Draft Channel Tunnel (International Arrangements) (Amendment No. 3) Order 2001

[back to previous text]

Mr. Lidington: That is certainly my concern. It is a worry that whatever the authorities in Paris say, in practice at local level a blind eye is not infrequently turned to people seeking to leave France to try their luck at getting into the United Kingdom. That came out of the recent report on border controls by the all-party Select Committee on Home Affairs, which was agreed unanimously.

The break between French and British jurisdiction during the train journey will put pressure on British immigration officers in Paris, for example, to try to carry out their checks as early as possible during the train's journey, because they would want to ensure that any illegal immigrants on board were detected early on and handed to the French authorities. Are there staffing implications in respect of immigration service operations on board the trains? How would those immigration officers go about their duties? Will there be sufficient officers to check every passenger on a train beginning its journey in Paris before it passes into British jurisdiction, or will it take the entire duration of a cross-channel journey to carry out the checks?

What happens if someone is detected on board the train? Let us suppose that someone is detected in the British jurisdiction, so there is no question of simply handing him over to the French authorities. I, too, have found it tiresome to watch on television the occasional well hyped photocall in which the Home Secretary or some other Government grandee appears at Dover with a posse of immigration officials and police officers to witness the detection of people seeking to enter this country illegally. That is hailed in the parts of the media that are sympathetic to the Government as evidence of a determination to get on top of what hon. Members on both sides of the Committee acknowledge is a real problem. Only a couple of days later did we discover that, once those people have been detected, they are registered, asked to report to an appropriate Government office at a future date and then left to their own devices.

I welcome this legislation and hope that it will prove to be an effective deterrent. However, let us suppose that its only consequence is that people run the risk of being detected, but know that they will then be allowed to continue on their way to Waterloo, St. Pancras or wherever, and that, after being officially registered and perhaps fingerprinted, they will be allowed to make their way into Britain or be formally dispersed under the national asylum support system. If that is so, the deterrent effect may prove to be far smaller than the Government hope. It is important that the legislation works and that the public can have confidence in it. For that confidence to be present, we need assurances about the practical implementation of the measures provided for in the order.

4.50 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Winterton. There is no escaping you today. Whether one is upstairs or downstairs, there you are. You are all over the place.

Mr. Lidington: In my lady's chamber.

Mr. Hughes: No, that was under the Government before the previous one, as I remember.

I support the order, which seems an eminently sensible way of arranging matters for the one fixed cross-channel link. On reflection, it is odd that no one thought about such provisions before the channel tunnel was opened, because the need for a three-nations arrangement seems the most obvious thing in the world. The Minister may say with some satisfaction that this Government were not in power at the time, and so they agree. Clearly, my point has political implications, but the need for a regime involving all parties struck me as fairly obvious.

Mr. Fallon: As one of the few survivors of the Committee that considered the Channel Tunnel Bill, perhaps the hon. Gentleman could tell us how many people sought asylum in 1986.

Mr. Hughes: I do not know. There would not have been as many as now, but that would not have obviated the need to realise that proper joint immigration controls were required. That should have been foreseen, and I shall not withdraw my implied criticism of those who considered the matter at the time.

If the Minister has already dealt with the subject of my second question, I apologise. Obviously, the order deals with the United Kingdom and French authorities, but the channel tunnel railway line and the Eurostar also go to Belgium, so I should be grateful to know the arrangements for Belgium. Is an arrangement in place? If not, will there be an arrangement and how soon will it be in place?

I can put the practical question more briefly than the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington). For those who are our responsibility under the order—as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, they appear to be so from the moment that the last door closes at the last French station before leaving for the UK—what will happen in practical terms? What are the processes on the train and when they arrive at Waterloo, St. Pancras or Ashford? Where will the people be taken, who will deal with them and what will happen next? I assume that they will be dealt with by the law of this country. It is therefore proper to ask whether that means that they will be dealt with completely by the law of this country or whether, because we know that they have come from the land territory of another country, they will automatically be treated as people who will be referred to the French authorities and we will not, in effect, deal with them other than as a handling or transport agency or as a set of carriers.

The order raises three questions. We are helped by the all-party Home Affairs Committee, which, as the hon. Gentleman reminded us, recently produced an agreed report that made practical suggestions. First, if asylum seekers in France wish to come to the UK, what is the legal way in which they can come here to put their case? I have never had an adequate answer to that question. We have an international obligation under the United Nations convention to deal individually with everyone who seeks asylum in the United Kingdom, but if people cannot get here, how do they make their applications? It seems as if there is no legal way of travelling here, which is entirely unsatisfactory. There must be a lawful way for people to put their case to come to the United Kingdom. That could be done at the British embassy in Paris or Brussels, at the British high commission in Freetown in Sierra Leone, in Colombo in Sri Lanka or in any other Commonwealth country. To comply with the convention, there must be a lawful way of making an application on British soil or in diplomatic buildings abroad.

Mr. Lidington: Surely the hon. Gentleman would agree that, for people in such circumstances to make valid asylum applications in the United Kingdom, they would have to claim legitimately that they would be at risk of persecution in France? Otherwise, the French authorities should deal with their cases.

Mr. Hughes: I understand the point. That would usually be correct because, in most logical circumstances that we can envisage, someone would not normally be escaping from France to Britain, and most asylum seekers would have already had an opportunity to make an application. However, the general principle remains. If people in Sierra Leone or Sri Lanka, for example, want to apply for asylum in the United Kingdom, how do they do it? What is the lawful way of exercising their rights under the convention? There must be an answer, because otherwise we would be in breach of our obligations.

The Chairman: Order. This is all extremely interesting but not directly relevant to the order, which is tightly drawn. I have allowed a certain exploratory discussion, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not continue down that line, because it is not relevant to the order.

Mr. Hughes: I understand the scope of the order and I will try to contain my remarks within that.

My second point relates to people who are stopped on the train and say that they are not asylum seekers, but wish to come to the United Kingdom as economic migrants. What is their status? Are they allowed to do that, what is the process for dealing with them and, given the Minister's recent positive comments on the subject, how do they exercise the right to be considered as economic migrants, even though they might not have the documents and papers to allow them in? Such people are in a different category from those who seek asylum. There would be many more applicants in that category than that for asylum if there were clear rules governing it. Many of those who apply for asylum in Britain are trying to get here for economic reasons and have no other way in.

Thirdly, the order is obviously a UK-France arrangement. Is it part of a set of arrangements that are being drawn up in all other European Union countries, so that we can have a common system? The order applies to trains, but boats and planes also cross from one EU country to another. There is no logic in having a system that will work well for Eurostar but not a similar one for boats that cross the North sea and planes that fly from another EU country to Britain. Will we have one and will it be an EU-wide system, so that everyone in the EU knows the score: that a similar system will govern them, no matter which two EU countries they move between?

4.59 pm

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): May I say what a pleasure it is, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Winterton?

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, I welcome the order, although it is overdue, rather like the legislation and measures to counter the foot and mouth disaster that is befalling Britain. Nevertheless, it is better late than never. I have some specific and practical questions for the Minister, which I hope she will answer in addition to those posed by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). They relate directly to the order.

The Minister will know that Gare du Nord is an older railway station; it has not been refurbished like Victoria and it is not a modern station like Waterloo. Will she provide further information about the control bureaux mentioned in the order? How many officers will be on station at Gare du Nord? Will officers be taken off existing duties or will they be additional and recruited from outside the UK immigration service? My hon. Friend asked whether Eurostar would have to pay for the provisions, so what will be the implication for ticket prices? As we approach a general election, I am tempted to ask whether that will be yet another stealth tax on people travelling across la manche—the English channel.

The Minister will also know that some people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom bought domestic tickets to travel from Paris to Lille, only to stay on the train and travel through. Will the order provide mechanisms to ensure that people with sufficient documentation to travel legitimately to Lille will, having passed through the barriers introduced by the order, get off at Lille and be unable to carry on into the United Kingdom?

Sometimes people travelling from Lille or Gare du Nord with documentation satisfactory to both the French and United Kingdom authorities subsequently destroy their documents and arrive at the British port of immigration claiming that they have no documents. That sometimes happens at airports as well as Waterloo station. I am not sure how to get round the problem. Does the order contain a mechanism to control it?

If the Minister can assure me that these problems are, if not completely covered by the order, at least actively being considered, and if she can dilate just a little more on how the order will work and who will pay for it, I shall be happy to support it.

5.3 pm

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 21 March 2001