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

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Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): I add my appreciation of your chairmanship, Mr. Winterton. I am not sure about the French for closing the stable door—

Mr. Fabricant: Fermez la porte.

Mr. Fallon: It is not ``fermez la porte'', but if I knew it, I might still be ruled in order, because our proceedings certainly have that whiff about them. I do not accept criticism of the Government of 1986 when only about a couple of hundred people sought asylum, compared with the 70,000 or 80,000 now. In 1986, I recall having to consider proposals for French police with firearms to enter the United Kingdom. Debates were heated, with Members of Parliament unsure about what the gendarmes would do with their weapons in Ashford high street or wherever. It was never envisaged that we might need British officers to operate in France. It was not possible to predict what would happen fifteen years ahead. In retrospect, we relied to an unjustifiable extent on the two Governments fulfilling their obligations equally. That has certainly not happened since the signing of the treaty at Canterbury.

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend posed a question that I should like to ask the Minister; instead, I shall ask my hon. Friend, and perhaps the Minister will overhear and respond.

As the gun and weapon laws in France differ from those in the United Kingdom, should there not be provision—possibly—for UK immigration officers operating in France to have access to arms for self-protection, if nothing else?

Mr. Fallon: I had not considered that point, and I am sure that the Minister can answer better than I can. I am not convinced that we should license all those various officers to carry weapons or that we should start a shooting war in different languages on each side of the channel. Perhaps the Minister will pick up on that.

In signing such a treaty, one has to rely on both Governments fulfilling their domestic and international obligations. I pressed my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury on that point, but I hope that the Minister will reply. Articles 3 and 4 clearly depend on the French carrying out their obligations, not simply in accordance with the rules and procedures of their domestic law, but internationally. Do the Government believe that the French Government are fulfilling their international obligations—it does not look like it from this side of the channel—as well as complying with their domestic procedures, which, for historical reasons, are very different from ours? That is the first question for the Minister.

Secondly, the Committee is owed an explanation on the delay. The Minister said that the French would change their legislation. When is that likely to take effect? If it is meant to stop a particular gap, it is taking longer than it should. How much longer will it be before that gap is filled by a little more effort on the French side?

5.7 pm

Mrs. Roche: I shall endeavour to deal with the questions in turn. Some of them overlap, but I shall deal with them in order. I wish to thank all those who have spoken in a spirit of co-operation and support for the order.

Let me deal with the timing. Two actions were necessary to get the measure through. First, it was necessary to align the parliamentary processes of two countries, and we anticipate fruition of that in June this year. In addition, the French Government had to change their domestic legislation in order to examine the documents of those who claim that they are travelling domestically when they board the Eurostar train. One of the difficulties—it relates in part to a point that was raised by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant)—is that people have been boarding one of the three stopping trains but not getting off in Calais. I have done some research and would be delighted to explain the legal history behind why the French authorities have not had the power, until now, to remove people from the train or to examine their documents. In view of the circumstances, both Governments have moved quickly.

Mention was made of cost and staff resources. We propose to staff the juxtaposed controls from within our agreed staffing allocations for 2001-02. In May, we will have 1,000 more operational staff—including assistant immigration officers, immigration officers and chief immigration officers—than in April 2000. We will be able to provide for the measure out of that vastly increased allocation. Questions were also asked about cost. Details of the start-up and running costs are still being finalised but the costs are not likely to be great, particularly when measured against the greatly increased effectiveness of immigration control.

I shall deal with some of the other issues that were raised. There has been a misunderstanding about how the order will work—that was raised by the hon. Members for Aylesbury and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. It is not a question of immigration officers being on the train; all the document checks will be carried out before arrival. If our immigration officers are in any doubt about the validity of someone's documents, that person will not be allowed to board the train. We are talking not about clandestine entrants, but inadequately documented passengers. The hon. Member for Lichfield is nodding; he will be aware of that from evidence given to the Home Affairs Committee.

Mr. Fabricant: On a point of information, while we were at Waterloo we witnessed, with our own eyes, someone being arrested for the very infraction about which the Minister has just spoken.

Mrs. Roche: That is right; that is the situation, because officials have no power to check documents at the moment. Checks, under the auspices of UK immigration control, will be carried out before someone boards a train, which is by far the best way.

I turn to the points raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. I am grateful for his support of the order. He asked why France but not Belgium is targeted. There is no comparable difficulty with the service to Brussels because the authorities in Belgium carry out adequate document checks to deter illegal entrants from boarding Eurostar.

Mr. Hughes: I am grateful for the Minister's answer. Does that mean that there has never been a problem with people coming from Belgium or just that it is a lesser problem? If there has been any problem, it would be logical to put something in place.

Mrs. Roche: The hon. Gentleman raises a valid point. I am not saying that no one has ever got through the checks or arrived from Belgium with inadequate documentation; it happens, but relatively rarely. It is a matter of weighing up a business case of increased expenditure against juxtaposed controls. The hon. Gentleman asked about someone coming from France. As has already been said, the case of someone who wanted to make a well founded asylum claim must be made in the first safe country; we would consider such claims in substance.

When immigration officers who are dealing with juxtaposed controls look at someone's documents, they will also be checking to see whether that person has the appropriate documents and legitimate grounds to enter the United Kingdom either as a visitor or a student if coming from a visa country. The controls will be operated in exactly the same way as United Kingdom controls are operated at the moment.

While welcoming the order, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks raised some questions. It is a matter of fact that, during the time of the previous Government, asylum applications rose 10-fold. It is not as though our action is unprecedented. When the treaty was first established, the idea of United Kingdom controls on the French side clearly existed. We had them at Coquelles, so clearly such a provision has already been explored.

In mind of your strictures, Mr. Winterton, I wish gently to draw attention to the Dublin convention, to which the hon. Members for Aylesbury and for Sevenoaks referred. It was signed by the previous Government. Under the convention, we can return people only to the first European Union country that they entered. That means that the previous gentlemen's agreement with France, under which, within a specified period, we could return people to France—as we still do for non-asylum cases—no longer applies. We cannot do that any more.

Given the importance of the measure, it had to subject to an affirmative resolution of the House. I commend it to the Committee for approval.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Channel Tunnel (International Arrangements) (Amendment No. 3) Order 2001.

        Committee rose at seventeen minutes past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Chairman)
Berry, Mr.
Chaytor, Mr.
Clapham, Mr.
Fabricant, Mr.
Fallon, Mr.
Gordon, Mrs.
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hughes, Mr. Simon
Levitt, Mr.
Lewis, Mr. Terry
Lidington, Mr.
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Roche, Mrs.
Wyatt, Mr.

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