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Shona McIsaac: My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. Many of the women who end up working as prostitutes for many years are not aware that that is the fate that awaits them when they agree to pay the traffickers many thousands of pounds to take them to western Europe. That is all the more horrific when we consider the age of some of those involved—girls of 13 and 14.

Simon Hughes: To reinforce what the hon. Lady said about numbers, figures released on Friday show that in January 93 people got through to the UK, but 3,985 people were arrested on the site in northern France and a further 592 were uncovered by the carbon dioxide method of detection. Very many people are stopped, and very few manage to get through the system.

Shona McIsaac: I am grateful for those up-to-date figures. We must maintain a balance. The measures that the French have taken are not perfect and more needs to be done, especially in Sangatte, but they have prevented many clandestines from entering the UK.

The figures for clandestine entrants arriving in the freight shuttle wagons reveal a steady decline. In July 2001, 808 people entered in that way; in October, 133 did so, but by November the figure had fallen to only 40. We have worked with the French authorities, and the action that the French have taken has led to some reduction.

Legislation ensures that all passengers on Eurostar trains, whatever their destination, have to pass through UK immigration controls before boarding. That is another vital aspect of the debate.

As I have been trying to demonstrate, I disagree with the comments of the hon. Member for West Dorset that appeared in the paper about France being the key, and the core of all our asylum problems. France is a link in an international chain, and the problems are more complex than some people think.

We have already mentioned the people traffickers, who also often deal in prostitution. One reason why they entered that business is that there is big money to be made from it, and the penalties for people trafficking are far lower than those for other types of smuggling, such as smuggling drugs or guns.

We must do something about the organised gangs involved in people trafficking. I do not know whether we would have to do that via Europol, or what methods we would have to use, because few of the gangs that operate in Europe and prey on people at Sangatte seem to be based in the UK.

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We must look at the pattern of people arriving in France and trying to get to the UK. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said, when people are locked up in a truck, they often do not know where they are heading. They pay their money and are merely dumped somewhere, which creates a lot of problems when we have to decide where to return them. For example, there is a big trade based in the former Yugoslavia, where people pay vast amounts to cross to Italy in a rickety boat and are then taken on in trucks.

That must be considered in the context of the debate, but we must bear in mind that although only a small number of people get through to the UK, there are 12 million or 13 million refugees in the world, most of whom are in countries neighbouring their home country. We must look for solutions to those problems, and I have some sympathy with the idea that we should have proper accommodation centres in the European Union. That is not up to the British Government to decide, but we could facilitate the idea through the various European institutions, and encourage other European countries to adopt a policy similar to that announced on 29 October in the House—a system of induction, accommodation and removal centres. I understand that there are such centres in the Netherlands, and that although there have been some problems, they are now dying down.

A site in my constituency is being considered as an accommodation centre. My Cleethorpes constituency, and north-east Lincolnshire itself, has few ethnic people and is a very white community. That is not to say that there has been no immigration, but because the region is to the east of the country, and because of the presence of the former fishing industry, such immigration has consisted of white—for want of a better word—people from Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Denmark.

I appreciate that such proposals will always cause people concern, but some of their fears are based on myth rather than fact. As I have tried to stress, in discussing what we can do about asylum we must maintain a balance. Stark headlines about floods of immigrants and images of people storming the channel tunnel can often give rise to fears that should not exist. Many people have expressed concern to me about the pressure that dispersal placed on services in north-east Lincolnshire, which was part of the dispersal system. If the new system of accommodation centres takes the pressure off local authorities, it should be explored.

We must demonstrate compassion and humanity in this debate, because there are real-life stories behind the headlines. As elected representatives, we have probably heard about the horrors that some families have been through; indeed, it is impossible to imagine how they have survived those experiences. As the hon. Member for West Dorset said in the debate on 29 October, it is one of the British state's highest duties to offer a safe haven to those fleeing persecution, and we have a long and honourable tradition of doing so. I hope that we maintain that tradition—but without resorting to pejorative language and screaming headlines.

I am gratified that today's debate has been constructive and I hope that it will continue to be so, but blaming France is not the answer. This is an international problem that requires international solutions through working with European countries and other countries around the world.

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5.3 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the United Nations convention on refugees—the international law that has underpinned the policies of successive Governments of both major British political parties, and which has commanded the almost universal support of all democratic politicians in that time. Indeed, one striking feature of several debates on asylum in the past few years is that although there have been occasional heated disagreements between Members on both sides of the House about asylum policy, there has been a common wish to uphold and defend the convention and its underlying principles.

As the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) said in her concluding remarks, it is the duty of a country that claims to be civilised to offer a safe haven to people who are genuinely fleeing persecution. However, if that convention and those principles are to be successfully defended and upheld, it is of the utmost importance that we are seen to have a fair and efficient system for handling asylum claims, at both the European and national level. Our normal requirements of immigration control must not be evaded—all too often they are—by people claiming asylum in order to extend their stay or establish themselves for a considerable number of years, if not permanently.

If I had a disagreement with the hon. Member for Cleethorpes, it was that at times I felt that in her understandable wish to express reassurance, she underestimated the scale of the problem in this country and the genuine nature of public concern about it. Each year, about 90,000 people come quite lawfully as immigrants to settle permanently in the United Kingdom. In 2000, there were about 80,000 applications for asylum. Those applications were made by the head of the household, and if we include dependants we realise that the figure was somewhat larger. The number of applications for asylum roughly equates to the yearly number of lawful applications to settle in this country, which poses a significant challenge to the integrity of our immigration controls and to our ability fairly and honestly to implement the 1951 United Nations convention, as we would wish it to be implemented.

The greatest danger from an organisation such as the British National party—and the history of Europe in the 20th century bears out my contention—arises when democratic politicians of the left, right or centre appear indifferent to or ignore the genuine concerns of the electorate whom they represent. We must be careful about the language that we use and the policies that we advocate, but we must clearly show that we recognise that public concern springs from much more than racist caricatures; it springs from deep-seated worries about the scale of the applications for asylum.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman has had much experience of Home Office matters. Does he agree that it would be reasonable for those who seek asylum here or anywhere else in the EU to put their case outside the country to which they were seeking to travel? People would not then have to break into countries before being

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able to put their case. Instead, they could apply from somewhere that was safe, without being required to make it to the country where they wanted to end up.

Mr. Lidington: It is perfectly sensible for us to explore how such an idea would work in practice. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) will look at such matters over the next couple of years.

A number of difficult practical issues would have to be addressed if we were to adopt the approach advocated by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes).

As the hon. Gentleman has often and rightly said, the number of refugees and asylum seekers throughout the world is large by historical standards. Sadly, it continues to grow. It is difficult to see how any quota system could match the number of people who might wish to migrate to a western or northern country in which they and their families would be safer and might legitimately hope to have a better chance of material prosperity. We should have to engage with some awkward practical questions if we followed through on the hon. Gentleman's idea.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset for bringing this matter before the House. I have no doubt that a new bilateral agreement between the United Kingdom and France would be a useful tool that would help us to deal effectively with the problem of handling asylum applications, but I do not think that it would be a panacea. I agreed with the point made by the hon. Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) that as soon as an asylum law loophole is closed, people—particularly among the organised gangs that are well supplied with lawyers—find a new loophole to exploit.

In a world of mass migration, in which international communications mean that millions of people in poor countries know about the greater opportunities for prosperity and security in western Europe and north America, and in a world of great disorder, there is unlikely to be a permanent solution to this problem in the foreseeable future. It will remain an issue that successive Governments will have to seek to manage as best they can in this and other countries.

None the less, the measure advocated by my hon. Friend would help. The Library note on asylum shopping tells us that between January and August 2001, just under 7,300 applications for asylum were made by people arriving from France at Dover or Waterloo. That figure is clearly at the bottom end of the true figure: it cannot, by definition, include those who came from France and claimed asylum after having arrived, either because they went to the authorities or because they were detected and then made a claim. Nor does that figure include those who may have come from France, by whatever means, and vanished without trace.

We have heard about the enormous pressure on rail operators. Like the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, I welcome the Home Secretary's common-sense decision to lift the civil penalty from Eurotunnel and EWS. However, even if the figures for those who apply at port of entry from France have fallen in recent months, and even if the majority of would-be applicants are stopped in France before they ever reach the UK, we cannot believe that everything in the garden

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is fine. There is huge financial pressure on those rail operators: Eurotunnel estimated that the cost of disruption last year was £20 million.

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