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Frontex (EUC Report)

Volume 702: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2008

rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the European Union Committee on FRONTEX: The EU External Borders Agency (9th Report, HL Paper 60).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I now turn to the most important item on the Order Paper today. The report that is before your Lordships' House, which is the subject of this debate, was prepared following an inquiry by Sub-Committee F of the European Union Select Committee between July 2007 and February 2008. But between July and October last year the committee received written evidence and heard some of its oral evidence. During that time, the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, was chairman of the sub-committee. I pay tribute to him for his work and wisdom in guiding the sub-committee through not just the first part of the inquiry but many earlier inquiries over which he presided. I also very much wish to thank Michael Collon, our clerk, who was extraordinarily helpful, and our advisers, Anneliese Baldaccini, Dr Valsamis Mitsilegas and Major-General Adrian Freer, who helped us hugely in preparing our report.

I need hardly remind your Lordships that while Select Committee reports are addressed to the House, the majority of the committee’s conclusions and recommendations are addressed to government. The Government’s response to these recommendations is an essential part of the work of the European Union Select Committee and other Select Committees. It enables debates such as this to concentrate on those areas where differences of view between the committee and the Government are known to remain, and to seek the views of the Minister on those matters. I am sure that there will be no dissension whatever in the House on my next point. It is important that the response to these reports should be received within the statutory two months from the date of publication, as laid down in the Cabinet Office guidance. This allows the response to be considered by the Select Committee and its sub-committees, such as the one of which I have the honour to be chairman, well before a debate is arranged.

In this case the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, as chairman of the European Union Select Committee, sent the report we are debating to Mr Liam Byrne MP, the Home Office Minister responsible for borders and immigration, on 5 March, which was the date we published our report. He reminded Mr Byrne at that time that the response was due by 5 May. Despite repeated further reminders, we did not receive the response until last Friday, 13 June. There has been no opportunity to discuss it within the sub-committee. We met only this morning and we had a very full agenda. There was no way that we could possibly discuss this report, which was received, as I say, only last Friday. I hope that the Minister—I am glad to see the Chief Whip is present—will make known to ministerial colleagues how much the whole committee regrets this. I shall return to Mr Byrne’s attitude but I leave it aside for the minute.

Frontex, which is the European borders agency, is now nearly a year older than when we started our inquiry, but it is still a relatively new agency which has been operational for barely three years. Many of our witnesses agreed that this was a good time for us to conduct our inquiry and give our views on the direction in which we felt it should develop. The regulation setting up Frontex is a measure which builds on the Schengen acquis. The United Kingdom, of course, is not part of Schengen, nor I believe is it likely to be in the foreseeable future. The position with regard to our exclusion from Schengen is one which the committee fully supports, but the consequence is that the United Kingdom cannot participate fully in the activities of Frontex. Nevertheless, the Government have always given Frontex their full support—we commend them for that—and have taken part in its activities to the fullest possible extent. The committee welcomed this, and we hope that it will continue.

It is no part of the duties of Frontex to take over the duties of member states to protect their own external borders, nor should it be. Its task is to co-ordinate member states’ efforts in doing so. We believe that Frontex is doing a good job. Its work is, of course, focused on the external borders of the Schengen states which are particularly sensitive to illegal immigration; that is, the eastern land borders of the European Union, and the Mediterranean maritime borders. Protecting them raises very different problems.

When we started this inquiry I was totally unaware of the huge distances which these frontiers cover. Until the enlargement of the European Union in 2004, the eastern land border was just 4,000 kilometres long. After the 2004 enlargement, this increased to 6,000 kilometres, and the recent addition of Bulgaria and Romania makes a land border currently 8,000 kilometres long—that is 5,000 miles—stretching from the border between Finland and Russia in the north down to the Black Sea and round into the western Balkans. When the committee visited the headquarters of Frontex in Warsaw, we took the opportunity to spend a day at the border between Poland and Ukraine. The border post we saw seemed to us to be well equipped, and we were told that other posts were equally well equipped, but, of course, there are huge spaces in between these border posts which are patrolled barely, if at all. It is not so much that some of these frontiers are leaking sieves; they are more a gaping hole in many cases.

Frontex can help by organising exercises concentrating larger resources from a number of member states on relatively small parts of the border which are most at risk. The main successes of Frontex so far are, however, on the southern maritime borders of the European Union: that is, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Portugal. These borders are more than 34,000 kilometres long if one includes the 3,000 Greek islands, and are particularly vulnerable to illegal immigrants from west and north Africa. However, they are rather easier to police than the land borders, and exercises co-ordinated by Frontex have been conspicuously successful in deterring and detecting illegal immigration.

We have listed all these exercises in the appendix to our report. The United Kingdom has taken part in a great many of them yet is under no obligation to take part in them since we are not a Frontex state. We can take part in them only by invitation. The United Kingdom has great experience in guarding its maritime borders. The committee was very glad that the Government put this expertise at the disposal of other member states.

It is particularly the smaller states which benefit from this. One of the smallest, Malta, is in the front line for immigrants crossing the Mediterranean from north Africa. We received very impressive evidence on behalf of the Maltese armed forces. I cannot emphasise how much we were impressed by the quality of the evidence we were given by one particular individual from Malta, which clarified many details of past events and persuaded us that the larger member states ought to do more to assist Malta and other vulnerable, small states.

Our report did not specifically recommend the redeployment of asylum seekers, believing that this ought to be done during the review of Dublin 2—the regulation determining which state is responsible for the processing of asylum applications. The Government tell us they are opposed to physical burden-sharing, believing that it would merely attract more asylum seekers. However, we recommended that Malta and other small states bearing a disproportionate burden should receive increased financial assistance. The Government have accepted this to a limited extent, but the committee feels it would be good to go further. A contribution from the European Refugee Fund is all very well but we would like to see the Government actively supporting Malta when it seeks financial assistance for the protection of its borders.

I have already explained that the role of Frontex is to co-ordinate. For these exercises, it relies entirely on the men, ships, helicopters and other equipment of the member states. This has not always worked as well as it might. Some of our witnesses suggested that Frontex should acquire its own operational assets, which would be allowed under the current regulation. There are severe legal and practical difficulties about this. Our view was that, while the position might change over time, it was premature to consider it for the present. I am glad to see in the response which came last Friday that the Government support this view.

Frontex had its origins in the failure of member states to agree in 2002 on the long-term aim of setting up a European border guard, yet there are already some, including the Commission, who would like to discuss the possibility of Frontex developing in the longer term into a European border guard of the type on which agreement could not be reached six years ago. The committee regarded this suggestion as ill conceived and at best entirely premature. Frontex is still finding its feet. Its workload and budget have doubled every year so far and we believe the quality will suffer if this goes on. We recommend a period of consolidation, allowing it to develop and improve the work it was set up to do. This is an important recommendation, but for some reason the Government have not commented on it in their response. Mr Byrne appears to have ignored it. I ask again whether the Government agree that this is the right way for Frontex to develop in future.

Even though co-ordination of controls at the United Kingdom’s borders is no part of the duties of Frontex, an examination of those controls was certainly part of the committee’s duties. It was this that led to the conclusion, with which the Government appear to have the most difficulty, that the way in which the United Kingdom’s borders are at present safeguarded is inadequate and unacceptable. I repeat and draw particular attention to the words we put in our report, the way they “are at present safeguarded”. That means the situation they were in at the time our report was published. For example, in January the committee visited the Eurotunnel terminal at Coquelles and the ferry port at Calais, both of which have juxtaposed French and British border controls. We were very impressed by what we saw, which included all sorts of state-of-the-art technology which can detect a heartbeat inside a 40-tonne container lorry, carbon-dioxide probes which can detect the increased levels exhaled by human beings, and sniffer dogs.

Yet once the lorries have passed through these highly sophisticated controls and any illegal migrants have been removed, one would hope that the lorries would remain closely guarded so that they are still free of clandestine illegal migrants when they board the ferries. That is not what happens. The lorries are placed in a large area where they wait, often for many hours, before they load on to the ferries and sail. At the time of our visit that area was surrounded by a single perimeter fence of considerable length which would be no great obstacle to a determined person. Indeed it has been no great obstacle since we heard that 1,500 persons a year found their way through it and on to lorries bound for England. They were apprehended when the lorries landed in England. Goodness knows how many more than that were not apprehended at Dover. That was what we found and reported. We recommended that more effective fencing should urgently be put in place.

The Government told us in their response, three months later, that the Calais port authority has introduced external perimeter foot patrols with dogs “in recent months”. Could it be that these recent months are the three months since the publication of our report? I suspect they are. We were told at the time we were there that come dusk, as night comes on, you can see people walking round the edge of the fence waiting to get over it. The Government also told us that the French authorities have announced that a higher, double layer of fencing is to be erected “within the coming weeks”. Has that been decided since the committee’s report and when is this likely to be completed?

Turning from this example to the wider picture of UK border controls, we accept that much has been done over the last two years to improve matters. The Minister for Borders and Immigration lists in his response to us some of the achievements of 2007: the numbers of illegal immigrants stopped; the creation of the new UK Border Agency and the resources devoted to it; and many other matters which the noble Lord will no doubt expand on in his reply.

As a committee, we visited Heathrow in December last year to examine the border controls there, and as recently as last week we visited the Joint Border Operations Centre at Heathrow to see the practical use made of passenger name record data, the subject of our most recent inquiry.

All of these are welcome developments. Yet the fact remains that after the successful trial of Project Semaphore, the e-Borders system is still only in its relatively early stages. By the end of December 2009, it will process only 60 per cent of passenger movements. By the end of 2010, that will have risen to 95 per cent, but the full processing of 100 per cent of all passenger and crew movements is not planned until March 2014.

When all these plans are in place, I hope it may be safe for the Government to say that our borders are adequately safeguarded, but that is many years away. This was why we strongly recommended that the work on e-Borders should be brought forward as a matter of urgency to protect Britain's territorial integrity. As I said, our report's assessment looks at things as they are now, and for the present it would not have been right for the committee to suggest that the position is acceptable.

It seems to me that, by listing these improvements in the next few years, Mr Byrne has most successfully shot himself in the foot in trying to refute the committee’s view that “at present” our border controls are inadequate and unacceptable. He tells us all the things that will happen in the future to make them acceptable. Therefore, I insist very strongly on the reservation in the report. The committee is extremely unhappy about the attitude of Mr Byrne to the European Union Select Committee. I remind noble Lords that this is the Minister who was uniquely described by the Leader of the House on 10 June, only two weeks ago, as the culprit in failing until June to reply to a Parliamentary Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, laid on 24 January.

Furthermore, my committee is exceptionally irritated by the attitude of Mr Byrne, who received two letters from the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, the first of which was dated 26 July last year. The noble Lord at last received a reply 10 and a half months after he wrote the letter. I understand the Chief Whip hiding her head in her hands. I know what attitude I would have taken when I was the Government Chief Whip at the other end. The reply to the first letter came 10 and a half months after the letter was sent and overshot an opt-in deadline which expired last September. The second letter sent by the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, is still, to this day, awaiting a reply. I do not know what goes on in that department. Is it surprising that the Home Office is described as “unfit for purpose” when a Minister as dilatory as that looks after such affairs and the relations between the department and the European Union Select Committee of your Lordships’ House? I commend the report to the House.

Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the European Union Committee on FRONTEX: the EU external borders agency (9th Report, HL Paper 60).—(Lord Jopling.)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, for his leadership on this report, which is important for Europe. We all found the inquiry instructive and enjoyed putting the report together. I concur with his remarks about the way in which the Home Office has responded to a number of the questions asked by the sub-committee.

What really struck me about this report was the trip, which the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, mentioned, to see Frontex in action in a bureaucratic sense. Having struggled through the usual Schengen barriers to keep United Kingdom citizens out of the rest of Europe, we arrived in Poland. Although I have travelled much in eastern Europe, mainly before the Iron Curtain came down, it was a great privilege, particularly in relation to the Lisbon treaty, which we have talked about today, to be in a state that had so recently entered the European Union and then to go down to a border with Ukraine. I remind the House that that border was previously the Soviet Union border, to the east of the European Union. It was fantastic to see no military installations or hardware of any kind on either side of that border. As a European citizen, I could have walked across the border without a visa to Kiev and beyond. What a fantastic achievement that has been over the past 10 or 20 years since the fall of the Soviet empire.

Frontex has a big task. There are 34,000 kilometres of southern maritime border and 8,000 kilometres of eastern land border. That is quite a task in terms of controlling people coming in. Since our visit, I think that 10 member states have now become part of the Schengen process. There has been confidence among the existing Schengen states to push that border outwards so that now we have a much broader Schengen area of freedom of movement in Europe. With that freedom of movement comes a need to ensure that borders are secure. We were shown that Frontex is a small organisation at the moment. The expectations of it on the part of the European parliamentarians whom we met, many of its staff and the Commission need to be held back, as almost too much might be expected of it in trying to solve all the difficulties concerned with securing borders against crime, trafficking, illegal immigration and all the other matters that are so important to our territorial integrity.

The other irony that came out in our inquiry related to the fact that Britain, although it wanted to be a complete part of this organisation, effectively became excluded because of our decision not to be part of the Schengen acquis. Although we are an important operator—I congratulate the Government on the extent of the participation that we manage—we are unable to become a full partner of Frontex, which is an important organisation for the future. The United Kingdom, in this important policy area of freedom of movement, is half in and half out of Europe.

When Liam Byrne, the Minister, came to the committee, I asked him whether Britain would move towards Schengen. I expected him to say, “No chance”, so I was delighted when he said, “Possibly, but not yet”. I congratulate the Government on that response, because this is an area where one has always felt that the door has been completely closed. One has felt that the Government did not want to risk the Daily Mail and Daily Express headlines saying that opening our borders at some point in the future would be a step too far. We at least had a positive response, which might give some hope that we can participate more fully in Europe in the future.

A practical issue came up concerning the southern maritime border operations. As the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, said, these are important and have worked well, it seems, as joint operations. There are a number of issues to do with sea rescue operations and refugees—how and where refugees are landed and sent back and, in terms of their human rights, consistency in the way in which they are processed. On many occasions, Frontex resources have been completely taken up—quite rightly—by the international law requirement to rescue refugees in peril of losing their lives. That needs to happen. The issue of the migration routes in the southern Mediterranean needs a lot more consideration, to bring all the different strands of rescue, refugees, asylum seeking and border work together. Frontex is adequately starting to approach that, but I think that the issues need to be sorted out at member-state level.

Lastly, I am always intrigued, when we talk about these subjects, about the status of Gibraltar. Gibraltar felt strongly about a number of issues to do with Frontex. It was clearly excluded. The Frontex agreements fudged the issue altogether. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what discussions there have been with the Gibraltar Government about Frontex and whether any of the issues that came up in our correspondence with Gibraltar have yet been resolved.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, for giving me this opportunity to speak on the committee’s report. At last we are talking about something real. Following the hours of debate on the Lisbon treaty and the grandstanding that we have continuously heard from party politicians on the Bill, it is refreshing to discuss the more fundamental issues facing Europe. I have been waiting a long time to say that.

On behalf of my noble friend Lord Wright, I also thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. I note what he said about my noble friend Lord Grenfell’s position. This is a most informative report and I expect that the Minister will express the gratitude and relief of the whole Government for it. It is a tribute to this House. It is also a tribute to the EU’s flexibility. I especially commend it to Eurosceptics, who do not seem to understand the extent of the network of collaboration across Europe today.

One thing that emerges from this forensic account of Frontex is that much still has to be learnt in this country about police operations and border controls in Europe, as they can concern us directly. Frontex is growing fast but is brand new. The UK, having opted out, is entitled only to very limited representation. Therefore, even our officials are still far from understanding, let alone participating in, the many aspects of its work. I agree with the committee that, as Frontex expands, the UK should extend its relationship with it as far as is possible within the legal framework.

I think that the UKBA is the only UK agency directly linked with Frontex. We have much to gain from it in detecting illegal immigration and, besides its role in tracking criminals, we could use it in a more positive sense to improve our recognition of genuine asylum seekers. As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, just said, at the same time we and European parliamentarians have to be careful not to expect too much of it. We must allow it to develop naturally; my noble friend Lord Listowel, who was on the committee, reminded me of that. I do not share the view of some witnesses that it should become yet another arm of counterterrorism and I am relieved that the committee has come to the same conclusion. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. The committee also discourages Frontex from dealing with issues such as forced returns, or refoulement, and has asked for safeguards in any agreement with third countries to which asylum seekers are repatriated.

My interest in refugees goes back to 1956, when my sister was an Oxford student helping Hungarians. I have taken part in many discussions in the House and again feel frustrated that in the European debates we have not discussed asylum and international development at all. However, now is not the time for that. I am a member of the Independent Asylum Commission, which is recommending improvements in our present reception and treatment of asylum seekers.

I am pleased that the committee recommends more co-operation with UNHCR, as High Commissioner António Guterres himself said this week in London when he warned of the slowing down of any common asylum policy as a result of the loss of the Lisbon treaty. We in the UK may have opted for handling our own borders, but we benefit greatly from the activities of UNHCR and the other refugee agencies both here and in Europe. The Refugee Council and its European partner, the ECRE—the European Council on Refugees and Exiles—submitted evidence to the committee and have already generally welcomed the committee’s recommendations on behalf of asylum seekers. However, they are concerned about the present level of training of border guards acting under Frontex. How do those guards now respond to refugees fleeing persecution on the external frontier? Do they have the necessary legal knowledge and back-up to cope with them? In other words, will the RABITs—the rapid border intervention teams—in turn require expert teams that they can call on at short notice? I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that; the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, also raised the subject.

As we have heard, tighter border controls and the vastly expanded frontier of Europe mean that there is still no efficient means of distinguishing the genuine asylum seeker from the large numbers of illegal immigrants, including the migrants escaping poverty in Africa. The Iraq conflict is one example. It has caused the exodus of something like 2.4 million refugees since 2003, thousands of whom pass through Syria and Jordan heading for Europe. According to the ECRE, Frontex is specifically targeting Iraqis, including those fleeing persecution in Iraq for whom there are still no legal routes into European countries.

The committee’s report recommends that there should be better and more detailed information on people crossing EU borders and the reasons behind their journey. However, the UK’s immediate recognition rates for Iraqis have been as low as 13 per cent in 2006 and 11 per cent in 2005, compared with higher rates in Germany and other countries. Meanwhile, forced returns of Iraqis have continued in five European countries, including our own. The UK potentially has, as a result of pressure from the voluntary organisations, a much better record on resettlement. Can the Minister confirm that, with the new UNHCR quota, the UK has done or intends to do more than other countries to welcome genuine refugees from Iraq?

I was impressed by the range of work carried out on the external frontiers described in the report. Few British citizens can be aware of major maritime operations such as Hera around the Canaries, Hermes and Minerva, in all of which the UK participated during 2007, though far from home. Having sailed through those seas many times, the Minister is the only one of us who can appreciate the scale of the operations, which 150 years ago might have been our responsibility alone; we can be thankful that they are not now. Malta’s rescue services deserve special mention, covering a vast area of the Mediterranean while coping with an annual migrant population equivalent to half the island’s birth rate. I agree with the committee that the effectiveness of the Dublin II regulations on third-country nationals, which places a disproportionate burden on states such as Malta, should be reviewed by the EU at an early opportunity. I expect that the Minister will also say something about our special legal position and accountability.

Considering that we are not part of Schengen, we are not doing that badly through Frontex. The committee and its expert adviser in particular need to be congratulated on producing such an excellent report.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that it is a relief to look at the real work of the European Union. I also agree with him in commending the knowledge of the work of Frontex to Eurosceptics who are probably not aware of how much is being done. I provide a sort of personification of links between the European and Westminster Parliaments. I welcome the positive efforts that the European Committee of your Lordships’ House makes to link up with and acquire evidence from MEPs—it is much better than the other place.

It is not inconsistent to want the European Union to be open to the world but to have robust border controls. We are not a fortress Europe: at least 2 million immigrants a year come into the EU, but we have to have well managed borders. As I had a chance to say in debates at some stage on the Lisbon Bill, the Committee says that improved co-ordination of border management of Schengen states will be of direct benefit to the UK even if we are not in it.

I also very much agree with the Committee’s report that this concentration on practical co-operation of national border guards is the way to go, certainly for the foreseeable future, rather than the idea of a European border guard that was discussed a few years ago. We are not ready for that and I do not know whether we ever will be, but Frontex is a pragmatic and sensible approach. I agree with my noble friend Lord Teverson that it is possible but not yet, as the UK Government’s position on Schengen is progress conditional on there being soundly managed external borders. It is not an absolute rejection.

The European Court of Justice said that we could not legally go into Frontex. There is a view, certainly in the European Parliament, that we cannot just cherry pick what we want out of Schengen because that is not terribly helpful. However, I believe—I am sure that other MEPs do as well—that the case-by-case participation of the UK in Frontex operations is valuable, as it is in RABITS, the Rapid Border Intervention Teams. I recently met Lyn Homer, the director of the UK Border Agency, and learnt that we have set up a video link for Polish border guards for interpretation, because they have not been used to coping with the current volume of migrants. They do not have the language facilities, which we are providing through a video link. As well as all the training, risk analysis and help with forgery detection and mobile freight searching that we are helping with, that is an interesting practical measure.

In fact, members of Sub-Committee F were at the Joint Borders Operation Centre at Heathrow last week on Wednesday. MEPs were there on Thursday. The Minister, Meg Hillier MP, is keen to come to Brussels to talk to the European Parliament in some forum, and I suggested to Lyn Homer that it might be a good idea if she came as well. The idea of having maximum interchange with the Schengen arrangements is a good way forward.

I also picked up the fact that the UK is active on returns. The European Parliament was not keen on joint return operations until we had common EU rules on returns. I am glad to say that today, despite my absence from Strasbourg, the European Parliament approved a return directive, after three years of negotiations between the Council and the Parliament. It was very controversial, and there was a lot of lobbying. I support it; its rules are not perfect, but they will raise standards in many member states. Sadly, the UK is not taking part. One has to wonder whether that is because it feels it would be constrained by some of the rules in the return directive, such as the limits on detention.

The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, made a point about the state of UK border controls. The Government refute the report’s charge of inadequate and unacceptable safeguarding of UK borders. I cannot add to what he said. The state of the fencing at Calais seems rather curious. I look forward to the Minister’s answer to the question about when it was decided to reinforce those fences.

When we went to the Joint Border Operations Centre and learnt about Project Semaphore and the e-borders system, I remained puzzled by the fact that the air passenger data are not used to pick up serious crime and terrorism. There is no profiling for terrorism in the data. In a parliamentary Answer by the Minister, Liam Byrne, to a Conservative MP, Nigel Evans, on 16 May, there was a breakdown of 1,700 arrests that had taken place in the past three years, roughly. Of those 1,700 arrests, by my calculation, 920—well over half—were for things such as non-payment of fines, bail offences, failure to attend a court, breach of court orders and road traffic offences. I wonder why we are not using the data for the most serious offences, which is often how these data collection systems are justified.

The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, drew attention to the fact that the report said that the poorer border control is in the UK, the more it undermines the Government’s arguments against Schengen. If we are not doing a good job defending our borders, it suggests that we could do it better if we worked more in common. However, I welcome the openness of the Government to seeing how they can co-operate with, and one day move towards, Schengen.

The operations that Frontex is doing to combat illegal immigration with its reactive approach are only one part of a common EU asylum and migration system. We have to put all the other parts in place, not just a common asylum system. The European Commission made new proposals yesterday. I have not had a chance to read them, but I hope they include ideas about how to improve the working of the Dublin II regulations, to which the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, referred. I hope that at least the ideas in the treaty of Lisbon will not be lost in the area of justice and home affairs. In today’s Financial Times, the commentator Quentin Peel writes,

“if the treaty is lost, hopes of getting swifter and more coherent EU decisions in vital areas such as asylum policy … will vanish”.

He is commenting on the figures from the UNHCR about the number of refugees in the world. He writes that:

“Mr Guterres would not be impressed”.

It does not help the UNHCR if the EU is not coherent on asylum and immigration.

Turning to resources, I shall supplement what the Committee’s report says about the European Parliament and the budget of Frontex. It was probably too late to be captured in the report, but in the Second Reading of the 2008 Budget, the European Parliament released all the money for Frontex. The reason that we had frozen it in the reserve was that we requested its director to present to the Justice and Home Affairs Committee the work programme for the agency for 2008. That chimes with what is said in the report about greater accountability—indeed, formal accountability—to the European Parliament. The director did come in November 2007 and therefore in the Second Reading of the Budget the Parliament agreed to release the reserve on the operational budget and to increase the administrative budget by more than €3 million, compared with the Commission’s preliminary draft budget.

The other part of resources is the vessels and equipment which are promised to Frontex. As in other areas of EU work, member states are not carrying out their promises to make boats and equipment available to Frontex. If they do not make them available, that reinforces or makes a case, as the Commission suggested in its recent evaluation of Frontex, that the agency should acquire its own equipment so that it is available at short notice. I am not sure that that is a good idea but if member states persist in not delivering on their promises, the argument for Frontex to have its own facilities will be stronger.

On the mandate of Frontex, there must be strong co-operation with Europol but I agree with the Committee that it would not be appropriate to extend the mandate of Frontex to cover crime and terrorism. That is Europol’s job. I am also unhappy about the confusion that that might suggest between irregular migration and criminality. Not every unauthorised entrant is a criminal; they are separate issues.

My last real point is the need for much clearer and stronger rules to ensure humane and dignified treatment of migrants and access to the asylum determination procedure. There was a submission by the European Council on Refugees which highlighted the lack of clarity about mechanisms to deal with wider humanitarian needs, including medical requirements of persons rescued or intercepted during Frontex operations, ensuring adequate reception facilities, and so on. There is also a need to clarify the legal situation when people are refused landing. There do not seem to be specific measures to safeguard the rights of people potentially in need of protection, which would undermine the right to seek asylum. We need much clearer rules, therefore. The Schengen borders code does not cover interception and disembarkation. We need clear rules on disembarkation for all Frontex maritime operations, not ad hoc ones from one operation to another. We need training on the law of the sea—a working party is looking at that. We need training on European and international asylum rules and on human rights and fundamental rights so that these norms are fully respected and we have a consistent approach in search and rescue operations.

I mentioned the Dublin II regulations. They may not work well in this context—for instance when Malta receives so many people.

I heard the strong comments of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, about the lack of responsiveness by the Minister, Mr Byrne. Although I am not a member of Sub-Committee F, Mr Byrne does appear to have worked to a rather lax timetable. The two-month response time has not been respected; that is unfortunate, particularly given the excellent work that is done by the EU Committee as a whole and Sub-Committee F in particular. I congratulate the sub-committee under the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, on this excellent report.

My Lords, I happily follow those comments by agreeing that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, is to be congratulated. It is clear from the report and the evidence that was taken that the committee has gone to a great deal of trouble and into a great deal of detail. The report is brief but not so brief that it does not make all the points that it is clearly necessary to make. It is extremely well written and very readable, so all in all the committee has done more than its job. I do not know whether something else with the word “Europe” on it has exhausted the whole House, but only one member of the committee other than the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, is in his place and has commented on the report tonight—the noble Lord, Lord Teverson.

The report strikes me as a timely look at the work of Frontex. It contains a number of important insights not only into what Frontex is but into what it has been involved in since its inception three years ago. We have had many debates in this House recently—I am sure there will be many more—on the importance of security. There can be little more that is important to the security of nations than their ability to ensure the safety and integrity of their borders. The extension of the Schengen acquis to all the 27 nations of Europe, as the report points out, means that the external land borders of Europe cover nearly 5,000 miles. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, also pointed this out. I like kilometres, but I still work in miles. Much of the territory is difficult to police, as we have heard, and is vulnerable to organised illegal migration and criminal activity. As the noble Lord has said, there is also now a staggering 50,000 miles of maritime border, much of it very difficult to patrol even by our wonderful Navy. The pressure on borders and border guards will play on the measures needed to ensure that immigration into Europe is controlled.

From Britain’s point of view, it is obvious that the final desired destination of many of those crossing borders informally is this country, and that the freedom of movement between and within the countries of Europe under Schengen is of great assistance in that objective. The security of our own borders is the reason why we did not join Schengen at the outset. Despite the suggestion that Mr Byrne is more positive about this, I did not read into what he said that we are likely to contemplate becoming part of the Schengen acquis or ceasing to have our own border controls in the foreseeable future. It is therefore of some concern that the report is still critical of our border controls.

I realise that it is now some six months since the report was made, but the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, has maintained his view that some areas are still vulnerable. One of those is the inability of our border agency to record entries into and departures from the UK. The Minister may well be able to answer this, but it still looks as though we do not know how many migrants are coming in and out of the country. Mr Liam Byrne is quoted as saying that you had better make sure that the person you are counting in is the same as the one you are counting out. The suggestion is that the names of people coming in are not recorded so that you cannot attach the same name to the person who is leaving. These remarks were made as late as December 2007, which was barely six months ago. I do not know whether the situation has changed in that time, but perhaps the Minister will comment.

It seems that the problem which is defined is unlikely to be resolved until the full implementation of the EU borders programme. As the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, points out, the timescale for final implementation remains 2014. That is still six years away. Does the Minister anticipate that this programme could be accelerated? I think he recently suggested that most of it would be implemented by 2010. Could he tell us if that is the programme?

The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, has referred to the problems at Calais as another area where we are not safeguarding our borders. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us what the position is in Calais. This, after all, was the answer to the closure of the holding centre there. It was going to be how we ensured that we did not have immigrants climbing fences, walking through the tunnel and hanging on underneath lorries. If there are still shortcomings, who is responsible and who is going to put it right?

The fact that the UK is not a participant in the Schengen acquis has so far enabled us to maintain our own border security systems. As we know from many debates in this House, these are not yet sufficiently robust to ensure that illegal migration slows to a trickle, at most, or that there is complete integration of all the agencies involved in the identification of those who are here illegally, as well as those who are trying to enter illegally. It is our contention that this will not truly become possible until the UK Borders Agency is strengthened by the inclusion of the police. It will certainly be our intention, on return to government, to ensure that there is a complete security system.

It is worth repeating that the UK’s absence as a signatory to the Schengen acquis has resulted in us not being a full member of Frontex. It is also clear that our participation as an observer on the management board and in many of the joint operations organised by Frontex ensures that we appear to be playing a significant part in enabling it to function. What assessment can be made of whether the many operations that have been referred to—although they are, I gather, reasonably small-scale—have had an effect on slowing or preventing uncontrolled migration across the external borders of Europe? I know we have played a major role in a number of these operations. Is the work of Frontex having a beneficial effect on the pressure on UK borders? If Schengen is not working and the control of external borders at the edge of Europe is now not working, there is no chance that we will ever be able to join Schengen and give up our own controls. Without strong evidence that Frontex is able to ensure the measures that will secure our borders as well as those of Europe it seems inconceivable that the UK will be able to forgo its own border control.

One of the conclusions of the committee which produced the report is that there is a danger of too much being expected of Frontex. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, also referred to this. In the short term, the increase in its staff, resources and objectives should be consolidated before it advances further. The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, has now said that the money which has been held back has been released. I am not sure whether that is good news or bad news. The release of the money will presumably enable Frontex to do more. It might be helpful if the Minister told us what the Government’s view is on the expansion of Frontex. At the moment, I understand that it is quite a small organisation. There were 80 people when it started; it has now grown to 146, and is expected to double in the next few years. To look after 50,000 miles of sea borders and 4,000 miles of external borders with 149 people is perhaps going it a bit, although I know that that is not exactly what it is meant to do. It will be interesting to know whether the noble Lord feels that it is going at about the right pace or whether more is being done.

As the report makes clear, Frontex is not designed to be a “doer”. It would therefore be understandable if the resources are perhaps not there to enable it to increase in human terms by too many. Inevitably, once an organisation like this is set up it begins to accrease to itself more responsibilities. As I understand it, it is intended to co-ordinate, risk assess, give guidance on training, undertake research on controls and surveillance of external borders, and generally provide support to the nations of Europe in developing and maintaining security measures. We have heard from the noble Lords, Lord Jopling and Lord Teverson, of the difficulties of that and of the borders, particularly those between the former Soviet Union and Europe, and the territory involved in that and the pressure there will be on that from people trying to get across.

It is to be hoped that this report is read widely in the Schengen states. It would be an awful pity if it were not. It provides an eye on a new organisation. Perhaps it provides a slightly independent eye in that we are at the moment one step back from it. But we are enormously interested in the work of Frontex, in how it reacts with the Schengen states, and in how, through it and its work, there are greater controls on the borders. The report is extremely well written and thoroughly readable. As I said, I hope it will be highly influential.

My Lords, first, I must join the House in thanking the European Union Committee, Sub-Committee F and the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, for this report and the opportunity it gives us for a debate. Certainly, as I have found in the past, I have learnt a lot from having to read the report and from going into some of these issues. I am very aware that noble Lords have only recently received this response. Although I have been told that there is a complex nature of subjects and constant developments et cetera, that is not good enough and I apologise for that. I do not think that that is satisfactory. I will very clearly take that message back. I assure noble Lords that I will put every effort I can into making sure that this sort of thing does not happen again. It is slack and is not good. I am considering reintroducing keelhauling in the Home Office to sharpen some of that out.

Having said that, I assure noble Lords that the Home Office is definitely fit for purpose and not unfit for purpose. I heard that when I went there and I have been very impressed by the quality of some of the people. Whether that is because their number has been halved or whatever, I do not know; but it is fit for purpose and there are some very good people doing some extremely good work.

The Government welcome this report, which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, mentioned, is extremely well written. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, was correct when he made it very clear that we are talking about the real issues of Europe; that is, the things that Europe is giving us, the important things, rather than a bit of posturing on various bits and pieces. It comes at a time of intense discussion across Europe about the future development of this agency, so it is very timely and a very useful contribution to that debate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, also mentioned the scale of growth. The group started with an executive director, 35 staff and a budget of €6.2 million. Today, it has a 200-strong workforce, commands a budget of €70.43 million, and plans to mount 24 operations in 2008, including permanent European patrols and a network operation in the Mediterranean. So far this year, it has carried out eight of these operations and the UK has taken part in seven of them. It was good to see credit given for that in the report and we are sending an expert to contribute to the document workshop of the eighth. We are fully involved in all of those things. I will touch on what I think about its growth and the impact of that later.

We have been fully supportive of Frontex since 2005, in spite of our exclusion from full participation in the agency’s work—for reasons we know and which noble Lords have talked about. This includes making financial contributions to all the operations that we are involved in. We are maintaining a strong voice and I thank the committee for recognising that in the report. We have backed the agency through the secondment of UK national experts in risk analysis and operations. We have a seat and a voice on the Frontex management board, which gets a very good hearing, bearing in mind that we are not part of the Schengen accord. It is good to see and it is, of course, because we have expertise in this area, so they wish to listen to us.

To date, all the UK applications to participate have been approved unanimously, which is a good sign. We have focused our support in three key areas: risk assessment, frontline operational activity and training. We play a major role in Frontex training. Our officials have assisted in the development and delivery of training packages and the operational staff operate to a consistently high standard at, and between, every crossing point on the European border.

We have also supported newer member states, providing training in dealing with false and forged documentation. Last year, during the second phase of Frontex Operation Poseidon alone, 225 forged or falsified documents were detected. We have shared our technological expertise, which is quite considerable, with member states during operations to detect migrants hidden inside freight and rail vehicles. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, referred to these marvellous things which can spot people sitting in carriages and pick up movement. There are some very clever bits of kit and we have been very generous in lending it to people to allow them to carry out their role.

Many speakers raised the issue of our border. As the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, pointed out, it is an unbelievable sight—5,000 miles on the eastern border which he mentioned as a gaping hole. I take some issue with that, because our border is one of the toughest in the world and we are determined to strengthen it further. That does not mean it is perfect, because there are things that we have to get right. We ceased the checking-in and checking-out in 1994. That was probably an error, but it is easy to say that sort of thing in hindsight. So we are now recouping, catching up and getting back to speed.

We have been running Project Semaphore, as was mentioned. It has been very successful and we are moving towards e-Borders. I think we are doing quite well on that. We would like to speed it up if we could but it is quite difficult and highly complex. We now have foreign national ID cards coming in December 2008, which is not very far away. We will count the majority of foreign nationals travelling into and out of the United Kingdom. By April 2009, less than a year away, we will handle data on 100 million international passenger and crew movements. By December 2009 we will get all the travel document information on 95 per cent of foreign nationals travelling into and out of the UK.

One would like it faster and indeed, one would wish that we had never stopped doing it, but we are where we are and we are moving as quickly as we can, although we would like to do it quicker. We have also established a new UK Border Agency, the creation of which gives a lot of extra opportunities for enhanced co-operation with our EU partners and Frontex, on a case-by-case basis. That is happening.

A number of noble Lords mentioned Malta. I have operated a lot in the Mediterranean and noble Lords are right to say that the problems they have are amazing. I visited Malta when I was First Sea Lord and as Commander-in-Chief. That great flow of people across the Mediterranean is quite horrifying. The poor people working on the problem in the ships there have this real worry of whether they should let them go on, even though they have a bit of difficulty, because then they will go to Italy where it will be their problem, or whether they should deal with it themselves. There are some big issues there that we need to handle. There is a risk of a loss of life and there are real problems for a nation that size. We are engaged in talks with them, but in terms of them needing more money, these things can sometimes be difficult. However, we must be engaged with these very small countries because this is a real problem and they are often on the front line of where some of these difficulties occur.

In an advisory role, the UK Border Agency has introduced new techniques to debrief illegal immigrants encountered in Frontex operations. This has helped border guards across Europe to establish who these people are, which countries they have come from and the routes that they have used to travel to Europe. That is very useful and is part of the package which means that Frontex is achieving a lot to help us with our borders. It helps border guards identify the organised criminal gangs, a lot of whom prey on these migrants, very often putting their lives in jeopardy. We have all seen that in various media reports. They also make huge sums of money, so it is important that we pin them down.

As a Government we have encouraged Frontex to adopt a risk-based approach to its front-line activities, so much so that the head of Frontex’s risk analysis unit was a seconded national expert from the UK. That was quite an achievement for us. This approach has made a real difference in the operational front line by targeting the exploitation of migrants—for example, from west Africa through the Canary Islands. I think that all of us can remember those dreadful pictures of people in boats heading out to the Canaries, with a huge loss of life and a large number swarming into the European Union. The operation succeeded in reducing the number of migrants reaching Spain by as much as 80 per cent, so it was a huge success—and, of course, those people would very often move on through Europe and come to us. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, asked whether Frontex has aided us; the answer is that it has—it has been of real value.

The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, mentioned the European border guard being a step too far. I agree absolutely and would confirm that. We must not run before we can walk; we really must not move too quickly in that regard. I reinforce what was said in the response to that. As for physical burden-sharing, I again agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, that it is not right for us to do that at the moment. Again, that would be moving too quickly, and there would be real problems there.

I would love to know whether the changes that have been made at Calais—and changes have been made—were because of the committee’s visit or because of mine. When I went there I was quite horrified as I saw all the illegals busily having their free evening meal over the other side of the canal before trying to climb over an insubstantial fence in the dark. I said that I thought that dogs were jolly good for that sort of thing, although one has to be a bit careful with them because they may go and eat innocent people. But I said that dogs would be a good idea and that maybe things needed reinforcing. Probably, however, the committee’s visit had more impact than mine, I fear to say. Things have now started being done and we are getting some good results. In northern France, 18,000 people were stopped from entering the UK illegally in the past year, which is quite impressive. So we are getting somewhere. Visits such as the committee’s are useful because they put pressure on—and now we are seeing things like the new double layer of fencing and the dog patrols. All those things are important and, although they will never completely stop people who are desperate to get into the country, they are beginning to have a real impact.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, mentioned that we are not part of Schengen and that my right honourable friend Liam Byrne said that we might join it. I am not sure exactly what his words were; the noble Lord read them out but I cannot remember them. All that I can say is that one never knows what might change one day; certainly there is no intention yet to do that. We do get benefits from not being part of it. There is a real danger, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, said, that we could be accused of cherry-picking, and we have to be careful, but the benefits that we get from being able to protect carefully our own border outweigh the disadvantages for this country, because we can look after our border that much more closely.

I can confirm that we have discussed the position of Gibraltar with people there and I think that we have written to the committee on that. I may be wrong, but my note tells me that that is the case. If not, a letter is obviously on its way. That will resolve some of the issues there, but we are actually talking with them.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, referred to this being not only an issue of counter-terrorism. That is absolutely the case; it is certainly not just being focused in that way. He is absolutely right, too, about the linkages with the other groups, such as UNHCR and all the other things in the quota. We need to do a lot more there.

As for the RABIT initiative, I did not know that rabbits were anything other than furry animals until I went through this report, so, again, that is something that I have learnt. It will consist of a team of border guards with particular skills, who can be deployed on request by member states to their territory. But currently there is no intention that they will process asylum claims, to answer the specific question on that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, mentioned the issue of people talking to the European Union. I would support that and will encourage Ministers who are directly responsible for this area to do that. I was glad to hear that my honourable friend Meg Hillier spoke in Brussels. She is quite good about going there and has done so a number of times. I have certainly done it in my area of counter-terrorism and security. It is important that we do this. I was interested and delighted to hear what had been going on in Brussels today on the return directive, which was fascinating. I shall be interested to see exactly where it goes.

I have touched on the issue of lending equipment and things. We have done well on that and have offered a whole raft of things that have been used regularly. I hope that I can reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Lords, Lord Jopling and Lord Teverson, that we are doing our best to get things done.

Looking ahead, Frontex faces some real challenges. It started out by looking at co-ordinating efforts at external European borders, but it has become clear that it can really become effective only if it sharpens its focus on the source and transit countries of migrants. It has to do more to harness the co-operation and work of these third states to improve their border management and encourage them to accept return of citizens.

Equally, Frontex must continue to work with other European law enforcement agencies—a number of speakers touched on that—but must not duplicate their efforts. For example, where evidence of criminality is encountered—the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned this—it should be passed directly to the border police and to Europol for further investigation and action. The signing of the agency’s recent working agreements with Europol is a welcome indication of how this is going, and similarly, the work with the United Nations.

Frontex is a great success story, which increases the expectations placed on it. We have to continue to respond to high expectations across Europe and to sustain and strengthen our partnership working with Frontex member states and with the source transit countries. The UK can meet those expectations. However, the agency must not be encouraged to run before it can walk. Year on year the Frontex staff and budget have doubled, and it is time for the agency to evaluate the lessons learnt. It must consolidate that learning to deliver real benefits and border management across Europe in the next few years. I agree entirely with the committee’s recommendations on that. I am certain that that is what must be done.

I thank the EU Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and the team, for their insightful report, which has allowed a valuable debate, and I have certainly learnt a lot.

My Lords, I shall be very brief indeed. Members of the Committee and the staff who so ably support us will be delighted that the report on Frontex has had such a warm and broad welcome in your Lordships’ House. I am grateful to those who have contributed to the debate, which has been full and helpful.

With regard to the Minister’s wind-up speech, we shall have to share the credit for improving the fence at Calais. We have both done a pretty good job with that. I was particularly grateful for his ready apology for the late arrival of the Government’s response. I shall say no more about that, but I thank the Minister. I am glad that the Chief Whip stayed to hear so much of the debate. I know that she has taken on board a good many of the criticisms that I made, and I am most obliged to her for that.

On Question, Motion agreed to.