing with the non-suspensive appeals and clearly unfounded cases—does not deserve to be in government.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Is not one of the problems the continuing policy in France of allowing what I think the French call tolerated illegal presence? Despite their so-called robust preventive measures such as identity cards and so on, they continue to allow people from third countries who intend to claim asylum to avoid doing that while they are in France. In his very welcome discussions with France, has the Home Secretary been able to make any progress in persuading the French authorities to consider remedying that practice?

Mr. Blunkett

On a lighter note, I did point out that, given the wine, the food and the sunshine—and the women—I was amazed that anyone would want to leave France to claim asylum anywhere else. My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that the tolerated illegal presence of so many people in France is a major problem. It means that those people are not encouraged to claim asylum, to seek another form of legal status or to leave the country legitimately. That is why the problem has accumulated in northern France. The problem also exists partly because the measures that have been taken make it very much more difficult for those people to leave northern France to reach Britain, and partly because of the pull factor that I have described and acknowledged this afternoon. In consideration of discussions not just with the Interior Minister but with the Justice Minister, with whom I am also seeking a meeting in July, I intend to press the point vigorously that those who are not there, and who, I presume, have not got French identity cards, should be dealt with rigorously so that we can get a grip on this problem.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

May I join the Home Secretary in congratulating the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), on his elevation to the Privy Council? I also join the Home Secretary in accepting the idea that when we can have good relations with our neighbours—including, obviously, France—we should seek to do so.

Will the Home Secretary tell us whether the French Government are insisting on any preconditions or action from the British Government before the French Government implement any of their terms of the agreement? Has any estimate been made of the cost to the French Government of the measures that they are taking?

Does the Home Secretary accept that closing Sangatte, building fences or having more gendarmes will not stop people moving around Europe? The only real substitute for the nonsense of a policy that Europe has to deal with asylum seekers would be a common way of processing all asylum seekers, wherever they appear in the European Union. We need a common set of conditions and entitlements to which they will thereafter be entitled, and a common basis for deciding who is a refugee and therefore entitled to that status. The logic of that is that we should have a common agency to act on behalf of all member states, so that there is a common standard throughout Europe.

If we close the existing way of entry, how will Britain honour its obligation to allow people to come to this country to seek asylum legally? Given that we are not the nearest country to any of the land-mass countries in eastern Europe, how will we take our fair share commensurate with burden sharing if we close off all legal routes into the country for asylum seekers?

Mr. Blunkett

The hon. Gentleman's first and last questions were the same: how do we facilitate a legal and legitimate route for those who face persecution or death? In the White Paper on 7 February, I spelled out the fact that we would commence negotiations with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on a legitimate route for, first, a few hundred, and then for an expanded number of nominated and verified cases who could be allowed directly into the country, having sought refugee status outside Britain. That is the only way in which we will be able to make progress. We should discuss it with the United Nations and use the good offices of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to see how we can facilitate such work in our embassies and high commissions in an acceptable way.

The process is taking time, but I hope that we can make substantial progress, not least with the UNHCR, and on minors under 18, who form part of a worrying trend and are now fodder for traffickers. There are 2,000 youngsters with Kent social services alone.

Simon Hughes

Six thousand in the country.

Mr. Blunkett

Six thousand in the country as a whole.

It is true that simply putting higher fences round Frethun and closing Sangatte will not solve the overall problem. I agree that substantial measures must be taken EU-wide both in sharing the challenge and in finding administrative ways of dealing with it. However, I am not sure about a unified central agency. All of us, including those working for it, know how difficult the role of the immigration and nationality directorate is in this country. God knows what it would be like if it were run from Brussels. However, I accept that a common issue needs to be shared, with a common solution.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

I welcome the new joint arrangements—and I say that as someone who has been highly critical of the slowness with which the French have moved to secure their sites. I welcome the new approach.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the French authorities can build a system that approaches anything like the level of security that we have in place in the port of Dover—my right hon. Friend and I looked at the measures for detection, forgery surveillance and other matters only last week—we shall be near to closing the last of the gaps in the security system, and to bringing order back to it? That will give confidence to my constituents and others that we have the system under a measure of control.

Mr. Blunkett

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which he has handled a very difficult situation. Without any spin and advance preparation, last Monday he and I saw the operation of the new technology that detected the presence of people in a vehicle coming from France. Five people had been picked up from the same vehicle on the French side of the channel, but because the French did not have the equipment to look deep into the freight being carried, they had missed half the human cargo. That is why it is crucial to do that job, not merely for border protection purposes, but in a humanitarian sense, too. We all remember the desperate incident in which 58 Chinese people died because people were prepared to make money out of sacrificing their lives.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

The Leader of the House earlier today and the right hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the evils of people trafficking and the need for legislation. When does he anticipate that draft legislation will be available for scrutiny?

Mr. Blunkett

We have a partial measure in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. I promised when we published the Bill and on Second Reading that the sentencing and criminal justice legislation, which we are committed to introduce in the next Session, will include measures necessary to increase the penalty to 14 years and to tackle trafficking, including trafficking for sexual exploitation purposes. The legislation will be available for scrutiny as soon as it is drafted.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

I find it a little astonishing that the Conservative party, having tabled the private notice question, cannot find one Back Bencher to contribute.

Does my right hon. Friend believe, as I do, that one reason why so much attention has focused on Sangatte and the tunnel in recent months is our success in reducing illegal entry into this country by air, lorry and boat? Does he accept, as I am sure he did in his opening remarks, that the present situation is doing grave damage to the rail freight industry, its reputation and its prospects? He talked about resolving that problem by September, and I hope that he will do whatever he can to restore the status quo on rail freight for British exports.

Mr. Blunkett

I agree entirely about the freight industry. Freight operators have had to contend with horrific circumstances that are deeply undesirable from their point of view and for the commercial well-being of our country. The installation of double fencing by the end of July and the substantial increase in security personnel, which the French have promised, will facilitate the provision of the electronic surveillance necessary to back up the fencing. I hope that by the August deadline the fencing will have made an enormous difference to the difficulties currently experienced and to the rapid return of a full service.

Norman Baker (Lewes)

What conditions did the French Interior Minister require the British Government to meet before he would agree to the closure of Sangatte? Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on, and rebut if necessary, a statement in one of today's nationals that he has allegedly pledged to introduce new measures to curb illegal working, including a national identity card scheme, as part of the agreement? Is that true?

Mr. Blunkett

No, there are measures in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill that relate to our position on illegal working. We made our view clear when we clamped down on that problem by developing ways to improve on section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. I said that we will shortly undertake a consultation on entitlement cards. I made that clear to the House in an answer on 5 February and reiterated it in a statement to the House on 7 February. The consultation measures that I mentioned to the French were only what I reported to the House several months ago.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Were he so minded, the Home Secretary could legitimately answer my question by saying, "Easier said than done." Although I do not doubt that the detection equipment for forgeries is now formidable, what about the forgers themselves? Are not some people making a mint of money out of forgery? What effort is being made with Governments in the far east or elsewhere to get at the root of those who are doing the forging, who are making enormous and odious profits?

Mr. Blunkett

Easier said than done, indeed, but I will give my hon. Friend a more comprehensive answer than that. The commitment to joint intelligence working is a step in the right direction to get people to acknowledge that there is a worldwide problem and that people will go to whatever expertise is available anywhere in the world to obtain fraudulent documents. Therefore, it is a common problem.

The European Union in the form of the Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner, and his equivalent in the United States, are committed to working with individual Governments on finding a way around the problem. We will need to adopt more secure methods, in addition to the passport control measures, to establish that we are part of the strengthened system, which in future will include biometric techniques. Otherwise, it is almost certain that the United States will reintroduce visas.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that on Monday I asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether he would ensure that security measures at Sangatte freight depot are speeded up. Naturally, I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is back so quickly—it makes me feel that I have more power on the Government Back Benches than I ever had on the Government Front Bench.

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt), I had assumed from my right hon. Friend's statement that EWS and other freight operators would be able to run normal services after 31 July, when the security measures will be in force. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that is his expectation? When he meets his counterpart in July, will he ensure that all the work is on schedule, because in the past there has been some slippage?

Mr. Blunkett

I will do my utmost, here and elsewhere, not to claim deadlines, timetables or success where they do not exist. I indicated that double fencing and security personnel measures will be in place by the end of July. That will substantially improve the ability of EWS to run its services, but the electronic and surveillance measures inside the terminal will not fully complement the external security until September; only then will we be able to guarantee the substantial turnround that has been achieved at Coquelles.

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend's second point. I am extremely pleased that his intervention earlier this week was so successful.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Following the suggestion of the Father of the House about focusing on the forgers, does the Home Secretary think that there is potential for the security and intelligence services to try to infiltrate the lines of illegal immigration, so that people inside the system can, as it were, expose it from the inside? I appreciate that at present terrorism is their top priority, but surely that would be one way of exposing what is going on and discovering who is organising it.

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, I do. I was deeply impressed when I went to see Operation Reflex yesterday. Every agency, including the security agencies combined, were working in unison and with their equivalents in Europe and elsewhere, precisely to try to bring that sort of expertise to bear. Given that the traffickers are organised in a $12 billion business, and given that the misery it causes is so great, we are justified in allocating even greater resources to our endeavour.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

In addressing the pull factors, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that we should have a reliable and compatible system that identifies who is in the country and ensures that those who apply for employment, education or other benefits are truly entitled to do so?

Mr. Blunkett

This very interesting question will be addressed next month in the consultation document on entitlement cards. I have given an undertaking, both publicly and in Government. that that will deal with the pros and cons of such a card. I am absolutely certain that the issue of proper and acceptable identification for employment purposes will form one of the pros, rather than one of the cons.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House for the fact that preparation for a Select Committee hearing prevented me from hearing the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), to whom I add my congratulations, and the Home Secretary's answer, but modern technology enabled me to hear all the exchanges in my own office.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must be in the Chamber to hear statements. I therefore cannot call him. I thank him for listening to the exchanges, but I must put it on the record that hon. Members must be in the Chamber to hear the statement, not listening on a monitor.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

My right hon. Friend is aware that the geography of France is very different from that of the UK. France has borders with a large number of countries. Did my right hon. Friend have an opportunity to discuss what the French Government are doing to secure their borders with their other neighbours, and what might happen in future as desperate or gullible people still try to come to this country? Are the French Government prepared to start thinking about their eastern and southern borders?

Mr. Blunkett

My hon. Friend is right to say that the eastern and southern borders of France are extremely important. That is why discussions both at the Justice and Home Affairs Council and in Seville concentrated on that wider issue, including questions around accession countries. There is a much broader issue of collaboration on border control and surveillance, and on the unified handling of those who clandestinely enter the European Union. The French Government are interested, but I will not speak for them; they can speak for themselves about acquiring the technology that I described this afternoon. I hope that British companies will he able to benefit from that.