This is an attempt to probe what appears to be a slightly peculiar weakness in the Bill. The current subsection (1) says that “port” includes an “airport” and a “hoverport”, but not any of the international train stations that we now have in this country. I am genuinely puzzled as to why that is not the case. I feel it particularly personally, since one of the two international train stations is in my constituency and, seriously, is a point at which illegal immigration has been tried a lot. If there is any hint that, owing to bad drafting, oversight or whatever, certain powers have not been applied to international railway stations, that would be bad legislation and we should seek to amend that anyway. However, it would also have a serious effect on the safety of my constituents, so the Minister will understand why I feel so personally, not least because, although we now have the excellent Ashford International station and Waterloo, during the course of this year a third international station is opening at Ebbsfleet in north Kent. I suspect, Mr. Chairman, that you and other members of the Committee may not be as familiar with it as I am, but it is in the middle of nowhere. If one wanted to abscond—suspecting that nobody would see one fleeing for a few hours—Ebbsfleet would be quite a good place to do so.
There are many arguments for ensuring that all the powers, controls and legislation that apply in all our ports and airports apply at the international railway stations as well. As the Minister will be aware, the situation is becoming ever more serious, despite the fact that the Sangatte camp in Calais was got rid of a few years ago. That camp was there specifically for people trying to come to this country illegally—that was its only purpose, ever. The last Home Secretary but two, I think, was successful in persuading the French Government to dismantle the camp, which was a good thing. Unfortunately, the mayor of Calais is now bringing it back in a slightly disguised form and, once again, increasing numbers of people are gathering at the channel ports to try their luck getting through the channel tunnel.
One can therefore assume that the trains that stop at the international stations are once again becoming vulnerable to that kind of attack, with people trying to use them in one way or another to get into this country. Some of the instances have been horrific. There have been cases of people clinging to the bottom of the trains as they come through the channel tunnel. Anything that discourages people from doing something so unbelievably dangerous would save lives as well as making our borders more secure. It is important not to underestimate the importance of trains as a medium for international travel these days. They are likely to become more important and, sadly, more a target of those who seek to get into this country illegally. The purpose of amendments Nos. 43 to 45 is simply to ensure that the protections that the Minister regards as necessary at ports and airports are also available at international railway stations.
I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Gentleman has put his argument. When I reflected on the amendment I had not quite drawn the connection between it and the constituency that he represents. Listening to his thoughtful argument, I can quite see that he brings passion to the matter.
From the tenor of my remarks over the course of the day, the hon. Gentleman will know that my instinct in much of the Bill has been to seek wide, sweeping powers, but through a process of deliberation I have been persuaded that actually Parliament would not look kindly upon my asking for wide-ranging powers for which there was no purpose. That is a legitimate process of debate through which we have gone. We have sought in the Bill, even in this clause, to ask only for powers that we think are necessary. I assure him that the question whether to include railway stations and trains was considered in full. They were not included because it was not deemed necessary.
It is only right that, in my response to the hon. Gentleman, I should take the opportunity to pay tribute to the immigration service and its work in France and Belgium, and to the degree of co-operation that we have received, particularly in France from the police aux frontières. The arrangement of juxtaposed controls, which I was grateful to be able to visit at the end of last year, has meant that in the past year alone about 17,000 illegal immigrants have been stopped on the other side of the channel.
The process of offshoring our border controls is integral to our philosophy of border control, and we shall have a lot more to say on that philosophy and the substance that follows it in the months to come. It is important that controls are in place on the other side of the channel because so much of the traffic to which the hon. Gentleman referred is in the hands of organised crime. When I visited Calais at the end of last year I was interested to learn from the prefect of the area and from our own immigration service that they estimate that most illegal migration that is attempted across the channel is in the hands of organised crime—gangs originating in either Afghanistan or Iran. Such controls are therefore extremely important.
The reason why I have been reassured that the amendments are not needed is precisely that we have invested so successfully in offshoring our border controls to France and Belgium. The checks that are needed are undertaken abroad, so there is ample time for immigration officers to notify police at the other end of the tunnel if necessary so that they can take the appropriate action.
There are of course some limitations on the exercise of police-like powers abroad. European integration is a great thing, but there are none the less constraints on our ability to have British immigration officers or police operating in an unfettered manner on the continent. Perhaps we will be able to change that situation one day, but under the terms of the tripartite agreement between the UK, France and Belgium, and of consequential administrative agreements, there are some constraints on the exercise of police-like powers in offshore controls.
The nub of the argument is that because we have exported—offshored—our border controls to the other side of the channel, checks are undertaken over there. That gives us the opportunity to identify individuals who may be undesirable and ensure that they come nowhere near the shores of the British isles. If they are British citizens and therefore individuals whom we cannot necessarily prevent from coming to the British isles, the fact that the controls are exercise offshore means that there is time to make provisions to receive them should they be of interest to the police or security authorities.
I am grateful for the opportunity to explain a little more about our reasoning and why we have not sought powers that are deemed unnecessary. I hope that that reassurance is sufficient that the hon. Member for Ashford may feel able to seek leave to withdraw his amendment.
No, it is not, is my short response to the Minister’s last hope, for a number of reasons.
First, the Minister will surely be aware, as I certainly am, that those who travel regularly on the various types of train going through the tunnel give what I might politely describe as patchy reports of the level of security on both the French and Belgian trains, and particularly regarding passport checks on the trains themselves. It may be that he is being assured by whoever it is that the system is now marvellous, has all been offshored and is completely secure, but that is not the regular passengers’ experience.
Secondly, even if the Minister takes the views of his officials rather than mine, as might be perfectly reasonable even with my particular expertise in this field, my amendments seek only to add powers that would potentially be useful, because I suspect that he and his advice are just wrong. The advisers might be saying that we obviously have problems at airports and ports, but there are none with the international rail service, yet that is simply not the case. If the Minister is being assured that it is, he is being misinformed. However, even if that advice were right today, he would still have seen the projections that international rail is extremely likely to extend in years to come to other countries, so that journeys will start in other places.
For example, a few years ago it was a regular thing for people to get themselves zipped into freight trains in Milan and then unzipped when they got to Britain. That has been stopped at present, but who knows when it will come back? Frequently, those people were refugees from the Balkans. The scam was stopped by various technological means, but the Minister and I know perfectly well that somewhere out there a criminal gang is thinking of some new form of people trafficking; one that would not be in either of our imaginations or those of his officials. There will be some new way of using international trains in future to smuggle people into this country.
If the Minister neglects the opportunity presented in the Bill to add international railway stations to ports and airports, the House will have to return to the matter at some future stage. Whichever powers we will have given to immigration officers or a border police force and whatever we have in future, this measure will be seen as a wasted opportunity. The net effect of the explanation that the Minister has been given and that he has given to the Committee is an impression that it is based on unwarranted complacency. He might be assured that there are no problems now—of course, I would disagree with that analysis—but even if one agrees with that view, it is clear that he must know that there will be problems in the future, and it seems perverse and short-sighted to neglect the opportunity to include this country’s small number of international railway stations under the protection provisions of the Bill.
I have heard what the Minister has to say and I have no desire to press the amendment to a vote, but I implore him to take this issue away and look again at it. I think that he will feel that it is in everyone’s best interest to change his mind on adding railway stations to ports and airports.
There are two or three germane points here. The hon. Gentleman highlighted two specific issues. First, he said that there may be different and growing forms of people smuggling in the future, and he outlined the scenario of trains from Milan. The clauses relate not to foreign nationals and people smuggling but to British citizens. Secondly, the issues that he identified such as the evidence he receives from his own intelligence sources on the other side of the channel about the extent of passport checking will not be solved by equipping front-line immigration officers with different powers. Those issues will be solved by the right kind of investment in front-line immigration officers. That is why it is regrettable that in the not-too-distant past, the James review, one of many Conservative reports on immigration matters, suggested that the IND’s budget should be halved. That is the wrong direction to take. We need more investment in front-line immigration policing, not less.
Mr. Jackson rose—
I am gratified that the Minister takes such an avid interest in the prognostications of my right hon. and hon. Friends, which is as it should be, given that we will be forming the Government after the next general election.
On expenditure, is it not the case that under the comprehensive spending review the Home Office budget will be reduced in real terms? In fairness, the Minister is not in a position to lecture the Opposition about the priorities of Home Office funding on immigration.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is not a cut, but a flat real-terms settlement in the Home Office. He will also know that tax revenue is not the sole source of finance for the immigration service, which draws some fraction of its income from the visa fees that we impose on foreign nationals. There is a timely debate to be had in the future about whether those visa fees are set at the right level or whether those who benefit most from coming to Britain and deciding that it should be their long-term home should pay slightly more for that privilege.
I want to return to two matters that are relevant to this debate. The problems that the hon. Member for Ashford identified should be solved not by additional powers, but by early investment. It is worth bearing in mind that policing at railway stations in the UK is already provided by a fine force called the British Transport police, which provides the service at Waterloo, and juxtaposed controls in Coquelles. Special branch maintains a presence, particularly to carry out terrorism work.
I am happy to reflect on the evidence that the hon. Member for Ashford can provide on this very serious issue. Border defences along the channel need to be as strong as possible. They have always needed to be strong in our history, and there is no reason why they should not need to be strong in the future. The amendment could safely be withdrawn as there are operational solutions that might be the remedy to the problem.