First, may I thank you, Mr Speaker, and Mr Jenkin for raising this important issue here today? It remains one of the most serious humanitarian issues facing not just this Government but Europe as a whole. We must ensure that we maintain, as the Minister wants to do, the integrity of our borders. The people found at Harwich this weekend are as much victims of criminal gangs as those found on boats in the Mediterranean, or indeed at the border in Calais. As the Minister has said, we need concerted UK and EU action to ensure we stop this trade in human beings at source.
We on this side of the House warned in October that the removal of Operation Triton would lead to further pressure on European borders, and the lack of effective action taken in Calais by the French authorities and their failure to identify and to remove correctly those at the French border is leading to attempts at other borders, including those in Holland. The measures taken earlier this year by the Government and European Governments are welcome, and I also pay tribute to the armed forces for their help in the Mediterranean, but some questions remain.
First, will the Minister outline in detail what steps he is taking with our European partners and Europol to establish where the people traffickers are operating from, to follow the money raised by payment to these individuals back to source, and to establish further intelligence-led operations to close down this business? How many prosecutions of people traffickers have taken place in the past 12 months both in the UK and internationally? Will he now arrange an urgent meeting of the EU police forces and Ministers to look at this issue again, and to track, identify and prosecute those involved in this trade? Might we look particularly at the issues of north Africa and the middle east, and the Governments and regimes there, to help stop this trade at source?
Like the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex, I briefly want to look at what we are doing in the UK. We need to intensify the checks on vehicles, particularly lorries at UK ports of entry. Can the Minister confirm what percentage of lorries and containers are routinely checked at UK ports of entry, and say whether the figure of 6% for Harwich is accurate? Can he confirm whether the statement of the former inspector of borders, John Vine, at the weekend that
“good intelligence and experienced staff were critical, but a lot of experienced staff were leaving and not being replaced” is true?
Can the Minister confirm whether Border Force funding is ring-fenced from the £30 million Home Office cut announced by the Chancellor last week? A further reduction in funding, even in these hard times, will put pressure on Border Force staff. Will he indicate, if not now then in writing in the Library of the House, how many staff were in post in May 2010 and how many staff are in post now? Does he accept that the pressures on Calais and the work done is Calais are now displacing people to other ports, as we warned last year? Will he look at the issue of the Dublin convention to make sure arrangements are put in place so that those whose first port of entry is not in the UK are dealt with elsewhere?
Finally, as the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex has asked, will the Minister indicate what steps he is taking to work with the Government of Holland in particular, but also those in Belgium, Spain and Ireland who have direct sea routes to the UK, to put in place stronger mechanisms, as we have in France, to stop the traffickers in mainland Europe?
This is a criminal trade, and the people at Harwich are victims. We need to make sure that the UK Government work hand in hand with our European partners because we need, collectively with the support of the Opposition, to close down this vile trade.