HC Deb 16 June 2003 vol 407 cc14-6
Mr. Speaker

I call Angela Watkinson.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)


8. Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

What assessment he has made of those sections of the draft EU constitution relating to external border controls. [119018]

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

I have not spoken yet and the hon. Gentleman says "splendid"!

There is no threat in the draft constitution that will go to the intergovernmental conference in October to the frontiers protocol secured at Amsterdam by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. We have strengthened our own borders by moving the immigration and security measures to the French coast, by closing down the routes through the Frethun and Coquelles depots and by securing better the route through the channel tunnel. Things are much more secure than they have ever been and that will remain the case.

Angela Watkinson

Does the Home Secretary recognise that the only effective way of overcoming the asylum chaos is to scrap the existing system altogether and introduce a quota system for genuine refugees?

Mr. Blunkett

I proposed a quota system in the White Paper a year last February. Along with UNHCR, I am implementing the first steps, as of last 1 April, to do just that. However, we also have to deal with a situation in which quotas are irrelevant, which occurs when people reach our soil. Opposition Members, including the shadow Home Secretary, have to answer a simple question: if someone arrives in Britain from Zimbabwe and claims asylum, what do we do with him?

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

The Home Secretary may well have heard over recent days much huff and puff in many of the tabloid newspapers about the draft constitutional treaty and what it will do to border controls and asylum and immigration in Europe. Will he ignore all that nonsense and focus on the genuine issue at hand, which is ensuring that we have a better integrated system with the rest of Europe so that we have justice and fairness for those who claim asylum and seek to immigrate?

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, I agree entirely. We need much greater co-operation, but not a unified and centrally operated force, along the new borders of the extended European Union. All parties in the House are committed to that. We have experimented with that by helping the Spanish with those who traverse the Mediterranean and the straits of Gibraltar, and we are doing the same with other countries. I hope that we can do much more. However, I hope that we can act in a civilised, rational and organised fashion once people are inside the EU.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I do not understand the Home Secretary's comments about the EU constitution. In its draft form it explicitly says that the Union shall ensure the absence of internal border controls for persons and shall frame a common policy on asylum, immigration and external border control". Does he agree with the Leader of the House that that is just a bit of "tidying up", because that appears to be at variance with my understanding of the text?

Secondly, the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration said that even if we had international co-operation we would still need robust measures to deal with issues such as asylum. Will it not become impossible to take those robust measures nationally? If so, will the Home Secretary kindly tell the House whether, in those circumstances, the Government intend to veto the proposal, or will he explain why the sacrifice needs to be made to accept it?

Mr. Blunkett

On the latter point, I make it abundantly clear that not a single measure that we are taking would be ruled out or disqualified by the changes to be put to the intergovernmental conference in October—not one.

On internal border controls, the Government secured, and have had for some time, an opt-out clause on all those matters, including Schengen. The opt-outs remain and are not affected by the Convention's discussions and proposals. I am simply stating a fact. It is no good Opposition Members dreaming up a different protocol, a different Convention and a different constitution, presenting that constitution to the British people and asking them to vote it down when it bears no resemblance to the reality of what the Government are prepared to sign up to.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

But is not an opt-out, by definition, something that comes to an end? Is my right hon. Friend sure that the clause recently added to the Convention, which enables the Commission to change, by its own internal arrangements, the controls over not only immigration but other aspects of the legal system normally decided by the House of Commons, will not have a direct impact irrespective of any opt-out that we hold at the moment?

Mr. Blunkett

Yes, I am certain. I can tell my hon. Friend that neither I nor the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary would sign up to anything that precluded our getting off an escalator that was going somewhere that we did not wish to go.