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Asylum Seekers

Volume 301: debated on Monday 24 November 1997

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If he will discuss with the Commission of the European Union the processing of applications for asylum status of refugees within member states. [15751]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Mike O'Brien)

The Government regularly discuss the handling of claims for asylum at a number of European Union forums on which the Commission is represented. In addition, United Kingdom and Commission officials have had preliminary discussions about the United Kingdom's presidency's planned work programme on immigration and asylum.

Does the Minister believe that the present position is satisfactory, given that a coachload of gypsies can be taken, at their request, from Dover to seek asylum status in London, whose boroughs are already overburdened with such applications? Is it not time to re-examine the whole procedure at European level? Is article 11 of the Dublin convention—whereby a country to which a refugee first applies for asylum status can pass the applicant on to another country, like the United Kingdom, which is already under enough pressure in that regard—appropriate?

The position is far from satisfactory, but we inherited it from the Conservative party. A number of local authorities have had an enormous burden placed on them as a result of the withdrawal of benefits, without much thought, by the previous Home Secretary. We have said that we wish completely to re-examine that problem. We also need to look at the operation of the Dublin convention, which we also inherited. It is proving complex and difficult to make progress on that. There are now provisions that the state concerned must accept responsibility for a case before the refugee can be returned, which makes matters enormously difficult. Article 11 is complicated by other articles in the convention. Basically, the situation that we inherited from the previous Government is a bit of a mess.

Will my hon. Friend hold urgent talks with his colleagues on the continent about the absurd situation that has arisen in relation to ferries, whereby staff are being threatened if they do not urgently take on board people who do not have permission to land in the United Kingdom? That is bizarre and should be remedied as quickly as possible.

They are not being threatened by us. Some ferry companies have expressed concerns about instructions that they are receiving at Calais from the local French authorities. I understand that Stena, P and O, and other ferry companies are negotiating with the local authorities in France on that point.

Why should not Kent county council be fully reimbursed for the cost of looking after bogus asylum seekers and their families? Rather than council tax payers in my constituency having to fork out, why should not ferry companies have to bear the burden of asylum seekers who are subsequently sent home?

I have sympathy for Kent, but I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would admit that the previous Government created the problem. We have been placed in the position of having to pay £140 a week to Kent county council for each adult asylum seeker because benefits were withdrawn. We are reviewing the whole problem, which was created by the previous Government. Although the hon. Gentleman did not serve in that Government, the problem is the responsibility of many of his colleagues on the Conservative Benches.