My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, on securing this debate on a very important matter. I agree very much with what she had to say, and I agree very strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, had to say. They have both introduced an element of realism that has to be set against other considerations.
The facts are that people smugglers are making fools of us and millionaires of themselves. The numbers arriving in small boats have trebled this year, compared with last year, and are now 25,000—with five weeks to go until the end of the year. On present form, the numbers could treble again next year. Meanwhile, accommodation for them is overwhelmed and the court system is underpowered. The contrast between the slogan “Take back control” and the present situation could hardly be starker.
I am sure that we all agree that those who are genuinely fleeing persecution and reach our shores by legal means should be granted protection. However, those now arriving in Kent have often passed through several safe countries and clearly believe that their chances are better in the UK, either because the whole system is perceived as looser or because of the advantages of language, family and opportunities for illegal work. We certainly know that there is, at present, little prospect of them ever being returned to their countries of origin.
There must be questions about how genuine some of those asylum seekers are if they or their families can afford to pay thousands of dollars to the people smugglers. Furthermore, a continuing and increasing flow of arrivals by sea can only undercut public acceptance of genuine refugees from elsewhere. Meanwhile, it is all costing £1.5 billion a year.
We hear talk of safe and legal routes. Those cannot be made directly from the whole world, so there would have to be some kind of sifting operation somewhere. Where would that be? Would it not be overwhelmed by applicants? For sure, large numbers of failed applicants would be left in that country and it is therefore unlikely that host countries would be willing to have such a facility on their territory. Such a proposal is clearly ill-considered, and it seems to me that “safe and legal routes” is no more than a convenient soundbite.
What should be done? I suggest four steps. First, arrivals should be placed in secure accommodation and certainly not in four-star hotels until their cases have been decided by fast-tracked procedures. Secondly, asylum should be automatically refused to those who refuse to identify themselves in a proper way. Thirdly, a much stronger effort should be made to return asylum seekers to their own countries if they fail. That should include the proposals in the Government’s Bill to restrict the grant of visas to those countries that refuse to take back their own citizens. Lastly, we should, as I am sure the whole House would agree, seek an agreement with France and possibly Belgium to accept the immediate return of those who arrived by small boats. It would not be simple, but I know that President Macron has said that he is determined that the channel should not become a graveyard.
None of that would be simple, but allowing the present situation to continue or even worsen would result in even greater numbers and, I fear, a seriously negative reaction from the British public.