HL Deb 13 November 2001 vol 628 cc451-4

2.44 p.m.

Lord Hylton

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have discussed with the French Government the possibility of joint Franco-British assessment at Sangatte of third country nationals wishing to enter either the United Kingdom or France; and, if so, with what result.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, the British and French Governments are currently pursuing a number of initiatives aimed at resolving the immigration problems in northern France. We are actively considering ways to encourage a more orderly asylum system which will help in the fight against illegal immigration and reduce the pressures at Sangatte.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. I am sure the Minister is aware that the situation is now much worse than when we discussed this subject last week because the French railways have closed the Channel Tunnel to all freight trains, thus severely disrupting trade. Will the two Governments, therefore, at least agree to the presence of British frontier officers in France? If that can be done, will it not help to separate economic migrants from genuine refugees?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, there are British immigration officers in France. Indeed, by the end of the month we shall have increased the number from 40 to 45. At Coquelles they will work 174 extra shifts per week by the end of this month. The noble Lord referred to the difficulties with the freight system operated by SNCF. There have been difficulties in the past few days. It is probable that the security of the freight site, for which SNCF is wholly responsible, has not received the same attention as the tunnel. That has shifted the clandestines, who will look for weaknesses, from one to the other. I understand that that situation is being rapidly addressed in the interests of trade between our two countries.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, do the Government agree that the use of the Sangatte centre goes beyond a joke? We hear that 74 people from Afghanistan and Iraq arrived on freight trains on 6th November. Does the Minister agree that the Sangatte centre is a symptom of a far wider problem; namely, that we are trying to reformulate an asylum policy, some but not all of which is welcomed by these Benches, without having a clear immigration policy?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, in recent weeks and days I have explained at some length that in January we shall produce a White Paper setting out what we hope will be a managed migration system. That will enable us to arrive at a system of managed migration from areas where there is pressure and conflict, not clandestines in the European Union. If we start to operate a system that picks up clandestines within the European Union it will become the most serious "pull" factor for people traffickers than anything we can possibly design in the areas of the world that are in conflict. We hope that regard will be had to the wider picture when we publish the White Paper in January.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, can my noble friend bring the House up to date on the outcome of discussions to introduce a common system to deal with asylum applications right the way across the European Union?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I wish that I could. Discussions are ongoing, and it is crucial that neither we nor the French operate in isolation. As we debated briefly last week at Question Time, we must reform the Dublin Convention. Within the European Union, working in conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, we need a managed system so that, while Europe takes a fair share of the responsibility, it does so in a way that does not create a "pull" factor or provide extra financial incentives to the people traffickers. We can do that only with a better managed migration system where there are ways to enable people to come to this country to work, which the vast majority of these people want to do. At the end of the day, the majority of the claims do not appear to be based on a well-founded belief as required by the 1951 convention. But in our discussions we must look at access to jobs and the economy in a more managed way. The Home Secretary will be in Brussels on Friday to further discussions on trying to find a European-wide solution.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, before the White Paper appears, can the noble Lord tell the House what has happened to the principle in the UN convention on refugees that the first safe country in which an asylum seeker arrives is duty bound to consider that person's claim to asylum? The UK and France are both signatories to that convention. The purpose of that principle was to make certain that would-be asylum seekers were not subject to a system of pass-the-parcel between safe countries. Why is that principle not being enforced by the French at the moment?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the short answer is that it is probable that the people concerned do not make a claim for asylum while they are in France.

Lord McNally

My Lords, this is—I use the phrase—"passing the parcel". While we wait for European-wide agreement, is there not a massive case for Franco-British co-operation by means of a joint ministerial committee that can bring together the various agencies to look at the problem? It is a problem for Britain and France to solve first. While we wait for the European-wide solution, a real joint government effort On this matter could produce immediate results.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, that may sound seductive, but most of the people arriving in France have come through a safe European Union country. Therefore, it is in the interests of both the French Government and the UK Government to achieve a European solution to the problem. It is not one, with respect to the noble Lord, that Britain and France can solve on their own.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, in separating economic migration from asylum seekers, would it not be possible to establish a system whereby applicants for economic status within the United Kingdom could be screened at Sangatte? That would meet much of what is in the document published by the Government last week.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, yes, but if that was done, it would simply increase the flow to Sangatte. It would become the holding centre for access to managed economic migration into the European Union. We must find a way to avoid the need for people to climb on the back of lorries or cling to the axles of railway rolling stock; we must look at the regions they come from and at the areas of the world where the pressures are; and we must take the claims in a more managed way outside the European Union. If we were to screen at Sangatte, it would simply provide a bigger "pull" factor.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. The noble Lord has mentioned the people traffickers several times. Does he agree that many of these traffickers—agents as they are known—operate within countries whose governments have good relations with the British Government? What is being done to prevent those people dealing in this horrendous trade in human life? It is worse than slavery because their victims are conned into believing that they will get a good job at this end. Very often they do not. Can the noble Lord also say why the traffickers are not picked up at Heathrow and Gatwick airports? They are known to the immigration officers. Apparently, they just go in and out of the airports without any problems.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the people traffickers are picked up and prosecuted. In answer to the first part of the noble Countess's Question, within the past two years, we have placed immigration liaison officers in several countries around the world to assist on the very issue that she raises; that is, to identify people at the points of exit of a country and to give advice to those countries. I understand that there are some 57 officers around the world at the moment. They usually work in pairs. I do not know the exact number of countries they operate in. They are not full time, but they are there on a regular basis. They work on a three or four-month secondment or for a couple of years in some cases. It depends on how safe the country is.

The noble Countess's second point is more difficult. We must have tracking through the airports to make sure that the facilitators and the traffickers who are exchanging documents or removing documents from travellers can be identified—from the point of getting off the plane to when they get to the immigration desk. That may or may not be within a short time. They may loiter around the airport for a considerable period of time, in which case we cannot prove which aircraft they were on. One of the reasons that we are installing closed-circuit television is to help with that issue.