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House of Lords

Friday, 7th May 1999.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.

Schengen and the UK's Border Controls: ECC Report

Lord Wallace of Saltaire rose to move, That this House take note of the report of the European Communities Committee on Schengen and the United Kingdom's Border Controls (7th Report, HL Paper 37).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to introduce this debate on a report by Sub-Committee F of the European Communities Committee of your Lordships' House. This is an important report related directly to the Immigration and Asylum Bill that will come before your Lordships' House shortly. In preparing the inquiry the sub-committee drew on the asylum White Paper which is quoted extensively in the report.

British policy on frontier controls and co-operation with other members of the European Union in the whole area of police, justice and home affairs has been symbolically one of the most contentious in British politics. The policy to which the current Government now hold was inherited from their predecessors. That policy made the preservation of British border controls a key symbolic issue of British sovereignty. The Daily Mail and Sun have run many campaigns on the threat of asylum-seekers entering Britain. Usually it relates to somewhere between 50 and 70 Roma from Slovakia--a relatively small number--but the feeling is there. This is not an easy issue and yet it is one that remains open to radical change in terms of the sheer pressure of development.

As I prepared my speech I remembered the first time I went abroad. In 1961 I went all the way to France. It took me over 10 minutes to get out of Dover and, once across the Channel, another 15 minutes standing in a queue and having my passport checked and my bags carefully examined, with a chalk mark put on the corner, to get into Calais. When the two of us--my travelling companion was a fellow student called Martin Bell who had also never been abroad, although since he has travelled a little bit--at last entered France, we knew that we were in a very foreign country. Now, in the course of my professional life, I use Eurostar far too frequently and my passport is occasionally vaguely glanced at. One travels easily between Britain and another part of the European Union, France. Yet the Home Secretary told us in response to our report that the British Government were committed to maintaining systematic border controls.

Part of the message of the report is that in 1999 the term "systematic border controls" means something astonishingly different from the way such controls

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were applied 30 years ago. One of the reasons is that the numbers who cross the border between Britain and the Continent continue to rise by between 8 to 10 per cent a year. The figure is now 80 to 90 million a year and, on current projections, by 2001-02 there will be 100 million border crossings a year. Of those, 90 million people will travel between Britain and other members of the European Economic Area--the EU plus Norway, Switzerland and Iceland--and 10 million between Britain and the rest of the world.

The increase in crossings has not been accompanied by a comparable increase in the number of immigration officers. As the report comments, over the past five years, while the number of people crossing British frontiers has increased by 50 per cent, the number of immigration officers has increased by 10 per cent. As witnesses made clear, that has led British governments to adopt an increasingly "light touch approach" to frontier controls. What is now known as the "Bangemann wave", whereby one waves one's passport as one walks, without stopping, past the immigration official at Waterloo, very often passes for British border controls.

Your Lordships may wish to consider whether this is still a systematic border control. Or are we now in the area of semantics and theology as between insistence in Britain that we maintain controls and the selective checks that others in France and elsewhere still apply? The report suggests that the scale of movement makes it no longer entirely practical to hold to the old principles of British border policy. Indeed, we edge a little further on. A French witness told us about the extent to which France applies rather systematic controls along its coast. Those of us who sail in and out of south of England ports and note the remarkably loose controls there wonder whether the mythology of British border controls is matched by a willingness to have a coastguard to enforce those parts of Britain which form the external border of the European Union.

The principle of British border control policy is that we make no distinction over where people arrive from. We make a distinction about nationality. We therefore refuse to segregate those coming on planes to Heathrow from Frankfurt, Schiphol or Paris and those arriving from Entebbe, Lagos or Los Angeles. British Airways and the British Airports Authority assure us that that has advantages. As they see it, the practice increases the attraction of London as a transit point. People can pass through Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester without concern about passport controls. However, it has some disadvantages. Without a common visa regime between Britain and the Continent, residents of third countries who have the right of residence in this country do not automatically have the right also to conduct their business in Amsterdam, Paris and elsewhere.

There are a number of changing advantages and disadvantages in maintaining the current regime. Our report stresses that there are practical as well as ideological questions as to whether or not it is possible to maintain the old regime.

We discuss briefly the question of identity cards. We avoid taking a definite stance. However, we note that identity cards also have advantages and disadvantages.

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The alternative--to look at people as they go to work or apply for social security--may in many ways be a better method of picking up those who are in this country illegally. We note from the figures that a substantial number of those who are in this country as illegal immigrants arrive as tourists and become illegal as over-stayers. In other words, they have passed entirely legally through our border controls, but their status changes when in the country.

We heard evidence of the number--not easy to quantify--who enter this country secretly in the back of lorries or containers and thus avoid our frontier controls but who may be picked up later. We suggest, therefore, that the debate on identity cards should be re-opened in the context of the future of Britain's asylum, immigration and border control policy.

We touch on a number of other measures. One of the largest issues underlying the inquiry is the extent to which Britain yet again is staying out of the development of a major new area of Community policy. While not entirely happy with the way in which that policy is developing, it will find itself increasingly under pressure to join later. The evidence from police and Home Office witnesses was that they see many advantages in co-operating as much as possible with what is now going on within Schengen. Indeed, joining the Schengen information system is important for police co-operation and for enabling the British police to progress as far as possible in other areas of common policies. When the Amsterdam Treaty is ratified this month, British participants in a number of discussions will sit with the right to speak but without the right to vote.

Two days after publication of our report, the Home Secretary announced that Britain now wished to opt in to almost all areas of Schengen except the border control regime and that a formal application would shortly be submitted to that effect. There will be some interesting politics as to whether or not other governments--for example, the Spanish or the French--will agree that partial application without our accepting all the other elements of the package. As our French witness said, the abolition of border controls and freedom of movement for all citizens within the European Union is at the heart of justice and home affairs--the commitment in the Amsterdam Treaty to create an area of freedom, security and justice.

The Government have inherited from their predecessors a number of inhibitions about European co-operation including a resistance to the European Court of Justice and its having jurisdiction over civil liberties questions. That is extremely important. A number of rather delicate questions about personal information being passed across national boundaries arise. We question whether rights fall between national courts and European jurisdiction and whether the British Government should reconsider its inherited opposition to the European Court of Justice.

A large number of questions arise about how far these new issues come under the first pillar in which the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice have jurisdiction, or whether they should be retained

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under the intergovernmental third pillar in which national officials take decisions and under which it is harder for outsiders, including your Lordships' House, to discover what is going on.

I commend the report to the House. I hope that it will be useful to the debate today and to future debates on the Information and Asylum Bill when it comes before us. As moves are made in this area, we shall need to follow. It is an area where policy and principles have stayed still as the number of people crossing frontiers has increased, and continues to increase. I suggest that it may be prudent for the Government to think about future changes in policy.

Moved, That this House take note of the report of the European Communities Committee on Schengen and the United Kingdom's Border Controls (7th Report, HL Paper 37).--(Lord Wallace of Saltaire.)

11.18 a.m.

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