Asylum

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Jackie Ballard: As the Minister said, this is an important document. My party has long argued for the need for better co-operation among EU states on the subject of asylum seekers. The Kosovo war showed that an agreed system of responsibility-sharing among EU countries—that term is better than ``burden sharing'', because we should not regard the problem as a burden—can help to spread the load. If we are to adopt such a system in non-emergency situations as well, we must have EU-wide co-operation and procedures.

Obviously, common procedures and approaches are in the interests of each member state and of asylum seekers. I am confused by the approach of the hon. Member for Aylesbury, who seems to want co-operation within the European Union provided that the United Kingdom always wins. Such an approach treats what is supposed to be a co-operative venture as a football match that one side must win. We do not believe that common procedures and standards would lead to a fortress Europe. The statistics are woefully inadequate, but they none the less show that the developing world already takes more than its fair share of the world's refugees. Europe must also play its part.

As we cannot know the legitimacy of a particular application until it has been examined, it is strange to hear Conservatives referring to bogus asylum seekers and unfounded claims before the claims in question have even been processed. All applicants should be treated equally and with dignity. The United Kingdom should not try to be the least attractive destination in the world for refugees, but that is the bidding war in which some members of other parties are apparently involved.

I return to some of the issues on which I have probed the Minister. Clearly, the primary concern for anyone genuinely seeking asylum is to reach safety and protection from persecution. However, I do not believe that it is incompatible with such primary concerns to seek a country in which one might feel more at home because of language, knowledge or historical or cultural links. To leave one's home, possessions, family, business or job and seek protection in another country is not an easy decision to take. It is therefore perfectly legitimate for such people to seek a country in which they are more likely to settle, rather than one with which they have no links.

As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said, having the best asylum procedures and the most generous refugee status is of no use to refugees unless they can gain access to territory and admission to those procedures. The Minister's remarks about the UK's opting out of common procedures that might weaken our frontier controls give rise to a concern that the Government might not be totally committed to our taking our fair share of responsibility for refugees. It is clear that the Conservative party puts a higher priority on controlling entry to the UK than on its responsibility to the world's persecuted people, but I hope that the Minister will make it clear that that is not the Government's view.

11.38 am

Mrs. Roche: Let me reply immediately to the hon. Member for Taunton. With the greatest respect, I cannot understand how anyone could have listened to or read the Home Secretary's recent thoughtful speeches—in Lisbon last year, and in London this year—on the future of the convention without concluding that we are wholeheartedly committed to the fundamental right of people to claim asylum. We are also committed to building support for those in dreadful circumstances who are genuinely fleeing persecution and have no choice other than to leave their homes. Indeed, the Home Secretary's remarks on resettlement, in particular, made it clear that we are looking at the matter in a European context, and such an approach is repeated by the Commission in the document before us. No one can doubt that we are very committed in that regard.

Jackie Ballard: The Minister said that the Home Secretary's comments show that we are fundamentally committed to the right of people to seek asylum. Will she confirm that we are fundamentally committed to the right of people to seek asylum in the UK?

Mrs. Roche: Of course, because we are a signatory to the convention and that is what being a signatory is about. The hon. Lady must appreciate that undermining the convention would do it no good. I am certain that she, like me, is a passionate believer in the right to claim asylum, so she will not want the convention to be undermined.

I shall deal briefly with a couple of other matters. The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked about Eurodac. As I said, it covers those seeking asylum and illegal entrants who are detected at, or near, the border. It may take a year or two fully to implement, but as the hon. Gentleman will know we are making our own arrangements in that regard. He also asked about extradition and I took something of a risk with the answer that I gave. However, I am glad to say that my information was correct and I am breathing a sigh of relief.

This has been a good debate, and both Government and Opposition Members have asked good questions. I can assure the Committee that, in our discussions with the Commission and other EU member states, the Government will take account of the points that were raised today. Indeed, that is why proceedings such as these add value to the process of government. As I said at the outset, the harmonisation of European asylum policies and procedures is a matter of great political importance. As work towards a common European asylum system continues in the coming years, it will be vital that the UK plays a leading role in shaping its development.

I am not entirely sure where the deliberations of the hon. Member for Aylesbury were leading. I should also say to the hon. Member for Taunton that the UK's opting in to all the provisions on asylum and stage 1 that have been initiated so far shows the Government's stance in that regard. We feel that it is important to have a common policy and I hope that the Committee will support the Government in our efforts to take a full and active part in the process that lies ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    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.

        Committee rose at seventeen minutes to Twelve o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Stevenson, Mr. George (Chairman)
Ballard, Jackie
Gordon, Mrs.
Palmer, Dr.
Rammell, Mr.
Whitney, Sir Raymond

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):

Gerrard, Mr. Neil (Walthamstow)
Hughes, Mr. Simon (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
Levitt, Mr. Tom (High Peak)
Lidington, Mr. David (Aylesbury)
McNulty, Mr. Tony (Harrow, East)
Roche, Mrs. Barbara (Minister of State, Home Office)

 
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