Motion to Agree

Part of UK Opt-in to the Proposed Council Decision on the Relocation of Migrants within the EU (EUC Report) – in the House of Lords at 5:16 pm on 22nd July 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Home Department 5:16 pm, 22nd July 2015

My Lords, on a topic of debate on which there have been a range of views and a degree of passion and contention on all sides, I think that there are some things on which we can express some agreement. First, the report—presented very ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, on behalf of the EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee—is an excellent piece of work. It is thorough and clear in its analysis and its recommendations. It is quite incredible that the committee has managed to produce this report and publish it on 15 July, despite the Commission producing the proposal only on 27 May. I also pay tribute to the business managers for arranging to squeeze the debate in before the House rises for Recess. I think we can agree on all of that.

The second point that we can all agree on is that, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, this is a humanitarian crisis that impacts on the consciences of us all. As the noble Lord, Lord Jay, mentioned, this is a crisis on a scale that we have not seen in the post-war world. It therefore demands a response. Many noble Lords—the noble Lords, Lord Tugendhat and Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, in particular—reminded us of our proud tradition in this country of providing protection for those persecuted around the world. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, talked about the Ugandan Asians. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, talked about the Vietnamese boat people, as he referred to them, and to the Kindertransport. I remember my own experience growing up in the town of Gateshead, which may not seem very remarkable to many Members of this House, but it is home to one of the largest and most significant Orthodox Jewish communities in the world and has one of its leading universities, the Talmudical College. The people of Gateshead and Tyneside provided hospitality to people who came there fleeing the Nazi regime in Europe. I say this as someone who had the privilege of growing up there: they enriched our community and still do.

Since the crisis unfolded, the Government have been clear that relocating migrants within Europe is the wrong response. It does nothing more than move the problem about Europe and does absolutely nothing to address the underlying cause of people getting on the boats. It risks undermining control of our own borders and asylum system. The Government have no plans to opt into any relocation scheme, whether voluntary or mandatory.

We have been very clear that the time and attention that has been committed within the EU to negotiating the measure would have been far better spent on implementing long-term and sustainable solutions to the crisis, on tackling the abuse of the asylum system and on building capacity in those member states under pressure. The Government’s view is that real solidarity with other European countries is best expressed through practical co-operation to build capability in the asylum and migration systems of member states struggling to deal with the migratory flows.

The UK will continue to provide concrete support via the European Asylum Support Office to countries such as Greece—which the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, referred to—Italy and Bulgaria. In the last three years, the UK has contributed more resources to the EASO than any other member state, totalling over 1,000 expert working days to missions in Greece, Italy, Bulgaria and Cyprus. Two UK asylum experts have just returned from EASO-led deployments to Italy, and one has just returned from Rome after a three-month deployment. The UK has made bilateral contributions to a number of countries, including Greece, for example by funding voluntary returns—where £2 million has been spent over the past two years from 2013 to 2015—and asylum programmes, where £600,000 has been spent over the past three years. We are happy to consider further requests for bilateral assistance where that can augment EU-level action.

The extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council on Monday reached political agreement on the amended relocation and resettlement measure. We have not opted into this measure, so did not support it. The Council also reached conclusions on resettlement, although of course there was no formal legislative proposal to discuss there. As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said from Her Majesty’s Opposition’s perspective, we have been clear that our contribution to resettlement efforts will continue under national schemes and not under the EU arrangement. I will come back to the noble Earl’s questions on the existing schemes, such as the Gateway, Mandate and Syrian vulnerable persons relocation schemes, a little latter, but we estimate we will contribute through those schemes by resettling 2,200 people over the next two years. That is not a target, but a projection based on current activity. I am glad that the EU is now moving beyond this debate and am hopeful that the focus of our efforts can now move firmly to action where it matters: on tackling the causes of illegal migration and the organised trafficking gangs behind it, and on increasing support and protection in the region for all those who need it.

We are establishing a dedicated law enforcement team to tackle the threat posed by illegal immigration from north Africa. The 90-strong team will bring together officers from the National Crime Agency, Border Force, Immigration Enforcement and the Crown Prosecution Service, with the task of relentlessly pursuing and disrupting organised crime groups profiting from the people-smuggling trade. The noble Lord, Lord Jay, was right to talk about the way in which these desperate, incredibly vulnerable people are exploited.

As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned, we are leading the way. We are proud of leading the world in tackling modern slavery with the legislation that we passed earlier this year. We see the establishment of the task force as being consistent with that aim. Tackling this issue in the long term can be done only with a comprehensive solution. That means helping the countries these people come from to reduce the push factors, which my noble friend Lord Ribeiro referred to, to build stability, to create livelihoods and to go after the criminal gangs. With a handful of staff based in Europol cells in Sicily and The Hague, and the rest on standby in the UK to deploy to different areas in the region as required, the task force will exploit every opportunity at source, in transit countries and in Europe, to smash the gangs and criminal operations.

However, we also need a Government in Libya that we can work with to address this problem, as the majority of people travel through that country. As the Prime Minister has repeatedly said, we need to break the link between embarking in unseaworthy boats from north Africa and entering and remaining in the EU illegally. My noble friend Lord Hodgson referred to the example he was given by FRONTEX of the experience in Malta. This form of illegal migration funds organised crime and undermines fair immigration controls by allowing economic migrants unfair and uncontrolled access to our countries. That is not to say that they are all economic migrants—there are incredibly large numbers of vulnerable people. They are a proportion of those coming through the central Mediterranean route, but in the eastern Mediterranean route people are primarily coming from the war-torn areas of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Wherever possible, we should return the boats immediately from whence they came. If we cannot do that, we must ensure that when they arrive on EU shores we stop, fingerprint and screen migrants to control their movement and distinguish between genuine refugees and economic migrants. In particular, we support the idea of establishing hot spots at pressure points along the external border to ensure proper licensing, processing and fingerprinting of arriving migrants. We must ensure that they cannot travel further than their point of arrival and must return them without delay to their country of origin. That means investing real effort in infrastructure and expertise at the most exposed borders. However, it also requires the determination to make it happen, not least from those countries most affected. The scale of the present situation requires even more ambitious thinking and we need greater ambition and momentum on initiatives such as the Khartoum process.

My noble friend Lord Ribeiro asked specifically how we were moving forward with this. There will be a very important summit later this year in Malta—the Valletta summit. As a positive development, this will involve working jointly with African partners. As my noble friend suggested, it is important that we can demonstrate real progress in tackling the migration challenge beyond political announcements. The Valletta summit must help to drive concrete action on the upstream elements of the EU agenda, delivering a comprehensive plan for action. That plan should include increased ambition under current EU partnerships such as the Khartoum and Rabat processes. However, it must also encompass broader initiatives to disrupt people smugglers and traffickers, and efforts to dissuade migrants from attempting the Mediterranean crossing and to address root causes through the development of humanitarian programmes.

The noble Lord, Lord Jay, asked me to confirm that DfID would be involved in that, and it is absolutely a key partner. One thing that the noble Lord will understand better than most is the importance of getting different departments involved in this process—be it the Foreign Office, DfID, the MoD or the Home Office—working very closely together. One of the responses to the debate held on 9 July was to say that there should be a cross-ministerial meeting between Ministers in this House to address the concerns that your Lordships have expressed on many occasions, not only in Oral Questions but in debates and in this report, and I am pleased to say that that will take place on 14 October.

The UK will be providing support to all three regional development and protection programmes. There our focus must be on building stability and creating livelihoods. Noble Lords will also be aware that the UK has been at the forefront of the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. We have pledged £900 million, making us the second-largest donor bilaterally and our support has reached hundreds of thousands of people across the region. Since the crisis began, we have granted asylum to over 4,200 Syrian nationals, and only last month the Prime Minister announced that we would be expanding that programme.

On that point, it is worth reflecting on the letter sent by James Brokenshire, my colleague in the Home Office in charge of immigration, who I know gave evidence to the Committee and then followed up, I think also quite promptly, with written explanations of points raised there. He made the point that, when we talk about where this country stands internationally in terms of responding to this crisis, as my noble friend Lord Hodgson pointed out, despite immense fiscal pressures at the present time, we have ring-fenced and protected our overseas development aid programme at 0.7%—in fact, 0.71%—of GNI. This compares to 0.41% and 0.36% of German and French GNI respectively. In absolute terms, while Germany spent £9.97 billion and France £6.3 billion, the UK contribution was £11.77 billion. That underscores the commitment that we have to protecting the most vulnerable in our society.

I was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and my noble friend Lord Cormack to say more about the FRONTEX operation and fingerprinting. Some of the front-line member states fingerprint very few migrants arriving on their shores, contrary to what the Dublin regulations say should happen. As an example of the practical co-operation that is taking place, we have offered to provide support for that for member states.

The noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, asked a number of key questions, which I want to address as I draw my remarks to a close. She asked, further to the Justice and Home Affairs Council resolution of 20 July, whether there would be EU legislation establishing a relocation scheme. After much discussion on the proposal for a council decision establishing the relocation mechanism for Italy and Greece at the extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council this week, the council reached political agreement on the latest text. The negotiations have been difficult, and formal adoption cannot take place until the European Parliament consultation process has taken place. We expect this to be completed in September, and we therefore expect the legislation establishing the scheme some time in the autumn.

The noble Baroness asked what form such legislation would take and on what legal basis it will be adopted. As outlined in the Government’s Explanatory Memorandum of 9 June, the proposed legal basis is Article 78(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. She also asked what relation this legislation would have to the European Commission’s original proposed Council decision on the relocation of migrants. We will deposit the text agreed by the Council on Monday; the legislation is broadly in line with the Commission’s proposal of 27 May, with the exception that the numbers of migrants that each participating member state will take is set out in the separate resolution agreed by the member states in the Council on Monday, and is not determined through the mandatory allocation scheme originally proposed by the Commission.

Several noble Lords asked about the ongoing operations by the Royal Navy. We are proud of what HMS “Bulwark” and HMS “Enterprise” have done, as well as the two cutters that are with them, which, with helicopter support, will continue in support of our humanitarian operation in the Mediterranean.

I was asked about absolute numbers in terms of Gateway, Mandate and the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. Under Gateway, 6,300 cases have been resettled over the past 10 years, at 750 refugees per year. Mandate has operated since 1995. The Gateway scheme sources the annual 750 quota for refugees from a small number of targeted locations; Mandate is designed to resettle individual refugees from anywhere in the world. The Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, launched in January 2014, has taken 187 people to date, but I stress that that needs to be seen in the context of 4,200 who have been given leave to remain in the UK.

I hope that in these remarks I have been able to demonstrate that the Government are not insensitive to the immense humanitarian crisis that we are seeing around the world and to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough was right to draw our attention. We are not insensitive to that, but we are simply at a point of disagreement over the actual means of dealing with it, preferring to take the argument much further upstream to prevent the flows, systems, schemes and criminal gangs, which cause people to get on these boats to embark on this perilous journey. That commitment will continue as we go forward.