Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Angela Eagle: Would the hon. Gentleman have similar objections to our pre-checks at Coquelles to stop people who do not possess proper documents getting on the channel tunnel train as passengers? Such checks have been highly successful in preventing clandestines from coming through illegally on the trains by that route.

Simon Hughes: My understanding is that the arrangements in France are the subject of international agreements between Britain and France that allow British officials to work on the other side of the frontier, and are therefore negotiable, subject to parliamentary scrutiny and agreement. That does not happen to treaties, but it should. No treaty should be in the patronage and prerogative of the Prime Minister. The Minister knows that I have an entirely different view about how we should treat people arriving in northern France—neither we nor the French handle the situation correctly. I have made proposals to the Home Secretary and others about how we should handle it. As I said, there may well be an imminent challenge in the Court of Human Rights to the practice in Prague, which is believed by people such as the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants to be discriminatory towards certain ethnic groups, and in particular the Roma community. The scheme is carried out on the basis of ethnicity, not nationality.

I expect the Minister knows that the Immigration Law Practitioners Association is entirely unhappy with the authority to carry scheme. I—and others, I believe—object to it for two fundamental reasons. First, whatever technical links exist, it transfers responsibility for deciding who can be carried from Government to commercial and other agencies. It would be the airline that would tell someone that he or she could not travel on a flight at the point of embarkation. An individual from, say, the Czech Republic, who did not require a visa, who was coming to the UK to visit family, arrives at the airport, having booked a flight and made arrangements, could be turned away, not necessarily by British immigration officials—although it could be by Home Office

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officials—but possibly by an airline official or an official in the country of departure. The Angolan that I talked about earlier was turned away by an airline official in South Africa, for example. The scheme could remove the decision-making power from IND.

Angela Eagle: No.

Simon Hughes: The Minister says no, but I will let her deal with the issue. If I am wrong, the implication is that the decision will in all cases be taken by IND staff, who would be at all the places where the authority to carry scheme operates.

My second objection to the scheme is that it has none of the safeguards of a visa and immigration system. If I turn up for my flight and hand in my passport and ticket and the technical system flashes up a message that I am not to be allowed on, what remedy and redress do I have? I would have a wasted ticket and have forfeited my holiday. I would have none of the constitutional safeguards, such as appeal mechanisms, that exist if I apply for a visa and do not get it. There should be careful control of who holds information that may form the basis of a refusal to travel. What guarantees exist about who will have it? Could someone who had just started working that day for the airline have that information?

I could present myself at the airport, for example, where someone on the desk gets a message flashing up saying, ''Simon Hughes is an unacceptable visitor''. That person could record that, even though they are an employee of a commercial company, not an official. That is prejudicial in many ways. Who else gets that information? Does the rest of the company get it? How is it controlled within the company? Can the company pass it on to its travel agents? Many questions about the information prevent someone from travelling.

Furthermore, how can I find out the basis of the information that prevents me from travelling? If it is inaccurate, how can I challenge it, and can I challenge it in time to be allowed on the flight that I booked and paid for? If I cannot challenge it in time and am not allowed to get on the flight, for example to go to a family wedding, how can I ensure that I get compensation for being wrongly turned away? None of those questions have been answered. An entirely arbitrary system is being imposed with no right of appeal and no guarantee that people will be allowed to know what information is held against them.

The Minister will clearly disagree with some of those arguments, and I am open to persuasion that the system will be transparent, administered entirely in the public sector, open to scrutiny and allow full redress. If I am right about that, I will be happy to hear it. However, if we are to have controls, they should be introduced by Government through legislation, exercised by Government officials and include rights of appeal. I do not find the clause a satisfactory alternative.

Mr. Malins: The authority to carry scheme is intriguing and important, but I should like to draw the Minister's attention to the problems of carriers coming into the UK from France via the rail system.

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The Minister will know that Eurotunnel is the main concessionaire, but it has two contractors: Eurostar and the English, Welsh and Scottish Railway. Eurostar itself has three parts—Eurostar UK Ltd, the French railway SNCF and the Belgian railway SNCB—and I had an interesting meeting with officials some weeks ago at which I found out that the trains change ownership as they move. Starting from Paris they are owned and operated by SNCF and miraculously change to Eurostar UK halfway through the journey. I must say that I did not notice the change when I last took a Eurostar train.

As the Minister may know, there may be some difficulties with authority to carry for those different concessionaires. However, I give the Government three cheers for some of the work that they have done in the past few months. It was only last November that the French legislated that passengers using an international service with a domestic leg—Paris to UK via Calais, for example—would have to submit to UK entry controls at Paris. I believe that the law came into force sometime in February, which was a good effort, and the Government's work with the French deserves congratulation. It encourages the process, which I have always thought was a good one, of placing our immigration controls outside our borders, so that any problems can be anticipated and addressed.

However, there is an outstanding problem, and I hope that it can be dealt with under the authority to carry scheme. It concerns two particular rail trips. The first is the ski train to and from Bourg St. Maurice, which comes in twice a week. I do not want to stray too far, but I advise Committee members not to take that train. I took it in the company of 28 friends and expected to have a nice bed to sleep on, but it was no different from the 7.54 from Dorking to London. I had the option of either drinking myself to sleep or staying sober and awake all night. I did the journey both ways, so I tried both methods, and neither was remotely successful. More importantly, the train is direct, and after one has purchased a ticket, there is a Schengen exit check but no UK check. That problem must be addressed, as must the Disney train, which, mercifully, I have not been on.

Apparently there are no plans to have UK immigration controls at Brussels. One can buy a ticket and then have a full check by the Belgian police, which is like a Schengen check. However, there is no UK check. As the Brussels train stops at Lille, one can purchase a single to Lille and stay on the train until it gets to England. That is a problem. I do not know whether the authority to carry scheme will cover that nor whether I will make that extraordinary journey again in the near future. The Minister and her officials should be congratulated on a lot of good work with the French, but they will need to recognise that the authority-to-carry scheme may need to be scratched around a little to cover some of those loopholes.

Angela Eagle: I hope that I will be able to calm the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey down somewhat before I talk about the prospect of immigration officers having control posts at Disney. I suspect that that would be a popular duty. I am

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astonished that he thinks that the visa regime is a more acceptable way of achieving control at immigration in all circumstances than authority to travel. The first thing to say about a visa regime is that it affects everyone. People from countries that come within the visa regime must apply for and be granted a visa before they can travel at all. The authority to travel schemes would be entirely different. None yet exists in the form that the clause would allow. Carriers' liability means that airlines try to check that the passengers who are embarking have the necessary paperwork to get through immigration at their destination and not be sent back, thus making the carrier liable for a fine. It is in everyone's interests that the certainty of being able to get through immigration control is there.

Under authority to travel schemes there will be an electronic check to see whether anyone on a passenger manifest comes up on our warnings index. We will prevent known immigration offenders or people who have been deported before from travelling to the UK. We also have lists of lost and falsified passport numbers, and we could pick up someone who was using a lost passport or a forgery. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been to Heathrow to see some of the fantastically artistic forgeries that have been discovered by immigration officers. They are highly sophisticated.

Our warnings index will flag up lost passports. As soon as such a passport is presented when boarding, the warning will flash and the individual will be taken aside. Authority to travel will simply tell the airline that someone is travelling on false documents or a falsified visa that has been notified to the system, or is a previous immigration offender who was deported and does not have permission to come back. They will be turned back at the boarding gate and not carried. The final decision, if that passenger arrives at immigration control, will be taken by an immigration officer, looking at the same information.

The system simply makes the information available, but it will not supply a list of individuals or passports to private companies. They will feed in a passenger manifest with names and passport numbers, and electronic searches will be carried out relating to information that we already know. Individuals may fail the search because they are on the warnings index or using false visas about which we have been notified. The airline will return a list of passenger names with yes or no attached—no information about why, just yes or no. If the answer is no, the person will be stopped and immediately turned back before boarding: he will not be allowed to enter the country.

It is in everyone's interest to develop authority to travel regimes to make the information available regarding flights. In time, other schemes could be developed for trains or at other ports of entry. Having such schemes in operation for flights saves the airline from being fined, saves the individual from a wasted journey and an immediate sending back and ensures that the warnings index is applied before people reach immigration control. If they reach immigration control, they will be picked up and turned back there: an immigration officer will take that decision. Having authority to travel does not mean that people

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can enter the country without going through immigration control.

The focused use of information that we already have about false passport numbers and known immigration offenders who have already been deported will ensure that the people concerned do not re-enter the country—or even try to—illegally. It is much less trouble than imposing a visa regime on every person of a particular nationality, most of whom are completely innocent of immigration offences, are no threat to national security and are not the subject of EU or UN travel bans or other warnings index stipulations. It is so much more sensible than imposing a visa regime on the former Yugoslavia, for example, simply because we do not want Mr. Milosevic to turn up at Gatwick.

 
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Prepared 16 May 2002