New Clause 49 - Disclosure of international agreements for prevention of unlawful border crossings

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 4th November 2021.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations requiring–

(a) the Secretary of State to disclose the contents of any agreements with any international governments or agencies entered into in order to prevent unlawful border crossings; and

(b) the information in paragraph (a) to be laid before Parliament within 3 months of any such agreement being entered into.”—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Through new clause 49, we hope to shed light on some of the murkiness that has existed in the Home Office in relation to agreements reached with agencies and other Governments to prevent unlawful border crossings and dangerous journeys. The new clause would require the Secretary of State to disclose the contents of any agreements with any international Governments or agencies reached in order to prevent unlawful border crossings, and for this information to be laid before Parliament within three months of any such agreement being entered into. This would mean that, for example, information pertaining to the UK-French agreement to tackle dangerous crossings in the English channel in July could be properly understood and scrutinised, including the use of £54 million of taxpayers’ money.

Information about that agreement and its impact has been limited, and although information has been limited, the confusion has been clear for all to see. There have been conflicting briefings between the British and French authorities regarding the use of £54 million of British taxpayers’ money. There have been reports, for example, that the UK is threatening to withhold the money. The Home Secretary appeared before the Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee last week and this question was asked. The Home Secretary stated that the agreement is “based on results”, and includes preventing people getting to beaches, intelligence sharing, policing operations around the Belgian-French border, and technology.

For more than two years, the Home Secretary has repeatedly committed to stopping channel crossings in small boats by making the route unviable, yet unprecedented numbers of people have made the journey in this period, including a staggering 20,000 this year alone. Clearly, if we are working with the French authorities to disrupt people smuggling gangs and prevent dangerous crossings, it does not seem to be working very well, and parliamentary scrutiny of how taxpayers’ money is being spent is important if we are to learn more about the Home Secretary’s plans and why they have once again failed to deliver. For example, has anything been paid to France? Is the agreement for payment by results? If so, what are the metrics? How can we scrutinise whether this is value for money, or whether that money could be better spent elsewhere? It seems astonishing that the Home Secretary can just be given £54 million of public money to spend, but we do not know what on. There must be some accountability for that to Parliament.

I am sure all members of the Committee would agree that we need a strategy that includes tackling criminal gangs operating away from the coast of France, which are facilitating these dangerous crossings. Targeting those groups requires international co-operation, but the Bill does not lend itself to international co-operation. As we know, it effectively washes the UK’s hands of our international obligations under international human rights and maritime law. We have also heard at length from the Opposition about the importance of safe and legal routes to prevent people from undertaking these crossings in the first place, something the Government continue to neglect, with tragic consequences.

In summary, the Opposition’s new clause 49 hopes to probe unanswered questions about the Home Office’s operations and use of taxpayers’ funds. If accepted, it would require the Secretary of State to disclose the contents of any agreements with international Governments or agencies entered into to prevent unlawful border crossings, and to present that information to Parliament.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 4:00 pm, 4th November 2021

I reiterate that, having gone down to Dover to meet the Kent intake unit in Dover docks, having met in the joint control room with deputy director Dave Butler of the clandestine threat command, and having been to Tug Haven and western Jetfoil on a cross-party parliamentary visit, it was fantastic to learn and understand. I share concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate about the use of this money by the French, and I have been quite open in my view that the French are simply not doing enough, but it was great to hear from Dave and others in the control room that what the French are doing inland is quite substantive. Dave was very happy to share the details.

I can only implore the hon. Gentleman, rather than pressing this new clause, to go on down and visit, and have a chat with Dave and the gang down there to hear what is going on in France. They were trying to say to us that the French are operating inland and trying to stop people from coming over to France and travelling through. The local Parisian community, for example, were getting very angry about being a path route towards Calais. That was a fascinating conversation.

That is why the new clause is unnecessary; we saw, after the threat of no payment was made, that suddenly we could not stop being inundated with video footage and photography of what was being done. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. The one thing the French are not doing is their job at sea. They need to step up and support the British Border Force and other British services in stopping boats once they have already launched into the English channel—not just by tracking them, as they currently do, but by tugging them back to France. They are simply not doing their job.

While I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about money, ultimately I believe the Home Secretary has a firm grip of this, and as we are seeing, the results are starting to pay dividends. However, I agree that more can be done, and the Bill goes a long way to achieving that.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for his proposed new clause. He will appreciate that there is always a balance to be struck in these matters, and I should add that we have published joint statements that set out the nature of our work with France following arrangements made in July 2021 and November 2020. The content of the Sandhurst treaty, which underpins our illegal migration relationship with France, is also published.

Those arrangements are underpinned by additional administrative and operational documentation. However, it is not possible to publish that material where it includes sensitive details relating to the UK and our international partners. To disclose that information would hinder our operational response and our ability to target criminals driving illegal migration and ultimately protect the public. We must do nothing that aids their evil work—we simply must not entertain that, and that is something I am exceptionally mindful of in responding to the proposed new clause.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

If the Minister is concerned to see that we do nothing to aid the evil work of people smugglers, what consideration has he given to the impact assessment by his own Department, which said:

“There is a risk that increased security and deterrence could encourage these cohorts to attempt riskier means of entering the UK.”?

According to his own Department, these proposals are counterproductive.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

What is being sought is further detail on the relationship that we have with France in particular to tackle these dangerous channel crossings. As I say, we must put nothing in the public domain that risks undermining that constructive collaboration through the arrangement that we have with the French, which is vital to stopping these dangerous crossings and protecting lives at sea. To do so would also result in a betrayal of trust with our international partners, who own some of this information, and could prevent us from reaching future agreements with international partners, impacting our ability to prevent illegal migration and small boat crossings. That is why the Government feel unable to support the new clause and I encourage the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate to withdraw it.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Home Office)

There is not enough scrutiny, so we wish to press the new clause to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 74 Nationality and Borders Bill — New Clause 49 - Disclosure of international agreements for prevention of unlawful border crossings

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.