Common European Asylum System

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 29th November 2007.

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Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty 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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