Select Committee on European Communities Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 117)

WEDNESDAY 9 DECEMBER 1998

MR STEPHEN BOYS SMITH and MR MIKE ELAND

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  100.  As I listen to Mr Boys Smith, I think he is not saying that the need to protect good race relations is a major factor in deciding to remain outside Schengen. I would be astonished if he were saying that. I think what he is saying is simply that, if we change the system of control from frontier to internal control, that would bring the police into more regular contact with ethnic minorities and therefore there will be more opportunity for friction. Before I ask my real question, am I right about that? You are not saying that we cannot or should not do it because it is bad for race relations, are you?
  (Mr Boys Smith)  I am saying only that the system of internal control and the use of identity cards that is part of the Schengen arrangement, given the traditions of this country which are different from the traditions in much of continental Europe, gives rise to particular sensitivities that the government will want to pay careful attention to in reaching these judgments. I am not saying it is a reason for staying out; I am saying it is a reason for careful and mature consideration.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill:  If I can come to my question, is not the true position then that, if there is bias in any system of control, whether it is immigration control or policing control, or a perception of bias, whatever system of control one has, that is a problem that needs to be tackled, but it does not argue strongly for one system rather than another. For example, if we all had to carry identity cards and the police stopped people of colour disproportionately to find out whether they were illegal immigrants or not, or to find out whether they were committing crimes or not, simple proof of identity on the spot might be as much in the interests of members of an ethnic minority as of effective detection of crime, to take one example. One talks of the great tradition of not having identity cards but is it not also right, if we read today's newspapers, that that tradition is being ended anyway, not only with plastic credit cards everywhere, including in the public service demand, but if we read today's newspapers, for example in the health service, I see identity cards are to be made, I think, compulsory for young people, for reasons I cannot any longer remember. Is it not right that the tradition is anyhow ending and that there is no telling argument either way so far as race relations are concerned, but there are arguments that could point to better race relations with simple proof of identity on a spot check basis?

Lord Rix:  I think there could be an argument that there could be positive uses other than that which Lord Lester has mentioned. For instance, people with a learning disability are often arrested on Friday nights because they happen to be around in the pub area and the police, when the PACE Bill was going through this House, were stating quite clearly that instant identity of people with a learning disability would make their jobs a lot easier because these people maybe unable to identify themselves. They have no address which they can give, etc. It is exactly the same. It would actually aid the police because they would immediately be released. They would be recognised for what they were, their homes would be found and they would be guided in the right direction. I believe that there is a positive aspect of identity cards. After all, we all carried them in the war. It actually got me off being arrested once. I went to visit an old friend's house when I was on tour in Leeds at the Grand Theatre and I asked a neighbour if he was there. The neighbour rang up the police, the police came round and, with my identity card, they took me down to the Grand Theatre, Leeds, stood me in front of a photograph and identified me and said, "Oh, you are the person you say you are" and let me go. Otherwise, I was going to be arrested as either a burglar or a German spy. I do think identity cards, for certain people in this country, would be a positive asset, not a demerit.

Baroness Turner of Camden

  101.  On the other hand, Lord Rix makes a reference to the war but my recollection is that the ending of identity cards was greeted with great joy by most of the population at the time.
  (Mr Boys Smith)  I will do my best to answer these questions. I am rather fearful that I do not have a great deal to add to what I have already said, not because I wish to be unhelpful to the Committee but because I feel I have said all I am capable of saying. I fully understand that there is a range of arguments about identity cards. I was not wishing to suggest that those arguments all pointed in one way. Indeed, I know that the government is aware that there is some public support for them. The government's present position is that it has no present plans to introduce them. It is not biased for or against identity cards and it is going to consider the options. That is a big issue that will no doubt be the subject of continuing public debate. My point was perhaps a narrower and simpler one. I originally articulated in response to Lord Dholakia that there were at least sensitivities associated with the issue and the checking of identity cards that were an important consideration. Coming as I do from the Immigration and Nationality side of the Home Office, I do not feel confident to go a great deal further than this. I wish only to contrast that issue with the question of whether or not the border controls were intrusive. I merely wish to demonstrate that the light control on EU travellers is a light control. It is not self-evident that the alternative, the internal control, would be even lighter than that. There is an argument for saying that it would be more intrusive than that. Perhaps I might confine myself to that balance.

Chairman

  102.  If I may take you back to the opt-in/opt-out question, I still do not quite have a picture in terms of how far we are picking up people unannounced by examining documents at the border or are dealing with traffickers in people, a huge area which I understand is now increasing, of which one needs information in advance. One of the questions I would like to pose is as regards the SIS and border control. Is it the case that the growth of long lines of organised, illegal immigrant trafficking means that access to the Schengen Information System and exchange of information with other authorities within the EU are important parts of maintaining our controls against illegal immigration?
  (Mr Boys Smith)  It is certainly the case that cooperation with other countries, mainly the EU but not of course exclusively the EU, is an important element of our control and we want to continue that cooperation and indeed strengthen it. Our feeling as regards the SIS is that, in respect of the immigration control—and I do make a distinction between that and other forms of policing cooperation because there is a wide range of material like stolen vehicles and so on, on the SIS—the suspect index to which I referred gives us a very good basis on which to identify those who are seeking to pass across our borders whom we do not want to give entry to or want to stop to make some inquiries of. That is not to say that there would not be material on the SIS that would be helpful to us. Those are issues that the government is also examining with our partners in the EU and will want to come to a decision on in due course. It is not a question of it having reached a view; it is still under consideration.

  103.  Do you anticipate that, if we do not have access to the Schengen Information System for whatever reason, or we decide that we do not wish to have access, there may be some gradually increasing disadvantages in terms of maintaining border controls, or is this not a problem?
  (Mr Boys Smith)  I do not think I am in a position to say that if we did not join our position would be weaker and weaker, which I think is the core of your question. Certainly, there are no grounds for believing that at the moment, but this is part of the sorts of issues that we are seeking to examine at the moment, because clearly it is not a decision that, once it is taken, can be quickly reversed. We will need to look ahead as well as, so to speak, to take a snapshot of the present day.

Lord Bridges

  104.  If I could take you back to some interesting remarks you made about the costs of opting in to Schengen, if I understood you correctly, the cost of reconfiguring our airports would be in the range of, 300 million to 450 million?
  (Mr Boys Smith)  That was the cost identified in 1994 of reconfiguring to allow the passengers to move in different ways because of their requirements.

  105.  I find that an extraordinarily high figure. Do you think it is a realistic one?
  (Mr Eland)  Perhaps I could explain why that sort of figure arises. If we became members of Schengen and abolished internal frontiers with Schengen, then we would have to put flights from Schengen countries in the same position as a domestic flight within the UK. That would mean redesigning airports so that all flights from France, Italy and so on could come into particular terminals separate from those from outside that area. That is where the costs come from. These were costs, to my recollection, which were based on some discussion with the airport authorities and also took some account of the reconfiguration that had to take place at Schipol Airport in order to introduce these sort of changes. I know that Schipol had to spend many millions of guilders in doing that. We do feel therefore the estimates were fairly realistic.

  106.  The present system where a new free travel area has been created in Europe is not going to make any alteration to our system of scrutinising passports on entry through British airports? Is that right? It did occur to me that the arrival of a new travel zone in Europe might alter the way in which you sought to examine people's credentials. Here is a group of people who have all come from France. They all have permission to live there, or so they think, and yet you would still split them up according to the passport they had, regardless of the zone from which they came?
  (Mr Eland)  The interest we have is not where they have come from but their status. If they are carriers of an EEA or EU passport, yes, we would subject them to this very light check. That I think has changed in intensity over the period since the single market came in. Now, not every single person coming through the EU channel is stopped and their passport opened and examined. People will often be waved through with a very quick check.

  107.  Is that a principle which would apply everywhere? I would imagine that a plane load of people coming from Iraq would be treated rather differently than a plane load of people coming from France, would they not?
  (Mr Eland)  If I was a holder of an EU passport coming from Iraq, I would go through that channel. Clearly, the bulk of people would go into the Third country channel and be subjected to a fuller check.

  108.  The exception may be for flights to and from Israel which are treated in a very special way.
  (Mr Eland)  I think that is a security aspect.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

  109.  I am possibly being very dim but as you know there are channels. There is an EU channel and then there is the "goods to declare". Could not these channels be adapted without reconfiguring airports? Is every airport in Europe now being reconfigured?
  (Mr Eland)  Yes, my Lord, every one that has international traffic going through it. Chairman:  I have been through Schipol twice in the last six weeks and it has been quite substantially reconfigured, because internal Schengen flights become domestic flights. Your passports are not therefore examined. If you think about the implications for major British international airports, these are quite considerable.

Lord Bridges

  110.  Schipol is being rebuilt at the expense of the Dutch Ministry of the Interior, is it?
  (Mr Eland)  I do not know whether the Ministry of the Interior pay, but it is at the expense of the Dutch government.

Lord Rix

  111.  There is a question here on our suggested which requires some explanation, I think. It says here, "... people who have entered the UK legally and subsequently fall foul of immigration rules, for example tourists or students who `overstay' or who obtain work without a work permit?" Surely that applies equally to those inside Schengen and outside Schengen? I would have thought that the number of people who overstay their documentation is roughly the same in each and every European country.
  (Mr Boys Smith)  Mr Eland may want to elaborate on this but I think the point is that if they are from an EU country—that is to say, citizens of an EU country—then they do not require work permits.

  112.  I understand that but I am talking about people from outside. The ratio of people who overstay in a Schengen country is probably no greater than in a non-Schengen country such as the UK.
  (Mr Boys Smith)  I have to say I do not think we have any figures.

  113.  Therefore, I think this question which has been carefully prepared is slightly irrelevant. It applies equally to a Schengen country or a non-Schengen country.
  (Mr Boys Smith)  That might well be the case.Lord Bridges:  You have rather discounted the negative impact which would happen for British travellers arriving as non-Schengen people in a Schengen airport as amounting to inconsequential and only a few minutes. Could I suggest that you look at that again, because my own experiences suggest the contrary. Particularly large charter aircraft, entirely full of British tourists, arriving in a Schengen country I think will now be subjected to much longer delays.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  114.  I had not realised that in Schipol there was to be a special, new domestic terminal for all Schengen travellers. Does that not mean that I, as a British passport holder, cannot go through that quicker and easier system but have to go through a different terminal? Is that not going to be a detriment to me?
  (Mr Eland)  If I may just clarify that point, it is where you come from. If you are a British citizen with a British passport travelling from, say, Bonn to Schipol, you will go through the domestic terminal in Schipol. If you are coming from the UK, even if you are a citizen of France or the Netherlands, you will go through the sort of control that we impose on EU citizens coming here.

Chairman:  So long as we remain outside Schengen border control arrangements, we have to be submitted to Schengen external border controls.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill:  And so do the French and the Italians, if they come from this country.

Lord Rix:  They are very lightly applied for the majority of tourists.

Chairman

  115.  The toughest of controls are applied by Belgian police when one arrives by Eurostar in Brussels. They are much tougher than any others that I have ever experienced within Western Europe. You have been extremely helpful. On the question of the government's definition of what our national interests are in this, I suppose this is a question we are going to put to the Minister at the end, but you are going to be writing some of the papers for this. The government said in its reply to our last report that it intends to take part in all these activities when it is in the national interest to do so. Apart from sheer political judgment, what are the other criteria which one can provide to weigh up and try to define where Britain's national interests lie in this extremely delicate area?
  (Mr Boys Smith)  I think it is a national interest that will be judged against the core criterion of the maintenance of the frontier control on which the government has made its position clear. Therefore, whether opting in on particular measures, given as I mentioned earlier that the Treaty enshrines the right to opt in partially rather than all or nothing, is the question of whether that opt-in is consistent with the maintenance of that control. It is that set of questions that the government is considering. Clearly, there are issues on which close cooperation is important. One example of that, I think already well established, is the uniform format for visas. That is a good example where cooperation is entirely consistent with the maintenance of that control.

Lord Watson of Invergowrie

  116.  On the question of the Schengen Information System, I wanted to ask Mr Boys Smith this: firstly, there clearly must be benefits to such a system. Otherwise, it would not have been established. Given that there are benefits, which I take it you would accept, there must therefore be a disbenefit to not being part of it. I understand you had to be cautious in your previous response, but there must be benefits which would apply to the UK should we be part of this system, particularly in terms of relationships with other police forces and immigration services. I would like you to give us your personal opinion on those benefits, albeit I do accept the point that you are still looking at them. The system's existence suggests there are benefits. Could you give us some indication of what you understand them to be through your contacts with your opposite numbers in other countries?
  (Mr Boys Smith)  Benefits would mainly relate not to the immigration control but to other kinds of law enforcement. The nature of the information referred to a moment ago in an earlier answer to the SIS containing material on stolen vehicles is a good example of that. In respect of the immigration control, the evidence we have so far is that, given the nature of our fairly sophisticated, computerised suspect index, adding to it the material that is on the Schengen Information System, even leaving aside the obligations that might ensue from our participation in that as regards operating Schengen controls, we do not have any reason to believe that there would be an enormous step change in the efficiency of our immigration control by the addition of that material, but that is very much an interim view. Those are just the sorts of issues that we are anxious to examine in great detail. I would not, if I may say so, my Lord Chairman, want it to be thought that that was more than a very preliminary view. It may well be changed in the light of our work.

  117.  In your meetings with your opposite numbers in EU Member States to deal with those sorts of issues, you may need to make that evaluation?
  (Mr Boys Smith)  Indeed. We are in discussion with them and obviously we have to make that evaluation against our own requirements. I come back to my earlier answer to the Lord Chairman. Any kind of participation will have to be consistent with the maintenance of the frontier control so that if participation in the SIS carried with it other obligations that were not consistent with that then that would be part of the judgment that would have to be reached.

Chairman:  You have been extremely helpful. We look forward to seeing you again, no doubt. I apologise because this Committee may be an occasional nuisance to you and we have already been a nuisance on many occasions to Mr Eland and I expect we will again, I think some of us may even see you at the Justice seminar tomorrow. Thank you.


 
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