HL Deb 07 November 2001 vol 628 cc200-2

2.52 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What discussions they have had with the European Union and the French concerning the asylum seekers who have passed through Sangatte attempting to enter the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, the United Kingdom is actively involved in discussions with European partners about the European Union's response to illegal immigration and asylum issues. The Sangatte centre has not specifically been discussed at European Union level. But Ministers and officials have regular bilateral discussions with their French counterparts about a range of issues, including Sangatte. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary met Interior Minister Vaillant in Paris on 12th September to discuss a variety of cross-Channel issues, including Sangatte.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, asylum matters within the European Union are regulated by the Dublin Convention of 1990. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government have considered using Article 17 of that convention to bring about change? The article states: If a Member State experiences major difficulties as a result of a substantial change in the circumstances obtaining on conclusion of this Convention, the State in question may bring the matter before the Committee"— that is a committee consisting of representatives of every government within the Community— … so that the latter may put to the Member States measures to deal with the situation or adopt such revisions or amendments to this Convention as appear necessary

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the Dublin Convention does not work. It is a sham. There is no sense in pretending that it works. That is why it is to be replaced with Dublin II. The target date for that is 2004. The present system simply does not work. I understand that evaluation by the Commission itself showed that less than 5 per cent of the total of asylum applications made in the whole of the European Union were dealt with through the existing Dublin mechanism. The time limits do not work.

Simply because someone gets off a train from France, that is not proof that France was the member state that should have looked after him in the first place. That is a real problem and to make the system work we need to reform the Dublin Convention.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, does the Minister accept that no one condones illegal immigration or asylum seekers coming here without the appropriate means by which they can enter the country legally? Can the Minister tell the House whether there is any way by which persons who suffer persecution can enter the United Kingdom through legal means? Is it beyond the scope of the European countries to try to harmonise the policy in that respect? More importantly, does the fact that there is a camp at Sangatte looking after the welfare of asylum seekers make the least bit of difference to people who, for fear of persecution, want to try to get to other countries?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the noble Lord is inviting me to rewrite the 1951 convention which I cannot do. First, the application for asylum has to be made in-country; it cannot be made outside a country. Not everyone who travels here travels illegally, but the majority of the problems are caused by those who travel illegally.

Daily there is an average of 800 people living in the Red Cross warehouse—that is what it is—in Sangatte. If they are in genuine fear of persecution as a result of well-founded beliefs, they can apply for asylum in France. Basically, they are not asylum seekers; they are applying to come to Britain. If they genuinely feared persecution, they could apply to stay in France, which is a safe country. There is no problem in France. That is an issue to be looked at in relation to Sangatte.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, at the moment one Secretary of State is in Spain trying to recruit 1,000 doctors, and yet we do not have in place the talked-about green card scheme that will enable the people whom we would welcome to come here as economic migrants. Can the Minister tell the House of the progress that is being made across the European Union to have a common system to deal with asylum applications?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the latter part of that question refers to the reform of the Dublin Convention. The answer to the first part of the question was in a Statement made to the House on 29th October, in which we said that in January we shall publish a White Paper on asylum and immigration. That will include proposals for reform of the system including a system of managed migration. It will be a series of joined-up systems. At the moment there are many ways in which people can come to this country, but no one would call it a system of managed migration. We shall put that forward in the White Paper in January. If legislation is required, we have already said that we shall bring forward an asylum and immigration Bill in the early spring.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister understand that there is no such thing as an absolutely safe country? The only question is whether the country is safe for that particular applicant. If the applicant concerned is a victim of non-state persecution, such as many of those who have left Northern Ireland for fear of terrorism, France is not a safe country.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, most people who arrive here via Sangatte do not claim non-state persecution; they claim state persecution. I accept that France and Germany take a different view of non-state persecution compared with other European Union members. Both in France and in Germany there is movement to go with the majority and to change their policies. That is an important part of the negotiations that will have to take place on Dublin II. The issue of non-state persecution is not the primary claim made by people who arrive here from Sangatte.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, can the Minister explain the green card system that will commence next January? At least a year ago I had a reply from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, saying that such a system would start in January last year. She did not use the phrase "green card", but it was to be a special form of application for people whom we wanted to come and work in this country.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I hope that I have not confused the House inadvertently. I did not say that the green card or a system of managed migration would start in January. The Government will produce a White Paper with plans for systems of managed migration, some of which, I suspect, will require primary legislation. Therefore, we shall have to go through the legislative process.

On the second part of the question, I suspect that the noble Baroness was referring to the announcement that was made two Novembers ago by the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the scheme for highly qualified people—those with about five PhDs or something like that. We are ready to implement such a scheme, but it is only part of a managed migration programme. We delayed it on the assumption that we would before now be able to put forward full proposals. However, that matter is now being dealt with separately. A date has been fixed, which I am afraid I have forgotten, for the start of the scheme relating to highly qualified people which was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.