Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Beverley Hughes: The information against which a person's details would be checked would be the information held by our Home Office, not information that another Government had requested us to use. I accept that that point does not remove all the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but we have to strike a balance. The answer depends on judgments about what we should do when we have information about people and know the serious consequences that can arise from carrying people, especially in aircraft, who might be a security risk. The Government's judgment is that we have a duty and responsibility to consider refusing authority to carry when we are concerned that somebody poses a security or immigration threat.

I may not be able to bridge the gap between the Government and some hon. Members on this point, but I shall try to deal with some of the questions of detail in case that gives them some comfort. The Minister in

12 Jun 2002 : Column 936

Committee gave an open response to the concerns expressed and made it clear that the regulations would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, and transparent. Attempts would also be made to provide sufficient remedy in the regulations for any passenger refused under the scheme to challenge the decision or the data on which it was based. We can discuss the nature of the remedy, but we might be able to provide a hotline through which cases of mistaken identity or wrong information could be checked. We do not have a closed mind about remedies, and hon. Members have already been assured that we will wish to consider, where possible, speedy remedies that will offset the potential disadvantage to people of not being able to board a plane at a certain time.

Mr. Allan: My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) gave an example in which a person missed an event of great importance because they had been refused permission to board a flight. Does the Minister accept that in such cases of error it will be difficult to assign the blame to individual airline staff or to the Home Office? Given that the Home Office will require the airlines to implement the scheme, does she accept that the Home Office should pick up compensation claims? A hotline will not help an individual who has missed the event to which they were intending to travel.

Beverley Hughes: I make no commitment in relation to compensation per se, but if a carrier acts on the basis of information provided by the Home Office, it will not be liable for the consequences of implementing the decision. I return to the need to strike a balance on this issue. The example was given of a trip to attend a wedding. It may be that the remedy for a person—that is, attending the wedding—is not available if the authority to carry is denied. No matter how quickly the information could be checked, we might not be able to put that right. However, the alternative proposed by the Liberal Democrats—a visa scheme—could have unnecessary disadvantages for many more people. The imposition of a visa scheme on everybody in a country, as opposed to an authority-to-carry scheme that would identify only those individuals about whom concerns were felt, is another important and difficult question of balance. We do not want to impose visa regimes where they are not necessary. That would be an imposition on a whole population. The authority-to-carry scheme gives the option that individuals can be checked. Some people, such as those involved in the wedding to which reference has been made, may suffer irredeemable consequences, but that possibility has to be balanced against the consequences if a whole population had to go through a bureaucratic process to obtain a visa.

I might be able to give the House some comfort on some of the details. A question was asked concerning the type of personal data that would be requested, and whether the requirements would extend to sources of personal information that are not sought currently. I assure the House that addressees would not be asked for that sort of data. The information requested would be confined to the person's name, date of birth, gender and nationality, and the nature of the travel document involved. As I understand it, people seeking leave to travel have to give exactly that information now.

12 Jun 2002 : Column 937

Concerns have been raised about asylum seekers. Authority-to-carry schemes are designed to identify people thought to pose an immigration or security threat. Almost by definition, they would not normally be people who had been to the UK before. Unless a first-time asylum seeker was known to present a threat for some other reason, he or she would not fall foul, almost by definition, of the authority-to-carry scheme. It is unlikely that there would be any information at all on such people. Why would there be?

Jeremy Corbyn: If a member of the family of a person in this country who has sought political asylum here applies to fly to Britain, will he or she be tagged on the system as a person likely not to be admitted, or will that person be allowed to come here?

Beverley Hughes: I have made it clear that the information needed to give a yes or no answer to carriers would be that which suggests that there is or is not an immigration or security threat. Relatives of people who come here legally and declare themselves to be asylum seekers so that a claim can be handled in the normal way would clearly not pose an immigration threat. It may be a different matter when it comes to people who come here illegally, but in the circumstances described by my hon. Friend I see no reason to believe that there would be an immigration threat.

This issue raises some difficult questions about balance. I have listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has said. I hope that he is persuaded by the points that I have made about the detail of the scheme and about the extent to which we want to get it right so that we can reduce to a minimum the negative consequences for individuals. On balance, we think that the authority-to-carry scheme is preferable to an all-out visa scheme. For that reason, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment. If he presses it to a vote, I hope that the House will support the Government's proposal.

8.15 pm

Simon Hughes: With the leave of the House, I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for her courteous reply. We are talking about new ideas, so there are many unanswered questions. The proposal has not been thought through or prepared sufficiently, although I do not dissent from what she has said.

I mentioned the option of establishing a visa system, but that is only one alternative. I shall offer another. If the Government had information leading them to believe that certain people thought to be in Pakistan or Iraq, for instance, would not be accepted here, they could use the normal channels and communicate the matter to the authorities in that country. That is what happens now, and it would mean that the Home Office and immigration authorities, the police and the internal administration system could intervene if they wanted to and if they thought the person involved would get leave to come here and pose a threat.

If a person has a criminal past or a history of being what the Minister called an immigration threat—a phrase to which I shall return—or, more importantly, a security threat, liaison with agencies such as MI5, MI6, Interpol and others would offer other ways in which to handle

12 Jun 2002 : Column 938

the matter. That would be better than using commercial operators to tell people that they would not be able to travel.

Secondly, if the Government are going to go down this road, the time to tell people that they cannot travel is when they seek to book their tickets. The people involved will at least then be alerted to the difficulties before they arrive at the airport.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) has pointed out to me that he has never been asked for his date of birth when booking an airline ticket or turning up at a checkout. Neither have I, so the sort of information that the Minister spoke about goes beyond what people would normally be asked for when purchasing tickets or boarding an aeroplane.

Thirdly, a real danger that the Government have not thought through—but which was mentioned by me and by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn)—involves people at risk in their own countries. If the authorities see someone being rejected and do not know whether that has happened because that person, in his or her past, came to Britain on a false passport, or because that person is an international security threat, they might draw the worst rather than the best conclusions. There is a terrible risk that a person in that situation could be regarded as much more dangerous than is truly the case. The result is that that person could become even more vulnerable, and that would also be out of our control.

Finally, if the Government want to pursue this proposal they should talk to partner Governments in the EU, in the international associations covering air transport and in the other international organisations, to see whether there can be agreement about a common scheme. However, any such scheme must defend people's liberties. It should not build yet more barriers around a fortress Britain in an increasingly fortress Europe and fortress world.

The Minister is right that a balance must be struck between combating international terrorism and preventing people from abusing immigration and other systems. We judge that the measure goes far beyond that. The implications have not been thought through, and I urge the House to support amendment No. 66.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 61, Noes 301.

Next Section

IndexHome Page