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Shona McIsaac: Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House who, in this debate, has suggested that everything in the garden is fine? Hon. Members on both sides of the House have said that there are problems that need to be addressed.

Mr. Lidington: I take the hon. Lady's point. Everybody has admitted that there are problems that need to be addressed. However, it is not enough to argue—as has been argued during the debate—that, because the majority of people who want to seek asylum in this country are, it is claimed, being stopped on the French side of the channel, that should cause us to relax our attention to the issues. We need to ask why large numbers of young men go to Sangatte to live in the dreadful conditions described by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. An advantage of the bilateral agreement is not only that it would provide a means for the swifter and more effective return to France of applicants whose claim was unfounded, but that its existence—and its effectiveness, once it was established—would act as a deterrent to others who were tempted to follow that course of action.

There appears to be no legal or treaty barrier to the British Government taking such an initiative. Reference has already been made to the bilateral agreement between Germany and Denmark, which operates in tandem with the Dublin convention. The Government are certainly right to say—as the Under-Secretary did in the debate in Westminster Hall on 29 January—that the politics of that agreement are different. That agreement boils down to the fact that Germany recognises that the problem is primarily hers and accepts the responsibility for preventing its export in large measure to Denmark. That gives rise to the question of how seriously the French Government take their responsibility not to export their problem to the United Kingdom.

Let us look elsewhere in Europe—not at a full member but at an applicant member of the European Union. According to a report published by the Select Committee on Home Affairs about a year ago, people crossing from the Czech Republic to Germany are returned, without the question of asylum being raised or given substantial consideration, because under German law the Czech Republic is deemed a safe country. Although I stand to be corrected if the Minister has more up-to-date information, I am not aware of any proposal that that arrangement should be rescinded if the Czech Republic in due course becomes a full member of the EU.

Bob Russell (Colchester): The hon. Gentleman refers to the Czech Republic as a "safe" country, but is he not aware that the Czech Roma are being driven out of the democratic Czech Republic, having survived under communism and under the Nazis?

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): They are being driven out by the Slovaks.

Mr. Lidington: I am aware of the allegations that have been made although, as my right hon. Friend reminds us,

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those allegations are more usually made about the Slovak than the Czech authorities. However, if the Czech Republic cannot be trusted as a guardian of civil liberty and human rights, what on earth are we doing saying that the Czech Republic should be—as it is—a full member of the Council of Europe, or that it should be admitted to the European Union? If it were a member of the EU it would, presumably, participate in the pan-European arrangements that the Government are proposing. There is a broader question as to how we treat European countries whose respect for human rights we nominally acknowledge through our participation with them in the Council of Europe and the EU.

Mrs. Ann Cryer: The Czech Republic is already a member of the Council of Europe and has been for some time. However, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) is right: the country has a terrible track record on its treatment of the Roma. The Roma leave the country because of that and many of them come to the UK as refugees. I imagine that that will continue, whether or not the Czech Republic joins the EU.

Mr. Lidington: I do not want to have a long discussion about the Czech Republic, but the point is that a country has to sign the European convention on human rights to become a member of the Council of Europe. If a remedy has to be sought against the Czech Republic, or any other member of the Council of Europe, that should be done by applying the ECHR, to which that country has subscribed.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I want to return my hon. Friend to the point that he was making previously—the comparison between ourselves and France, as opposed to Denmark and Germany. The German understanding is that, overwhelmingly, Germany is the first safe country entered by those who travel to Denmark. The French contention is that that is not necessarily the case. However, given the absence of border controls in the Schengen group of countries, should not those countries collectively realise that such refugees will have entered one of them as the first safe country? Should not those countries begin to negotiate with us on that basis to share burdens?

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend makes an important contribution, and it certainly would fit logically with the Schengen members' conception of their own political arrangements, with a common area for immigration, asylum and, increasingly, criminal justice arrangements.

I said earlier that I felt at times there had been a lack of urgency in tackling the issue on both sides of the channel. The Home Secretary referred in his speech to recent French legislation to make it easier to carry out immigration checks on certain cross-channel routes. I have obviously not been able to leave the Chamber to check the facts since hearing his speech, but if my memory is correct, we in this country made good our side of that agreement about 12 months ago, under a statutory instrument that was briefly debated in Committee. If almost a further year has elapsed before such legislation has been implemented on the French side of the channel, some questions remain. I am happy to give way to the Minister if she wishes to correct me.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): I do not want the hon. Gentleman to be confused. The Home Secretary referred in his speech to a change in French domestic legislation, which comes into effect today and ensures that United Kingdom immigration officers can control all passengers who board UK-bound train services that travel through France. That change in law will close the Paris-Calais loophole. It is entirely beneficial, and we are very grateful to the French for changing their domestic law to allow that to happen.

Mr. Lidington: I do not deny that that change is beneficial, but I wonder whether such a change could not have been introduced more speedily.

Let us consider the position this side of the channel. In July 1998, the Government published a White Paper on asylum and immigration, entitled "Fairer, Faster and Firmer", which stated:


the Dublin convention—


The White Paper continued:


the present Administration—


It is now three and a half years since the publication of that White Paper, which would have been drafted and framed shortly before July 1998, but the Government do not yet show the degree of urgency that is justified by the circumstances that we now face.

Fiona Mactaggart: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that seven years elapsed not just between the negotiation but the signing of the Dublin convention and its coming into force? By that standard, we are operating really fast.

Mr. Lidington: If the hon. Lady looks back at what is becoming rather ancient history, she will see that there were problems with the ratification of the Dublin convention because one or two other signatories had fairly profound objections that needed to be sorted out before the convention could proceed to ratification. My point is that there was an acceptance by the Government, very early in their term of office, that the Dublin convention was proving ineffective, and a declaration that their concerns about the convention in practice were shared by the majority of their EU partners. Against that background, the progress to date has been tardy.

Last September, the Home Secretary met his counterpart, Mr. Vaillant, the French Interior Minister. The package of measures that were agreed seemed, to my eyes, somewhat ambitious. It was agreed that British officials should go to Sangatte and, with French support, try to deter would-be migrants. It was agreed that both countries would take action to persuade would-be refugees to seek asylum in the first country of arrival.

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I do not know whether the video to which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey referred was the fruit of that summit meeting—


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