29 November 2007
Keith Vaz: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. Do the Government support the proposal, put forward at the start of The Hague programme, for the creation of a European support officer and office to deal with common asylum issues?
Meg Hillier: That is one of the discussions in the green paper. We will wait to see what the Commission comes up with on that. Realistically, there is not a great deal of time to take major legislation through the European Parliament and processes before the 2009 European elections. When we see what the Commission comes up with, there will have to be discussion about what is feasible and practical. The issue raised by my right hon. Friend is certainly of interest to us.
We are encouraged that the Commission has confirmed that it will undertake a feasibility study of how best to take forward the sort of practical co-operation that I have been talking about. We will actively support measures that encourage that spirit of co-operation without undue bureaucracy. We are also mindful of the need for more to be done outside the borders of the EU. The UK fully supports the EU’s regional protection programme, which allows refugees access to protection quickly and close to their countries of origin.
In the UK, we have introduced several measures that have increased the robustness of our asylum process and reduced the number of unfounded asylum claims. Those measures, which include the expansion of our fast-track process—when people arrive, their claim is initially triaged, or assessed, and determined so that they then leave the country or are accepted as refugees within two or three months of their arrival—and the introduction of new offences for passengers who attempt to conceal their identity or their country of origin by deliberately destroying their documents, have reduced asylum applications to the lowest levels since 1992. The annexe to the green paper produced by the Commission provides some of those figures in more detail.
Keith Vaz: I shall study the hon. Gentleman’s speech very carefully in Hansard tomorrow. Will he clarify current Conservative party policy in respect of the processing of asylum applications? Is it still the Conservative party’s policy that asylum applications should be processed on an offshore island?
Damian Green: The world has moved on since 2005 and the Conservative party has moved with it. Sadly, the right hon. Gentleman appears to have failed to do so, although I do not blame him. He is nostalgic for the days when the Labour party was an election-winning machine, rather than the increasingly disreputable shambles that it has become in 2007. We in the Opposition will continue to move on, with constructive and creative policies for Britain.
If we consider what the Government do, rather than what they say they do, it is clear that Ministers are happy for important parts of our asylum policy to be set through directives, rather than by the Government reporting to the House. I imagine that they are a little embarrassed about that, given the chaos of wider immigration policy. Although the number of asylum seekers has been declining in recent years, as the Minister pointed out, largely because wars in the Balkans are thankfully just a bad memory, we cannot know that that will remain the case. It is therefore important, as part of the wider changes that are desperately needed in the immigration system, to have a fair and robust asylum system. It will be easier to achieve that if decisions are made by the Government in co-operation with our European partners than if policy is made by the Commission, with the Council making decisions under qualified majority voting on whether to implement them.
As the Minister said, the Commission has asked a number of pertinent questions, some of which this and subsequent Governments will inevitably have to address. She said that she had objections to some of the Commission’s ambitions, but without the exercise of our opt-outs, her objections are pointless. The Government seek to delay movement into the second phase, when we would indeed lose any control over our asylum policy, but her stance would be a lot more credible if she or her predecessor had taken any effective action over the past five years.
Such action can be taken without our signing up to a fully centralised policy. The Minister mentioned our relationship with France in this regard. The Government should be making more efforts to impress on the French authorities that it is unacceptable to recreate in Cherbourg the conditions that used to obtain at Sangatte. Sangatte camp has been closed, but many of the problems have moved along the coast, which the Minister will be aware is a growing issue. I should like more Government action in co-operation with the French authorities on that.
A second piece of action that I would recommend to the Government would be to do more to protect British lorry drivers, increasing numbers of whom are reporting that they have been attacked or threatened by people trying to use their trucks as a way of coming into Britain illegally. Even more worryingly, I have received reports that officers at Calais are more concerned with keeping the trucks rolling on to the ferries than with allowing British drivers to go through the channel that allows their trucks to be properly checked by the heat scanners. There is clearly much work to be done by the British authorities in this area, and I am sure that the French Government would be receptive.
Those are two concrete examples of how British policy in this area could certainly be improved by greater co-operation among member states. They do not require new directives or any other kind of legislation. They simply need effective action by the British Government. Asylum policy need not be an area that divides the two sides of the House. My essential message to the Minister is that it is not her words or her stated policy that are deficient; what is not working is the policy that she is, in fact, following. Having negotiated an opt-out from these provisions of the Amsterdam treaty, the Government have behaved as though the opt-out were unnecessary. They have been wrong in that presumption. We have tabled our amendment because it would send a powerful signal to present and future Ministers that British policy on asylum—which should be fair, humane, and competently run—was ultimately the responsibility of the British Government. I commend our amendment to the House.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I will speak briefly on this matter, because most of the arguments have already been rehearsed. I am happy to support the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). I find myself in agreement with a lot of what he has said this afternoon. I pay tribute to the Minister for the sensible and measured way in which she introduced the debate on immigration, as she did only a fortnight ago. The document will be discussed properly and consulted upon by Parliament, by the Government, and, I am sure, by the European Scrutiny Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), which has a diverse cast of characters, some of whom are in favour of the European Union and some of whom are not quite so sure. Giving Parliament the chance to scrutinise such important documents is an important way to approach the European Union.
I was present as a junior Justice Minister at the Tampere European summit in 1999, when Finland had the presidency of the Union and when the whole justice and home affairs agenda was launched. It is good and proper that, eight years later, we are working closely with our European partners on asylum. Tampere became The Hague programme, and following The Hague we had the four directives on asylum, with which the House is familiar. It is right and proper that the Government should stop and evaluate what has been achieved so far in their desire further to improve co-operation between our country and our European partners.
I agreed with the first comments made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I have a lot in common with him. We celebrated our birthdays on Monday, along with Tina Turner—separately of course, not together. He was right to say that this is an ideal opportunity and an ideal function for the European Union. With external borders that need policing and scrutinising, it is vital that we work together with the other members of the EU to have a common policy. I would probably go slightly further than the Government. I understand why they are concerned and reticent about moving forward on the issue, but we cannot achieve a solution to the asylum problem unless we work closely with our partners.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Can the right hon. Gentleman not accept the distinction between co-operating with other countries, which we all believe in, and irreversibly handing over powers to another organisation on something as important as immigration? That is an important democratic distinction that we make, which I think he fails to make.
Keith Vaz: I understand that distinction, and I do not think that we have handed over the powers; we are very careful. In all debates with a European tinge, I make the point that British Ministers—whether Conservative or Labour—go to summit meetings, as the right hon. Gentleman did when he was a Minister, to protect British interests, not to give things away. He is quite wrong: the Government are protecting and defending our position.
It is right for us to determine whether we can improve co-operation. I hope that we will give sympathetic consideration to the creation of a European support office. I know that the proposal is at an early stage and I realise that it has come about only as a result of what was decided at The Hague, but we need to look at it.
If we examine such co-operation and support among EU colleagues, we must be concerned about the database. We will need to ensure that data held not only by ourselves but by other EU countries are protected, especially in view of the current climate. We must also ensure that our computer system is compatible with those in other countries. There is no point having fingerprints and data on a computer in France if that information cannot be read in the UK, and if the two computer systems cannot speak to each other, because there would thus be no prospect of achieving the laudable aims that the Government propose.
My second point relates to a matter raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, and to some extent by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal. It is right to lament the delays in the asylum process. I do so every week, and I will tomorrow, when a lot of constituents will visit me—more than 100 come every Friday—all of whom will have immigration problems and complaints about delays in the Home Office. The right hon. Gentleman was a member of the Conservative Government, so I must point out to him that the delays that we are experiencing now are nothing compared with those pre-1997. I went to the immigration and nationality directorate then and saw hundreds of unopened letters and immigration cases that had not been dealt with.
My hon. Friend the Minister reminded us that she was only five months into the job. She needs to give resources and ministerial time to replying quickly to Members of Parliament about asylum cases. Cases must be dealt with quickly so that people who apply and are not successful are told to go as soon as possible. In the long run, that will save her a lot of headaches. It will also save the Home Office a lot of stamps, which it would otherwise have to use to reply to right hon. and hon. Members. Such a process is right and fair for those making applications. If people’s applications are genuine, tell them quickly, and if their applications are not genuine and do not succeed, tell those people quickly, so that they can leave the country. That is the cardinal principle that Minister should set out to Lin Homer every Monday morning when she gets her asylum and immigration statistics, because it is of paramount importance.
The Minister must examine the question of asylum seekers who are not allowed to work while their claims are being processed. If the Government want to prevent those people from working, they should process the claims quickly. However, there is constant delay. I am sure that I shall hear tomorrow, as I did last Friday, about cases that have lasted for four or five years without a decision. The people affected who are claiming asylum cannot work, and in fact, they are not on benefits either. They are in a dire situation as a result of the Government’s handling of the process. The Minister should look at what is happening and, perhaps in a limited number of cases, ensure that progress is made.
Will the Government please continue to do what they are doing regarding co-operation on asylum? We cannot solve the issue on our own. We must consider the number of people who are allowed to come to this country from France. I understand that 17,000 people—perhaps the Minister will tell me whether that figure is correct—have been moved from country to country to ensure that their asylum claims are processed properly. That is far too many people. We must ensure that once an asylum claim is made in one EU country, it is dealt with, rather than having a situation in which people are moved from country to country, eventually ending up in the United Kingdom. I hope that the Minister will give us the figures and ensure that she raises that point next time she has a ministerial meeting in which she discusses justice and home affairs.