HL Deb 08 January 2004 vol 657 cc351-68

5.11 p.m.

Baroness Harris of Richmond rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, further to the report from the Select Committee on the European Union, Proposals for a European Border Guard (29th Report, Session 2002–03, HL Paper 133), what legal controls and parliamentary oversight they believe should apply to new European Union structures for co-ordinating border management and to joint operations between the member states.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am glad to have the opportunity to introduce this short debate on the European Union Select Committee's report on proposals for a European border guard. The debate is particularly timely because the European Commission has recently brought forward a proposal for a new agency to co-ordinate operational co-operation at the European Union's external borders. It gives the House an opportunity to look at this proposal alongside our report.

Before addressing the substance of the report, I would like to pay tribute to all the members of the subcommittee who have worked so hard on this and other recent inquiries, particularly those who have recently left the committee under the rotation rule. I am delighted that so many members of the sub-committee are participating in the debate this afternoon. I also pay great tribute to Professor Jorg Monar, our specialist adviser. Professor Monar has helped us with several previous inquiries, and we were again deeply indebted to him for his wise advice and unrivalled knowledge of the European scene. I also wish to thank our excellent clerk Tony Rawsthorne, who with Valsamis Mitselegas, our legal assistant, gave us the usual efficient, helpful and valuable advice. We are enormously indebted to them.

I make no apologies for inviting the House to debate this report. As it says, frontiers are not only hugely symbolic, they are also of great practical significance, as the place at which checks on a person's admissibility to a country or territory are made. For the European Union, and particularly its Schengen members, effective control of the external border is of paramount importance in view of the abolition of internal frontiers between the Schengen member states. Once a person is admitted to one member state, there is no physical obstacle to his or her moving on to any other. It is self-evident that the strength of the external frontier is only as strong as its weakest link.

Every Schengen member state has an intense interest in ensuring a uniform level of control with no significant weak points. The addition of 10 new member states on I May will mean that the external border is not only greatly increased in length, but pushed much further eastwards. Although controls at the borders between the existing Schengen territories and the new member states will not be abolished overnight—there will he a transitional period of some years—the new member states are all required to adopt the full Schengen acquis and work towards implementing it.

In addressing the terms of the Question, I will focus on three main areas: the idea of a European border guard; the Commission's proposals for a new agency; and the United Kingdom's role in external border cooperation. What exactly would a European border guard consist of? I have to say that we received several different answers to that question. For some it seemed to be no more than the co-ordination of operational co-operation between member states. We were sceptical of that view. Whatever else it might he, a European border guard would surely be a body with some personnel and the responsibility for supporting and overseeing the border control authorities of member states. That is certainly how others saw it.

It is clear from our visit to the German Ministry of the Interior that it favoured a Council body in Brussels that had the power to direct national border authorities. The Commission itself was guarded about its ultimate objective and the Commission's director-general for justice and home affairs assured us that it would be a unit in support of national border guards and not a supra-national body replacing them. It seems clear from other Commission documents, however, that its ultimate aim is some sort of supranational force. One of these refers to the creation of a European corps of border guards, which could hardly be anything other than that. For our part we were strongly of the opinion that the case for a central command structure based in Brussels, let alone a fully fledged multi-national force, had not been made. It would be a major extension of Community competence at the expense of national sovereignty. There is no reason to believe that a centrally managed body would be more effective than the member states acting in concert and there would be legal difficulties to be resolved relating to border guards exercising powers outside their own jurisdiction.

I am pleased, if not entirely surprised, that the Government take the same view. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to thank the Minister for the Government's detailed and generally helpful response to our report. Although we were opposed to the creation of a European border guard, we strongly endorsed the need for effective co-operation between the member states to provide a more uniform level of security at external borders. As I have already explained, the security of the Schengen area is largely dependent on the effectiveness of the controls at the external border. Even for non-Schengen members like the United Kingdom and Ireland, pressure on their borders is reduced if these controls are enhanced. We were heartened to see the extent of current co-operation and of the United Kingdom's participation in it.

A measure designed to improve co-ordination in this area is the draft Council regulation establishing a European agency for the management of operational co-operation of the external borders—that is rather a mouthful, I am afraid—which the Commission brought forward last November. The agency's task will consist of promoting operational co-operation in such areas as the training of national border guards, the provision of technical and operational assistance, carrying out risk assessments and research and co-ordinating the removal of illegal immigrants.

The Government submitted their views on that proposal in the form of an explanatory memorandum in the usual way and my committee examined the draft regulation in the light of that. There is no doubt that there is a need to pull together the many strands of existing operational co-operation that have grown up piecemeal. We believe that in general the proposal represents a sound basis for doing so. Moreover, despite our suspicions of the Commission's long-term intentions in this area, to which I referred earlier, we are satisfied that the proposal does not represent the first step on a slippery slope to a fully fledged European border guard. The Commission has given an unequivocal assurance that the agency's activities will he purely supplementary to those of the national services of the member states and that it will not carry out actual controls of the external frontier.

There remain some points of detail that require clarification. In particular, it will be important to ensure that the agency does not have exclusive responsibility for joint operations. Also, the Government have some concerns about the structure and financing of the agency. We will continue to keep the document under scrutiny until the issues have been satisfactorily resolved.

One advantage of an agency of the kind proposed would be in terms of accountability. In undertaking the border guard inquiry, and while supporting the cooperation already going on between member states, we were struck by how little scrutiny there was of them. That concern is reflected in the terms of the Question.

We pointed out that the existing co-ordination mechanism—the common unit—was not established by law. Its tasks and powers were not defined, and its activities were subject neither to scrutiny by the European Parliament or national parliaments, nor to judicial control. The proposed agency would, on the face of it, provide a much better basis for scrutiny of the activities than the present ad hoc arrangements. I hope that the Minister will indicate what form of parliamentary scrutiny of the agency's activities she foresees and whether, more generally, the Government are satisfied that it will be properly accountable.

The most immediate issue for the United Kingdom is not the substance of the proposal, but the question of the United Kingdom's participation or non-participation in the agency's work. As drafted, the regulation excludes the United Kingdom and Ireland from participating in it, on the basis that it is a Schengen-building measure and is caught by the protocol to the Amsterdam Treaty, which exempts the United Kingdom and Ireland from participation in the frontier aspects of Schengen.

That is an unwelcome development. It is important that the United Kingdom should continue to engage closely with its partners in operational co-operation against illegal immigration. I assume that the Government will wish to participate, although they have not yet made their intentions clear in that respect. I hope that the Minister can confirm the Government's position when she replies.

We believe that, under the Treaty of Amsterdam, the United Kingdom and Ireland can choose to participate, and that the Government should make use of that possibility. That brings me to a more general point about the United Kingdom's opt-out from the Schengen agreement, and the retention of its borders with other member states. It is one that will be familiar to those who have followed the work of my subcommittee. On this occasion, however, I shall not question that opt-out as such, if only because I know how strongly committed the Government are to it.

I must again draw attention to the inconsistency that the committee identified of seeking to participate fully in action to strengthen controls at the external borders while maintaining the Schengen opt-out. The Government cannot have it both ways. By maintaining the United Kingdom's internal border controls, the Government are saying, in effect, "We do not trust the ability of the controls at the external border to protect us from illegal immigration and security risks". The reasons for that policy—they are related to the United Kingdom's island geography—are well known. But, given the Schengen opt-out, was it really appropriate for the Prime Minister to lecture his colleagues at the European Council in Seville on the need to improve external border controls?

I have to say that, as my committee has observed on several occasions, such difficulties are inevitable given the United Kingdom's awkward position, half-in and half-out of Schengen. They highlight the continuing tension between the United Kingdom's advocacy of action to improve external border controls, and its opt-out from the external border elements of Schengen. The Commission's decision to exclude the United Kingdom from participation in the new border agency is unwelcome, but hardly surprising given that the United Kingdom does not operate the EU external border regime.

I realise, as I said earlier, that there is no immediate prospect of the United Kingdom becoming a full member of Schengen, but I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the Government have any plans to align their border control procedures more closely with Schengen's. It would help the United Kingdom to co-operate more closely with its partners if it operated the same procedures at its external borders, as we suggested in our report. For example, it could adopt the Schengen common manual, even if it maintained its frontier controls with other member states.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to that and other points that I have raised, and to the views of other speakers.

5.25 p.m.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

My Lords, I am very pleased to be taking part in this debate as a member of Sub-Committee F, and I, too, thank those who have helped us so efficiently and with such good humour. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness. Lady Harris of Richmond. She is an excellent chair. She shows great patience and tolerance with what can be, on occasions, a somewhat volatile committee.

The effective management of the external borders of the EU is naturally a matter of concern to all member states, increasingly so as the EU becomes larger. Border control is obviously not the only way to make countries safe, but any laxity in that area must increase the risk of illegal immigration and must also increase the possibility of cross-border crime. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, outlined the key points in our report and I know that other committee members and colleagues today will speak to the report and about those who gave oral evidence to us. I shall concentrate on a slightly different matter. I shall draw attention to some of the relevant points raised in the written evidence that was presented to us. Sometimes such points can be hidden away in a report of this kind. Written evidence is important to us as committee members, in particular because it provides supportive background to our considerations. Sometimes it gives information about issues in other geographical areas beyond the EU, but such knowledge is helpful.

I shall concentrate on two particular written submissions that are on pages 93 and 96 of the report. The first is the written memo from the National Criminal Intelligence Service. Sub-Committee F has worked with the NCIS on other investigations and has much respect for its work and for the information it provides. Like the NCIS, we recognise that organised crime is international in character and, as such, operates in and through many jurisdictions. Law enforcement is not structured in the same way in each EU country. Therefore, the role of Europol, which the NCIS raises, is crucial. Europol plays a key role in overcoming obstacles and a central part in addressing serious criminality affecting all member states.

Among the most worrying crimes we have discussed with the NCIS in the past, for example, is the crime of smuggling across borders women and children who are then used for prostitution purposes. Usually those unfortunates have been promised better jobs, better education—indeed Utopia. What they receive is degradation, fear, humiliation and even death.

In the NCIS written evidence the relationship between two European countries is highlighted: Portugal and the Ukraine. Here we come to helpful information from beyond the direct EU borders. Currently the NCIS tells us that a large criminal group of Ukrainians is facilitating illegal immigration into Portugal. I have a particular interest in that issue because, having visited the Ukraine last year, I found the Ukrainians warm and welcoming and very positive about increasing their links with European countries. The Ukrainian Government are doing a great deal to build up such links and to attract people to their country. Tourism is an important part of their new economy. They need crackdowns on anything which is threatening links and co-operation between their country and those in the EU.

The second written memo to which I draw attention is that of the R ail Freight Group. I declare an interest as a member of that group, the aim of which is to increase the volume of freight carried by rail in Europe. The group raises issues which inter-relate with other reports that Sub-Committee F has undertaken and which highlight problems in relation to European borders.

In recent years, rail freight has had a very difficult time because of the problem of illegal immigrants trying to board freight trains—and often succeeding—and travelling through the Channel Tunnel. The Rail Freight Group considers it to be the duty of all member states, governments and the European Commission to reduce the number of illegal immigrants smuggling themselves on to trains and lorries. However, the group is very clear that it does not believe that transport operators should be regarded as the equivalent of border guards or the police. Therefore, the group believes that there is no substitute for proper border controls operated by the national governments so that rail freight operators can carry out their businesses unimpeded.

I hope that by those two brief illustrations I have shown that written submissions do provide important background information to our work and should not be overlooked in the overall debate surrounding the safeguarding of member states' borders.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, it has been a genuine privilege to have served, even as a volatile Cross-Bencher, on Sub-Committee F under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, during our inquiry into proposals for better co-ordination in external border management and joint operations between member states, including the accession states due to become full members of the European Union this year.

I do not propose to repeat the points made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Harris and Lady Gibson, other than to commend to your Lordships what I believe to have been a useful and well balanced report. It will, I hope, have had a positive effect in steering our European colleagues towards more practical and effective policies and controls in the management of our external borders.

At the same time, I echo remarks previously made by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, about other reports from his Select Committee in expressing my personal regret that it has taken just over six months for our report to be debated in this House, even if the delay has fortuitously given us the opportunity to consider the agency proposal, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, referred. Delays of this kind surely reduce the effectiveness of parliamentary oversight, to which the Question refers.

However, I want to draw one or two points to your Lordships' attention this evening. First, I welcome, as our report does, the greatly increased level of practical co-operation between the member states on external border issues and particularly the United Kingdom's active participation in them, in spite of our continued and, to my mind, regrettable non-participation in the main elements of Schengen.

My second point is to draw attention to the memorable visit which our sub-committee made to the German/Polish border in March last year and which is referred to in paragraph 54 of our report. Not only did that visit impress all of us as a remarkable example of co-operation and exchange, which had overcome the predictable political and historical sensitivities surrounding that border; it also underlined the very real problems of achieving effective co-operation between border authorities speaking two different languages and, in many cases, having real difficulty in oral communication.

In that context, I want to emphasise the importance of the pioneering work being done by Dr Edward Johnson of Wolfson College, Cambridge, with which my noble friend Lord Quirk has been personally associated. It may be of interest to your Lordships that this work was first brought to my personal attention by someone who will be well known to many Members of this House—Baron Hermann von Richthofen, the former German Ambassador in London, who has been closely involved in a project to devise a common language—or police speak—to facilitate co-operation between different border authorities.

My final point—I want to keep this very brief—is to reiterate the importance of continuing close British involvement and co-operation in the management of external border controls by our Schengen partners—a problem which will, of course, gain even more importance as enlargement comes into effect in a few months' time.

5.34 p.m.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my committee colleagues who have spoken earlier in the debate. I join them in commending the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, the work of our Clerk and adviser, all those who took the trouble to give both written and oral evidence to us, and those who helped us on our brief and hectic travels.

I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, about the unhappy delay before the report could be discussed by your Lordships. I do not think that it meets the purposes for which these committees exist and I hope that there are people listening who can do something about it.

The establishment of an armed elite multinational force, trained to common standards and kitted out in a common uniform—even if this is one version of what a European border guard might look like—has some superficial attractions.

Now that there are no internal borders in the EU—with the sensible exception for mainly geographic reasons of the UK and Ireland—the notion of a force, standing shoulder to shoulder around the external land borders and coastal waters of the EU might attract praise even from the Daily Mail. But it did not from us.

There are, I think, three main arguments against the idea. First, as the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, said, it would erode national sovereignty. I am not too concerned about that in principle—there are circumstances in which it is right to pool sovereignty and we have done that over the past 50 years or more—but it would erode national sovereignty for unproven and, I believe, unlikely gain.

Secondly, it may encourage some member states to become less vigilant on the need to counter terrorism, cross-border organised crime and people smuggling, on the grounds that someone else is going to do it, so we need not bother.

Thirdly, we know from our work at ports of entry by both Customs and Excise and the Immigration Service that legions of uniformed officers do not bring success. Although the extra officers and new equipment provided during the past five years have been welcomed, are important and have made a difference, what brings results is the collection and analysis of intelligence. Only a tiny proportion of those millions of people entering the UK at out ports of entry pose any threat. Focussed and careful intelligence stands a better chance of obstructing and detecting these people than any amount of random checks.

I have to say that—although I speak only for myself—whatever the other arguments, the UK public would find it unacceptable if they thought that a government were trying to walk away from what I regard as their legitimate security responsibilities and handing them over to other bodies.

The committee agreed on the need for effective cross-border multinational co-operation focussed on areas of common concern. It is highly pleasing to note that the UK has been at the forefront of so many of these projects. It is unfortunate that this has received so little publicity. But, as ever, the bad news has got its boots on before the positive facts have got out of bed.

I want to mention a few of these valuable projects. The UK has devised and is leading a project based at Dover to pool expertise in detection technology with other member states. The aim is to deploy a joint mobile team using the latest detection technology at selected weak spots on the EU external border. Nine nations are involved. The United Kingdom, unhappily, has a deal of experience of how people traffickers are modernising vehicles in a bid to avoid detection and improve concealment. We were able to see some of that at Dover port. Sharing these technologies should enable better detection along earlier parts of the route to the UK and other EU states.

The United Kingdom has taken the lead in operation Deniz which focuses on sea-borne illegal immigration from the eastern Mediterranean and is aimed at detecting movement by ship or boat of clandestine migrants, largely from Turkey.

The UK has joined a Finnish-led project involving 10 nations to introduce a model for the analysis and prioritising of risk. This is an essential part of any future joint action to better control the EU's external borders. The committee believes that co-operative efforts such as these and trying to agree and implement common standards is the better way forward.

In a world where the UNHCR is concerned with protecting 20 million refugees—I stress, 20 million refugees—Nye also need surrounding policies on development assistance, legal immigration routes and a UN-led, long-term campaign to overcome hunger, water shortage, disease and illiteracy. While we insist upon the right to protect our borders we neither can nor should try to shut ourselves away from the world's problems, because they affect us all.

5.40 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I join in the thanks to those who have helped the committee and to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for the way in which she steered our work, kept us in order and encouraged us in what we have done.

Virtually all the key points have been made already and I shall be very brief. When a proposal is put forward that has significant implications in terms of national sovereignty and whether or not civil liberties will be breached, the onus is on those who make the suggestion to justify so doing. That justification has not been forthcoming. It is not up to us to prove why it is not a good idea; it is up to them to prove it is a worthy idea at all.

For example, there is no clarity as to what will be the legal basis of a European border guard corps. There is no indication of what accountability there would be. Above all, there is no indication of whether or not it would improve on the effectiveness of the existing system. Indeed, there are many reasons for believing that the new system would be less effective.

We are dealing with what would be potentially a very powerful body. Perhaps I may give a brief indication. These people would have the power to check the identity papers, travel documents and visas of persons crossing an external border, legally or illegally. They would be able to question foreigners on the reasons for their stay in the common area of freedom of movement or why they have crossed the external border outside the official crossing points. They would be able to go on board a civilian ship or boat in the territorial waters of a member state to question the captain as to his route and to verify the identity of passengers. They would have to notify a person that he or she had been admitted or refused entry to the common area. They would have the power to apprehend a person and to hand that person over to the competent national authorities and to take such other measures as necessary.

These powers, which were listed clearly in the evidence given by Statewatch, are very strong indeed. We should not hand over those powers to a supranational body unless we are absolutely clear that there is a need to do so and that the powers will be exercised properly in relation to data protection rights and human rights legislation and be properly accountable to democratic bodies. None of this has happened.

However, we do have a good basis for international co-operation. Indeed, the committee, as my noble friend Lord Corbett indicated, saw good evidence of international co-operation taking place. We had the evidence of a person from Finland, who indicated what good co-operation there was across the Finnish/Russian border. We saw the co-operation between Germany and Poland. Such co-operation can be helped and improved upon. Indeed, our report suggests that that is the way ahead.

But there has to be a great deal of co-operation to enable this to work effectively. Within a country there needs to be co-operation between the people at the external borders and the people at the airports, who have another kind of border control. There needs to be co-operation between immigration and customs where these are separate bodies, as they are under the UK system. There needs to be co-operation between the people at the borders and the police of a country because of people trafficking and other illegal activities, as well as co-operation across a border from one country to another. I believe that all of this can happen. It can happen by improving the basis of cooperation. It would not necessarily he enhanced by having a corps of European border guards.

Finally, it is important to consider financial burden-sharing. If we consider the eastern geography of Europe now that we will shortly be joined by the latest bunch of accession countries, we can see that whereas the German border will no longer be external for much of its length—except possibly on the northern sea coast—the Polish border with countries to its east will be extremely long. It is only right that countries such as Poland, which will bear a great deal of the existing brunt of border controls, should be helped financially by the EU as a whole, because it will be acting to protect the borders of the EU. There are other examples—not only from among the accession countries, although they will play an important part.

I hope that the people in Brussels will listen and say, "We will not go ahead with this". If they want to go ahead, I want them to advance arguments more persuasive than those that we have heard. In the mean time, the report points the way forward clearly and suggests that co-operation, rather than a corps of border guards, is the way forward for all European countries.

5.46 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I suppose that I should declare some sort of interest as a former chairman of the sub-committee and as someone who realised as soon as the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, joined the committee, that she was clearly a potential chairman. As we would expect, this is an excellent report. I agree strongly with the balance of its conclusions.

We recognise from where the proposals come. The German Government are often in favour of stronger central control in this area. The German Government were in favour of a European federal bureau of investigation. From Chancellor Kohl's first speech on it in 1988, they have been in favour of a stronger Europol. There is a tendency within the German Government to assume that if everything is centralised under proper control, other people will do things in the proper, German fashion. There is also a bias within the Commission towards greater centralisation and supra-nationalism.

What emerges clearly from the report is that the case for that has not been made and that there are real advantages in local forces and local knowledge. We need Polish-Ukranian co-operation for the Polish border guards; as the Finns remarked in their evidence to the committee, Finnish-Russian co-operation also rests on detailed local knowledge. There are also tremendous problems, as I can recall Polish border guards telling an earlier delegation from the subcommittee, with paying people rates that are too high for the local economy. So a whole host of issues suggest that the proposal is premature.

However, the case for closer co-ordination, shared training, better exchange of information, common practices and a common manual is clear and has been well made in the report. The argument for a legal base, as set out in paragraphs 59 to 60, is also strong.

As the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, reminded us, the British approach to integration is always to stress the practical, but it has also often been to avoid the question of accountability. It is important that, as we move towards a co-ordinating unit, we ensure that it is accountable. Part of the problem with the third pillar is that it has been dominated by policemen, who love co-operating with each other but do not like other people to interfere with what they are doing. We need to ensure that mechanisms of accountability exist that can at least attempt to keep up with what they are doing.

We all recognise that this is an important and sensitive area for the United Kingdom. Indeed, our Prime Minister wrote to the Spanish Prime Minister just before the European Council that it is, one of the most pressing issues of our time, which is the issue of immigration and asylum and how we make the external borders of Europe more secure". If that is the case, the British Government must ensure that they are making the most constructive contribution, not just demanding that others do more.

British ambivalence towards Schengen continues. There is even hypocrisy about the extent to which the British Government participate in Schengen. Having declared that they are opting out, they have opted back into most aspects of Schengen except border checks. That demonstrates one of the most unfortunate aspects of our Government: fear of admitting to the Daily Mail what they are doing, thus a willingness to pretend that immigration is all the fault of the French, that we are the only country in Europe threatened by immigrants and that therefore we stand alone against the dreadful Continent.

It is also increasingly difficult to justify Britain's reluctance to distinguish between internal arrivals in Britain, from within the EU, and those across its external border, particularly in airports and, I suspect, across our sea border. Previously, when the matter has been raised, the Government have always said that it would be too difficult and costly to make that distinction, and that they would have to re-model airport arrangements. The Government certainly ought to be planning for a distinction in terminal five between arrivals from outside the EU and those from inside it. Our aim should be to operate as closely as possible with our Schengen partners, including bilateral co-operation with our neighbours on the other side of the Channel.

Rather more co-operation goes on with the French, Belgian and Dutch forces of law and order than is admitted to the press. Nevertheless, I found the evidence given by German border guards about how closely they co-operate with their French colleagues on the open Franco-German border a useful reminder that weakening your internal border controls does not mean abolishing your border checks. It would be better if the British Government were willing to talk more openly about how far they are co-operating with their colleagues.

There is a need for the Government to be more honest. First, they should admit that border controls cannot stop everyone getting through, so other measures need to be taken. Secondly, they should admit that Britain is not the only target of immigrants within the European Union. The noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, remarked on the Portuguese experience, with Ukrainians and Moldovans in very large numbers. The Netherlands has also suffered from a rapid rise in the number of asylum-seekers and people trafficked into the country, as has Italy and, astonishingly, Greece. Over 10 per cent of Greece's population is from outside the country, which has been a real transformation over the past 10 years. We are not alone. Thirdly, they should admit that Her Majesty's Government already co-operate very closely with Schengen and that that is not a matter of national sovereignty. My noble friend Lord Roper has pointed out that when the Norwegians are leading one of the inquiries we should not be too concerned about centralisation and integration. If the Norwegians can do it, surely we can be a little more positive.

I suspect that the committee should also revisit the question of the UK's external border. The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee had some very interesting things to say about co-ordination among UK border forces. I notice reference to Customs-cutters different from the coastguard. We are very good in Dover, but I suspect that we are very bad in small ports. The reduction in the British Coastguard over the years has meant that yachts coming in and out of small harbours in the south-east and south-west of England can easily smuggle people and drugs from outside Europe. We need to look at how we handle our external borders more strongly.

The case for common funding is clearly very strong. The poorer new members that will handle the green eastern border deserve support. That is the sort of thing for which the EU budget should be used, rather than support for farmers in France, Britain and elsewhere. Her Majesty's Government should therefore argue for that.

There is a real difference between the green border on the east and the blue border to the south. In many ways the blue border is the most difficult one. The Royal Navy and others have already taken part in exercises in the Mediterranean on those attempting to enter the European Union illegally by sea.

The push factor from the south is, in the long run, much stronger. After all, the population of the Ukraine and Moldova is going down. The population of Libya, Egypt and Morocco continues to rise radically and rapidly. The push factor, as well as the pull factor, is one with which we have to be concerned. Therefore, the link between this issue and the broader issues of common foreign and security policy has to be recognised and ought to be given more attention and recognition by Her Majesty's Government.

When we look at the countries from which people have been trafficked—Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Moldova and Kashmir—we are talking about countries which have severe internal conflicts. It is not surprising that people want to get out and are willing to pay to get out if they have to. The case for a more effective common foreign and security policy is therefore strengthened by the problems that we face from the pressure to enter the European Union by desperate people from outside.

The pace of change is remarked on in this report. The pressures that we face from those outside to enter into the European Union will not lessen—that is, from desperate migrants, desperate asylum seekers and, of course, a few terrorists. I therefore suspect that this sub-committee will need to return to this issue—perhaps under a new chairman—again and again.

5.56 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, for initiating this debate. The House must be also grateful for so many of the members of the committee taking the trouble to take part. Perhaps I may state from the outset that my party is satisfied with the present opt-out status of the United Kingdom secured at the Amsterdam summit. The UK is one of only two island states in the EU and advantage has rightly been taken of its geographical situation.

There are a number of reasons why we are unwilling at present to have a total association with a Schengentype union, of which I do not need to remind your Lordships today. To begin with, we are a particular focus for immigrants, whether asylum seekers or others, and we have a particular interest therefore in ensuring that the borders are as watertight as possible.

To take that analogy further, some borders are distinctly porous. Italy, through no fault of its own, with its long coastline has a particular problem, but there are others where the entry arrangements are not at all clear. The noble Lord, Lord Wright, drew attention to the Polish/German issue. The committee raised another point. We are told that the German border guard estimates that 50 per cent of illegal immigrants had entered from another Schengen country. Noble Lords should bear in mind that this is the existing relatively small group and not the Union as it will be as it is proposed to be enlarged. This debate rightly has addressed the problem, largely independently, about whether or not the United Kingdom is fully involved.

I am pleased to note that while new applicant states will be required to sign up to the full Schengen acquis, border controls between them and the existing member states will remain until the Schengen Ministers are satisfied that adequate controls at the external borders are in place.

The report makes clear that the old-fashioned formal sense of border control now has to be strengthened both before arrival in the form of visa regimes and carrier liability, and after entry in the form, primarily, of the identity card system. That leads to the other complication for the United Kingdom; namely, that at present we are one of a small minority of states in the European Union where there is no statutory requirement for identity cards. Until that matter is sorted out, it is a bar to full Schengen participation. Those problems will be magnified as the borders of the EU are pushed steadily eastwards. We must remember that Romania and Bulgaria, for example, have applied for admission in 2007.

Since the tone of this debate has been one of constructiveness, let us turn to the matter of smoothing out what one might call the "porosity" of eliminating, as far as possible, those parts of the external borders where illegal entry is something of a "soft touch". Clearly, some form of common control and, indeed, common accountability is almost a prerequisite.

The latest council plan is a more realistic version than its predecessors, placing less emphasis on common legislation and financing, and referring only in what the committee described as "rather vague terms" to a later possible decision on the setting up of a European corps of border guards, which would support, but not replace, national border police forces.

That is a sensible and measured approach as far as it goes, but it is important to note that a number of the proposed measures are subject to precise deadlines. I refer in particular to the envisaged creation within five years of common units at sensitive land and sea borders, which sounds suspiciously like the first move towards border guards. I was pleased to note that the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, shares my approval of that measured approach. Such an approach adopts a sensible pace and I hope that the United Kingdom, from its special position, can observe it in its own time.

I do not have to reiterate my party's views on the draft constitutional treaty. Suffice it to say that any pressures from the Union to attack the current opt-out by the United Kingdom will of course be strongly resisted.

There are a number of initiatives under SCIFA-plus in which the United Kingdom is a participant. The noble Lord, Lord Corbett, has drawn attention to one or two of them. The UK also participates in Ulysses and Triton, which implements sea border controls in the Mediterranean, as well as in Rio IV, which is a Finnish initiative to improve border controls in designated parts of candidate countries. Will the Minister assure us that those initiatives will not form part of a creeping acceptance of Schengen by the back door?

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, drew attention to the findings of the committee and primarily to the growing anomaly of maintaining internal controls while taking part in negotiations about external controls. She also raised the whole question of the financial burden on the United Kingdom of keeping its internal controls. The committee noted that the Government had slightly underestimated the cost of that, while bearing their share of the cost of the external controls. The noble Baroness referred thirdly to the difference in status between the United Kingdom's immigration service and the more structured police forces of the border guards of member states of the European Union.

I support the measured approach that the report clearly endorses, despite the United Kingdom's exclusion from the latest initiative of the European Union. That is a disappointment, but despite that, we should proceed at a measured pace.

6.3 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, I warmly welcome the tone of the debate and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for initiating it. It is timely. I know that the usual channels may have been a little slower than some would have liked in finding a spot, but I agree with the noble Baroness that the timing is felicitous as it enables us to widen debate in an appropriate way.

I commend the assessment of the noble Lord, Lord Wright, who described the report as being useful and well balanced. Indeed it is. I hope that I shall be able to offer certain reassurances in response to the concerns that noble Lords have outlined. I also commend the whole committee on the tireless way in which it has undertaken its work. I am pleased that so many of its members are present this evening.

The United Kingdom supports the move to improve co-operation at the EU's external border. An effectively managed frontier is in the interests of all member states. As the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, made plain, that can have a significant impact on reducing the numbers of illegal immigrants who arrive in the UK.

I reassure my noble friends Lord Dubs and Lord Corbett and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that we firmly believe that borders are best maintained by national border services, but that integrated work at EU level can deliver significant benefits. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister proposed accelerated work at Seville and why we have actively participated in this area.

Therefore we do support the border agency, both in terms of what it is and what it should do. As the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, made plain, it does not pave the way for an EU border guard and as it will replace the Common Unit, it will not be an additional layer of bureaucracy.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, was right to say that accountability is extremely important. The EU border agency will provide a more accountable framework for operational co-operation within EU Council structures. It will also provide a more strategic and intelligence-led approach to the management of the EU's external border and will assist in the spread of best practice. A single structure will enable intelligence and decision-making functions to work together more closely.

The United Kingdom has participated in around three-quarters of recent operational activities at the EU's external borders. We fully support projects which are intelligence-led, cost-effective and aim to strengthen vulnerable points on the EU border. We have contributed resources in the form of technical equipment, new technology and staff, and our intelligence capability and expertise is highly respected.

We want to continue that high level of operational co-operation with our EU partners in the framework of the agency. However, we do not agree with the interpretation of the UK's position as outlined in the agency proposal. Our participation is a matter for negotiation and ongoing discussion with other member states. The border agency's work is, of course, partly linked to the United Kingdom's position on Schengen. I know that I will give pleasure to my noble friends and to the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, when I say that our position has not changed, and I hope that I will not cause too much disappointment for the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire.

The Government are committed to active and effective co-operation where this does not prejudice our national frontier controls, which are a fundamental component of our immigration policy. We will continue to seek to maximise mutual operational co-operation in combating illegal immigration. The immigration liaison officers network, the mutual recognition of expulsion decisions and joint returns are all examples of measures to combat illegal immigration in which we have been able to participate effectively.

However, there are other elements of border management work in which it is not appropriate for us to participate. For example, it would be inappropriate for us to adopt the Common Manual in the United Kingdom, although I know that is something which the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, has indicated that she would very much welcome. The reason for that is that the Common Manual sets out guidance on the rules and procedures which apply to Schengen borders. The UK does not operate Schengen external border rules and use of the Common Manual would be inconsistent with our policies.

Perhaps I may turn specifically to the Question tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, which asks what legal controls and parliamentary oversight the Government believe should apply specifically to new European Union structures for co-ordinating border management and to joint operations between member states.

The EU border agency is a new structure for coordinating border management and joint operations between the member states and that proposal is rightly subject to domestic parliamentary scrutiny. The Government believe that the agency must have a clear line of accountability, reporting within the existing EU Council structure and informing the European Parliament of its activities. In carrying out its tasks, it should follow the strategic direction set by the Council.

The agency will be able to recommend joint operations and will consider member state proposals. However, it will not be able to insist on an operation taking place without the consent of all states involved. I hope that I can reassure the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, by saying that operations will take place, as at present, in line with both national and international law. The relevant national law of the territory in which the operation is being carried out will apply. Under national laws, there are sanctions and penalties in place for those who exceed their powers in the execution of their duties. All officers are also fully accountable to their own national service. International law has been and will be strictly adhered to, as was demonstrated in Operation Ulysses, which the noble Lord mentioned in his remarks, when participants complied with international maritime law while on the high seas. I can reassure noble Lords that this is not a slippery slope; it is a very clear direction.

Additionally, specific rules are clearly set out before each operation takes place, and participating officers are made aware of the national law with which they must comply. The arrangement works well and there is no need for separate legislation.

We have now come to the end of the first phase of developing integrated management of the EU's borders. During this time, we have been carrying out joint operations at external borders. It has been a learning experience, and some operations have been more successful than others. But the indications are that the projects and joint operations have been worth while. This is not just in terms of building relations with our EU partners and near neighbours but also in delivering real, practical results. I assure my noble friend Lord Corbett that the Government will not walk away from their responsibility.

In addition to the initiative about which my noble friend has spoken, another example is the two parts of the UK-led Project IMMPACT, which achieved widespread international recognition for its efforts. The United Kingdom made significant resource commitments to the project, which aimed to stem flows of irregular migrants through the western Balkans into the EU. During the first 12-month phase, which ran until September 2002, the number of potential irregular migrants passing through Sarajevo airport en route to the EU was reduced by 95 per cent in comparison with the first eight months of the year.

The second part of the project, which took place in the latter half of 2003, built on this success by establishing a consistent regional approach for border management in both Serbia and Montenegro. The six-month joint EU project delivered specialist immigration training to more than 1, 400 officers through 100 training sessions. This has laid the foundations for greater trust and effective working relations. So the agency will add value by providing a more co-ordinated focus for such joint operations. It will also take on the important function of evaluating the operations. Projects and operations are not the only way in which we co-operate with our EU partners on border management issues.

My noble friend Lady Gibson of Market Rasen gave us a very practical explanation of why these measures are so important and outlined the sort of issues that we must bear in mind. Other important work, such as sharing intelligence and joint risk analysis, will also be co-ordinated by the agency.

We look forward to being able to continue to work effectively with our EU partners in tackling illegal immigration, because it is in our mutual interests to do so. If the tone, nature and content of what has almost been a unifying debate is anything to go by, I think it augurs very well for the way in which we will work together in the future.

House adjourned at thirteen minutes past six o'clock.