Common European Asylum System

Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 2:52 pm on 29th November 2007.

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Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means 2:52 pm, 29th November 2007

I have to inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Identity) 2:56 pm, 29th November 2007

I beg to move,

That this House
takes note of European Union Document 10516/07, Commission Green Paper on the future Common European Asylum System;
notes the continued importance of working collectively on asylum issues with other Member States;
further notes the importance of the Dublin II Regulation, the current responsibility mechanism to deal with asylum seekers;
and supports the Government's position that proper implementation and a full evaluation of first phase instruments should take place before embarking on a second phase of legislation.

It gives me great pleasure to speak today about the important issue of asylum and how we work with our European partners to make sure that we have a common approach while protecting the UK's interests and sovereignty on that matter. We are here specifically to debate the green gaper published in June this year by the European Commission on the future of the common European asylum system. The green paper invited member states and relevant stakeholders to express their views on the future of European Union asylum work.

The 1997 treaty of Amsterdam and the 1999 Tampere European Council committed member states to establishing minimum standards for asylum procedures and policies across the European Union. A series of asylum directives were subsequently agreed and the procedures directive, the last of those, will be implemented in the UK on 1 December this year.

The implementation of the minimum standards directives has provided the basis for a common approach across Europe. That has helped to tackle asylum shopping, while also allowing member states to reflect their own distinct domestic circumstances.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

My hon. Friend knows that one way in which we can assist in co-operation between various European countries is to make sure that we deal with asylum cases as speedily and efficiently as possible. I know that she is now the champion at the Home Office for ministerial correspondence. What steps has she taken to ensure that the immigration and nationality directorate deals with asylum cases much more quickly than it has done previously?

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Identity)

My right hon. Friend is generous to suggest that I have made progress on that issue in my five months at the Home Office. The Border and Immigration Agency, which was formerly the IND, now has an approach based on dealing with new claims within six months from end to end. On legacy claims, soon caseworkers will be allocated cases, and they will deal with those cases from end to end. We hope that that will speed up both new asylum cases and deal with those who have been waiting for their claims to be assessed. My right hon. Friend is right to acknowledge that that is part of dealing fairly with claims across Europe. The Government have long acknowledged the importance of a Europe-wide approach to asylum and to migration in general. The framework under which we currently operate, which the green paper suggests that we review and assess, helps to reduce the risk of a weak link in the chain of dealing with asylum seekers across Europe. We have an opt-in, which we have chosen not to use on a number of measures. However, our practical work with other member states, particularly some of the newer European Union partners, helps us preserve our strong border controls—a strong tenet of the Government's approach to migration—by strengthening Europe more generally.

The UK has benefited immensely from working with European partners on European and asylum issues.

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Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I am most interested in my hon. Friend's emphasis on our strong border controls. Are those reflected in other European member states? Do those states take a view similar to ours?

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Identity)

We have chosen not to opt into certain Schengen arrangements. We have protected our sovereignty along our borders so that they are strong. We could sum up our policy by saying that we have our own strong borders and that by participating in Europe on certain immigration issues, and in supporting European countries, we effectively have "borders plus" through the strengthening of the wider European border. There is a double ring to make sure that we keep track of who is coming into our country. Next year, we will introduce a points-based system for migrants outside the asylum route and we will be able to count people in and out.

We are here to talk mostly about asylum and the Commission's green paper. Before my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins intervened, I had been about to give a couple of examples of good co-operation with European partners. One example is our work with the French Government to strengthen our border controls and protections at Calais and other channel ports.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham PPS (Mr Mike O'Brien, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions

Does my hon. Friend recall that we had difficulties with the French Government in respect of asylum seekers? Does she think that the position has now been strengthened? Are the relationships getting better or worse?

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Identity)

The relationships are considerably better. People from the British Border and Immigration Agency are working across the channel. For example, the passport of someone travelling on a ship or a Eurostar train will be checked on the European side rather than when the person arrives back in the UK.

We have good relationships with our European partners. The framework under which we are operating is working well. We are keen that it should be better evaluated before we take the next steps. Although we are interested in what the green paper says and the questions that it asks—it has a number of those—we feel that it is a bit early to learn the full lessons, although in general we have made considerable progress.

We also learned lessons from Sweden when setting up our gateway resettlement programme for refugees; we are gaining from such cross-country inter-state working, some of which is dealt with by the Commission and some of which is dealt with through operational co-operation, outwith the formal structures of the European Union, between states.

More should and could be done at the European level to facilitate such practical engagement; only through the active participation of all member states can we expect to see greater convergence and higher standards. An example of that is our interpreter support service and the identification of lead countries, helping those from some national groups with claims. That allows us, for example, to support countries on the EU border when someone presents for asylum. The UK or another country may have expertise with that national group. Britain and other lead countries provide expertise and interpretation by video link. That is a good example of practical co-operation that has come from the work done by the heads of border agencies across Europe, and it demonstrates that there is more than one way in which we can co-operate across Europe.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. Do the Government support the proposal, put forward at the start of The Hague programme, for the creation of a European support officer and office to deal with common asylum issues?

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Identity)

That is one of the discussions in the green paper. We will wait to see what the Commission comes up with on that. Realistically, there is not a great deal of time to take major legislation through the European Parliament and processes before the 2009 European elections. When we see what the Commission comes up with, there will have to be discussion about what is feasible and practical. The issue raised by my right hon. Friend is certainly of interest to us.

We are encouraged that the Commission has confirmed that it will undertake a feasibility study of how best to take forward the sort of practical co-operation that I have been talking about. We will actively support measures that encourage that spirit of co-operation without undue bureaucracy. We are also mindful of the need for more to be done outside the borders of the EU. The UK fully supports the EU's regional protection programme, which allows refugees access to protection quickly and close to their countries of origin.

In the UK, we have introduced several measures that have increased the robustness of our asylum process and reduced the number of unfounded asylum claims. Those measures, which include the expansion of our fast-track process—when people arrive, their claim is initially triaged, or assessed, and determined so that they then leave the country or are accepted as refugees within two or three months of their arrival—and the introduction of new offences for passengers who attempt to conceal their identity or their country of origin by deliberately destroying their documents, have reduced asylum applications to the lowest levels since 1992. The annexe to the green paper produced by the Commission provides some of those figures in more detail.

The use of the Eurodac database allows the UK and other EU nations to check the fingerprints of those seeking asylum. In this way we can identify, and have identified, those who have previously made claims in other countries. We have used the Dublin II regulations to good effect to remove people to their country of original claim. Under that mechanism, about 100 people a month have been returned to the member state responsible for considering their claim. It has discouraged multiple claims from individuals looking to play member states off against each other and reinforces the important collective responsibility between member states.

We look forward to the Commission's evaluation of the regional protection programme and to the expansion and further development of the policy, underpinned, of course, by appropriate funding. We are keen to share our experience of resettlement work. The UK is one of the few member states to have a formal resettlement programme. We will continue to be proactive in providing assistance. Through our gateway programme, we have provided space for 500 people a year, and that number will rise to 750. We look to other member states to establish formal programmes through mentoring and shadowing the work within Europe that we are pioneering in the UK. We will assist them in doing that.

The green paper considers the first phase of legislation, some of which I have discussed, and asks what amendments need to be made. In our response, which was submitted at the end of the summer, we made it absolutely clear that we believe it is too early to make those judgments. We stated that a timely evaluation must not be rushed and needs to consider the extent to which the provisions of the minimum standards directives have been adopted within national legislations, how they are operating in practice, and whether they have had the desired outcomes. We believe that it would be unwise to embark on introducing new legislation without a firm understanding of what works and what does not work within the existing instruments. That view is shared by many other member states, by non-governmental organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and by the European Scrutiny Committee. The Committee rightly acknowledges that the green paper raises important questions. We in the UK see the current regulations and our opt-in right as "borders plus"—strong UK borders being strengthened, when we use the opt-in, to allow us to work with partners to strengthen the wider EU border, as well as what we do through informal co-operation.

It is important that we keep the best of what the current regulations provide. We are not saying that the review is wrong but that further proposals for legislative changes are premature. However, that is not to say there is no work to be done on reducing the discrepancies that exist between member states, as the Committee's paper rightly acknowledges. Some variance is to be expected, as types of cases received vary across the Union, but, as we know from experience, significant divergences in practices will only encourage secondary movement, whereby someone arrives in a country because they know that it is easier to get into that country through an asylum route, and then moves to the country of their choice at a later date. Common treatment is important.

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Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

My hon. Friend is talking about disparities among different member states. I am concerned about the disparities among rates of recognition of people applying for asylum in the EU from the same country. Iraq is an example of where there are huge differences in the percentages of claims that are recognised. Does not that need to be addressed, whether in this legislation or through discussions among the member states?

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Identity)

As ever, my hon. Friend raises a very pertinent point. It is one of the reasons we are keen to see what the Commission comes out with in its response to the green paper. Although we want UK sovereignty to be preserved, we recognise a common interest in ensuring that the best of what we have is rolled out throughout Europe.

We welcome the publication of the green paper. We will continue to seek to influence developments and will participate in developments, or opt in, if it is in the UK's interest to do so. We look forward to the Commission's proposals being published in early 2008. I reiterate that the Government remain committed to strong UK borders, but we are also keen to ensure that the European border is strong. We will work with the Commission, the European Parliament and our EU partners to ensure that this works.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 3:10 pm, 29th November 2007

I beg to move, To leave out from "seekers" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

'but recognises that asylum policy, as an essential component in the control of the UK's borders, should remain under the control of the British Government.'.

I listened to the Minister's speech with interest, particularly the first few minutes, when she was dealing with more general immigration policy rather than the document before the House. As gently as possible, I say to her that if she really believes that the current system of immigration control we have in this country amounts to "borders plus", she is the last person left living on fantasy island.

I start by setting out the principles by which we should operate in deciding what is proper with regard to using our membership of the European Union as a way of improving our asylum policy. I shall then move on to some of the problems that we have with the Government's approach and the details of the document before us.

The basis for our asylum policy should be that we do need proper co-operation—indeed, better co-operation—among the member states of the EU because a prosperous and free Europe is inevitably an attractive destination for genuine refugees, whom we all welcome, but also for those who use the asylum system that has been built up since the second world war as a disguise for economic migration or occasionally something worse, such as crime or terrorism.

We all agree that asylum shopping is harmful and that sharing the burden of support for genuine refugees in Europe is sensible. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that sharing some of the burden in combating illegal immigration is sensible, and I suspect that the Minister would agree. Many of us remember last year's crisis, when thousands of west Africans took a dangerous sea voyage to the Canary Islands to get inside the EU. Those poor, wretched people had, in many cases, paid their life savings to people traffickers and many died on the journey. Spain wanted help from us and her other European partners and it was sensible to give it because, to some extent, the borders of the Canary Islands are Britain's borders as well.

We are, therefore, absolutely convinced of the need for intelligent co-operation, and we can accept the principle that anyone arriving at the border of a member state of the EU claiming asylum should be treated in roughly the same way, under the same set of rules. However, it is not sensible to say that the only way we can achieve that is by handing over powers of rule making to the Commission, which is what the document suggests. It is also what the Government are doing, even though anyone who had not followed what they had been doing, but merely went on what the Minister said they had done, would think they were doing something different.

That is the difference between us and the Government on this issue, which is the point of our amendment. Since the treaty of Amsterdam, the EU has had the competence to legislate in this field, but with a British opt-out, or a possibility to opt in—whichever way one wishes to describe it. However, in practice the Government have not chosen to exercise the opt-out on asylum matters, so it has been pointless. The Minister explained that the Government had taken the opportunity to opt out in some immigration matters, in order to preserve the integrity of our borders, as she put it, and they have. But on asylum matters, the Government have always opted in, and I was quite surprised that the Minister did not take the opportunity to explain why they had taken such a radically different approach in those two fields.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell us the measures that he thinks that the Government should not have done that on.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I shall deal with the details in a second.

I am genuinely puzzled, particularly after having listened to the Minister's speech, by the Government's stance. It is clear from the Government's motion that they recognise that the Commission is trying to take all power in asylum matters and that they think that that is the wrong way to go. The motion states that we should not move to the second phase in which we will have a full "Common European Asylum System". That phrase is at the heart and, indeed, at the start of the EU document, but, unless I missed it, it did not cross the Minister's lips in the course of her speech.

The motion says that proper implementation of the first phase must happen, followed by a full evaluation of the first phase instruments. They clearly do not want to move to a common asylum system, but in the past five years they have not lifted a finger to stop us doing so. Is that a cock-up, or a conspiracy? As so often with the Government, it is hard to tell.

Let us take a look at what the Government have opted into, to address the point made by Mr. Gerrard. Directive 2004/83/EC defines minimum standards on qualifications for refugee or other international protection status and sets out the same core criteria for being a refugee as the Geneva convention, which is not a matter of controversy. It also stresses that each application must be determined individually, which prevents the designation of certain countries as safe. The ability to say that a country is safe would at times be found desirable by any Government when operating an asylum policy, so that puts a constraint on Ministers that they might not want.

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Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands the way the designation works. When we started to apply that in the UK, some of us opposed it. We said that it was not a good idea to say that certain countries were safe because it involved making assumptions about individuals. The Government held to the position that even when a country was designated as safe, individual cases needed to be considered. The fact that a country might be regarded as safe in general terms does not mean that an individual from that country cannot present a good case.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I suspect that we would rapidly get out of order if we pursued the point. The debate would be interesting, and the hon. Gentleman and I simply disagree on that detail. However, it goes beyond the scope of what we are discussing.

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Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

Let me reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard. If, for example, a secularist or leftist is sent back to an Islamist country that is otherwise regarded as safe, is that acceptable?

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The only time that it is acceptable to designate a country as safe is when that country is safe. We have had asylum applications in this country during the past few years from citizens of the United States of America. It is patently absurd that our asylum system should spend time and resources on applications from functioning, friendly democracies rather than those from people who come from countries where many citizens are, sadly, in danger. Although it may be more comfortable to say that anyone from anywhere can claim asylum at any time, the practicalities of what has happened to the asylum system over the past few years suggest that that is an unrealistic approach. That is why I take issue with those Labour Members who support the Commission on that matter.

While we are going through the details, I point out that the directive also created a whole new category of people to whom the member states owe a duty of protection above and beyond those categories encompassed by the 1951 refugee convention: those who qualify for what the Commission calls subsidiary protection. Whether that is desirable is another legitimate cause for debate. The directive also goes beyond the convention in respect of the rights that refugees can exercise while they are in this country.

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Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the current state of our immigration policy. The Government have indeed opted into more than 40 asylum measures, as shown by recent parliamentary answers. We effectively have a European common policy, which greatly restricts our national freedom of action. Is it still my hon. Friend's policy that:

"We will take back powers from Brussels to ensure national control of asylum policy"?

That was our manifesto promise in 2005. Is it still his policy?

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The amendment states that it is for the British Government to make such decisions. My right hon. Friend says that we have already lost all powers. That is going too far. Clearly, considerable powers remain in the hands of British Ministers and we want to retain them. That is the point of the amendment, as my right hon. Friend knows.

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Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned subsidiary protection. However, as I understand it, the green paper asks how a single procedure for assessment might work and what uniform protections might be entailed in that, and I am at a loss to find a difference between the Conservative and the Government position. The Minister suggested that she and the Government wanted to ascertain how all the countries' procedures came out in the wash when they were enacted before making a decision. I am struggling to find a difference between the Government's position and that of the Tories.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I understand the hon. Gentleman's confusion as, if he simply listened to the Minister's comments, he would believe that the Government's position was considerably more robust than it is. I am pointing out that, for all the Government's cautious words, in practice, over the past five or six years since the implementation of the treaty of Amsterdam, they have simply gone along with everything and effectively attempted to help set up an entirely centralised one-size-fits-all policy. Although co-operation is sensible and we should answer the questions in the green paper, we should not contract out the ability to make decisions to the Commission. That is the point of our amendment, for which I hope the hon. Gentleman will vote later.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

I am greatly encouraged by my hon. Friend's comments because the words in the amendment

"should remain under the control of the British Government" mean just that. The corollary, to follow up the comments of my right hon. Friend Mr. Heathcoat-Amory, is that, although we want to give protection to genuine asylum seekers, many are not genuine, and when difficulties arise we want to ensure that we have our own Westminster legislation so that we control matters, as the amendment suggests.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am deeply grateful that my hon. Friend supports the amendment—that is a source of unalloyed joy.

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Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

We do not want to have an argument about people's atavistic views of the European Union but to discuss how to achieve our end. The problem with the Government is that we do not trust them on asylum seekers because they have never given us cause to trust them. When the Government are trustworthy, we might go along with them, but, given that they are untrustworthy, we will not go along with them. I wish that some of my hon. Friends would stop trying to bring their views about Europe into a simple issue about asylum seekers.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am deeply grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is right to say that the discussion is about how we run a fair, firm, humane and civilised asylum system. Proper co-operation on aspects of such a system is essential among the member states of the European Union. As all of them are prosperous democracies—many of the new democracies of central and eastern Europe are becoming increasingly prosperous—they will attract genuine refugees and those who are, frankly, not genuine. However, the desire for that degree of co-operation does not mean that we need to contract out decision making to the European Commission on the measure.

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Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

My hon. Friend is making an important speech and his words will be studied. He has already said that we have contracted into 40 or so directives that restrict our freedom of action. Is there not a conflict between that and the amendment, which says that such powers

"should remain under the control of the British Government"?

I should therefore like to ask my hon. Friend whether he thinks the directives that we have opted into are reversible and whether we should reverse those opt-ins where necessary, in order to regain the national powers that the amendment so rightly asserts we should regain.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks, but I am also determined to stay in order. I have moved an amendment to the motion before us, which concerns a project of the Commission on the next steps. I am sure that there are things to be said about previous steps that have been taken, by both the Commission and the Government, but they are not desperately germane to this debate.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I shall study the hon. Gentleman's speech very carefully in Hansard tomorrow. Will he clarify current Conservative party policy in respect of the processing of asylum applications? Is it still the Conservative party's policy that asylum applications should be processed on an offshore island?

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The world has moved on since 2005 and the Conservative party has moved with it. Sadly, the right hon. Gentleman appears to have failed to do so, although I do not blame him. He is nostalgic for the days when the Labour party was an election-winning machine, rather than the increasingly disreputable shambles that it has become in 2007. We in the Opposition will continue to move on, with constructive and creative policies for Britain.

If we consider what the Government do, rather than what they say they do, it is clear that Ministers are happy for important parts of our asylum policy to be set through directives, rather than by the Government reporting to the House. I imagine that they are a little embarrassed about that, given the chaos of wider immigration policy. Although the number of asylum seekers has been declining in recent years, as the Minister pointed out, largely because wars in the Balkans are thankfully just a bad memory, we cannot know that that will remain the case. It is therefore important, as part of the wider changes that are desperately needed in the immigration system, to have a fair and robust asylum system. It will be easier to achieve that if decisions are made by the Government in co-operation with our European partners than if policy is made by the Commission, with the Council making decisions under qualified majority voting on whether to implement them.

As the Minister said, the Commission has asked a number of pertinent questions, some of which this and subsequent Governments will inevitably have to address. She said that she had objections to some of the Commission's ambitions, but without the exercise of our opt-outs, her objections are pointless. The Government seek to delay movement into the second phase, when we would indeed lose any control over our asylum policy, but her stance would be a lot more credible if she or her predecessor had taken any effective action over the past five years.

Such action can be taken without our signing up to a fully centralised policy. The Minister mentioned our relationship with France in this regard. The Government should be making more efforts to impress on the French authorities that it is unacceptable to recreate in Cherbourg the conditions that used to obtain at Sangatte. Sangatte camp has been closed, but many of the problems have moved along the coast, which the Minister will be aware is a growing issue. I should like more Government action in co-operation with the French authorities on that.

A second piece of action that I would recommend to the Government would be to do more to protect British lorry drivers, increasing numbers of whom are reporting that they have been attacked or threatened by people trying to use their trucks as a way of coming into Britain illegally. Even more worryingly, I have received reports that officers at Calais are more concerned with keeping the trucks rolling on to the ferries than with allowing British drivers to go through the channel that allows their trucks to be properly checked by the heat scanners. There is clearly much work to be done by the British authorities in this area, and I am sure that the French Government would be receptive.

Those are two concrete examples of how British policy in this area could certainly be improved by greater co-operation among member states. They do not require new directives or any other kind of legislation. They simply need effective action by the British Government. Asylum policy need not be an area that divides the two sides of the House. My essential message to the Minister is that it is not her words or her stated policy that are deficient; what is not working is the policy that she is, in fact, following. Having negotiated an opt-out from these provisions of the Amsterdam treaty, the Government have behaved as though the opt-out were unnecessary. They have been wrong in that presumption. We have tabled our amendment because it would send a powerful signal to present and future Ministers that British policy on asylum—which should be fair, humane, and competently run—was ultimately the responsibility of the British Government. I commend our amendment to the House.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 3:31 pm, 29th November 2007

I have heard so much about general immigration policy from the Opposition Front Bench that I wondered whether the Conservatives had read the Green Paper or the Government's response before they tabled their amendment. They seem to have tried to push enough in to make the amendment credible. In reality, however, they seem to be agreeing entirely with the Government's submission on the Green Paper. But perhaps they did not read it.

The point of the European Scrutiny Committee sending this document to the House is partly to illustrate the service that we believe we provide to the House in summarising important and complex documents, recording the Government's view of them—all of which are available for people to read—and allowing the House to debate the issue. We need to debate the issue, but not to pile into the debate anything that the Conservatives might want to use to pad out their speeches. We have had much padding from the Opposition today. This debate is about asylum and about the Green Paper from the Commission on asylum. That is quite specific; it is not about immigration, border controls or anything else. It is about how we deal with people who eventually reach an EU country and apply for asylum.

The 1999 Tampere European Council agreement established the aim of working towards a common European asylum system. That is clearly something that the Opposition may wish to resist, and that would be a valid point for them to make in this debate, rather than all the other things about general immigration that they threw into the mix. The first phase involved putting in minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers and procedure for considering their applications. It was decided at Tampere that, in the longer term, there should be a common asylum procedure with uniform status throughout the EU for people being granted asylum.

The Council of Ministers has put forward and adopted four directives and three regulations since 1999. At the end of 2004, the European Council invited the Commission to evaluate the existing legislation and proposed legislation to implement the second phase by 2010. There might be serious points of contention about that. The Green Paper deals with this issue.

The Green Paper was issued in June 2007, and it asks that we should introduce common standards. It also talks about mandatory rules. This would mean that asylum seekers would be treated equally and that standards of protection would be fairer and higher. The Government, and the Opposition, would say that, in principle, those are good aims. None of us would wish anyone who had genuinely fled from a threatening situation and come to this country or any other part of the EU as an asylum seeker to be treated any less well than anyone else, although there are suspicions that some of them are not treated well enough at the moment.

Many people are allowed to stay in this country after suffering incarceration. Sadly, more than 60 children are incarcerated with their families in Harmondsworth at the moment. Thank goodness that, in Scotland, we have driven out that terrible blight on our society by not having asylum seekers' children in Dungavel. I was happy to be part of the leading group that convinced the Government that it was not a good idea to make that rule binding in Scotland because it would have breached the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. In fact, believe it or not, this country actually takes a derogation from the UN convention on the rights of the child so that we can lock up the children of asylum seekers. That is an appalling situation under any Government, but it is an even more terrible shame, sadly, under a Government whom I support.

The Green Paper invited some views on more equitable sharing among member states of administrative and financial burdens and on assessing asylum applications. It went as far as putting forward the idea of actually sharing the physical burden by redistributing people across Europe if too many people landed in one country. In the example given, Spain was overloaded with west African asylum seekers. It is possible that in the Commission's vision of the long-term future, those asylum seekers would need to be redistributed throughout Europe.

More effective EU support for developing countries is another theme. People flee countries that are near points of conflict and then go beyond them to the next country of safety, ending up in Europe. In fact, it would be possible to provide support for countries that are located alongside violent areas or areas where there are threats of violence. It might be possible for people to be supported to stay there rather than be driven forward and end up being trafficked. As Damian Green accepted, people sometimes pay their life savings to get dumped on an inflatable dinghy in the middle of the ocean.

We also want more practical data co-operation between members and views were sought on improving the EC's capacity collectively to participate in international agreements. There is some criticism in other parts of the world that we are not doing as well as we could in that respect and we are encouraged to respond to it. That was the Green Paper.

We are happy that we are having this debate now because the Commission had a public hearing on 18 October. It will now move forward to presenting a policy plan, which is what the Government responded to and what our debate is all about. Quite frankly, at this moment, I am not sure that much has been said on the Floor of the House that will help to develop that policy plan.

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Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is suitable for the European Union to get involved with the two issues that he raised? It is difficult for all the member states individually to deal with the countries neighbouring those where there are conflicts, so it is much more sensible for the EU to do that. Similarly, it is much more sensible for the EU to put forward to international organisations the general policies that we share in common. We really must not allow our particular views about the EU in general to make it difficult for us to make sensible decisions, but it is still quite reasonable to say that in the particularities of asylum seeking in our own countries, it is also reasonable for the national Government to feel that it has an important—in this particular case, absolute—role as well. There is a sensible way out of this, instead of the head-banging position that we so often get into.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I strongly welcome that contribution, which I believe also reflects the Government's position. The response to the Commission that was sent to our Select Committee and the explanatory memorandum, of which everyone presumably has a copy, makes it clear that the Government are saying that good common progress has been made so far, without any mandatory decisions being taken. There are also four directives and three regulations.

The Government are clearly saying that we should not move forward with any other legislation at this moment. The Government motion ends by saying

"before embarking on a second phase of legislation", but I would have been happier if it were changed to "before considering" a second phase of legislation. We are in now in a period when it is necessary to let the legislation sink in.

Let me make one specific point. The Government pointed out in their response that the qualification directive came into force only in October 2006, whereas the procedures directive will not be implemented until December 2007. One of the first-phase proposals is not yet in operation, so I believe that the Government had taken the right position in saying that we need a serious period of reflection.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, particularly given that he seems to have written his speech before listening at all to mine. He has not addressed my central point, which is that whatever the Government say in their response to his Select Committee or anything else, their actions—since Tampere and the Amsterdam treaty—make it clear that they are quite happy in practice to move towards a fully centralised system. It is the disparity between words and action on the part of the Government that I sought to point out. From everything that the hon. Gentleman has said so far, I rather think that instead of encouraging my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer to vote for the Government motion, the hon. Gentleman should be voting for our amendment.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

The conflation of the Schengen agreement which emerged from Amsterdam and the asylum decisions at Tampere is completely false. The Schengen agreement involved conditions that we are steadily opting into, and—particularly in relation to information transfer—we are the keenest on its implementation. SIS I, the first Schengen information system, has not been implemented as we wished it to be, but SIS II is now being introduced. I believe that the way in which we are inserting ourselves into the Schengen process is justifiable, given the great benefits that we will gain.

On asylum, the subject of the Tampere proposals, it is a different matter. The Dublin agreement, which allows people to be returned to the country where they first applied for asylum, was a major breakthrough, and we use it again and again. We have made fundamental progress by securing right-of-return agreements with other countries from which people have come and applied falsely for asylum.

There is no open door in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard, who has intervened several times today, has many constituents who feel abused by the strictness of our asylum-seeking process. But I know of many cases in Scotland of people who, having been incarcerated and threatened with expulsion, were eventually granted the right to stay when a reasoned view was taken about the conditions that they had left and the danger posed to them should they return. Is that not what we are about, as a civilised nation? Is that not what we have been about for many years?

I am reading a book the first word of whose title I cannot use because it is unparliamentary, but the second word is "foreigners" and the first begins with B. It is an excellent study of immigration, and of people seeking asylum who add to our community. For hundreds of years waves of people have arrived here: the Huguenots driven out of France and the Irish driven out of Ireland by poverty and starvation, the first wave of Jewish people driven here before the pogrom. followed by the second wave of people from the Jewish nations, driven out of Russia and elsewhere before the war. All those people have fertilised and grown in our island in a very, very positive way, but each time they arrived there was xenophobia. The same phrases were used about the Italians, the Irish and the Jewish people when they came here, and they were used about the Huguenots when they came. We keep doing it, and I am sorry to say that the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman and some of his supporters are doing it again now.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

The reasonable comments of Mr. Gummer are leading us, in a balanced way, towards progress, but it must be progress; it cannot be stagnation.

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Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

My hon. Friend Damian Green has been making the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make, but in what I consider to be a much more sensible way. What my hon. Friend is saying is that the Government could have had our support if they had managed to make the distinction that the hon. Gentleman is making. If the Government were a Government whom we trusted on asylum, we might be able to go along with them when they told us that some things would be done more effectively on a wider basis. If, however, they say that to us in the context of their total failure to deal with the asylum situation at home, we have to remind them of their responsibility towards this country in this country. People like me, who can hardly be accused of xenophobia, are enthusiastically in favour of the amendment because the Government have got it wrong, not because the European Union has got it wrong.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Whether the right hon. Gentleman recognises it or not, the amendment is all about the Government's retreating from the positive, open approach of working co-operatively across Europe. It is a typical marker to win the support of xenophobes and people who think that the motion means "Let us retreat behind barriers and"—as suggested by Mr. Heathcoat-Amory—"rescind the opt-ins." That is why the amendment was tabled, and people will have recognised that view in the right hon. Gentleman's speech.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Not yet.

The amendment is predicated on an argument about emigration into which as much as possible could be thrown to frighten the people. However, our Government have been seen in some quarters—such as Positive Action in Housing, which campaigns in Scotland—as being far too tough on people genuinely seeking asylum. The idea that we should retreat behind a barrier and say, "This will always by something we do at UK level without co-operating with anyone" is frightening.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

As the hon. Gentleman has monstrously accused me of xenophobia, I am glad he has given way. Does he not recognise that if we do not have controlled borders, which would include a confident asylum system under which we could accept refugees who are in genuine danger, our country will be more likely to have problems with real xenophobes? Those who argue that anyone attempting to discuss in a sensible and moderate fashion controls on immigration is themselves xenophobic are not only absurd but, frankly, dangerous, because they are the people who leave the field clear for the real racists and the real bigots. Moderate, mainstream politicians must address these issues, because if we are driven off the field to the dressing room there are nasty people out there who would much prefer to address them.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

If the hon. Gentleman was trying to say that, I apologise. It did not sound like that to me, but if that is what he was trying to say I fully agree, and that is also the Government's position. The Government's response to the Green Paper was clear. They said that "a mandatory single procedure", which we already have, would be useful, but they also said that the idea of speeding up integration—in other words, of giving money to integrate people more quickly, before their asylum decisions are made—would be negative. They continued in similar fashion: they say it would not be appropriate to share the physical burden—to share people out across Europe—but they also say that sharing the financial burden of a proper asylum process would be sensible, and they support the idea of giving people in countries where there is conflict or terror security in nearby countries. The Government take a balanced view on this matter. They say that it is far too early to move to phase 2—that we are still implementing phase 1, and that we want a period of reflection on that before deciding what to do in the longer term.

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Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he on reflection withdraw the implication, which I think he made in relation to me, that either the Opposition amendment or the proposition that national control is desirable is the same as xenophobia? It is a modest proposition to state that a country should define who its citizens are and defend its own borders, if necessary in co-operation with other countries. Will the hon. Gentleman withdraw any implication that I or my hon. Friends are in any sense racist or xenophobic in advancing that proposition?

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I think that that is the first time that the word "racist" has been used; it has not been used until now by any Member in this debate. I hope that my remarks will read as I intended in the Hansard report. What I said is that the right hon. Gentleman proposes—he proposes it regularly, and makes a good case for it in his own eyes—that we should withdraw from what we have already signed up to. He proposes that we opt out. That is the aim he expressed earlier, and it involves retreating behind the barriers and giving away what we have now got by doing things in co-operation. That is the point I was making. I hope that no inferences were taken by him, or by anyone else who heard what I said, that he is a xenophobe. I know that he is not one, but I do think that he is a little Englander in this matter. He wants to retreat behind the barriers and give up the benefits we have gained, and I am sorry that I cannot agree with him on that and never will.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I will leave this exchange now, if I may, as I have a speech to finish.

The UK has a long and proud record of accepting people. If each country were to try to deal with this matter alone, we would not make progress. The EU is now a common space. If people seeking asylum in one EU country are granted the right to stay, they will eventually be able to travel throughout the EU. The scale of migration across national borders has grown enormously, and we can only deal with that on an EU basis. We cannot deal with it country by country, because if that were the case people would flee from one country to another country. If we had not managed to have the Dublin agreement, for example, we would not be able to stop people asylum-shopping and they would be able to move from country to country.

The EU shares best practice and has made great progress in the first phase of the Tampere agreement, and we are now in the right position to see whether the agreements—the four directives and the three accompanying pieces of legislation—will work and whether we need to move forward. That is what the Government are saying. It is time to take stock. We cannot conclude that when phase 2 starts, a common asylum policy could not make progress through other legislation. We are not taking a view on that at the moment. We are saying, give the policy time to settle in and let us see what happens.

We may want to go beyond minimum standards to higher standards, but we may never wish to have mandatory standards. There is a long way between where we are now and where mandatory standards would take us. It may be that we eventually agree that we want mandatory standards, because other countries may not provide proper processes or integration for people in their countries. That would drive people out of those countries and over to this country, so we may need to raise the standard in other countries for our benefit.

This is an important debate, and it should focus on asylum, not on other things that may be wrong with the immigration system. Although the issues are the responsibility of one Department, they are dealt with differently. We need to treat asylum seekers with respect, because they may genuinely be fleeing in terror of their lives and need our succour and support. We need a system that reveals whether their claims are false and, if they are, to return them to their country of origin. That is eminently sensible, and the Committee did not oppose the Government's position. Indeed, we thought that it should be brought to the attention of the House and commended. The amendment is unnecessary. It would be better to accept the Government motion and not press the amendment to the vote, but I know that the Conservatives intend to do so, for their own reasons.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Leader's Parliamentary Private Secretary, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities, Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 3:51 pm, 29th November 2007

As we have already heard, the common European asylum system seeks, most notably, to prevent asylum shopping across Europe. For example, under an effective common asylum system, people seeking asylum in Germany would not be able to present themselves for a second time in another EU country such as the UK.

The structure created by the common asylum system demonstrates that the EU can be a serious force for good in reducing the number of asylum claims to the UK. That must cause significant mental discomfort to those Members for whom the words "Europe" and "asylum" are triggers to start snarling and frothing at the mouth. It must be hard for them to discover that one is the best mechanism to deal with the other. In any case, it is not my job to provide psychological support to the Conservative party.

The Green Paper introduces stage 2 of the common European asylum system. To an extent, the Liberal Democrats agree that it is too soon to move ahead with stage 2 before we have judged the success of stage 1. We cannot yet judge whether what was agreed is what has been implemented.

I would be interested to hear from the Minister the extent to which she thinks that Dublin II—a regulation that enables the sharing of information to prevent asylum shopping around the EU—is working in practice. There are doubts that it is working well, and those add further weight to the argument that we should concentrate on getting stage 1 right before proceeding to stage 2.

Nevertheless, the Green Paper deserves proper scrutiny, as it raises issues that are relevant to the Hague programme as it moves forward. Although the Government are right to say that we should not rush to judgment, they should not use that as an excuse to ignore the Green Paper and the serious issues that it raises. For example, it gives us the opportunity to consider again whether we should allow asylum seekers to work. The Liberal Democrats take the view that asylum seekers should be permitted to work if their claim has not been decided within two months. It is not only inhuman to prevent asylum seekers from working, but a drain on the benefits system and causes serious social problems.

I do not mean to stereotype, but asylum seekers are often among the most enterprising and talented people. Of the asylum claims I have dealt with—my constituency is in the lake district, so I have not dealt with as many as some hon. Members—most have come from professional people, including doctors, nurses, teachers, and other people who have the skills for which we are crying out, and the desire and the work ethic to go out and earn a living rather than sit and wait for a decision, living on benefits. Many of the more right-wing newspapers to which the Government are often keen to pander are apoplectic at the thought of asylum seekers claiming benefit, so why not silence them by allowing asylum seekers to earn a living?

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Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

That is another, and very proper, criticism of the Government's policy towards asylum seekers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that the Government take so long to process the arrangements of perfectly decent people, especially if in the end they exclude them, is a crying scandal? That is a question not about the motion, but about the confidence of the House in a Government who let down every asylum seeker, whether genuine or not.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Leader's Parliamentary Private Secretary, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities, Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The right hon. Gentleman makes yet another good point. We want an effective asylum system in the UK and throughout Europe, and a European system that works effectively is bound to be better than even the most effective system operated in isolation.

When talented people are refused the right to work and forced to exist on benefits and charity, it can often cause serious problems, including resentment and even social disorder. As well as being inhumane, forcing people to be idle is just plain witless—and counter-productive.

The Green Paper gives us the chance to look at uniform status across the EU for intermediate categories of residency, such as temporary leave to remain and its equivalents. The asylum system is labyrinthine and complicated, and consequently expensive. Uniform status could allow us to simplify the system, to the benefit of the UK and its citizens.

I urge the Government not to give in to their reflex fear of being seen to be too EU-friendly. I shall not wax lyrical to quite the incendiary levels of Michael Connarty, but I note the somewhat predictable amendment tabled by Mr. Cameron. No matter how much money and effort the Conservative party spends on trying to modernise its image, all it takes is a mention of asylum or Europe, or in this case both, to make its members return to type—unreconstructed, insular and with their heads in the sand. Sangatte was the result of countries acting in isolation over asylum. Uncontrolled asylum shopping around the EU is a consequence of isolated asylum systems. The price of insular asylum systems is unnecessary expense, human misery and failure to remove unsuccessful asylum seekers. If that is what the Conservative party wants, so be it, but we shall have no part in it.

The proposed system is a tremendous opportunity to sell the European Union to our constituents and to the media. It is the sort of issue that reminds knee-jerk little Englanders that although the EU is far from perfect, its existence and our membership of it are essential. There are two forms of leadership, are there not? In the first, someone checks which direction the crowd is taking and runs round to the front, to pretend that was the way they had always intended to go. In the second form, they take a stand and try to persuade the crowd to change direction and follow them. Of course the first is not leadership at all, and my fear is that on Europe and on asylum the Government have too often chosen the spineless option and followed the crowd. However, on this issue, they could demonstrate to the crowd that there is sound reason for changing direction in terms of popular attitudes towards Europe, so I urge them to take that opportunity.

Many of those points would be close to irrelevant if the UK had an asylum system that actually worked. Unfortunately, we have a system in which the number of deportations is down and where, in relation to some countries, the number of decisions overturned on appeal is up to 40 per cent. The Government are so desperate to deal with their pitiful record on deportations that they are, in effect, starving out unsuccessful asylum seekers, making them destitute, to lever them out of the country. That is an outrage against humanity, and the Minister should be ashamed that it is taking place on her watch.

The European Scrutiny Committee report is not the most riveting of documents, but it is worth reading to the end, not least because in the penultimate paragraph, on page 50, there is some light humour:

"The UK will be keen to share its experience of improving the quality of initial asylum decisions"— presumably with our EU partners. However, I am not convinced that they will be particularly keen to follow our example of failure in deportations and an appeal rate against bad decisions of 40 per cent.

I mentioned psychology earlier. I have a friend who is a psychology teacher. She informs me that there are four stages of learning: unconscious incompetence, where one does not know what one is doing but one thinks one does; conscious incompetence, where one does not know what one is doing, but has realised that fact; conscious competence; and then unconscious competence. I am sure that most people, including those of us present today, do not get to number four, or even number three, that often. The key job is to remain consciously incompetent—in other words, to be aware of the fact that other people have something to teach one, and not be overblown about one's own ability. The Government's statement that they feel that they have lots to share with the rest of the European Union demonstrates that they are well and truly unconsciously incompetent on the issue of asylum.

In the light of the failings in the operation of the UK asylum system, will the Minister accept that it is time for us to have an independent asylum agency, which would remove from Governments the temptation to play politics with this sensitive issue and remove the issue from the Government's reverse Midas touch? There are excellent examples of that approach working in other countries—notably Canada, which has a much better record of ensuring that unsuccessful applicants leave quickly and humanely, and which can boast that, far from having up to 40 per cent. of decisions reversed on appeal, only 1 per cent. of decisions are reversed.

Having an effective, humane and operational system for dealing with asylum applications is a necessary prerequisite for ensuring that the common European asylum system is effective. That does not alter our view that the system is desirable and that although it is right to ensure that we evaluate stage 1 properly before rushing into stage 2, the Government should nevertheless take seriously the issues raised in the Green Paper.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee 4:01 pm, 29th November 2007

I will speak briefly on this matter, because most of the arguments have already been rehearsed. I am happy to support Tim Farron. I find myself in agreement with a lot of what he has said this afternoon. I pay tribute to the Minister for the sensible and measured way in which she introduced the debate on immigration, as she did only a fortnight ago. The document will be discussed properly and consulted upon by Parliament, by the Government, and, I am sure, by the European Scrutiny Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend Michael Connarty, which has a diverse cast of characters, some of whom are in favour of the European Union and some of whom are not quite so sure. Giving Parliament the chance to scrutinise such important documents is an important way to approach the European Union.

I was present as a junior Justice Minister at the Tampere European summit in 1999, when Finland had the presidency of the Union and when the whole justice and home affairs agenda was launched. It is good and proper that, eight years later, we are working closely with our European partners on asylum. Tampere became The Hague programme, and following The Hague we had the four directives on asylum, with which the House is familiar. It is right and proper that the Government should stop and evaluate what has been achieved so far in their desire further to improve co-operation between our country and our European partners.

I agreed with the first comments made by Mr. Gummer. I have a lot in common with him. We celebrated our birthdays on Monday, along with Tina Turner—separately of course, not together. He was right to say that this is an ideal opportunity and an ideal function for the European Union. With external borders that need policing and scrutinising, it is vital that we work together with the other members of the EU to have a common policy. I would probably go slightly further than the Government. I understand why they are concerned and reticent about moving forward on the issue, but we cannot achieve a solution to the asylum problem unless we work closely with our partners.

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Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

Can the right hon. Gentleman not accept the distinction between co-operating with other countries, which we all believe in, and irreversibly handing over powers to another organisation on something as important as immigration? That is an important democratic distinction that we make, which I think he fails to make.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I understand that distinction, and I do not think that we have handed over the powers; we are very careful. In all debates with a European tinge, I make the point that British Ministers—whether Conservative or Labour—go to summit meetings, as the right hon. Gentleman did when he was a Minister, to protect British interests, not to give things away. He is quite wrong: the Government are protecting and defending our position.

It is right for us to determine whether we can improve co-operation. I hope that we will give sympathetic consideration to the creation of a European support office. I know that the proposal is at an early stage and I realise that it has come about only as a result of what was decided at The Hague, but we need to look at it.

If we examine such co-operation and support among EU colleagues, we must be concerned about the database. We will need to ensure that data held not only by ourselves but by other EU countries are protected, especially in view of the current climate. We must also ensure that our computer system is compatible with those in other countries. There is no point having fingerprints and data on a computer in France if that information cannot be read in the UK, and if the two computer systems cannot speak to each other, because there would thus be no prospect of achieving the laudable aims that the Government propose.

My second point relates to a matter raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, and to some extent by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal. It is right to lament the delays in the asylum process. I do so every week, and I will tomorrow, when a lot of constituents will visit me—more than 100 come every Friday—all of whom will have immigration problems and complaints about delays in the Home Office. The right hon. Gentleman was a member of the Conservative Government, so I must point out to him that the delays that we are experiencing now are nothing compared with those pre-1997. I went to the immigration and nationality directorate then and saw hundreds of unopened letters and immigration cases that had not been dealt with.

My hon. Friend the Minister reminded us that she was only five months into the job. She needs to give resources and ministerial time to replying quickly to Members of Parliament about asylum cases. Cases must be dealt with quickly so that people who apply and are not successful are told to go as soon as possible. In the long run, that will save her a lot of headaches. It will also save the Home Office a lot of stamps, which it would otherwise have to use to reply to right hon. and hon. Members. Such a process is right and fair for those making applications. If people's applications are genuine, tell them quickly, and if their applications are not genuine and do not succeed, tell those people quickly, so that they can leave the country. That is the cardinal principle that Minister should set out to Lin Homer every Monday morning when she gets her asylum and immigration statistics, because it is of paramount importance.

The Minister must examine the question of asylum seekers who are not allowed to work while their claims are being processed. If the Government want to prevent those people from working, they should process the claims quickly. However, there is constant delay. I am sure that I shall hear tomorrow, as I did last Friday, about cases that have lasted for four or five years without a decision. The people affected who are claiming asylum cannot work, and in fact, they are not on benefits either. They are in a dire situation as a result of the Government's handling of the process. The Minister should look at what is happening and, perhaps in a limited number of cases, ensure that progress is made.

Will the Government please continue to do what they are doing regarding co-operation on asylum? We cannot solve the issue on our own. We must consider the number of people who are allowed to come to this country from France. I understand that 17,000 people—perhaps the Minister will tell me whether that figure is correct—have been moved from country to country to ensure that their asylum claims are processed properly. That is far too many people. We must ensure that once an asylum claim is made in one EU country, it is dealt with, rather than having a situation in which people are moved from country to country, eventually ending up in the United Kingdom. I hope that the Minister will give us the figures and ensure that she raises that point next time she has a ministerial meeting in which she discusses justice and home affairs.

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Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow 4:09 pm, 29th November 2007

It is no secret that over a number of years, and over the course of several Bills, I have often regarded this Government and the previous Government as being far too tough on asylum. The move towards common policies across Europe is desirable. I look at the issue from the point of view of the people who come to Europe and ask for protection. It does not make sense that if two people who came from the same country and who faced the same conditions went to two different EU states, they would be treated in totally different ways and go through totally different procedures, and that totally different criteria might be used in determining their asylum applications. Such a situation will lead to shopping around. It will lead to people who come to Europe trying to see which country is the softest touch.

One of my concerns about common procedures across Europe was that they might start to drive standards down, rather than up, so I am pleased that the Green Paper focuses on putting protection back on the agenda. Some of us feared that moves towards common procedures and standards would have the opposite effect. In many ways, the Green Paper is saying that refugee protection should be back at the top of the agenda.

I listened to Damian Green, who spoke for the Opposition, talking about what has happened so far. He said that what the Government have done caused problems, but I found his arguments difficult to follow. He picked a couple of examples. He mentioned safe countries, but his interpretation of the directive concerned was wrong. Be that as it may, I do not agree with the concept of safe countries and white lists. It is clear in the Geneva convention that each claim has to be considered on its merits. Whatever anyone does, we cannot prevent people from saying, "I want to claim asylum." We may look at the claim and decide that it is nonsense, to refuse it and to remove the person—we may do so quickly, if it is obvious that the claim is nonsense—but we cannot stop someone saying that they want to claim asylum. It is impossible.

The hon. Member for Ashford talked about subsidiary protection. We have always had subsidiary protection in the UK; we used to have a system in which people might be given asylum or exceptional leave to remain, or be refused. That has always been the case. All right, the terms have changed—humanitarian protection is the term that we use now—but there has always been subsidiary protection, so I do not know what problem he was referring to. The argument seemed to come down to his saying, "We welcome genuine asylum seekers, but we don't want non-genuine asylum seekers." The suggestion is that other EU countries are quite happy to have lots of non-genuine asylum seekers, and to have a common process that encourages them, which is utter nonsense. Every EU country has the same interest in accepting people whose claims are justified and rejecting those whose claims are not justified. I should be glad if the hon. Gentleman showed me that the common asylum system has so far generated more non-genuine claims in this country; I cannot see that any such thing has happened.

As I say, in many ways, the Green Paper puts protection back at the top of the agenda, and that is welcome. I understand why the Government say that we need to proceed with caution; it is too soon after the introduction of the first phase to evaluate it. We cannot evaluate something that has not yet been fully introduced. The Commission needs to do that before proceeding to further proposals. However, I hope that we will proceed, because some proposals in the Green Paper really do matter and could improve things for people who come here for protection. The rights given to people who have subsidiary protection have always been inferior, and I have never understood why. I refer to the right to family reunion, the length of time that people had to wait before their family could join them and the ability of people who have been given protection to move within the EU.

I have dealt with ridiculous cases from time to time. I remember dealing with the case of a family who became divided as they fled from their country of origin. One of them, a 17-year-old, ended up in my constituency. The rest of his family were elsewhere in Europe and there was no way of bringing them together. It was stupid that two halves of a family had asylum claims being considered in different countries and there was no way of bringing them together. Even when they had been given asylum, there was no easy way immediately for that person to move and join his family.

There are things that can be done outside the judicial process—outside the framework of the law. Some of those have been mentioned this afternoon and none of us has any problem with them or with trying to achieve greater practical co-operation. It may be a good idea to try to get greater practical co-operation with, say, the French Government, but that does not diminish the good sense of considering common systems on asylum. It is part of an answer, not the whole answer.

Some of the suggestions in the Green Paper are eminently sensible, such as the suggestion that we examine reception criteria, criteria for detention, whether people have rights to work and what those rights should be. If they are eminently sensible in the UK, I do not see why they are not eminently sensible across the EU and why we should not be talking to other EU countries about reaching common standards in those areas. There are areas in which we should be doing a much better job than we are doing, especially on detention. I still think that we detain far too many people, for far too long, and we are still detaining children. But it does not make sense to have that debate within one EU country.

Finally, I hope that if the Green Paper proceeds and there are further proposals from the EU, we will be able to have full consultation and a full debate in Parliament. It is right that such important EU proposals are debated on the Floor of the House, not just in a European Committee. Whatever comes back and whether the Government propose to accept it or not, I hope that we can have a proper debate on it in the House as early as possible.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Identity) 4:17 pm, 29th November 2007

With the leave of the House, I shall reply to some of the points that arose in the debate. I should start by saying how nice it is to observe the new-found unity of the Conservative party on the issue of Europe. Tim Farron rightly summed up the difficulties often faced by the Conservatives on the issue.

It was disappointing to hear from the Conservatives that their policy was not to tackle immigration across Europe. It is worth stressing at the outset that the Green Paper is a discussion document. Some of the contributions painted it as a hard and fast policy document. However, it lists a number of questions and does not give the answers. It is a shame that some of the contributions to the debate did not contribute, as my hon. Friend Michael Connarty said, to the debate that Europe is having on the subject.

Damian Green began by being very rude about my belief that our asylum process is getting better, but asylum claims are at their lowest since 1992. Last year we removed more people than ever before, while the number claiming asylum has fallen to levels not seen since 1993. The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of relations with France. My hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration met his French counterpart, Brice Hortefeux, earlier this month following Monsieur Hortefeux's visit to London in October. The meeting was constructive, and both Ministers agreed on the importance of continuing the working relationship at all levels, particularly on the maintenance of juxtaposed controls.

I want to correct a factual point. The hon. Member for Ashford discussed the issue of safe countries, and it is worth stressing the letter of the law. Article 30 of the procedures directive allows the national designation of third countries as safe countries of origin. In the UK, that is our non-suspensive appeal process, which we continue to operate.

As ever, my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk made an informed and passionate contribution. He rightly pointed out, in a way that I do not need to, the incoherence of the Conservative position. He also raised the issue of children in detention. Rather than detaining the House, I am happy to write to him about the progress that we are making in that area and the work of the Clannebor project and the Kent pilot to establish programmes that will hopefully reduce the need to detain children; the Kent pilot starts next week. Last week, I met MEPs and had a constructive discussion about our detention estate, including the issue of children. I look forward to their report on the matter.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale made a number of predictable points. His party's policy is to have an amnesty to allow all comers to work in the UK. His speech included the outrageous slur that the Government are starving out asylum seekers, which I must contest. There is always support for people who are going through the claim process. Those who cannot be removed for various reasons outside their own control also receive support. Once a decision is made and someone is told that they must leave the country, if they do not leave voluntarily, we enforce deportation. Even with voluntary removal, we provide a package of support to enable such people to establish themselves back in their home country, if they want to do so. I also need to correct him on a fact: in quarter three of this year, 23 per cent. of appeals were allowed, rather than the 40 per cent. figure that he suggested.

Mr. Gummer raised a number of points. It is worth saying that the total number of people awaiting a decision on asylum has decreased by more than 1,000 compared with last year's figure. We are reducing the backlog, which arose on his party's watch. We are taking measures to tackle the backlog, which we take very seriously. [ Interruption. ] I am the second largest customer of the Home Office for my constituents on this issue in terms of correspondence to the Border and Immigration Agency and Ministers, so I know the facts and the reality on the ground. The number of new applications processed under the new model is increasing. We are improving our targets to grant or remove new asylum cases within six months. The target for the proportion of cases that are concluded within a six-month period will increase in steps to 90 per cent. by the end of 2011. We are addressing the issue in steps, because it would be foolish to promise what we cannot do, but we are determined to deliver.

As ever, my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz and my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard made sensible and well-informed contributions. I look forward to continuing the constructive debate on asylum with them, unlike Conservative Members. I wonder what the motive is behind the amendment, which seems confused and contradictory. Much of what Conservative Members have said agrees with Government policy. I wonder whether they have another motive outside this House and what they will do with the outcome of the vote, if they press the amendment to a Division. I urge them not to do so, because our positions on this issue are not radically different.

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Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 136, Noes 275.

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Division number 14 European Union — Asylum policy should remain under control of the British government — rejected

Aye: 136 MPs

No: 274 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 232 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

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Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House takes note of European Union Document 10516/07, Commission Green Paper on the future Common European Asylum System; notes the continued importance of working collectively on asylum issues with other Member States; further notes the importance of the Dublin II Regulation, the current responsibility mechanism to deal with asylum seekers; and supports the Government's position that proper implementation and a full evaluation of first phase instruments should take place before embarking on a second phase of legislation.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 145(3) (Liaison Committee):

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