HL Deb 07 May 1999 vol 600 cc913-44

Lord Wallace of Saltaire rose to move, That this House take note of the report of the European Communities Committee on Schengen and the United Kingdom's Border Controls (7th Report, HL Paper 37).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to introduce this debate on a report by Sub-Committee F of the European Communities Committee of your Lordships' House. This is an important report related directly to the Immigration and Asylum Bill that will come before your Lordships' House shortly. In preparing the inquiry the sub-committee drew on the asylum White Paper which is quoted extensively in the report.

British policy on frontier controls and co-operation with other members of the European Union in the whole area of police, justice and home affairs has been symbolically one of the most contentious in British politics. The policy to which the current Government now hold was inherited from their predecessors. That policy made the preservation of British border controls a key symbolic issue of British sovereignty. The Daily Mail and Sun have run many campaigns on the threat of asylum-seekers entering Britain. Usually it relates to somewhere between 50 and 70 Roma from Slovakia—a relatively small number—but the feeling is there. This is not an easy issue and yet it is one that remains open to radical change in terms of the sheer pressure of development.

As I prepared my speech I remembered the first time I went abroad. In 1961 I went all the way to France. It took me over 10 minutes to get out of Dover and, once across the Channel, another 15 minutes standing in a queue and having my passport checked and my bags carefully examined, with a chalk mark put on the corner, to get into Calais. When the two of us—my travelling companion was a fellow student called: Martin Bell who had also never been abroad, although since he has travelled a little bit—at last entered France, we knew that we were in a very foreign country. Now, in the course of my professional life, I use Eurostar far too frequently and my passport is occasionally vaguely glanced at. One travels easily between Britain and another part of the European Union, France. Yet the Home Secretary told us in response to our report that the British Government were committed to maintaining systematic border controls.

Part of the message of the report is that in 1999 the term "systematic border controls" means something astonishingly different from the way such controls were applied 30 years ago. One of the reasons is that the numbers who cross the border between Britain and the Continent continue to rise by between 8 to 10 per cent a year. The figure is now 80 to 90 million a year and, on current projections, by 2001–02 there will be 100 million border crossings a year. Of those, 90 million people will travel between Britain and other members of the European Economic Area—the EU plus Norway, Switzerland and Iceland—and 10 million between Britain and the rest of the world.

The increase in crossings has not been accompanied by a comparable increase in the number of immigration officers. As the report comments, over the past five years, while the number of people crossing British frontiers has increased by 50 per cent, the number of immigration officers has increased by 10 per cent. As witnesses made clear, that has led British governments to adopt an increasingly "light touch approach" to frontier controls. What is now known as the "Bangemann wave", whereby one waves one's passport as one walks, without stopping, past the immigration official at Waterloo, very often passes for British border controls.

Your Lordships may wish to consider whether this is still a systematic border control. Or are we now in the area of semantics and theology as between insistence in Britain that we maintain controls and the selective checks that others in France and elsewhere still apply? The report suggests that the scale of movement makes it no longer entirely practical to hold to the old principles of British border policy. Indeed, we edge a little further on. A French witness told us about the extent to which France applies rather systematic controls along its coast. Those of us who sail in and out of south of England ports and note the remarkably loose controls there wonder whether the mythology of British border controls is matched by a willingness to have a coastguard to enforce those parts of Britain which form the external border of the European Union.

The principle of British border control policy is that we make no distinction over where people arrive from. We make a distinction about nationality. We therefore refuse to segregate those coming on planes to Heathrow from Frankfurt, Schiphol or Paris and those arriving from Entebbe, Lagos or Los Angeles. British Airways and the British Airports Authority assure us that that has advantages. As they see it, the practice increases the attraction of London as a transit point. People can pass through Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester without concern about passport controls. However, it has some disadvantages. Without a common visa regime between Britain and the Continent, residents of third countries who have the right of residence in this country do not automatically have the right also to conduct their business in Amsterdam, Paris and elsewhere.

There are a number of changing advantages and disadvantages in maintaining the current regime. Our report stresses that there are practical as well as ideological questions as to whether or not it is possible to maintain the old regime.

We discuss briefly the question of identity cards. We avoid taking a definite stance. However, we note that identity cards also have advantages and disadvantages. The alternative—to look at people as they go to work or apply for social security—may in many ways be a better method of picking up those who are in this country illegally. We note from the figures that a substantial number of those who are in this country as illegal immigrants arrive as tourists and become illegal as over-stayers. In other words, they have passed entirely legally through our border controls, but their status changes when in the country.

We heard evidence of the number—not easy to quantify—who enter this country secretly in the back of lorries or containers and thus avoid our frontier controls but who may be picked up later. We suggest, therefore, that the debate on identity cards should be re-opened in the context of the future of Britain's asylum, immigration and border control policy.

We touch on a number of other measures. One of the largest issues underlying the inquiry is the extent to which Britain yet again is staying out of the development of a major new area of Community policy. While not entirely happy with the way in which that policy is developing, it will find itself increasingly under pressure to join later. The evidence from police and Home Office witnesses was that they see many advantages in co-operating as much as possible with what is now going on within Schengen. Indeed, joining the Schengen information system is important for police co-operation and for enabling the British police to progress as far as possible in other areas of common policies. When the Amsterdam Treaty is ratified this month, British participants in a number of discussions will sit with the right to speak but without the right to vote.

Two days after publication of our report, the Home Secretary announced that Britain now wished to opt in to almost all areas of Schengen except the border control regime and that a formal application would shortly be submitted to that effect. There will be some interesting politics as to whether or not other governments—for example, the Spanish or the French—will agree that partial application without our accepting all the other elements of the package. As our French witness said, the abolition of border controls and freedom of movement for all citizens within the European Union is at the heart of justice and home affairs—the commitment in the Amsterdam Treaty to create an area of freedom, security and justice.

The Government have inherited from their predecessors a number of inhibitions about European co-operation including a resistance to the European Court of Justice and its having jurisdiction over civil liberties questions. That is extremely important. A number of rather delicate questions about personal information being passed across national boundaries arise. We question whether rights fall between national courts and European jurisdiction and whether the British Government should reconsider its inherited opposition to the European Court of Justice.

A large number of questions arise about how far these new issues come under the first pillar in which the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice have jurisdiction, or whether they should be retained under the intergovernmental third pillar in which national officials take decisions and under which it is harder for outsiders, including your Lordships' House, to discover what is going on.

I commend the report to the House. I hope that it will be useful to the debate today and to future debates on the Information and Asylum Bill when it comes before us. As moves are made in this area, we shall need to follow. It is an area where policy and principles have stayed still as the number of people crossing frontiers has increased, and continues to increase. I suggest that it may be prudent for the Government to think about future changes in policy.

Moved, That this House take note of the report of the European Communities Committee on Schengen and the United Kingdom's Border Controls (7th Report, HL Paper 37). —(Lord Wallace of Saltaire.)

11.18 a.m.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and his sub-committee are to be congratulated on producing an impressive report which I think we would all agree is most timely not only in view of the Government's Bill which is proceeding through another House and will soon be before this House, but also because of some of the unfortunate events in other parts of Europe.

I am not a member of the sub-committee, but I am a member of the Select Committee on the European Communities to which the report was submitted. Although I have some reservations. I felt that it should be approved and brought for debate before this Chamber. Although I read the draft report when it went to the Select Committee, I had not seen the evidence. However, as normal, it was published with the final report on 2nd March. Having read the evidence given to the sub-committee, particularly that of the organised crime and immigration representatives of the Home Office, I have greater reservations about its substance and main thrust; namely, that the United Kingdom should abolish controls on arrivals at our ports, airports and so on.

I found many of the report's themes compelling and appealing. I endorse the quotation of the famous words of Ernest Bevin of the benefits of freedom of movement: My foreign policy is to be able to take a ticket at Victoria station and go anywhere I damn well please". I welcome the stated objective that the United Kingdom, like other EU member states both present and future, should have no immigration controls at national borders but should rely on and trust in the controls exercised at the external frontiers of the EU.

I recognise, as does the report, that until we end our opt-out we are excluded from participation in the discussions on future developments of Schengen. However, if in calling for a reconsideration of current policy the sub-committee means now, I doubt the desirability and practicality.

As is well known, previous and present UK governments have repeatedly stated that the external frontiers of the Schengen area may not be policed as effectively and to the same standards and controls as exercised by the United Kingdom. That is not necessarily a criticism of how things are done because those countries have vast land borders which, fortunately or otherwise, we do not have. But that is the key argument against change now.

I may not have read every single line of the report, but I see no evidence that the Government are incorrect in their assertions about the weaker controls exercised by other countries in the EU at many of the external frontiers. Of course, it can be said that controls by our UK consulates abroad and checks within the UK—for example, when people enter as tourists and overstay, and on a person's immigration status when he or she applies for social security, access to health services and so forth—are becoming much more important than border controls. But is the report right and logical to state that that justifies ending our border controls? Just because border controls have become less significant or important, does that mean that this is the moment they should be abolished? The noble Lord suggested that our UK border controls are now symbolic, but I suggest that they are still more than that.

At page 17, the report states that, one Schengen state, at least"— I think it refers to France— suggests that … there has been no loss of efficiency", in controlling illegal immigration and organised crime from the ending of national border controls and that the, strengthened cross-border co-operation which has resulted has been beneficial to all of the participating states". In view of what has happened since the publication of the report and the British Government's application to opt into a number of aspects of Schengen, I do not see why strengthened cross-border co-operation and co-operation between the police forces of different member states need to be dependent on Britain ending UK border controls. Surely this country and all other countries inside and outside Schengen have much to gain from improved police and immigration control co-operation.

Although the French representative who gave evidence to the sub-committee may have had good reason to be optimistic, I wonder what the evidence might have been from some of the other member states. I was intrigued that the noble Lord mentioned that subject only in passing. I wonder about it because France, like most other EU member states, has a system of identity cards. The report is correct in saying that identity cards are not a requirement of Schengen, but surely no UK Government with responsibility for immigration controls and concern about organised crime are likely to be willing to end UK border controls without introducing some such requirement in this country. It would be inappropriate to consider in this debate all the many practical, civil liberties and privacy arguments which can be made for and against identity cards, but until that debate is resolved—it has barely started—the UK Government cannot possibly see its way to relaxing or abolishing border controls any more than they have done.

Of course, they have relaxed the controls, as the noble Lord described in his different experiences of travelling in the 1960s and in the 1990s. The lighter touch of which he spoke is evidence to us all as we move through the ports and airports within the European Union—

Lord Hacking

My Lords, before my noble friend moves from that point, perhaps I may confirm that the committee, in recommending the loosening of frontier controls, did not recommend the introduction of identity cards. Perhaps the noble Lord will also reflect on the fact that there are many other ways in which citizens can be identified as they go about their business in their own countries; for example, by driving licences bearing both a photograph and a signature.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, of course I recognise that, and I notice that the Minister, Ms Kate Hoey, when giving evidence to the sub-committee of which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, was a member, mentioned that she held a driving licence bearing a photograph because she was used to travelling in Northern Ireland where it was common practice. No doubt such an alternative form of identification is helpful as a substitute, because not everyone holds a driving licence; and no doubt the noble Lord will expand on his remarks in due course when he speaks in the debate. However, I maintain my principal point; that if the sub-committee is asking the Government to reconsider ending UK border controls now or in the near future before we have agreed any such system of identity, that is premature.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, referred to the position immediately after the war and to the current position. It was a most interesting comparison. Not Icing after World War II, when Ernest Bevin spoke his forthright words about freedom of movement, there was a great deal of optimism, at least about the longer term. Later in 1958, when the Treaty of Rome was signed, there was also a great deal of optimism. Undoubtedly, much nearer to the present day, in 1989, there was a moment of tremendous optimism when the Berlin Wall came down. That was not only because of the new freedom of the individual to move across what had been that appalling wall, but also because of the greater possibilities and likelihood of prosperity for all.

There have been less encouraging developments in Europe and in places outside Europe. I imagine that we must all have in mind what has happened in recent months and years in Yugoslavia. The end consequences are uncertain. Different EU countries, as is already evident, have taken different views and attitudes on different kinds of refugees. On the one hand, there are refugees from Kosovo, and on the other, so-called "economic immigrants" from Serbia. As yet, there is no common immigration policy in the EU; let alone in the somewhat wider area which includes important, significant applicant countries to the EU. A common immigration policy is a declared aspiration of Schengen; it is not a reality.

Therefore, no one can be particularly optimistic at present. The policies of the UK Government must surely be based on realistic current concerns as well as on ideals. This is not the best moment for radical change in our policy on border controls.

11.31 a.m.

Lord Patten

My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Borne, during whose excellent speech my noble friend Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare said to me, "John", in the familiar way which he sometimes has, "Why are you muttering 'drat' to yourself?" I explained to my noble friend that as the noble Lord, Lord Borne, made point after point I was rapidly having to delete points from the speech which I had carefully prepared overnight. I shall not tire the House by repeating what the noble Lord said, although I agree with much of it.

I must congratulate the chairman of the committee and his colleagues on this clear and well written report. It is easy to understand, although I could not understand the gap that there seemed to be between a lot of the evidence and many of the conclusions of the report. However, I read the evidence in the report with great care because it concerns the Home Office. Twelve years ago to this month I first went to the Home Office as a Minister. There I met young, aspiring civil servants. One used to ask, "Who are the good ones in the Home Office?", and the names of certain bright, fast-travelling, young civil servants were endlessly put forward. The names were Abbott, Boys-Smith and Warne. Those were the people who, 12 years later, gave evidence to the sub-committee. They are no longer bright, young things; they have travelled and arrived and are directors, or directors general all. I congratulate them on what they said and the way in which they said it. I only wish that the committee had listened more carefully to those sources and their measured evidence which goes back years.

I was also much moved by, and greatly applaud, the evidence given by the Minister, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ms Hoey, MP. I do not seek to damage her career in any way at all, but I thought that what she said was wisdom on stilts. I agreed with it all. She is as sensible about border controls as she is about the need to preserve fox-hunting, on which she has taken such an independent stand on the Labour Benches. I wish that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and his colleagues, who include a number of my colleagues, had listened more carefully to what she had to say.

There are three reasons why I disagree profoundly with the committee and its conclusions. I shall not attempt to repeat points that the noble Lord, Lord Borne, made earlier with such force and eloquence. First, it is important that we recognise the fact of geography. I know that the present Government are in favour of the "dumbing down" of geography. I understand that last week a report came out saying that school children should no longer be taught where things are, the names of rivers and capital cities. I hope that the Government can be persuaded not to follow that course.

I believe that it is obvious to all of us, including the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who crossed the Channel to Calais in such interesting company in 1961, that we are an island. We share a land border only with the Republic of Ireland. It is an entirely logical and pragmatic decision to say that, as we are an island, the logical place to have border checks and controls is where people cross the sea, whether by plane or boat or under the sea through the Channel Tunnel.

I also sympathise with the committee in its attempts to struggle with the English language. It got into a terrible muddle about "borders" and "frontiers". I believe that it was trying to say that "frontiers" are hard, nasty and old-fashioned and that "borders" are softer, easy and more permeable, and that we should be more concerned with "borders".

I believe that the Government are absolutely right. Frontier controls are an effective means of controlling immigration and of combating terrorism and other crime. I also believe that the Government are right when they say that their present controls, match both the geography and traditions of the country and have ensured a high degree of personal freedom within the UK". I believe that the Government are right in that. If Europe is to succeed, it must be able to embrace differences, including differences of geography, such as recognising that the United Kingdom is substantially a country geared by island borders or frontiers—to use whatever phrase one wants—and that we should make use of that. There is nothing extraordinary, unusual or anti-European in that.

For the avoidance of doubt, in case any noble Lords think that this is a speech from some head-banging, xenophobic, anti-European Member of the House, I made my first public speech in favour of Europe during the referendum campaign in the 1970s. One always remembers one's first public speech, just as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, remembered his first trip across the Channel, and just as one remembers other things done for the first time.

I went to the village hall of Wootton, under Boar's Hill in Oxfordshire, and spoke to an enthralled audience about the need for us to be involved in Europe. My noble friend Lord Archer says, sotto voce, "How many were present?" There were three in the audience: my agent, the hall-keeper and a lady who had been out walking her dog, so I suppose it was a total of four. I have not changed my mind since, but what I have said about immigration controls and the need to fight terrorism, organised crime and economic crime is based on pragmatic reasons and has nothing to do with being anti-European.

The second reason why I disagree so profoundly with the committee, in its excellent and clearly written report, is that, with the permeability of EEA boundaries, I can well understand why countries need to have internal checks and why most countries, although not all countries within Schengen, have identity cards. I am absolutely against compulsory identity cards in this country for a range of reasons that may lead me to stray outside our practices in this House. However, I do not believe that there is any point in talking about Schengen without talking about identity cards. If anyone wants to bring forward proposals that we should adopt Schengen lock, stock and barrel, including the SIS, they will also have to say that we need identity cards. That is the debate. I think the noble Lord, Lord Borne, set out the parameters of the debate excellently.

I shall not attempt to elaborate again on what he said, except perhaps to opine that I believe that identity cards would be deleterious to a host of matters in this country, including race relations and minorities who feel threatened. They also run counter, I believe, to the tradition of the ancient liberties of the British people as much as they run counter to new-style civil liberties. Sometimes a civil liberty appears to be one simply because one says, "If I call it a civil liberty, it is a civil liberty". But the concept of introducing Schengen-like mechanisms to protect our borders, our frontiers, cannot be sensibly advanced without a full and proper discussion on identity cards. I should have liked that to be recognised by the sub-committee. It could then have gone the whole hog, gripped this issue and stated its views. We cannot practically disengage one from the other.

I come to the third and last reason in my short remarks—all the shorter because the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, covered so much of the ground that I had intended to cover. We must recognise that underlying this drive within Europe to have Schengen and identity cards in due course is the desire to have a single European judicial space. I speak as someone relaxed about Europe, as I said earlier. We hear that everywhere in the inelegant jargon of Brussels. Alas, governments, whether the British Government in Whitehall or the European Commission, always slip into jargon. I do not criticise them for that; it is not unique to Brussels and it is not xenophobic to criticise what goes on in Brussels, but that is what Brussels wants. It is on the record. It has been said time and again. People wish to move from Schengen and internal controls into considerable harmonisation of justice and home affairs, to which the committee referred on page 18 of its report.

Let us all be aware, and let the people of Britain be aware, that we are not talking only about frontier and border controls; we are talking about the impact that the measures that must follow (such as compulsory identity cards) will have on our ancient and our new civil liberties in this country and on what I believe to be a profoundly un-European concept of trying to harmonise cultural differences within different parts of Europe. That is what laws do; they reflect the cultural differences of "this" country against "that" country.

I welcome the report. It started a good debate and I hope that that debate will continue. I congratulate the chairman and his colleagues on the way in which they have promoted the debate.

11.42 a.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I was privileged to be a member of Sub-Committee F, whose report is now before the House for discussion. It was not an easy remit. We owe a great deal to our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who steered us through some of our occasional disagreements so that we eventually produced a unanimous report. I should like to place on record my thanks to him for that.

It would be true to say that we all thought that freedom of movement throughout the EEA would be highly desirable. That is why we quoted Ernest Bevin's well-known comment that his foreign policy was to be able to take a ticket at Victoria Station and go anywhere he damn well pleased. Clearly the implication was that he would not need a passport to do it. Unfortunately, we are a long way from achieving that.

As the report explains, the UK is not a party to the Schengen agreement which was designed to facilitate the creation of an area without internal border controls. However, there are compensatory measures to increase: security at the external frontier, so we were informed. in order to fight illegal immigration and to try to deal with crime through co-operation between police forces.

As we heard, the Government have continued the policy of the last government which has been to maintain our internal frontier controls with other member states. As part of its remit, therefore, the committee had to examine the extent to which the Government are justified in maintaining this stance. We were left in no doubt at all that the Government hold to their view very strongly indeed. The Minister, Kate Hoey, whom we saw, re-emphasised that.

Reference was made to the protocols secured at the Amsterdam Treaty negotiations and to the White Paper on asylum and immigration policy. We shall, of course, shortly be having a Bill on asylum and immigration for discussion in this Chamber, but we did riot consider that Bill as part of our remit. We may find, unless it has been amended in the other place, that that will give rise to a great deal of controversy when it eventually comes here.

The Government clearly believe that the present border controls are necessary, not only to control immigration but also to help law enforcement. The committee therefore paid some attention to that latter point. As will be seen from the report, we saw M. Michel Pinauldt, the French representative of the Central Group of Schengen. We also saw Mr. Frank Gallagher of the European Liaison Unit of the Kent Constabulary, as well as representatives of the National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service.

The impression we gained was that there was already considerable co-operation with other police forces within the EU, but that this would be much enhanced were the UK a full participant in what is known as the Schengen Information System. The Government wish to opt into the system and are giving careful consideration to this, based on the need to ensure effective co-operation within Europe to tackle organised crime. They clearly believe that it would be possible to opt into Schengen and still remain outside Schengen.

It is quite clear that there is a strong, perhaps emotional, commitment based on history and tradition in support of the present government policy. Britain's island geography is felt to give it an advantage when it comes to illegal immigration and control of organised crime which the Government do not wish to lose. They clearly believe that they will if they depart from current policy.

The committee wondered whether those so-called advantages are not now largely illusory. It was felt that there was perhaps more to be gained by joining up with the other Schengen countries where it would be possible to have some influence on future policy than to stay outside and attempt to influence policy by external pressure.

We realised, of course, that if the present system of border controls was discarded, the Government may want to look at other methods, particularly identity cards, to which reference has already been made in the debate. It must be said that there was no agreement among committee members on this point. Some of my colleagues are in favour. I remain very much against. I am old enough to remember the joy with which identity cards were discontinued after the last war. Moreover, this century has been remarkable for the way in which totalitarian systems have flourished. Fortunately, we have escaped. But such systems like to have citizens docketed and labelled, and that enables them to restrict freedom of movement internally. After all, it was Stalin who introduced (or rather re-introduced) the infamous internal passport system. I remain against identity cards. The members of the committee agreed that civil rights concerns would have to be addressed should the Government decide that they had to proceed on those lines. We also noted that identity cards are not a requirement of Schengen; neither do they exist in all Schengen states.

We supported strongly the notion of participation in the Schengen Information System, though in that regard we had some civil rights misgivings which we felt should be further explored. The system stores an enormous amount of information about individuals. Access to it seems fairly easy and we had considerable doubts about whether the requirements of our data protection legislation would be adequately fulfilled. In particular, we felt it would be difficult for individuals to challenge false information and if that information remained on record it could be extremely damaging without the individual concerned having any easy redress. We all agreed that that aspect must be further examined. It was noted that Justice, an organisation whose submissions to us certainly impressed me, shared our views on that.

As our report indicates, we came eventually to the view that there is a strong case for the UK to re-examine its position on Schengen. As we said in our report, we do not feel that the status quo remains a viable long-term option. The continuing trend is for greater movement. We believe that that should be facilitated. Moreover, as other speakers have already said, the present situation indicates that we are going to have to look carefully at the whole question of asylum seekers and what is to be done in that connection.

We share Ernest Bevin's ideal, though we know that we are quite a long way from achieving it. I commend the report to your Lordships.

11.48 a.m.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, I begin with the usual courtesy of paying tribute to the authors of the report for the clarity of their expression and, above all—and quite genuinely—for mobilising a great deal of interesting and relevant information. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, that that is expressed quite sincerely.

Beyond that, frankly, the report does not represent the Select Committee's finest hour; nor are matters improved by the end quotation which cites dear old Ernie Bevin and which was no doubt designed to entice people like myself to give the report the benefit of the doubt. I had the greatest respect for Ernie Bevin, who achieved many, many things. But when he made that statement, his mind was far more focused on the problem of Trojan horses jumping out of Pandora's Box than on the serious issues of immigration and border control.

There are two elements to this debate. The first is the purely practical argument for the proposed change or retention of our system and the second is the ideological argument. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, knows exactly what I mean.

There has been a great increase in the number of passengers entering United Kingdom ports. That will continue. The obvious conclusion is that it would be a good idea to increase the number of immigration and passport officials. Of course we should do that, and that should have been the report's principal recommendation.

We have heard excellent speeches from the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and from my noble friends Lord Borne and Lady Turner. The question of identity cards inevitably looms. I join in the general distaste, indeed repugnance, over their introduction or reintroduction. Having read the evidence, I find it extraordinary that support for universal identity cards should come from the Lib Dem party. Indeed, we had the almost unbelievable statement that a great contribution would be made to improving race relations if everyone had an identity card and frequently showed it. No, that really will not do.

I do not believe that I have a better view of our continental neighbours than Select Committee members, but I do not believe either that our neighbours would willingly withhold information that was of importance and of use to British authorities simply out of pique or on the ground that we were cherry-picking advantages from Schengen. We know a lot about villains in our country, and that is of importance to colleagues and friends across the Channel. Equally, they have information that is relevant and important to us. We shall continue to exchange such information. Indeed, we are doing very well with Europol and Interpol, and all the other arrangements that work so excellently.

I see some difficulty with SIS. Computerised systems that record every complaint must be looked at carefully if we are to avoid the sort of situation quoted in the report in which an unhappy New Zealand lady could get no further than Schiphol airport because she had demonstrated years ago against French nuclear tests in the Pacific. That is not a very good reason for denying her entry into the European Union.

The onus of proof in this matter thus lies with the advocates for change, and they have not discharged that burden.

I turn to the most important part. I do not have any phobias about Europe. I rather like the people I know on the Continent. But it is a function of the state to control who may come and settle within its borders. The state is not discharging its duty if it does not exercise that control. Of course it is important to have such controls to combat drugs, crime and terrorism. But a state should also be able to determine its own policy on immigration and decide to whom it wishes to extend advantages because of, perhaps, special connections.

It was argued that British immigration control should not be given up under section 4 of the Amsterdam Treaty because some favours should be bestowed on those Commonwealth countries with which we have been long associated. That is exactly as it should be. If we have any self-respect as a nation, we should continue to demand control of our immigration and visa policies, and so on. As long as we have the will and capacity to continue as a sovereign state, we should defend that.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I should like to clarify the point about our generosity towards members of the Commonwealth. All Australians and New Zealanders still need a visa for this country. However, from 1st August 1998, Australians and, I believe, New Zealanders no longer required visas for France and Spain. The story about the visas is rather confusing.

Lord Hacking

My Lords, I believe that the English need visas for both Australia and New Zealand.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, I cannot assist in this interesting exchange.

There is a lack of fundamental honesty. Those who want us to abandon our border controls and to hand over, under the Amsterdam Treaty, within the next five years, control of our immigration, asylum and visa policies, and so on, do not have the courage to advocate openly a federal Europe. They want to dismantle the British state because they believe that a better system will he created only if we merge completely with our continental neighbours. I believe in friendship and co-operation with them, but I believe also in the continuation and power of the British state.

11.58 a.m.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, I speak as a member of the sub-committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. As he introduced the report so comprehensively and clearly, I shall put no further gloss on it.

However, I shall comment on the decision that the Government have reached in seeking participation in some of the Schengen activities relating to police co-operation, including the SIS, while maintaining our existing system of frontier controls for all comers. My understanding is that that decision has been taken but that the formal application has not yet been lodged. When that has been done it will presumably fall to the Commission to examine it and for the other member states to decide.

The Home Secretary writes in his letter to us that when he communicated his decision to our partners at a recent meeting they, including France, welcomed it. However, I read a press report about that meeting which said that the Spanish representative criticised this approach on the grounds that it was cherry-picking. This is interesting in that Spain has a particular reason to examine our decision because of its direct relevance to the border controls between Gibraltar and Spain—a lively issue—and because the expression "cherry-picking" cropped up in our discussion with the Parliamentary Secretary on 10th February. It occurs to me that the Spanish authorities as well as our own have been studying our report. The attitude of Spain will be crucial to our request and is much as we predicted in our discussion with the Parliamentary Secretary, Kate Hoey.

Before proceeding further I should comment on some of the points which were made by the noble Lord, Lord Borne, in his very effective speech. The best of his points was his reference to the weakness in the external controls on the long land frontiers of the existing European Union. He has a point there, but the more serious point is the weakness of the borders of the acceding states in the case of a further enlargement. This is a matter which will have to be considered very seriously in the enlargement negotiations. I concede that the problem exists. I saw it for myself when living in Italy 10 years ago, visiting a fishing port on the south-western coast of Sicily and seeing the arrival of a weekly ship from Tunisia. A flood of people emerged from this ship, walked off the quay and disappeared into the countryside. There was no effective control. The problem does exist. I believe that the member states who suffer from it are attempting to take steps to deal with it.

The noble Lord questioned whether future police co-operation should be dependent upon full membership of Schengen. One may indeed ask why that is so. All we said in our report was that the evidence available to us suggested that the authorities in continental countries would not be able to continue the existing informal communications they make to us if we do not join Schengen. We take that as a reasonably well-established fact. We may not like it but we have to take account of it. If we stay outside Schengen, or only as a limited member of it, we will not be able to receive the valuable intelligence from continental police authorities which we receive at present.

His third point related to identity cards, and this has been taken up by a number of other speakers in the debate. We had considerable discussion among ourselves about identity cards and the subject has, of course, been debated on the Floor of this House on a number of occasions. I was interested to learn from listening to the points made by members of the committee that there was by no means the general view adopted by a number of speakers such as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and the noble Lord, Lord Shore, about the need for identity cards to accompany a lowering of our frontiers. This is something which I personally do not readily understand. However, if it is desired for this matter to be pursued further, we could perhaps have a debate about it on another occasion.

I do of course understand that the Government have serious long-term responsibilities in this area and that their decision was not an easy one. For a number of reasons I personally regret their decision about a partial application to Schengen: first, because it shows that, contrary to expectation and hope, this Government have maintained the policy of half co-operation in Europe which has dogged us for so many years. This is not the spirit in which the Labour Party solicited votes on European matters at the last election. This decision will be widely noticed in European capitals as a significant continuation of the "half in, half out" policies of earlier British governments since the signature of the Treaty of Rome. They, and some of us in this Chamber, had hoped for a different and more positive approach. I certainly did.

I also regret the Government's partial decision since I believe it to be based on attitudes and opinions which look questionable. All experience of the modus operandi of the European Union and its institutions indicates that the right way to influence policy is to be a full partner from the inception of a new policy or institution, the clearest and most painful example being, as we all know, the common agricultural policy. I draw attention to the remark of one of our witnesses, Mr. Adrian Fortescue, who said: I have never yet seen an example where the United Kingdom's position was easier by joining in later". Many of us would agree with that sentiment. There are important matters to be decided shortly regarding the protection of data on the SIS computer systems, for example, in which we have a strong interest, as has already been remarked upon by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and as a later report from the sub-committee will make even clearer. If we are not a full partner our views will carry little weight.

There are some matters of significant detail in the Home Office arguments which look dubious to me. In his letter to our chairman the Home Secretary writes: systematic frontier controls are the best arrangement for the United Kingdom. I am not persuaded by comparisons with France, which has an entirely different geography". Of course the Home Secretary is right about the geography: yes, the Channel exists. But the point we were making was rather different, namely, that it is the common experience of our partners that illegal immigration is not regularly prevented by frontier controls but by the receipt of intelligence from friendly police forces and by subsequent checks on social security payments and tax investigations. It is these parallel measures which lead to the discovery of illegal immigrants. The majority of illegal immigrants seem to have entered quite legally and to have overstayed their sojourn. Maintaining frontier controls, whatever their symbolic importance may be, does little or nothing to prevent this happening. We quoted our French witness, to whom the Home Secretary objected, because he gave us a particularly clear and authoritative account of the situation in his country, and his experience is not dissimilar from that of our British official witnesses.

There are problems connected with the frontier controls. They have a certain symbolic importance of course, but it has become pretty symbolic. I happen to live close to an estuary on the coast of eastern England where the closure of the coastguard station, which previously controlled the entry into a small river, has been abandoned. It is now manned on a voluntary basis at holiday weekends in the summer. There is every reason to suppose that funny activities are going on here but we no longer seem to have the resources to deal with them.

I question whether we are right to maintain the existing differentiation at ports of entry between holders of British and European passports and everyone else, regardless of the origin of their travel. Controls in Schengen countries follow the quite different distinction between travellers from other Schengen countries on the one hand and those from elsewhere. Our practice effectively ignores the presence on our doorstep of a large common travel area from which we have deliberately cut ourselves off. This is a matter of some long-term significance. It also means that our citizens travelling in the opposite direction will be treated as aliens on arrival at continental ports of entry and may be subject to long delays. The supposed advantage of a machine-readable common format passport will not be available at such points of entry so far as I know. In my own experience recently every detail had to be checked on a computer screen. Although the Parliamentary Secretary assured us that we have machines which can "swipe"—the word she used—the new common format passport, I have held one of these passports for a year and it has never been swiped by any passport control officer.

It is also argued that the expense of converting our immigration control system into separate channels for EC and non-EC passport holders at airports and ports will be excessive. A figure of several hundred million pounds per airport was mentioned. I am sceptical about these figures and I hope that the Government will have them assessed independently. I suggest that where new terminals are designed, such as Terminal 5 at Heathrow (if it is built), the layout will be such that flexible adaptation to a two-channel system will be made possible without wholesale reconstruction. We were told that the recent conversion of Schiphol airport terminals had been horrendously expensive. No doubt airport operators are happy to have their premises expensively modernised at government expense but such large changes should not be necessary. I recall a time in the 1980s when, following a terrorist incident at Hellenikon airport in Athens, we decided to process passengers coming from Athens through a separate channel. This was done quite quickly without undue fuss and expense with flexible barriers and prominent notices in Greek. So it can be done. As the proverb says: Where there's a will, there's a way". It seems to me that what is missing is the will. I suggest to the Government that it is a mistake to regard these issues as technical matters only to be determined on the basis of administrative convenience and domestic experience. The decision conveyed in the Home Secretary's letter is a high-profile matter, which will have an unfortunate repercussion in other European capitals. It will also prove difficult to execute in practice as we depend on the assent of other member states which may well not be readily forthcoming. Therefore, I hope that the Government will be able to reconsider the decisions they have taken in the matter, which I believe will turn out to be difficult to sustain.

Of course, we are the inheritors of a very strict system of passport control. We may think that it serves our purposes as well, but it also leads to some very peculiar results. One episode amusingly described in a novel written by Evelyn Waugh is worth recalling. It relates to a traveller returning from abroad after an absence of some time who is, perhaps, rather dishevelled. He attracts the attention of a Customs officer who obliges him to open his rucksack. When he does so, the latter rifles through the contents, picks up a book and holds it up in triumph saying, "Ah! 'The Works of Aristotle-Illustrated Edition', I knows real filth when I see it". It is those old-fashioned attitudes that I believe we have to alter.

12.11 p.m.

Lord Hacking

My Lords, perhaps I may begin with an apology to my noble friend Lord Shore and to the House as a whole over my little exchange with the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner. It seemed to me that if your Lordships were going to move from the subject of the Schengen Accord to an entirely different subject—namely, the immigration visa policy between ourselves and the Antipodes—we should do so on a proper factual basis.

I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, sitting on the Woolsack. It was a great pleasure to receive the invitation from him, as the chairman of our European Committee, to serve on Sub-Committee F when my time was up on Sub-Committee E. Therefore, I have once again had the pleasure of serving under a very able, very intelligent and highly diligent chairman. I join with other noble Lords in thanking and praising our chairman who guided us through the report and through its sensitive issues in a way which received the support of the entire committee.

Perhaps I may make a general comment upon our committee reports because it is directly germane to this debate. I believe that they continue to make a most significant contribution in the European Union, of which we are a full treaty member. I understand from some quarters that it is thought our reports appear to have a pro-EU stance. Indeed, it might even be said of this report that it appears to have this stance. Therefore, I should like to say a few words on that point.

First, I do not believe that that is true of either this report or of other reports produced by the committees upon which I have served. If the proper test of scrutiny is applied, all committees which I know of—and I have participated in and been a member of both Sub-Committee E and Sub-Committee F—have taken their scrutiny role most seriously and have critically examined the EC or EU measure before them. In doing so, they have come out with important points, as indeed we do in this report, for and against the subject matter.

It is quite natural that our reports should be positive because the purpose is to persuade the UK Government, the Commission, the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament that improvements should be made. That is why I believe that our reports are so influential. It is also natural that those who serve on these committees should be interested in the European Union and its development. Therefore, I hope that noble Lords not present in the House today, especially my noble friend the Government Chief Whip, and the noble Lords the Opposition Chief Whip and the Chief Whip of the Liberal Democrats, will read these comments in Hansard. I believe them to be true. I also believe that they express views which are generally held in this House.

I said that these comments were germane to our report because in the very last paragraph of it—indeed, in the last line of the last clause of it—we say: Weaker United Kingdom influence over the development of European policies will mean that such policies will reflect the preferences of others, and fail to take into account particular United Kingdom concerns". Therefore, it was very heartening to receive a copy of the letter that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary sent to my noble friend—if I may describe him as such—the chairman of Sub-Committee F. In that letter the Home Secretary said: We share the view of the committee that it is in the best interests of the United Kingdom to be involved as far as possible in the development of the European-wide policies on these sensitive issues". I thought that they were warming words. I, too, have been warmed by the willingness of the Home Secretary to accept important recommendations in our report and, most particularly, the recommendation about increased police co-operation and participation in the Schengen Information System.

It is not a case of our report being rejected by the Government. Although the entirety of the report has not been accepted, important items in it have been accepted. Once again—I return to the point which I made previously—that shows that the role of our reports is to influence our own Government and other bodies in the European Union. When that proves to be the case, we have succeeded in our task. I also share the view expressed by my noble friend Lord Bridges. I regret that the entirety of our report has not been accepted. I shall not repeat the arguments put forward by my noble friend but, suffice it to say, I agree with what he said.

In my few further words to your Lordships, I intend to concentrate on the issue of the frontier border. In doing so, I wish to emphasise that we were making a positive contribution on the issue. From the evidence that we received we concluded that the European Union and the peoples of the European Union would be better served on such important matters as dealing with crime and immigration by a frontier system which was not a symbolic one but one which ran effectively through co-operation among member states. In short, it should be a frontier system which was selective in nature rather than a formal systematic one.

The chairman of our committee remembered going abroad in 1961—namely, to France—and recalled the diligence with which he and his distinguished fellow traveller were treated at both Dover and Calais. I believe it was a matter of 15 minutes' diligence at Dover and 20 minutes' diligence at Calais, after which he ended up with chalk marks on his luggage. Indeed, I and other noble Lords well remember the treatment that we received when we went through Customs control in our younger days.

We also know from our present travels, for business or pleasure, that we frequently now find ourselves going through Customs clearance. We know that great numbers of us go through the green line and few of us go through the red line to disclose the odd item. We know that as we go through the green channel, often there are not any Customs officials there at all. If they are there, they take cursory looks at the busy throngs of passengers passing through the line. On the basis of numbers only, clearly one cannot have a tight, effective frontier control system just run through the formal frontier itself.

It was important to our committee to receive evidence from, for example, France, which said that the removal of the formal frontier resulted in better co-operation between respective police forces and a better system for detecting those who were carrying illegal goods over the frontier. We should remember that under Schengen we are entitled for reasons of national need to impose without notice formal frontier checks. It is much better to introduce formal frontier checks by surprise than to have them there permanently. If one wishes to carry illegal goods over the frontier and one knows that there is a formal frontier post, one will take precautions to avoid detection; in other words, one will be on the alert as one goes through the area.

As far as concerns the United Kingdom, we should remind ourselves that our frontier is indeed different from the land frontiers of other countries in the European Union; sometimes they have mountains, sometimes they have fields. However, it should not be thought that our sea frontier protects us better. The sea gives us a long, long coastline—I cannot remember the length of the coastline around the United Kingdom—and in calm weather and on non-moonlit nights it enables goods to be brought over which do not pass through any formal frontier.

Our views expressed on the issue of the frontier were practical and based upon the experience of those who gave evidence. I would remind your Lordships most particularly—although we did not receive specific evidence on it—about our relationship with Ireland. I need not remind your Lordships about the problem of serious crime passing through our frontier with Ireland—lorries have come through the frontier to blow up the City of London—but we do not have a formal frontier between Ireland and the United Kingdom. One result of that has been much better co-operation between ourselves and the Irish police and a much better chance of detection.

The bottom line, the position which our report has taken—which I endorse in its entirety—is that it is better to have effective frontiers than symbolic, non-effective frontiers.

12.23 p.m.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the chairman and so many members of the committee in commending the report to the House. Many noble Lords have spoken and all have demonstrated their areas of expertise.

The chairman of the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in commending the report to the House, has spoken—as have many others who spoke after him—about border controls, the significant part of the Schengen acquis which the Government did not embrace. It is not for me to follow that line of reasoning as many other noble Lords have already done so with great effectiveness.

This is a vastly important report. The noble Lord, Lord Hacking, commented on the committee's role to influence government. I believe that the report and its predecessor, its sister report of last year, has not only influenced government but has allowed more of us in this House and in the other place to participate in the Government's recent decision to incorporate some elements of the Schengen acquis than would otherwise have been the case. The Schengen acquis is a very complex issue. Indeed, we have heard that the Home Secretary describes it as an issue that touches on many sensitivities. I hope to enlarge upon that point and bring it to the attention of your Lordships. I welcome the Government's decision to embrace the parts of the Schengen acquis that they have already achieved and where they have already set up the groundwork for future framework partnerships.

Apart from allowing us to intervene in these debates, the report has much value because it is increasingly important that the United Kingdom becomes a more truly active player in a wider range of multilateral organisations and agreements, particularly in the European Union, than we have been for the preceding 18 years. Both globally and regionally, for economic, political, defence and social reasons, we have to be a key player. As an island, we are increasingly tied now to other countries and therefore geographical borders, including our own, have become increasingly irrelevant to many of our activities. As we all know, our economy depends now in very large part on closer ties with our partners in the European Union. Our political future requires close co-operation with our European partners in many areas of communication and movement.

I propose now to talk about the Schengen information flow, which has received only a light touch from earlier speakers today. I spoke about it in the previous debate on Schengen on 6th November 1998. I urged the Government then to enter formally the Schengen Information System at the earliest possible opportunity. In relation to the point I made, the Government spokesman. the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, replied: I was not surprised that she"— referring to myself— pushed the Government to go further than I or anyone else on these Benches or the Government Benches in another place are prepared to go at the moment". —[Official Report, 6/11/98; col.486.1 Soon afterwards the Government went further and declared that they would be incorporating the Schengen Information System at the earliest possible opportunity.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, quoted Evelyn Waugh in his remarks. I go a little further. Like Oliver Twist, it is my right and duty on behalf of the citizens of the European Union to ask the Government for more. That is what I now propose to do.

It would be a tempting diversion to comment upon the travel aspects of the chairman of the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, but if I were to talk about my own travels I fear that I might waste the time of your Lordships' House, save for amusement. Nonetheless, at about the time the noble Lord was travelling to France I flew to Africa. I went in a hurry to sort out a computer problem in a central African republic. I knew it would be a fast trip and so I took one cotton dress in a Marks and Spencer bag. When I returned I had that little bag with me and two vital pieces of information, two computer hard disks which contained the erroneous computer bootstrap routine which was wrecking that particular government's pension plan. I had considerable difficulty with the Customs. They would not let me through. "Madam, where is your luggage. We do not believe that you went to central Africa with one plastic bag and came back with these disks. Until you tell us where your suitcase is and what is in it, we will not let you through". I tell that story to illustrate to the House that the most valuable thing I was carrying was not goods but knowledge. Today, that hard disk knowledge could be transferred by e-mail. We are an information-based society. The flow of knowledge and the ability to manipulate that knowledge are the keys to power and success.

Now that we have so properly announced our intention to enter the Schengen Information System, I am concerned that we should grasp the opportunity to protect the individual citizens on whom that system collects such large amounts of knowledge. In the Home Secretary's statement to the committee outlining the Government's positive approach to Schengen, he stated clearly that the Schengen Information System exists for law enforcement and judicial co-operation. That is correct. but I would suggest that our Government, above all others, must, as a newcomer to the Schengen Information System, take this opportunity to look at the ways in which that information on our citizens and on non-citizens from third countries—asylum-seekers—can be protected. I suggest that there is a dichotomy here and one that goes further than the usual conflict between the growth of liberty and the growth of knowledge about citizens. We have to become more technical because it is technology and technical issues that bite on an individual's freedom of speech or movement. This is not a broad-brush philosophical issue but a matter of practicalities. Technology is the key on which our citizens' freedom will stand or fall in future.

In the United Kingdom we have at last embraced the European Convention on Human Rights, with Article 8 on personal privacy. Unwillingly under the previous government and now more willingly under the present Government, we are starting to incorporate the 1996 European Union directive on data protection into our law. Although the Data Protection Act 1998 is being brought on stream slowly, it is nonetheless on the way. I thank the Government for that. However, I remind the House that the only data protection demands the Schengen Information System places on member states which participate in it are those outlined in the 1981 Council of Europe convention. That convention was the father and mother and indeed the grandparents of the consequential European Union data protection legislation. However, it is very old. It went to print in 1981. It was more than 10 years in gestation before that. Governments are worse than elephants. They take far longer to bring things to birth. The convention's gravest weaknesses are its complete ignorance of controlled-circuit television, its reliance on the integrity of paper records—therefore, paper records are barely drawn into the 1981 convention—and its complete ignorance of digital telephonic transmission. Set-top boxes, which are being given to consumers free of charge by at least one major broadcasting organisation, had not been invented at that time.

We know how much life has moved on since 1981. Many things have happened in terms of the capture of data, their incorporation, their merging and their transmission which were unknown then. Will the Government grasp this challenge? Will they undertake to look at why the Schengen Information System relies on the antiquated and outdated convention of 1981, fine though it was in its day? It was the forerunner of draft directives and consequential legislation in member states but it is nonetheless so out of date that it is to all intents and purposes of little value. That is my first request. When the Government are looking at that, will they look also at the growth of data in the electronic era? Computing power has doubled every 18 months for the past 30 years. It now costs less than 1 per cent. of its 1970 cost. In 1980 telephone calls over copper wire carried one page of information per second. Now, optical fibre transports 90,000 volumes in a second. The electronic era has been marked by falling prices and faster and faster transmission of more and more information.

I have before me data on the strength and power of controlled-circuit television. I visited a police installation in Sussex the other day. The cameras are manned 24 hours a day. They can zoom in on a car and on its number plate. From that the police can find a name and address and they can then zoom in on a house. It is an exceptionally powerful system. The same is true in terms of digital telephone transmission. Every telephone call that is bounced off a satellite is recorded. Every mobile telephone call can thus be tracked and listened to. In addition, the desk-top boxes that are being given away for digital television will track by telephonic methods purchases, inquiries and so on and thereby build up an entire customer, family and household profile. We are in a new world.

When we look at Schengen we see that the police are entitled to undertake hot pursuit across borders. That works very well with controlled-circuit television. The police will know exactly who they are going after. Schengen states will also have access to a common pool of data. The common pool of data will cover more and more countries. As the common pool of data will contain data on individuals suspected of committing a criminal offence, the presumption of innocence will have gone. With CCTV individuals are on the police file immediately and from there feature in the common pool of data. In addition to tracking the heavy criminal fraternity we are identifying potentially through the SIS the most vulnerable group of people in the world today—stateless people, asylum-seekers and refugees. Yet another concern these days is the plundering of personal data, which is so easy through computer hacking. That can have fatal consequences not just for vulnerable refugees personally but for their families back home. It is a very troubling situation.

I have some practical proposals for the Government to consider. One is encryption of the records on the Schengen Information System. Effective encryption is expensive. But if we value personal privacy in any shape or form, we should work on encryption processes.

Secondly, we should limit access. Many thousands of individuals already have access through their work, different organisations, the police from member states into the Schengen Information System. I am deeply concerned that this broad and deep access to the common pool of Schengen-acquired data will enable personal or group grudges to be worked off against individuals. Schengen may compromise the security of thousands, and soon, it would be my guess, several millions of people whose personal details will be contained within the system. What about firm limits on the levels of access to individual records for different levels of officials?

Thirdly, care should be taken in relation to knowledge sharing. We discussed this matter on many occasions during our debates on data protection legislation. Knowledge sharing means the creation of common pools of data. Apart from the concerns I have already mentioned, given human error it is true to state that the more knowledge is shared, the more inaccuracies are extrapolated. Computer data is not fault free; data entry clerks are not faultless. Many mistakes are entered into any computer system. At least 1 per cent or half a per cent of all data will inevitably be false. It will be inaccurate through error, not necessarily on purpose—although there is also the deliberate inclusion of false data.

I remind the House that government departments, even in the United Kingdom, are entitled to sell knowledge on individual citizens to outside organisations. The vehicle licensing department in Swansea is entitled, on the presumption of very little information from outside organisations such as supermarkets, to sell back the knowledge of who owns what number plate. So we have an extraordinary variety of knowledge sharing here already in the United Kingdom. In addition to knowledge sharing within government departments, our Government shares knowledge with outside organisations. Knowledge sharing on a wider scale than this is infinitely more troubling. I ask the Government to examine knowledge sharing within the Schengen Information System.

Again I bring before the Government the key question of the ownership of data on individuals. Of course some elementary individual rights of access are built in based on the 1981 European Council convention. But find me the asylum seeker who is awaiting deportation on the plane the following morning who will have the confidence or knowledge to demand sight of the information on which his deportation order was taken. He will not be allowed that information. There will not be time. He will be deported.

Several years ago there was a pilot scheme relating to medical cards. It went extremely well. The idea was that the individual would carry a medical card on which would be all his or her medical data stored electronically. Therefore, when that person had an accident, was ill or needed medicine the card could be swiped through the ambulance or pharmacist's computer and information regarding his or her medical characteristics could be fed straight through to the doctor or hospital. That pilot scheme, which took place under the Conservative government, was stopped. It was a valuable scheme. The interesting point about it from the perspective of this debate was who owned the smartcard data. After a large number of parliamentary Questions I discovered that the Secretary of State for Health owns all the data on all National Health Service patients in the United Kingdom, not the patient.

I suggest that discussing the need or otherwise for ID cards is almost an irrelevancy. The scope of electronic surveillance and data gathering on all of us is so vast that all the information about us is already known.

I say almost an irrelevancy—but not quite. Who does not have the knowledge? The individuals themselves. They are in ignorance about the data held on them. I begin to wonder whether the introduction of an ID card, with ownership of the information on that card pertaining to the individual on whom that knowledge has been gathered might not in the end be a security for the individual against these invisible forces—governments, Schengen and outside organisations alike, which otherwise hold sway unchallenged.

I commend this report to the House.

12.44 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, noble Lords will be grateful to the sub-committee for its work on this subject; for the report itself, so ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire; and for the evidence that the committee drew from others. I am not in sympathy with all the report's conclusions. Nevertheless, the committee's work has illuminated the subject at a most useful time, with the Immigration and Asylum Bill coming before this House. I am much more in sympathy with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, and those who have supported him in this debate.

There are two aspects to a consideration of this matter. The first is how immigration, asylum and visa policy should be decided; secondly, how, once it has been decided, it should be applied and enforced. The first question—namely, how policy should be decided for the UK—hinges not only on constitutional matters, expressed so forcefully by the noble Lord, Lord Shore, but also on whether the United Kingdom needs or wants to move to the same policy on these sensitive matters as that of other European Union countries.

At present our policy differs in some respects from that of other EU countries, particularly with regard to Commonwealth citizens. The committee did not list the differences. In view of the earlier exchanges between the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, and my noble friend Lady Gardner, it would have been helpful had they been listed. However, some of the material emerges in the evidence. I noted in particular the example of young Commonwealth citizens below the age of 28 who can come to this country on a working holiday for two years. It caught my eye particularly because one of my daughters is presently benefiting from a similar provision in Australia during a gap year. The general point is that unless we are content now and for the distant future to abandon our ability to have such preferences and to move towards a single European Union immigration policy, we need to retain the responsibility here, with this Parliament, advised by our Government.

Much of this debate has, like the report, been concerned with implementation of the controls once they have been decided. The committee rightly observed that immigration control at UK frontiers is not the all-embracing, effective bar to illegal immigration that it is sometimes supposed to be. However, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, exaggerated widely when he spoke of the controls being merely symbolic.

This country has the advantage of mainly sea boundaries. Our land boundary with the Irish Republic is a special case in many respects. If we were to abandon border controls on flights and ships arriving from the EU, we should have to redesign our ports, as the committee states. It is clear that that would be expensive, although the exact cost is difficult to ascertain.

More importantly, we need to be sure that we have got over the problem that all those arriving, for example, from Schiphol, have not necessarily started their journey in Holland. They may easily have come from further away. The same applies to everywhere else in the EU. People may have come from somewhere else in the EU or much further afield. Conversely, many passengers arriving at Heathrow fly on to other destinations, by transferring to another flight or simply by staying on hoard the same aircraft and travelling to a further destination inside or outside the EU. No doubt the problems of deciding when these people actually pass into the EU and need to have controls applied on going through the EU frontier—never mind the United Kingdom frontier—could be overcome at a price in money, but it would also mean a loss of control and perhaps a loss also of ease of travel for all transfer passengers. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, in fact acknowledged, as the report does, the serious concern that exists about this among, for example, airport authorities.

However, coming back to the border controls themselves, the committee was persuaded that the increased numbers of travellers will soon make the systematic controls impossible—I do not think I misrepresent their view on that. In any case, they are not the most important controls. With respect to the sub-committee, like the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, I agree that the facts that border controls are not 100 per cent effective and that they are not the only controls does not mean that we should abandon them straightaway, in favour only of the so-called compensatory measures that have been referred to.

I have no illusions about the border controls sys tern being perfect. I had responsibility for a while for Customs and Excise at the Treasury. That was at a time when Customs and Excise was being, as it were, pushed away from frontier controls, partly by the EU. Customs officers, like immigration staff, rely to a great extent on intelligence. They always have done so, as a matter of fact. The lack of border immigration controls between the Schengen member states is compensated for, so they say, by other measures, in particular additional police and intelligence co-operation, to counter illegal immigration and cross-border crime.

I certainly welcome all such co-operation and I recall also from my time with Customs and Excise the very extensive co-operation that there is at present. The highly computerised system goes much wider than the European Union and is very important in the Caribbean and many other countries, so far as Customs and Excise and the immigration authorities are concerned. Some of the Schengen extra co-operation measures, such as hot pursuit and joint border police patrols, are of course relevant to land boundaries only. Our only land boundary is with the Irish Republic, and there are special considerations there. Personally, I should love to see hot pursuit and joint RUC/Garda controls on that border, but the inhibitions are not on our side there, and in any case that is a matter for another day.

However, there is concern that other countries within the Schengen system may not wish to maintain and develop co-operation between police forces if we do not sign up to the full Schengen measures. I must say that I regard that as problematical at best. As I mentioned, the Customs authorities co-operate very well—that co-operation ranges much wider than the EU—as do the police. Our police have as much to give as to get from such co-operation with overseas countries. It is of mutual benefit for everyone to co-operate. Indeed, we co-operate well and much wider than the EU. I doubt whether any policeman will stop co-operating on such grounds or fail to develop the best possible co-operation between police forces across any frontier. I think that any politician who inhibited the co-operation of the police against international crime and illegal immigration would be contemptible. That is not something which could be supported for any length of time.

Of course, the Schengen Information System takes co-operation to a new level. Information on suspects is to be available in real time for all police forces from all the other forces in the system. This can obviously be extremely valuable, provided that you trust other people's police with sensitive information, based on suspicion and not proved, about your citizens as well as those of other countries. There are obvious risks here, mainly for discussion on another occasion, I think, but there are also great advantages. Although we must build in safeguards, I believe that we should do our best to join up to the Schengen Information System, with the aid of the safeguards.

In referring to immigration control methods, the committee (and noble Lords in this debate) touched on the question of identity cards although the committee rather shied away from that question. The chairman's word was "avoided". So far as I can see, if full United Kingdom frontier controls were to be abandoned, the introduction of such cards would be essential as an aid to internal control. I think that the two go together. I am not against voluntary identity cards; on the contrary, I rather support the idea many people already have written documents from various official sources and they have to produce them regularly. One thinks of pension books, health cards, proof-of-age cards and driving licences, as well as immigration documents, work permits and so on. They are often in paper form, but these days they could all be put on one "smart" identity card, backed up by computer records. They would need to be produced, as documents now are, for specific dealings with officialdom such as the Department of Social Security, but before long, those without them would obviously have more difficulty in establishing their identity and status. In my book, it would not be an offence to be without one, but if either general identity cards or special ones for use as passports could be used at frontiers, as are passports, that would seem to be a possible way of making the abandonment of frontier controls unnecessary.

The hold-up at the port or airport would be no greater than it is on the tube, when people swipe their tickets through the gates to get on to the platforms. Obviously, cards could be issued to those who have been given visas, valid for the length of time required for the visa, and so on. All these things are in the future. The point is that the future these days comes extremely quickly and we need to think about it more carefully than we are sometimes accustomed to do.

It has been said that having identity cards would be bad for race relations in this country. If I were convinced of that, it would be a most powerful argument with me; but I am not convinced. I think that it is clear that voluntary identity cards, sensitively introduced, would enable people to show the legitimacy of their presence very readily. It would rarely be necessary. It is rarely necessary now, and will not be any more necessary in the future. It would also be much easier with identity cards. On the other hand, given the public's perception of the importance of border controls in curbing illegal immigration, the abandonment of most of those controls, as recommended by the committee, could be exceptionally damaging to race relations.

I do not want immigration officers to be thought of as having as little control over EU borders as Customs and Excise officers are perceived as having, because that is slightly inaccurate, if I may say so to the noble Lord, Lord Hacking. He may not see a Customs officer when he travels, but one-way mirrors operate, and modern technology enables them to see him perhaps slightly more often than he may realise. Nevertheless, there is a general perception that Customs and Excise officers have abandoned the border completely. If people thought that immigration officials had abandoned the border, that would not be good for race relations.

This has been an interesting debate on a most valuable report, and the fact that I do not entirely agree with the committee does not detract at all from my appreciation of its work and the information that it has put before us. I am therefore happy to agree to the Motion.

1 p.m.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I begin by thanking all those who have participated in this excellent debate. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and members of the sub-committee, both those who have participated and those who have been unable to attend today, for the report on Schengen and border controls.

The report deals with a complex area of European Union business. It is also an area of great importance in terms of its potential impact on the people of the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole. The sub-committee's work in this report and earlier ones has done much to shed light on the implications of Schengen and the arrangements for the United Kingdom and to identify for us the issues of greatest importance. It is opportune that the House should consider these issues at this point, only days after the entry into force of the Treaty of Amsterdam which brings with it the formal incorporation into EU structures of the Schengen acquis.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has already written to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, to give the Government's response to the sub-committee's report. This makes clear that the Government share the view of the sub-committee on the benefits of participation in the Schengen provisions on police and criminal judicial co-operation and the Schengen Information System. We are wholly committed to playing a full part in efforts at European level to tackle organised and international crime, but we cannot agree with the suggestion that the Schengen approach to immigration controls is appropriate to the United Kingdom. Aside from the Republic of Ireland, with which we already have a common travel area, we do not share a land border with any other EU country. This is a very significant factor, to which noble Lords referred.

Our geography means that immigration is channelled through our ports and airports. This gives us a natural advantage in controlling immigration and checking for criminal activity. That is an advantage which it is essential to exploit. That was why during negotiations on the Treaty of Amsterdam we obtained the specific consent of our EU partners to the maintenance of our internal frontier controls with other member states. That is enshrined in a protocol to the treaty and we have no intention of giving it up.

The announcement of our intentions as to participation in Schengen, which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary made to the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 12th March, reflected our policy of participation in Schengen to the extent compatible with the UK's position on its frontiers. We shall follow that up with a detailed formal application for participation. I hope and expect that that will be received positively by our EU partners, in the same way that they welcomed our announcement on 12th March.

I have listened with interest to the views of the House on this subject. I should like to respond to some of the points raised. I hope that I shall be forgiven if I do not deal with every point. If necessary, I am prepared to write to noble Lords. I refer first to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, about the decision to maintain systematic border controls. This does not preclude the adoption of other complementary measures, such as airline liaison officers, information sharing and greater reliance on new technology. We are very much aware of the growing pressures on the UK's entry controls arising from the growth in passenger numbers to which the noble Lord referred in his introduction. We are exploring ways to introduce greater flexibility within the controls, including provisions to that effect in the Immigration and Asylum Bill.

As to the provision on visas, to which the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and other noble Lords referred, enhanced visa co-operation under Schengen is closely linked to the provisions for external frontiers. Participation in this would thus conflict with our position on the maintenance of frontier controls. Although there may be some commercial advantage in opting into possible future provisions for mutual recognition of visas, at present we believe that the interests of the UK are best served by remaining outside those measures.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, also referred to the Government's stance on identity cards. A good number of other noble Lords made similar points. The Government have not taken a view one way or the other on the general principle of identity cards. A number of points have been made today both in favour of, and against, identity cards. I believe that the issues go wider than some of the points made in relation to immigration and travel controls. Generally, there would be advantages in terms of individual and administrative convenience. As against that, the change in UK traditions, civil liberties and cost would have to be considered.

A scheme linked to Schengen would raise particular issues. We believe that for that to serve Schengen purposes, even if the scheme for national ID cards was technically voluntary in many cases, it would for certain groups need to be compulsory. To be effective, internal controls would be likely to require the production of a card when requested by the police and when accessing services, benefits and so on. The police would need additional powers to establish immigration status. The inability to produce a card would raise suspicions about residence and rights of immigration status. Such requirements would impact on ordinary citizens. They would change their relationship with the authorities and affect their sense of freedom of movement within this country.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, referred to ethnic minorities. There is a strong feeling that ethnic minorities would be likely to experience more identity checks than other members of the public. The dangers that that would pose are likely to include victimisation and increased tensions with the majority community.

My noble friend Lord Shore and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne, referred to the possibility of mistaken identity. We know that some member states are already seeking to improve arrangements to avoid problems of mistaken identity that already arise under the Schengen Information System; for example, innocent individuals being stopped at borders because their identity details are similar to those of, say, a wanted person. We would welcome changes in that area.

We take very seriously the concerns expressed by some noble Lords about the need for safeguards concerning the information that is entered on the system. We fully recognise the importance of ensuring that the data are reliable and properly managed. We are studying the data protection provisions of the convention very carefully; in particular, we are examining whether we need to legislate to provide the additional safeguards laid down in the articles.

The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, said that the Government were cherry-picking in relation to Schengen. It is not the intention to cherry-pick. We do not expect other member states to accept that. Our approach has been to identify blocks of activity for future co-operation, not to select individual measures within Schengen.

I can assure the noble Lord that relations between the Home Secretary and his Spanish opposite number, Senor Major Oreja, are good. We are confident that we shall be able to work with Spain to overcome any difficulties that may arise during negotiations on our application.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, raised a number of points and made some constructive suggestions in relation to new technology. I said that I would not respond to all those issues and I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that to take up the point she raised so eloquently would be extremely difficult and time consuming on this occasion.

We are dealing today with an area of co-operation which, for the European Union, is in many ways uncharted territory. The new arrangements will reinforce and build on existing European co-operation against international and organised crime. It is in our interests for the UK to play a full part in that. Now that Schengen incorporation has taken effect, it is open to us to make an application to participate in those provisions that we wish. We shall waste no time in doing that.

Today's debate has been valuable. It has been an opportunity for us to consider issues important to the UK over the coming period. I am grateful to noble Lords who have made helpful contributions to the debate, and to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for his chairmanship of Sub-Committee F and his contribution to today's debate. We shall continue to keep Parliament informed of development on the Schengen acquis and our participation in it. We look forward to further opportunities to debate those issues.

1.11 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate. The purpose of all-party committee reports is to provide information and analysis, and to promote debate.

Perhaps I may say this to the noble Lord, Lord Shore, and others who suggested that there might have been an ideological undertone to our proceedings. It was very much an all-party committee. There were those on the committee of different parties who would like us to have written a stronger report. We hope that we have contributed to what will be an ongoing debate. One of our strongest messages is, as the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said, that this is an area in which the future arrives extremely quickly. As the Minister said, we are in uncharted territory. I still find the speed of underlying movement in practice remarkable.

Only 10 years ago, I chaired an ACPO seminar about international collaboration with our European partners. Most of the chief constables concerned had not had direct contact with their opposite numbers. The situation now with NCIS, with several police liaison officers in other capitals across Europe and databases coming onstream on a range of matters, takes us into a different world from 10 years ago.

I recognise the logic of the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Shore. However, part of what we said in the report is that we are now caught in a contradiction between what we claim to do and what we actually do. If we want to maintain effective border controls, the noble Lord is quite correct: we should at least double the number of immigration officers. My experience of the past year has been that my passport was examined more carefully in Frankfurt and Brussels than in London, because those cities are rather better staffed than we are.

The committee is conducting a number of future inquiries into a subject which continues to move very quickly. In September in Finland there will be the first-ever European Council concerned purely with the sector of justice and home affairs. In June and July, we shall ask what the agenda of the meeting should be. The agenda has not yet been arranged. We are currently conducting an inquiry into the work of computer databases on which my noble friend Lady Nicholson spoke with a good deal of expertise. Not only is the Schengen Information System up and running; there is also the Customs Information System to which the noble Lord, Lord Cope, referred. There is the Europol system, and Eurodac, a fingerprint system on which Sub-Committee E is currently preparing a report.

We intend to move on to the implications of further enlargement for the whole regime. There are many further questions.

I hope that the utility of the report is that we attempted to assess current practices and how far those practices fit with current principles. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, regrets that he is not able to be with us today. He was one of the more active members of our committee. On several occasions he pressed witnesses to answer the question: how far have we looked at the costs and benefits of different alternatives? That surely is the question we should address.

In conclusion, I quote from the White Paper on immigration and asylum of July 1998. It was one of the starting points of our inquiry. Paragraph 6.5 states: Without modernisation and greater operational flexibility, so that resources are targeted more effectively on tackling abuse and clandestine entry rather than routine work, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain effective frontier controls, cope with passenger growth, deliver the kind of service standards that facilitate trade, tourism and education, and maintain the UK's position as an international hub". That is the set of contradictory objectives which the Government have to tackle. That is why in paragraph 46 of the report we concluded: The Committee does not believe that the status quo remains a long-term option". I commend the report to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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