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Illegal Cross-channel Movements: Discussions with French Counterpart

Volume 722: debated on Monday 14 November 2022

12. What recent discussions she has had with her French counterpart on illegal cross-channel movements. (902168)

The Prime Minister and I are committed to reducing dangerous illegal migration into the UK, which is why I was in Paris today with my French counterpart, Gérald Darmanin, to agree a new joint strategy and operational plan, which will drive forward our next phase of co-operation and make this route unviable eventually.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her agreement in Paris today but, as she herself has said, there is no silver bullet. Given that there are so many hundreds of miles of French coastline to be policed, will this agreement be a game changer?

As my hon. Friend says, on its own, this agreement will not fix the problem—it is important that everyone is clear about that. However, I am very proud of the co-operation that the UK and France have led in recent years. This deal represents a step change and a big step forward in our joint challenge. For the first time under this new integrated approach, UK officers will join law enforcement colleagues in France as embedded observers to share real-time information relating to small boats. The deal will include significant investment in intelligence capability and information sharing that all agencies will use, including the National Crime Agency and Europol. I believe that this is a big step forward and I encourage everyone here to get behind it.

The Home Affairs Committee’s report on small boat crossings, published in the summer, made a series of recommendations, one of which was more engagement with the French, so we very much welcomed the announcement this morning. Of course, it is the fifth announcement on arrangements with the French in four years, and there is not a single one thing that will solve this problem. That is why we made a series of recommendations, including: securing an agreement with the EU on the return of failed asylum seekers; and piloting the provision of initial UK asylum applications at facilities within French reception centres. That would mean that individuals wanting to seek asylum in the UK could do so without having to get into those awful dinghies and make that treacherous journey across the channel. Will the Home Secretary look again at the whole suite of recommendations that the Select Committee made after two years of looking at this subject?

I read with interest the report from the Select Committee, which makes several important points about greater collaboration and deeper co-operation with our friends in France. Last year our joint efforts saw more than 23,000 dangerous and unnecessary crossings prevented, and this year to date more than 30,000 crossing attempts have been stopped by the French. Joint working has also resulted in the dismantling of 55 organised crime groups and secured more than 500 arrests since its inception in 2020. That operational collaboration is absolutely integral to solving this common challenge.

Regrettably, the modest French agreement falls short of what is needed to address the scale, impact and urgency of the channel crossings issue. We do not need more observation—we need action taken on the French side. Even today, as the ink dried on this new deal, small boats crept through the sea-mist and one even landed on a beach in a residential coastal village in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and Kent leaders to discuss the dreadful impact on local services, which they described in a letter to her two weeks ago as being at breaking point?

I thank my hon. Friend for all her work on this issue over several years. As I said, I am not going to overplay this agreement. It is an important step forward and provides a good platform on which to secure deeper collaboration, and it represents progress. For the first time, UK officers will be on the ground in France, working hand in hand with their French counterparts. They will be working side by side in the command HQ. They will be working with intelligence and surveillance material together. They will be partners in a very material sense in the fight against this challenge. Is that going to solve the problem on its own? It will not, but I encourage everybody to support the deal we have secured.

The Home Secretary might not like it, but if I may give her some positive advice, when you answer a question you are meant to look to the Chair. That is all I will say.

The Home Secretary insists that the agreement announced today represents a step forward, but is she able to tell the House whether it will mean fewer small boats crossing the channel?

A large win from the agreement is that there will be more French gendarmes patrolling the French beaches. There is a 40% uplift to the number of personnel that the French are deploying. That must be a success, and I encourage the right hon. Lady to welcome it.

It is astonishing that the Home Secretary has not made an oral statement on this subject, given the number of people who want to ask questions. She is preventing full scrutiny of this deal. Could that be because her written statement admits that there have been only 140 smuggling-related convictions across all of Britain and France in 35 months? Can she confirm that that means there have been on average just four convictions a month for those dangerous crimes, even though last month alone nearly 7,000 people arrived in the UK as a result of organised criminals profiting from putting lives at risk? Why is the Government’s action against criminal smuggler gangs so pitifully weak?

Why is the Government’s action so pitifully weak? We introduced legislation—an extensive Bill designed specifically to deal with the problem occurring on our shores—and on every occasion, what did Labour Members do? They voted against it. If they were really serious about solving this problem, they would be supporting our proposals, not carping from the sidelines.

That is a totally nonsense answer. The Home Secretary obviously is not aware that former chief constables have warned that her Nationality and Borders Act 2022 makes it harder to prosecute people traffickers, and that in fact it is adding six-month delays to the asylum system and pushing up the costs.

Patrols and intelligence sharing are welcome but long overdue, but will the Home Secretary match Labour’s funded policy for a major expansion of additional specialist officers in the National Crime Agency as part of a proper plan to work with other countries to investigate and crack down on those gangs? Or is she actually preparing for cuts in policing and security operations on Thursday because her party’s disastrous management of the economy has let everyone down?

Of course we need to go further and faster in the fight against illegal migration. I am very disappointed and concerned by the unprecedented numbers of people arriving here illegally. We are taking steps to fix it. The reality is, as I said, that this year alone more than 30,000 attempts have been prevented by the French. I have come back today from securing a deal that will increase the number of French patrols on the French coastline, which will reinforce our collaboration and intelligence work and strengthen our joint fight, but what do Labour Members do? They criticise. They criticise because the simple truth is that this is not about the French deal or our response, but about their abject failure to speak on behalf of the British people. They do not care about illegal migration; they want an open-doors migration policy, as they always have.

Of course, we all welcome closer co-operation with the French, but the Home Secretary is absolutely right to temper her expectations given that previous deals were signed in 2010, 2014, ’15, ’16, ’18, ’19, ’20 and, indeed, ’21. What discussions has she had with the French about safe legal routes for those with clear links to the United Kingdom, linked if necessary with an appropriate returns agreement? Surely she must see that only a deal that includes safe legal routes can make a significant and lasting impact.

I am not going to repeat myself, but I think the deal is a good step forward and a great platform from which to build deeper co-operation. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that his question would have much more credibility if Scotland stepped up further and took a better share of those who come here seeking refuge and asylum.