Third-Country Nationals

[back to previous text]

Mr. Ainsworth: But do you agree?

Mr. Hopkins: Indeed: I strongly agree with the Government.

One may then ask why we are discussing the matter, but clearly it is of great concern to the people whom we represent. There is no question but that there is a concern about people moving across frontiers, and it is increasing and causing political tensions in the EU and

Column Number: 17

in this country. We must consider carefully anything that involves people moving across frontiers, whoever they may be.

I suspect that the directives are driven by those who have a 19th-century belief in neo-liberalism. They have got out their classical economics textbooks and seen that one essential aspect of an economy is absolute mobility of the factors of production, without let or hindrance. One factor of production is labour, so people must be allowed to move freely all the time. Some of us are not classical economists and take a rather different view, but I suspect that there is some kind of Dr. Strangelove character in Brussels—or perhaps three or four of them on a committee—who decides on these measures and tries to slip them past countries that say, ''Hang on, we're a bit nervous about this.'' The Minister has suggested that a number of countries have reservations about the directives, and understandably so.

When I refer to the factors of production, I am talking about people. Capital can be transferred by pressing a button, but we cannot do that with people, who have cultural attachments to where they live. For various reasons, they do not necessarily want to move from one country to another, but they are often forced or induced to do so because they are poor and want to have a better life.

I take an old-fashioned, democratic socialist view—which I hope does not offend too many people. I believe that we should sometimes adjust the economy to people, rather than the other way round. If there is poverty and inequality in the world, we should find ways of overcoming it, instead of saying to people—if hon. Members will pardon the phrase—''Get on your bike and go somewhere else.''

I start from perhaps a different standpoint from the theorists in the backrooms of Brussels. When I travelled to Brussels shortly after the Schengen agreement, I was kept in a long queue to have my passport checked. Everyone in the queue was saying that they thought that border controls in the European Union had been abolished, but we were scrutinised very carefully. It might have been only the British who were affected, but I wanted to tell the immigration officer that I strongly agree with border controls and was happy to have my passport checked. None the less, it was extraordinary that shortly after the Schengen agreement was made, we were subjected to strict border control in Brussels itself. It was something of a contradiction, as people behind me in the queue said, but I was not upset about going through border control.

The worry about migration centres on unwarranted economic migration—people country-hopping within the EU. There are currently tensions between France and Britain for precisely that reason. Whatever technical details are contained in the directives, people will be concerned that they are another way in which people can country-hop within the EU. Whether we like it or not, that is of concern to electorates. It is suggested that social cohesion is one motivating force of the directive, but it has more to do with economics than with social theory. It is not about being kind to

Column Number: 18

people who need work or want to move from one country to another, but making labour more mobile. I have concerns, and the Government are right to have concerns, about unwarranted economic migration. Those concerns are rising across Europe.

Above all, we must defend the rights of people who are from countries where they face suffering or threats of death or persecution. We should welcome them to Britain as we have done throughout the centuries, and thereby enrich our society. However, if we do not have proper border controls but instead there is free movement of labour, as the extreme economic liberals would like, that will lead to a reaction that could damage our humane attitude to asylum seekers.

For that reason above all, we must distinguish between the two categories. I do that when I speak to my constituents, who now label asylum seekers as economic migrants: they are not. For example, I know of people from Iran who have escaped from eight years in prison where many people have died alongside them. They have escaped through Turkey into Britain and do not want other Iranians to know because they might be persecuted even here. The rights of people who come from such countries must be defended. We must not let politics drift into a dangerous situation in which we resist all immigration, whether the people have been persecuted or not. We would lose our reputation for welcoming those who have been persecuted elsewhere.

We want to be able to welcome people when we need their skills. We are doing that in Luton: many nurses are coming to Luton from the Philippines, which is good because we desperately need nurses. We want to have sensible immigration and humane rights for asylum seekers, but we need to maintain reasonable border controls. I would be concerned about any moves toward getting rid them.

Perhaps not everyone in my party would agree with that. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey suggested that some Labour Members of the European Parliament have taken a different view. However, the Government have taken a sensible decision. I hope that they stick to that position, and that any directives that eventually agreed and implemented will be accepted not only by us, but by our electorates and by the general population.

5.34 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I do not intend to invoke the strong opportunity for opposition on this issue, not least because to do so would require me to summon my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) to vote on my behalf, because, like the hon. Member for Woking, I am here to speak, not to vote, and I am mindful of that.

It seems perfectly proper to have a ''take note'' debate, and we shall not dissent from the motion. Unlike the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), that does not mean that we take the same view as the Government or the Conservative party on

Column Number: 19

the substance. I shall not detain the Committee long, but I want to pick up on a few points and make our view clear on an important issue.

I share the Government's view that it is better to proceed slowly and get it right than to proceed quickly and get it wrong. I therefore have no fundamental objection to the view that, to give us time to get it right, we would rather stay out until we are satisfied that we can go in. It is more difficult the other way around.

I have no great problem with a procedure whereby the directives on which we want to reserve our position not to join are presented. However, my party's view in both this place and the European Parliament is interestingly consistent, and seems to differ from that of the Labour party. I say ''interestingly'' because it seems that Labour's view in the European Parliament is different from Labour's view in this place. Our view is that the directives are worth while and that as soon as we can get the proposal right we should negotiate for a common status for third-country nationals throughout the EU that does not require us to give up the immigration controls and status that we have as a result of having opted out of Schengen.

As I said, many issues were raised by the Scrutiny Committee deliberations and the considerations put to the Government. It would help if within a reasonable time frame a document might be produced that combined the Government's responses, not least because in some cases the Government will be able to find answers more easily than some of us.

It would also help if the Minister said that at the same time as that response is published—three months seems a reasonable time scale—it will be possible to publish and, if that is the best approach, place in the Library responses to the directives that the Government have received, in particular the responses from the most important three groups: employers, trade unions and local authorities. Coupled with those are the responses from the Scottish Parliament and the Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, although they are not in exactly the same category.

I mention employers and trade unions because I note that the Scrutiny Committee frequently refers to the views of employers and the work force. I understand that the European Economic and Social Council recommends that the UK sign up to the directives. Clearly, those involved in employment and the work force in Europe appreciate the advantage of economic mobility: it is a way not merely of allowing labour to move around more quickly, in old economic liberalism terms, but of meeting many of our market needs, whether for nurses from the Philippines, people to clean floors in public sector buildings, or doctors from Iran.

My opening points are procedural and reinforce the request for the Government's responses, and the responses that they in turn have received, to be placed in the public domain. That would make us all better informed, and I hope that it is not controversial.

Column Number: 20

I share the view of the hon. Member for Woking—which is probably not subject to much dissent in the Committee—that we have not yet got right our procedure for scrutinising European legislation. We cannot do so on our own. It must be done in conjunction with other European institutions.

Like me, the Minister has been involved in debates in which we have been caught by procedural problems. There are real concerns that there should be an opportunity for member states and their Parliaments to consider proposals and feed back their comments not only at an early stage, but when proposals are in their final form. A weakness of the system is that a draft directive is put on the table and there is then a consultative process. Governments may opt in or opt out. They may or may not have time to consult, but as I understand it, Parliament is not guaranteed a right to have a say, let alone a vote, when the directive has reached its final stage.

I have always been concerned about the need to modernise the European Union in a way that democratises it. Members of the European Parliament of all party backgrounds are frustrated that the opportunity to do more than take part in consultation at an early stage is often stymied by the fact that the system does not allow the directives to come back to the Parliament.

In this case, I am aware of the parties' views because the report to the European Parliament happened to have as its rapporteur Baroness Ludford, a Liberal Democrat London MEP who is also a Member of the House of Lords. I have kept in touch with her about what is happening, and she has reported to me the views that have been expressed. It is fair to say that the Conservative MEPs, in their group, voted against the directives, whereas the socialist, radical and liberal democratic groups voted in favour of the report. I am not arguing that colleagues of the same party must express the same view whether they sit in Brussels, the Parliament in Strasbourg, or Westminster. It is perfectly proper for them to have different views—that is not a criticism—but the Government must fully take into account any differences.

I share the view that we must improve our procedures. This is a very important issue. The directive must get careful scrutiny in both Houses if it is to be amended in such a way that the Government is likely to recommend that we change domestic law. We must be sure that the directive does what we intend it to do, that it does not have unforeseen consequences and that questions can be asked by hon. Members of all shades of the political spectrum about its implications.

It is very important that we distinguish between these issues and those to do with the entitlements that we give to those who get asylum in this country. I picked up that the Minister was careful to ensure that we have two different sets of considerations. The debate is easily and regularly confused. I hold to the view that we have an international obligation to deal with people who want to put their case for asylum and

Column Number: 21

who should be given asylum. I believe that that is best done on an EU-wide basis and that there should be one process.

The Seville summit report, which picks up from Tampere, showed that we would move towards common procedures. I would go to the end of the process and say that we should have a European asylum agency that makes decisions on behalf of member states, so that the same decisions are made for Greece as for Ireland—a system that ensures that responsibilities are shared and that all countries take a proportionate number, depending on their size, so that the accidents of geography do not result in one country taking on a bigger burden than the others. Historically, most people come across the land mass through the countries on the other side of Europe.

By contrast, it is right—I share a view that is common among all three main parties—that the United Kingdom Parliament, prompted by the UK Government, should decide our immigration policy. We should reserve the right to have a different immigration policy from Ireland, Denmark or elsewhere.

That leads me to express my long-held view that it is right to maintain a position that keeps us out of Schengen. In spite of the view of some of my European Parliament colleagues that we should be part of the Schengen agreement, I believe that it would not be right, timely, or politically sellable. The advantage of our island status—this could also apply to Ireland—is that it gives us an ability to control immigration that should not be thrown away lightly. It is important that we understand the positions of other countries and I am happy with the idea of a common asylum processing policy, but we should have separate immigration policies.

In that context, I should like the Minister to answer one specific question about something that is implicit in the documents. As the hon. Member for Woking said, we give a considerable number of people either definite extended leave to remain, or indefinite leave to remain. The report refers many times to people who in our terms would be classed as those with indefinite leave to remain. Have the Government decided what will happen from now on to people who in the past have not been granted the asylum that they sought, but were granted definite or indefinite leave to remain?

In the constituency of the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) are people who have come from places such as Sri Lanka: although they have not passed the specific asylum test, they have been allowed to stay for compassionate reasons. All our constituencies contain such people, who have come from all over the world. Do the Government intend to continue with the policy that means that stage one of an asylum claim is to pass the asylum test, but that a compassionate view is always taken on leave to remain—whether definite or indefinite—even if an individual does not pass the test?

Identity cards or entitlement cards have been topical this week because of the Home Office's expected announcement before the summer of its consultation paper. A common system for third-country nationals

Column Number: 22

creates huge advantages, one of which is to ensure that there is greater certainty as people move around the continent. A problem that I witnessed at Sangatte was that people had no papers at all, and therefore no status, before they were dealt with in the first round. Another problem was that so many forms of status existed.

The circumstances of two long-standing constituents of mine illustrate that problem. The husband comes from the Ivory Coast and is a pastor of a church; his wife comes from Togo and worked in her country's embassy until there was a change of Government. They are completely upright and law-abiding, they have children who were born in this country and they all have a perfect right to be here. However, they are inhibited from travelling, even to Paris to do things that the Minister would regard as perfectly legitimate for his own constituents—to see relatives, to go to meetings of Ivorians in Europe, to attend national festivals, and so on.

Real benefits are to be had from a common status that allows for something that is not a passport and does not say that an individual has full rights to be in this country, but that shows that the holder has a right to travel elsewhere. Such an identity card could apply to students and other categories of person referred to in the documents. Many people come to Europe on a scholarship to do a degree course; degree courses here increasingly include a year abroad, to mutual advantage. A student based at the London School of Economics or Birmingham university might pursue a course that includes a year out in France, Spain or elsewhere. The simpler we can make the system, and the less uncertain for people coming to Europe perfectly legitimately to train, or to become an apprentice or student, the better it will be.

There would be benefits in having a system that clarified the status of those whose status is dependent on other family members and for whom there is a non-employment consequence. The hon. Member for Woking raised that point. I refer to such people as the elderly relative who comes to settle here on the back of the fact that all her family are working here. Like other hon. Members, I am often frustrated when someone in that position who has come here as a dependent—normally an elderly relative of someone already here—wants to travel. Let us say that another family member, such as a child, has died in Germany. All sorts of complications surround that individual's ability to go to the funeral at short notice, or to visit the grave. Such real-life situations currently require applications to the Home Office, letters to Ministers, and dealings with immigration officers, officials and other administration.

There are strong arguments for a system that allows people to move around in Europe once they have been given a particular status. I accept that there are social security complications and problems with the recognition of parallel qualifications—all the things touched on in the report—so I am not at all critical, but the matter needs to be looked into carefully and not ill-advisedly. I hope that at the end of that process the Government will not drag their heels but will take the

Column Number: 23

view of the Economic and Social Council, accept that the case for this has been made, and then ensure that we proceed in a way that makes for maximum degree of cross-party support in Parliament.

When we make progress, we can do so in the context of the point that the hon. Member for Luton made—with the confidence of our constituents. They need to know that when we proceed, we know what we are doing and have judged that our action is to the advantage of everyone, not just of the few. Our action should not undermine people's confidence in the immigration processes. It should bring the huge benefit that many more people would be in this country and other European countries legitimately and could come out of what is traditionally called the black economy—the lack of status and the hiding that they go into when they have status in one country but not another, and feel compelled to move. We would then have a Europe in which there are different tiers of entitlement, but almost everyone's entitlement, once valid in one part of Europe, is valid throughout the EU.

That is my general perspective, but I do not underestimate the difficulties. I am grateful for the considered way in which the Minister has presented the matter and I look forward to the Government's considered response, when they have had a chance to listen to the voices here and respond to the reports and comments made today.

5.53 pm

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 1 July 2002