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Fiona Mactaggart: If the hon. Gentleman reads the question that I asked when the Home Secretary made a statement several months ago, he will realise that I made the point that there should be proper advice in reception centres. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend make the same point in Question Time today. I am not sure whether adjudicators are needed in reception centres, but expert advice is required to enable people to present their best case. Adjudication is not necessary in the first week, but we need to ensure that people can present the best case and that the decision makers have sufficient training, autonomy and sense to make the best decisions.
Let us consider the proposition that a bilateral agreement will make a substantial difference to the number of people who seek asylum in Britain after travelling from France. There is a chronic problem about knowing through which countries people have travelled, and it will not go away for two reasons. First, many people travel in sealed containers; sometimes that has tragically led to their deaths. Secondly, some people believe that admitting through which countries they have travelled is likely to lead to their being returned to a place where they have a well-founded fear of persecution. We must deal with that in the long term; I accept that it is difficult in the short term, but we must do it.
The necessary changes involve not only a bilateral agreement between Britain and France, about which I do not feel optimistic, but a better agreement between European countries about common procedures for dealing with asylum applications. It is currently possible for France to remove those who have not applied for any status: the people at Sangatte. The French authorities choose neither to remove them nor to require them to apply for asylum, although they know that the people in Sangatte are seeking refuge.
If the French authorities held the positive views that Conservative Members are slightly overstating, they could adopt a simple method of tackling the problem. They could require those who reside in Sangatte to make asylum applications. They do not, partly because the people there do not want to do that. However, such a requirement would have the same effect as a bilateral arrangement. I accept the Home Secretary's points, but one of the sensible requests that we could make to the French Government would be to encourage the people in Sangatte to make asylum applications.
If the Dublin II arrangements were implemented, the people in Sangatte would have to make an application to France within two months, or, if they remained for two months, France would become responsible for them. We must acknowledge that France has not always honoured agreements to the extent that is being suggested. I was involved in immigration in the period when, according to Conservative Members, a bilateral arrangement worked perfectly. On many occasions, France did not accept people whom Britain attempted to return under it. I can also think of current examples of France unilaterally repudiating agreements. For example, it continues to refuse to recognise United Kingdom-issued stateless travel documents for people with exceptional leave to remain.
The tenor of the debate has been of people preferring to remain in Britain rather than France, but let us be clear that France operates as I described. The French authorities refuse to allow people with refugee travel documents and refugee status here to visit France without visas. We should not become too confident that France is enthusiastic about a bilateral agreement or that it would abide by it.
We will solve the problem not only by improving our systems and making bilateral agreements with France but by working energetically for full harmonisation throughout the European Union on the definition of a refugee and the process that people undergo to determine their status. I appreciate that we cannot do that in months, and it is not therefore the short-term solution that the Conservative party wants. However, it is necessary because the minor differences between EU countries' methods of deciding applications often determine the places to which people choose to apply. People do not apply to Britain simply because there are more jobs here; they feel fearful about some countries' treatment of them. There is no reason for not achieving an EU agreement on interpreting the convention and proper procedures for dealing with applicants.
There are stumbling blocks, such as Germany's refusal to accept oppression by groups and forced marriages as grounds for refugee status, but working on EU agreement is important. If we put a lot of energy into that, we would be able to create a genuinely level playing field in the system to define who is a refugee within the European Union, and then we could work towards equality in procedures for granting and refusing status, reception conditions and so on. That must be the Government's priority.
The final line of the amendment reminds us of the difficult situation that the Conservative party put many local authorities in through its chaotic arrangements. Some authorities are still suffering from that, and I urge the Minister to ensure that there is fair treatment for local authorities close to London that are still burdened with high costs because they have to provide for large numbers of asylum seekers.
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to a debate in which some very important points have been made. I was surprised that, in responding to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the Home Secretary did not tell us more about what is being done to try to achieve an effective border control between ourselves and France.
The Home Secretary was in France on 19 September last year and spoke about the juxtaposition of different regimes and the introduction of new equipment to try to improve the detection of people attempting to enter illegally. It would have been a service to the House if he had given us some more detail on that. Perhaps the Minister will do that; otherwise, a few months on from 19 September, people will still be in the dark about the effectiveness of those new technologies.
Some of the more aggressive attempts to get into the tunnel and on to the trains may in fact be the result of successful new measures, and people should be made aware of that. One of the things that I would like this debate to achieve is to deny the Daily Express a headline. If we can add to public information and show that there is a system in place to try to deliver effective border control, that will be all to the good.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) asked about juxtaposed immigration officials. That was reasonable, and not at all churlish, because back in February 2001, when the decision was being made, Downing street said, according to the BBC, that the scheme would be in place by summer 2001so where is it?
We should have an agreement with France. It is perfectly clear that such an agreement was relatively successful in the past but fell down under the implementation of the Dublin convention. The French Government simply cannot abandon their responsibility. People who have entered a Schengen country, which is where they should have made their asylum application, and who are illegally in France are seeking to come illegally to the UK. France has a moral, if not a legal, obligation under the Dublin convention to do something about it. It should work with the Schengen group and the British Government to deliver. Dublin II is a lengthy process, and something needs to be done in the meantime.
The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said that the most important thing was to deliver an efficient and quick system of asylum decision making that has integrity. I entirely agree, but frankly that is not separate from the problems in France. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said, the fact that our system has not been effective and we have not been able to offer asylum rapidly to genuine refugees, while those without a valid claim remain here with no realistic prospect of removal, has led to the problem of large numbers of people in France making repeated efforts to get here, because the reward is seen as worth the risk. We must reduce the reward for illegal entry into this country and ensure that only those with a well-founded fear of persecution seek asylum here.
At the heart of that is whether the Government can deliver on their promises. I acknowledge that many more caseworkers have been taken onfinally, last yearbut we need to know how quickly the Government will start reducing the backlog not only of initial decisions but of appeals. On 29 October last year, the Home Secretary promised us 6,000 appeal decisions a month. How quickly will we achieve that and the 2,500 removals a month which, as I understand it, he promised would be delivered by spring 2002? How soon will we be able to establish in our own minds and the minds of those who might wish to come to this country that we understand the difference between those who have a claim to asylum and those who want to come here on grounds of economic migration?
We must distinguish between the two, although that does not mean that we put up a "Closed" sign and refuse to allow anyone to come here on economic grounds. I hope that the White Paper will set out a reasonable basis for offering economic migration to the UK, because that can be of considerable benefit to us. This country spent a couple of hundred years in the 18th and 19th centuries
We need to have a system whereby those with a reasonable claim to asylum have a confident expectation of securing a welcome here, with good accommodation, delivered through a quick system of decision making, while those who want to come here as economic migrants know that it is far better to put in a claim from their country of origin or, if they have left countries such as Afghanistan or Somaliland, that they will be part of an international system of sharing the burden of looking after such migrants, and that if they have a special reason for wanting to come to the United Kingdom, we will acknowledge it.
Those who put themselves in the hands of the traffickers should be increasingly sure that illegal entry to the United Kingdom will be prevented or reversed, and they will be rapidly returned to their country of origin. If people knew that trying to secure illegal entry here would not pay, we would have a much more successful system. That is what my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset put to Ministers. My debate in Westminster Hall on 24 October 2000 was designed to secure answers to the same questions, and it took the Home Secretary only five days to respond in large measure to that. I hope that the Government will respond positively today.