Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460 - 479)



Mr Russell

  460. Home Secretary, you earlier mentioned—boasted almost—about joined-up government thinking in this category. Are you satisfied that the governments of the European Union are joined-up in their thinking?
  (Mr Straw) With each other or internally?

  461. I am thinking primarily actually of France and the UK but broadening it, I do not want to pick on France.
  (Mr Straw) Asylum and immigration is an issue which is near or at the top of the agenda of all ministers of the interior, home ministers across Europe, with the possible exception of Portugal which, for reasons of language and history, has simply a few hundred applications for asylum each year. It is right at the top. It creates difficulties for all governments, whatever their political persuasion. How it is handled varies a bit. As far as bilateral contact with the French is concerned, they have very considerably strengthened in recent years. Officials, led by Stephen, put a great deal of effort into those bilateral contacts, so have I, both with Jean-Pierre Chevenement, Minister of Interior, and Elizabeth Guigou, she is less involved in immigration matters, and now with Daniel Vaillant who is Chevenement's successor. We have negotiated the protocol to the Sangatte Treaty. They have agreed to put that through the National Assembly following from that and juxtaposed controls. A great deal of effort is going on to improve enforcement, particularly in the Pas de Calais area and so on.
  (Mr Boys Smith) I have little to add to that, except that I think the relationship with the French at official level has been a fruitful and productive one and has undoubtedly got a great deal better in the last year or so. In my two years in the job things have improved.

  462. I am pleased to hear that things have improved. Is there room for further improvement?
  (Mr Straw) Yes.

  463. We are working towards that?
  (Mr Straw) Yes and, as far as Germany is concerned, I had a long meeting here in London last week with Dr Schily, who is the Minister of Interior, who is an old friend in any event, but relations both at the ministerial level and official level with the Germans are very good and co-operative. They are extremely co-operative, for example, on Dublin returnees. The same is true with most but not all European countries.

  464. Home Secretary, you are probably aware that I am currently serving on the parliamentary police service scheme that has involved an all party visit to Europol's headquarters. Do you think that more needs to be done to improve the workings of Europol in dealing with people smuggling?
  (Mr Straw) Yes. Europol essentially is an intelligence gathering organisation. We proposed, and Tampere agreed, the establishment of the European Police Chiefs Task Force. We are now concerned, as are other interior ministers, to ensure that Task Force takes on tasks of an operational kind, in other words starts to catch the criminals, which is the purpose of it. It takes things a stage further from Europol, which is intelligence gathering. Within the framework of the European Police Chiefs Task Force the relevant police chiefs agreed that there is this gang which needs to be intercepted, disrupted and, where possible, members arrested and, therefore, these countries should work on that. You do not have a great bureaucratic superstructure but what you do have is this arrangement where information can be exchanged, bilaterally or trilaterally and so on, and ad hoc arrangements can be made for joint investigation.

  465. Home Secretary, I think that does lead us on now to the particular question about the tragic death of the 58 people at Dover in June. Has that had a lasting impact on other EU countries, the attitude towards people smuggling, and what has happened since Tampere to bring us closer together within the EU?
  (Mr Straw) Dover was shocking and the shock reverberated across Europe. It was a profound shock to people across Europe and received a huge amount of coverage in Europe as well as obviously in the United Kingdom. Amongst other things obviously it has highlighted the problem of people smuggling, both the desperation of people to get not only to the United Kingdom but also to many other EU states because of the total number who apply within the EU probably only a small percentage apply to this country, so it has highlighted that. It has highlighted the ruthlessness of the criminal facilitators who are behind this traffic. It has given increased urgency to the need to improve co-ordination and common standards between different European Union States.

  466. Home Secretary, would heat seeking detectors have located those 58 people?
  (Mr Straw) It is difficult to say. As you know, at the moment, it is dogs and CO2 detectors which are used, certainly in this country. A variety of techniques—Stephen can comment on this in greater detail—are under investigation, including that of the use of X-ray equipment, scanning material. As the Chairman knows, not least through representations he made to me, I organised a study by the Police Scientific Development Branch into the effectiveness and the safety of different methods of detecting clandestines on vehicles.
  (Mr Boys Smith) Just to add, on your first point, I do not know about heat seeking detectors but undoubtedly CO2 or dogs would have found those people had they been used at an early enough stage in the journey and possibly they would have been found alive. On the use of X-rays, we are taking that work forward as fast as we can. Clearly there are safety considerations, which is why we are looking at various options within the X-ray territory, some of which I think are quite complicated.

  467. Chairman, you will be aware of the letter the Home Secretary sent you last month when it was acknowledged that the X-ray units are fully compliant with UK Health and Safety legislation with regard to the exposure of people and animals but they are not going to be used.
  (Mr Straw) With respect, Mr Russell, they are compliant for the purpose for which they are used, which is the identification of contraband, not people. I am very happy, subject to this classification, to share with Members of the Committee some of the advice which I have received. Let me say to Mr Russell, I have gone into this in very great detail and if X-rays or heat seeking devices or any other system are more effective than CO2 and dogs I want to see them used.

  468. In your letter you said they are compliant with regard to the exposure of people and animals.
  (Mr Boys Smith) They are compliant for the purposes for which they are used, as the Home Secretary said, which is not primarily to search for people, it is to search in detail, in depth, in the load for contraband. I think the key issue is not whether they are compliant and would find people, it is the extent to which they can be used for practical purposes at speed in a port like Dover where large numbers of vehicles are passing through. What we are looking at, therefore, is not just X-ray as such, but X-ray that can be used quickly, in open air, in a way comparable to detector dogs and CO2 sensors to reinforce those controls.

  469. Home Secretary, to conclude my section, what progress has been made since June in taking forward proposals you put forward in Lisbon for a common asylum system? Who is actually leading on this, and which EU countries are most supportive of your views?
  (Mr Straw) Well, the ground for a common asylum system itself flows from Amsterdam, and the lead on that is in the hands of Antonio Vitorino, who is the EU Commissioner in this area. There have been long discussions with him and draft texts are being produced, and there is quite a tight time scale on this. Which countries are we working most closely with? Quite a lot of them, including France and Germany and the Scandinavians countries, the countries which take the bulk of the asylum application. I may say that Italy, although it has fewer numbers of asylum applicants than the United Kingdom, their numbers are running at a few thousand last year, it is one of the major transit countries from the Balkans and Greece, and also has a huge number of people without any papers at all who are just working illegally. It must not be assumed that just because not so many apply in Italy, or are recorded as having applied—because they have a rather different approach to public administration in Italy—they do not have hundreds of thousands of people who have no basis for staying there.


  470. Can I ask Mr Boys Smith, just going back to the 58 Chinese people found dead in that lorry, would you happen to know whether the intelligence that was available to Customs and Excise on that occasion was also available to the Immigration Service?
  (Mr Boys Smith) I do not believe that it was, although I would like to have notice of that and pursue it.*[4] The search was conducted for Customs reasons and normally if one or other of the agencies is intervening we would expect them to take the lead and share any product that might come from that.

  471. I would be grateful if you would do that because it touches on a point that Mr Russell was asking about who was looking for what and the purpose of that equipment. Clearly, in that case, I think it is fair to say that the intelligence indicated that this was a truck they should stop, without being specific as to why. That was the case, was it not?

(Mr Boys Smith) Yes.

  Chairman: I should say that it looks as though we are going to have a vote soon. We will do our best. Perhaps we can go to Dublin first.

Mr Linton

  472. I have to confess, Home Secretary, that the Committee found it a little bit difficult to understand the operation of the Dublin Convention, and we are hoping that you and Mr Boys Smith can shed light on it. As from 2nd October, through the Immigration and Asylum Act, every EU country is deemed a safe country.
  (Mr Straw) Yes.

  473. Has this had as much effect as it should, indeed, have done, and if it has not had much effect on the numbers, why not?
  (Mr Boys Smith) The 2nd October is really too soon. I do not think we can say at this stage. What that provision is designed to do is to bottle up the route that the previous judicial finding had offered. I do not think I would expect it to have any discernable effect on the intake.
  (Mr Straw) You are in very good company if you do not fully understand the operation of the Dublin Convention. The important thing to say about it is that although it was agreed in 1990, it was drafted some years before that, before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, when the circumstances about asylum were completely different. It is one of these things that was on the track. It was drafted in the mid-80s and agreed in 1990, and that was after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

  474. Which categories of asylum seeker does this Section 17 of the Act—
  (Mr Straw) Section 11.

  475.  —Section 11, enable the immigration officers at Dover to send back to France? Are they only those people who admit that they have come from France, or only those people who have claimed asylum in France, or only those people who are not sans papier? Clearly, at Dover, all of the people presenting themselves for asylum coming off the ferry as illegals have come from France.
  (Mr Straw) Whether France was the first safe third country through which they passed is another question.
  (Mr Boys Smith) It does not allow immigrations officers at Dover to send people straight back if they have made an asylum claim, but what it does is to say that other EU Member States are safe third countries whose authorities and courts can be trusted to deal with things in a manner that meets our standards here, and, therefore, to cut off the route, as I mentioned a moment ago.


  476. If they choose, as in Sangatte, not to claim when they are in France—
  (Mr Boys Smith) If they arrive in the United Kingdom their application then still has to be considered, but what we are saying is that the countries from which they came—France, particularly here—is one to which they could subsequently be returned after consideration of their claim and appeal if that leads to refusal.

Mr Linton

  477. The whole purpose of the Dublin Convention was to avoid the system where people could make a serial application for asylum.
  (Mr Boys Smith) If Dublin then applies, indeed, we can operate through the Dublin mechanism to get them back. I was just taking issue with your assumption that they could be turned straight round at Dover because of this position.

Mr Howarth

  478. We have seen a shed load of people at Sangatte where the French authorities have actually put them into this former Eurotunnel complex. The Red Cross houses them, they feed them, with the complete co-operation of the French authorities, and these people make it absolutely clear that they have no desire to stay in France, they wish to come to the United Kingdom. So all the French are doing is, effectively, facilitating these people to get off their books and get out of their hair and get on to a boat or a lorry and come to the United Kingdom.
  (Mr Boys Smith) If the Dublin Convention applies—that is to say that the various tests it has in terms of connection with that country, for example, if that was the country which initially admitted those people to the boundary of the EU, or whether they had previously made an asylum application, have family members and so on—then these new provisions enable us to return them to the country in a way that we were not previously able to.

Mr Linton

  479. If someone comes to Dover and says, "Yes, I have been through Italy and I made an asylum application there", then they can be sent straight back, is that right?
  (Mr Boys Smith) Well, sent straight back—

4   See Appendix 27. Back

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