Sixth Standing Committee on
Wednesday 21 March 2001
[Mr. Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]
Draft Channel Tunnel (International Arrangements) (Amendment No. 3)
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Channel Tunnel (International Arrangements) (Amendment No. 3) Order 2001.
May I say how nice it is to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr. Winterton?
The order amends the Channel Tunnel (International Arrangements) Order 1993. It permits the establishment of juxtaposed immigration controls at railway stations served by Eurostar in France and the United Kingdom. The idea of juxtaposed controls was first introduced in the 1986 treaty of Canterbury, which outlined the conditions for the operation of the channel tunnel. The treaty allowed for a supplementary protocol to be agreed to make provision for juxtaposed controls. That happened in 1991, with the signing of the Sangatte protocol.
The Sangatte protocol provided for France and the UK to establish control bureaux within each other's territory. As members of the Committee know, that has led to the establishment of frontier controls, by France at Cheriton in Kent and by the UK at Coquelles in France. The protocol also regulated the exercise of frontier controls on through trains between the UK and France.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The Minister mentioned the presence of British border controls at Coquelles, and the Home Affairs Committee has discussed that. Might the order be extended, at any stage, to include Gare du Nord in Paris?
Mrs. Roche: If the hon. Gentleman will wait a fraction longer, all will be revealed. Although I do not want to give too much away yet, I can tell him that that is the purpose of the order.
The idea of extending juxtaposed controls to include stations served by Eurostar emerged about three years ago in response to the growth in illegal immigration through the tunnel. Eurostar is misused by people who try to enter the UK without adequate documentation. In the second half of last year, almost 4,000 passengers arrived at Waterloo without the required documents, approximately 80 per cent. of whom claimed asylum on arrival. Such undermining of the system has been encouraged because SNCFthe French railway companyhas no power, under French law, to check documents on the Paris to London Eurostar route. The implementation of the additional protocol to the Sangatte protocol will enable UK immigration officers to conduct immigration control at Gare du Nord in Paris, and at other stations in France served by Eurostar. That answers the point raised by the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Fabricant: Excellent!
Mrs. Roche: I am not sure whether non-English expressions are allowed in Committee.
The Chairman: Order. The word was uttered from a sedentary position. I did not hear it, and I trust that Hansard did not hear it either.
Mrs. Roche: It was charmingly uttered in an impeccable French accent.
Our immigration officers will be able to identify passengers who do not have the correct documentation, or who do not qualify for entry to the UK, and refuse them leave to enter the UK before they board the train. Three Eurostar services a day stop at Calais en route to the United Kingdom. Passengers may use those services for domestic travel from Paris to Calais and are not required to present travel documents before boarding in Paris. We know that many passengers take advantage of the lack of document checks to travel illegally to the United Kingdom.
At the recent United Kingdom-French summit on 9 February, the French Government agreed to introduce domestic legislation to allow examination of all Eurostar passengers, whether domestic or international travellers. The additional protocol and proposed French legislation have the potential to prevent all inadequately documented passengers from travelling on Eurostar, and will undermine that method of entering the United Kingdom.
It is important to implement juxtaposed controls as soon as possible to close the loophole that Eurostar represents in our immigration control. I commend the order to the Committee.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): May I express my pleasure in serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Winterton?
The order is sensible and has my support, but I want to press the Minister on a number of matters and hope that she will be able to respond to them this afternoon. The first concerns the timing of the implementation. I can understand that there may have been difficulties in aligning the British and French legislative processes so that the new systems are introduced at the same time on both sides of the channel, but I must raise a metaphorical eyebrow, since the additional protocol to the Sangatte protocol was agreed on 29 May last year. Seven months elapsed before the Foreign Office presented it to Parliament in December 2000. We are now heading towards the end of March and only now implementing the new arrangement and turning the protocol into legislation. Ten months have elapsed since the negotiations were concluded, during which time the problem of illegal immigration on Eurostar has become worse. The Government were right to identify that action needed to be taken to close the loophole, but I hope that there is a good reason for waiting so long for the draft legislation to be brought before us today.
My second question concerns a practical matter. How will article 2 of the additional protocol be implemented? It provides for both the British and French authorities to establish control bureaux for people using through trains and wishing to travel to the other country. They will be located at Waterloo, St. Pancras and Ashford on the British side and at Gare du Nord, Calais and Lille in France. Rail operators are worried that they may be lent on to meet the cost of providing the control bureaux. I should welcome an explanation from the Government on the financing and staffing arrangements, and an indication of how long the Minister expects it to take between Parliament approving the legislation and the operation of the practical arrangements, so that the new procedures and controls can begin to bite on the undoubted problem of illegal immigration.
My third question relates to carriers' liability. One reason why Eurostar welcomes this legislation is that it believes that it will deter illegal immigration and therefore reduce rail carriers' liability to penalties for bringing into the countries illegal immigrants or asylum seekers. Will the train operator still face a penalty when an immigration officer detects and identifies someone on the train as a potential illegal immigrant? Will there still be an implicit requirement on train operators to maintain their own checks to avoid a penalty, or will immigration service officers deal with people whom they discover on the train without the operators incurring any penalties?
Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, although I welcome the legislation, I still question how it will work in practice. As I understand the statutory instrument and the additional protocol that it implements, if someone boards a train at a French station and is subsequently detected as travelling with fake documents or otherwise is found to be an illegal immigrant, his asylum claim must be dealt with by the French authorities if that train has not left the final French station. Once the doors have closed at Calais, Lille or whichever final French station, and the train has set off towards London, the case becomes the responsibility of the British authorities and the Home Office. We will have to deal with such cases under our immigration law and take responsibility for handling asylum applications made at any stage after the doors shut at the last French station.
If I have understood that correctly, a number of questions arise. First, let us assume that the train has left France and immigration officers discover someone who is on the train illegally with fake documents and who makes a claim for political asylum, citing the 1951 convention. Are we, despite the terms of the protocol about the geographical areas within which French and British authority should apply, still entitled to invoke the Dublin convention or other international arrangements and say, ``We have detected you, but as you have come from another state that is a signatory of the 1951 convention, we will return you to that country for the substantive determination of your asylum claim''? That is quite an important point.
One problem of dealing with unfounded asylum claims is the number of people who come to this country from other European Union member states, and the difficulties, which lie beyond the remit of this Committee, of implementing the international arrangements that are supposed to deal with such people. Anyone on board one of the trains has come from France, a country that is a signatory to the European convention on human rights. It is one of the foremost members of the European Union and a signatory to the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees, and any layperson would understand it to be a safe country that has responsibilities under that convention to deal with cases of asylum seekers within its own borders. Let us suppose that, after the train has left French jurisdiction, the British immigration officer finds that he has an asylum claim on his hands. May we still invoke international agreements to return that person to France in order that France exercises its responsibilities under the 1951 convention?
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): The point of article 3 is that the authorities in the state of departure exercise their international obligations. Is my hon. Friend concerned that the French authorities are not exercising their international obligations under the convention, and simply passing people along the line?