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Jackie Ballard: Given the unique geography of the United Kingdom within the European Union, what difficulties does the Minister foresee if we do not participate in the measures for common procedures?

Mrs. Roche: As I said, we have shown our willingness to take part in all the procedures. It could be argued that if there were a common policy in which we did not participate, it might make us more attractive to unfounded claims for asylum, which we would have to take into consideration at the appropriate time. The key is to complete the first stage and to start discussions on the important second stage.

Mr. Lidington: In paragraph 2.5 of the document, the Commission states that in the spring of this year it will propose a first-stage Community instrument to replace the Dublin convention. Can the Minister say when that will be published?

Mrs. Roche: We are glad about that and we are anxious to start that important work as soon as possible. It is clear that the Dublin convention has not worked in the way envisaged by the previous Government. Before the Dublin convention, people who arrived from France, for example, could be sent straight back there for their asylum applications to be considered. Since the previous Government signed the Dublin convention, that is no longer the case because it must be shown where people claiming asylum first entered the European Union. We are looking forward to taking part in the work and are actively encouraging the Commission to introduce the proposal as soon as possible.

Mr. Lidington: Do the Government have any idea of the nature of the instrument that should replace the Dublin convention? As the Minister knows, the Commission's document revisiting the Dublin convention listed several different principles on which a replacement measure could be based. Have the Government a view on what is preferable?

Mrs. Roche: We want the Commission to deal with a situation that was not envisaged when the previous Government signed the convention: the numbers of people who are illegally resident in another member state and do not make an application for asylum there, but come to the United Kingdom or to a different country and then make a claim. It is vital that a successor regime should consider that matter, and we shall look at the proposal with great interest.

Mr. Lidington: Does the Minister see the Eurodac system, to which she alluded earlier, as being relevant to the problem that she described? Can she say when it will come fully into operation? Will fingerprinting apply only to people who formally claim asylum or will the French Government, for example, fingerprint those people living in the Sangatte camp?

Mrs. Roche: Perhaps as the proceedings continue I will be able to give the hon. Gentleman a precise answer about timing. At present, Eurodac applies to those who apply for asylum, not to those who are illegally resident. Of course, the difficulty is that all member states have their own jurisdictions for how they deal with people in that process. During our proceedings, I hope that I will be able to give a more precise date for when Eurodac will come into being, but agreement has already been reached on it. It now remains to ensure that the systems come into place, but the UK is ahead of the game.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): I apologise to you, Mr. Stevenson, and to the Minister for my late arrival, especially if my question has already been dealt with.

If we move towards a common system, standards and application process, might circumstances arise in which asylum seekers are encouraged to move to European Union countries where there are fewer applicants per head of population?

Mrs. Roche: That will not arise in this process. However, from the issues raised in the global consultations that the UNHCR has initiated, and the Home Secretary's contribution to those, it seems that an understanding could be arrived at on the workings of international protection and people's responsibilities in that. Of course, the issue is wider than the European Union. Vast numbers of the world's countries are signatories to the convention.

Clearly, there are challenges for the convention and the UNHCR as they approach their next 50 years. The convention was written for its time and did not appreciate what cheap, mass travel would mean for movement, nor that we would be living in a global world. Such issues are large ones, for worldwide consultation.

Mr. Lidington: My point is slightly peripheral, but important none the less. The Commission's document refers not only to asylum but to extradition. Paragraph 1.1 refers to article 19(2) of the European Union charter of fundamental rights, which provides against removal, expulsion or extradition

    ``to a State where there is a serious risk that he or she would be subjected to the death penalty, torture or other inhuman . . . treatment''.

While we all understand that people should not be returned to countries where there is a genuine risk of torture, will the Minister comment on that reference to the death penalty, perhaps after seeking appropriate advice? Will there be a problem with the possible extradition of criminals to jurisdictions, such as the United States of America, where they are wanted and where the death penalty is on the statute book?

Mrs. Roche: I shall take a huge risk before my officials come back. I may have to correct this, but I understand that we will not return people to countries that have the death penalty. I will return to that later.

Mr. Gerrard: The first part of the document is a series of statistics. To what extent does the Minister expect that we will use those statistics, given that some of them appear to be dubious? They include nothing about people given exceptional leave to remain or another subsidiary status, or those who have won appeals. Are the statistics not rather misleading?

Mrs. Roche: My hon. Friend is right in that there has been much discussion about statistics. The Swedish presidency is concerned to have a much better base for statistical comparisons. It can be difficult to make meaningful comparisons between different member states and we welcome the fact that the communication envisages a better basis for the collection and use of statistics.

The Chairman: It appears that we have exhausted questions well within the allotted time, so we now move to the debate.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 13119/00, a Commission Communication on a Common Asylum Procedure and Uniform Status for Persons Granted Asylum; and supports the Government's active participation in the debate on the Communication and the Government's intention to participate in measures which would lead to the establishment of a common European asylum system, without undermining the integrity of the UK's frontier control.—[Mrs. Roche.]

11.25 am

Mr. Lidington: First, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Stevenson.

I found the question session helpful. I also found the Commission's document helpful in flagging up some of the important questions relating to asylum policy, which is something that Britain and other European countries will have to debate in forthcoming months and years.

Many of the Commission's proposals are sensible. They cover the subjects that western European countries facing similar problems because of migratory pressures should be considering together. My chief concern is the way in which the Commission and the Government are prepared to seek remedies to the problems that we face due to the abuse of our asylum system through Community legal instruments rather than through inter-governmental co-operation.

It is right and proper common sense that EU member states, and indeed other European countries such as Switzerland which also face migratory pressures, should work closely together. We should find out whether there are ways in which we can grapple with the challenge together. It is a challenge that will require a response not only in terms of detailed measures relating to procedures, reception and enforcement, which are the subjects of today's paper, but in terms of development and foreign policy, which we debated in this Committee last week when we considered the general effect of migration on the continent of Europe.

I am concerned that the Government risk locking us in a system whereby they permanently surrender control over our asylum system to supra-national institutions. The hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) asked whether it was compatible for the Government to declare that they want a common asylum system throughout Europe, but at the same time to retain control over the frontiers of the UK. At some stage, a choice will have to be made. In my view, and that of my party, that decision should be firmly in favour of defending the right and authority of the Government and the British Parliament to control entry into our country, and to be held accountable by the British electorate for policy decisions.

When it comes to the Government's motion, although I have no problem with the idea that the Government should play an active part in debating the Commission's proposals with our European partners, I do not agree with the declared objective set out in the motion that we should look forward to a common European asylum system. That is not a desirable objective, at least not in the way in which the Commission envisages in its paper. I hope that during the detailed negotiations, the Government will not lose sight of the difficulties that have been encountered over the years, which will not be resolved simply by transferring competence to a European level.

I read carefully the Commission's paper on the operation of the Dublin convention. The Minister is right to say that that convention has not operated in the way that was envisaged. I took particular note of the reference in paragraph 45 to the evidential difficulties that are involved in demonstrating that an asylum seeker is the responsibility of one particular country. In its review, the Commission drew attention to the fact that two different types of evidence could apply, probative evidence—whereby a person had a travel document showing clearly that they had come to the United Kingdom from another country and had claimed asylum there—or what the Commission termed indicative evidence, which I take to mean might be no more than the fact that the person seeking asylum had stepped off a ferry at Dover and the indicative evidence was that he had come from France, a safe country, and could have made a claim there.

The Commission, in rather roundabout and diplomatic language, drew attention to the fact that different countries have different standards in the sorts of evidence that they are prepared to accept before they will agree to take responsibility for a particular case. I do not see how simply substituting a Community instrument for a convention that is binding in international law will solve that problem—unless a whole sequence of individual asylum cases is brought before the European Court of Justice for it to issue a binding judgment on a particular member state's Government in a particular case. It is essential to overcome that evidential problem, regardless of how we seek a remedy to the problems that have arisen in respect of the practical implementation of the Dublin convention.

Reading through the paper, I felt that although there is a great deal of sense in some of its practical ideas, running right through it is the institutional ambition of the Commission to extend its remit further. That is found in its starkest form in the statement on page 7 that

    ``Divergent asylum policies in the different Member States must disappear''.

There will be no gain to the United Kingdom in giving up control of our own asylum policy. There will be no benefit in creating a common European asylum system if we are left in a position whereby a country such as France does not adequately enforce the rules and is not prepared to take responsibility for the people who are present within its borders. An alternative way forward would be through inter-governmental co-operation, rather than a post-Amsterdam arrangement of the sort that is envisaged here. Above all, our Government and the Governments of the other member states need to focus on the detail of the enforcement measures and the legal arrangements governing asylum. Unless we get those details right, no amount of high-falutin aspirations or grand statements of principle will bring about any improvement.

11.34 am

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