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Small Boats Incident in the Channel

Volume 816: debated on Thursday 25 November 2021


My Lords, give me one second. I shall now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about the tragic drownings that took place in the channel yesterday. At least 27 people lost their lives. I know the whole House will join me in expressing our profound sorrow. Our thoughts are with the loved ones of all those who have died, and with those who responded to that extremely distressing event.

Information is still being gathered as the situation in France becomes clearer. The Prime Minister chaired an emergency Cobra meeting last night and then spoke to the President of France. I am glad that President Macron indicated his determination to stop the vile people-smuggling gangs and to work closely with all partners across Europe.

I have just spoken again to my French counterpart, Minister Darmanin. I once again reached out to him to offer joint France-UK patrols on French beaches to prevent these dangerous journeys taking place. I have offered to work with France to put more boots on the ground and do whatever is necessary to secure the area so that vulnerable people do not risk their lives by getting into unseaworthy boats.

There is a global illegal migration crisis. I have stated many times that these journeys are unnecessary but, as I have been warning for two years, they are also lethally dangerous. What happened yesterday was a dreadful shock; it was not a surprise. There is no quick fix. This is about addressing long-term pull factors, smashing the criminal gangs that treat human beings as cargo and tackling supply chains. It requires a co-ordinated international effort. I have been in regular contact with my international counterparts, including in France, Poland, Austria, Belgium, Italy and Greece.

There is a global migration crisis, with 80 million displaced people in the world. This was a major theme of the G7 meeting of Interior Ministers I hosted earlier this year. We are also seeing it play out on several land borders in Europe and in the Mediterranean Sea. Given the chance, the traffickers will always find people to manipulate—some of them do not even know they are coming to the UK. It means tackling issues upstream, not waiting until people have reached EU countries. I have always been extremely clear that I want to co-operate with international colleagues.

The UK has given unflinching and generous support to France to end this terrible trade. We are not working to end these crossings because we are heartless. The United Kingdom has a generous, humane approach to asylum seekers and refugees. Yes, people should come here legally and the system must be fair, but the main issue is this: crossing the channel in a small boat is extremely dangerous. Yesterday was the moment many of us had feared. The criminals that facilitate these journeys are motivated by profit, not compassion. They threaten, bully and assault the people who get in these boats, and have absolutely no regard for human life. They use the money they make for other heinous crimes. We simply have to break their business model and bring them to justice.

The Government’s new plan for immigration, which will be put into law through the Nationality and Borders Bill, is a long-term solution to deterring illegal migration and addressing underlying pull factors in the UK’s asylum system. It will bring in a range of new measures, including: a one-stop appeals process; the ability to process claims outside the country; the ability to declare inadmissible to our asylum system those who arrive in the UK having passed through safe countries; and life sentences for people smugglers. People should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. No one needs to flee France in order to be safe.

However, we are not waiting until the Nationality and Borders Bill passes. We are undertaking a wide range of operational and diplomatic work. I have approved maritime tactics, including boat turnarounds, for Border Force to deploy. The Government, the police and the National Crime Agency are taking action at every level to take down the people-smuggling gangs. Once again, however, we cannot do it alone. We continue to work closely with the French to prevent these crossings. More than 20,000 have been stopped so far this year. We have dismantled 17 organised criminal groups and secured over 400 arrests and 65 convictions, but this crisis continues and we need to do more—together. This is very complicated and there is no simple fix. It means a Herculean effort and will be impossible without close co-operation between all international partners. I also urge colleagues to reconsider their opposition to the Nationality and Borders Bill. It is an essential element in finding a long-term solution to a problem that successive Home Secretaries have faced.

As we mourn those who have died in the most horrendous circumstances, I hope that the whole House can come together and send a message that crossing the channel in a small boat is not the way to come to our country. It is unnecessary, illegal and, above all, desperately unsafe. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, since the Statement was made in the Commons only a relatively short time ago, what I intend to say will be very similar to what was said by the shadow Home Secretary in response to it there.

It is not entirely the same, but very close.

On a serious note, yesterday’s tragedy was the most tragic of reminders of the dangers of the English Channel, and that people’s lives are at risk every day in these small boats. It is a sobering moment for us as a nation, for France and for the international community. As I understand it, at least 27 people have died. We think of those lost, their loved ones left behind, and the two who were rescued, who are receiving medical treatment and fighting for their lives. I pay tribute to all those involved in the joint French-British search operation in the air and on the sea, putting themselves in danger to help others.

I believe that there have been arrests in France of those suspected of the vile crime of people smuggling. I appreciate the difficulties and sensitivities when there is an ongoing legal case, particularly in another jurisdiction, but I hope that the Government can assure the House that we will give all the co-operation required by the prosecuting authorities in France if we are able to help in that regard.

On the arrangements that we have in place with the French authorities, and the £54 million, referred to in the previous debate, can the Government set out for how many days a week the full existing surveillance capacity is operating? What will they be doing—as a matter of urgency, I hope—to increase that surveillance, particularly in light of what has happened? What will the Government be doing to deepen intelligence and law enforcement co-operation with the French authorities in other countries, so that the focus is on not only coastal patrols, as it appears to be currently, but disrupting the routes often facilitated across hundreds or thousands of miles by the gangs, who have a reckless disregard for human life?

May I press the Government on properly managed, safe and legal routes, and specifically the position on the Dubs scheme? It was closed down, having helped only some 480 unaccompanied children rather than the 3,000 many expected it to help. Will that scheme be urgently reinstated?

In the Statement, the Government spoke of a worldwide migration crisis, and that is the reality. In view of that, can the Government revisit their decision to cut the international aid budget and lead on the international stage with other countries to help those fleeing persecution? Yesterday’s terrible tragedy must be a moment for change. The time for urgent action to save lives is now.

I noticed that the Home Secretary said in the Statement that she has approved maritime tactics, including boat turnarounds, for border staff to deploy. Can the Minister tell us a little more about these maritime tactics that have been approved? What changes will take place as a result?

As I say, there is a reference to boat turnarounds. I presume that means turning around boats in the channel and sending them back to France, but perhaps the Minister could indicate precisely what that means and whether there are other maritime tactics, as the Statement implies, apart from those boat turnarounds.

I also picked up in the Statement that the Minister repeated the Government’s position, which they have stated on numerous other occasions, that people should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, and that nobody needs to flee France to be safe. Presumably, if our Government’s stance is that you should claim asylum in the first safe country you reach, they would have to accept that for most people who have come through France and then across the channel on small boats, unless there is evidence to the contrary, France was not the first safe country that they reached. Presumably, most went through other safe countries before they got to France. Do the Government accept that, on the basis of their own statement that you should claim asylum in the first safe country you reach, France’s situation is, in that sense, no different from ours, because France would probably not have been the first safe country that they reached? Some clarification on that issue might be helpful in the reply that I hope the Minister will give to my comments.

My Lords, I repeat that my thoughts are with all those affected by yesterday’s tragedy in the channel. I asked for the Statement to be repeated so that Members of this House who had not signed up to the debate that we just had on this subject, scheduled before this tragedy happened, had an opportunity to question the Government.

The Home Secretary talked about traffickers finding people to manipulate and said that some of them do not even know that they are coming to the UK. What evidence can the Minister share with the House that people smugglers

“threaten … bully and assault the people who get into these boats”?

What evidence is there that asylum seekers, who must know that they are in France, or at the very least in mainland Europe, who are getting into boats, do not know that they are coming to the UK?

The Home Secretary gives the impression that vulnerable people are being forced against their will into these boats. Surely people traffickers would be only too happy to save money on boats and leave those who had already paid them in mainland Europe? Is it not the truth that these desperate people, who often speak English and no other European language, and who often have relatives or other people they know in the UK, know that they cannot seek asylum in the UK unless they are in the UK?

The Home Secretary says that people traffickers

“use the money they make for other heinous crimes”.

What are the heinous crimes to which the Home Secretary is referring? She also talked about a

“wide range of operational and diplomatic work”.

How can the Home Secretary talk about boat turnarounds the day after at least 27 people lost their lives, given that it is a tactic that can only increase the risk of further tragic deaths?

On diplomatic work, Ministers have talked about processing asylum claims in places such as Albania and Ascension Island. Meanwhile, Albania angrily denies any discussion on the issue and says that it would never agree, even if there had been discussions. Are the Government just making it up, and have they not got beyond the letter A in the list of fictitious partners?

The Home Secretary talked about the Government not being able to do it alone and it being impossible without close co-operation between international partners. Has leaving the European Union made such co-operation easier or more difficult? Is it not the case that, rather than pointing the finger at the French, who take more asylum seekers per head of population than the UK, or at the people traffickers, whom Clare Moseley of Care4Calais described as a symptom of the problem and not its cause, the Government should look in the mirror? The problem is not taking climate change seriously enough. The problem is reducing the UK foreign aid budget. The problem is UK foreign policy failures. All make it more difficult for people to remain where they are. The problem with channel crossings is that this Government refuse to allow people to claim asylum unless their feet are on British soil.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Paddick, for their points. I join with them both in mourning the loss of those lives in the small boat yesterday. It is a tragedy.

In terms of the various questions they asked, I am going to slightly work backwards. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, talked about offshoring. The Home Secretary has made it quite clear that she is considering all options and that nothing is off the table.

In terms of the heinous crimes that the Home Secretary talks about, it is interesting when you look at serious and organised criminals that these people are involved in multiple types of crime, not just people trafficking but money laundering, drugs and other things of that ilk.

In terms of evidence for bullying and people not knowing that they are coming to the UK, I am sure that the Home Secretary has said that based on the intelligence and information that she has got, so I think that stands. I assume it is fact.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said that France is not the first safe country. That is precisely the point—people are not claiming asylum in the first safe country. They are then travelling to France and trying to get to the UK.

The noble Lord asked about the turnaround tactics. They are lawful, as I explained in the previous debate. They are delivered in accordance with domestic and international law and obligations. However, I will say what I said before, which is that our priority—first and foremost—is always to save lives. Every action that the Border Force takes is safe and in accordance with the law.

The noble Lord also asked about surveillance. I do not know how frequently they are operating. That is a question of detail that I do not know. Of course, there is the fact of French law being different from UK law, so there are privacy issues around the use of drones. I know that they are working on legislation to put it through parliament. We, of course, have the joint intelligence cell, which was established back in 2020, with the UK and France working together. It is a cross-European problem. This is not isolated to the United Kingdom. All countries across Europe are seeing it.

The noble Lord asked about Dubs and the 3,000—3,000 was never agreed in Parliament and therefore was never pledged. We met our obligations under Dubs, and I outlined some of the other schemes under which people have come to this country since 2015, such as the Syrian resettlement scheme, family reunion visas and the BNO scheme. We now have the global resettlement scheme, the mandate scheme, the children’s resettlement scheme and the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. There are many routes under which people have come and will still be able to come here.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about law enforcement co-operation. That has been offered. We want to work with our French counterparts and we do through the joint intelligence cell, as I have said. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary spoke to Minister Darmanin this morning and again reiterated returns offers. As I said in the Statement, the Prime Minister spoke to President Macron last night. The Home Secretary was exploring the various gaps in our mutual capabilities and how we could solve what is now a mutual problem.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that, if it is morally and legally right for the French authorities to turn back immigrants seeking to leave their shores, it would likewise be morally right for us to return immigrants who had evaded attempts to keep them in France? It is possibly right legally and certainly is if we do so safely and with the approval of the French authorities. It would be odd of them to refuse that approval, given that they took our money to help them do it, in the first place.

My noble friend is absolutely right, and of course he caveats that by saying that the methods by which people are turned back have to be safe. That is essential.

My Lords, I want to ask the Minister a specific question. A large number of unaccompanied child refugees are sleeping rough in Calais and Dunkirk tonight. Does anything she has said give them any hope of moving away from there, other than that they should get on a boat if they can find a trafficker?

My Lords, we do not want a child to get on a boat if they can find a trafficker. I assume that is why those children are there: someone, somewhere, hopes they will find a trafficker to bring them to the UK. We have mechanisms for bringing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children here. We are not bound by the European Union now; we are bound by our obligations to the whole world. I know that the House and the noble Lord still refer to the EU, but we are focusing on vulnerability from across the world.

My Lords, the Home Secretary’s Statement referred to the work of the National Crime Agency and using it to “take down” smugglers. Can the noble Baroness give the House any information about smugglers based in the UK, as distinct from those based in France or elsewhere in northern Europe, which is the impression we have of where they are based? Secondly, on the issue that people should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, can the noble Baroness confirm that “should” is government policy, rather than international law?

Smugglers have a fairly international reach and are not necessarily based in the UK. Quite often, they are based in eastern Europe or the Balkans and they ply their trade across the world. Where they are based is almost irrelevant; their business model is based on people smuggling and multiple types of crime. Claiming asylum in the first safe country is a long-established international policy.

My Lords, may I reiterate an obvious point—that if we are to reduce the flow of cross-channel migration, and thus reduce the risk of tragedies, we really have to work very closely with the French? Our interests are the same. To promote that, can we please avoid unnecessary public criticism of and recriminations with the French? Incidentally, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, about boat turnabouts. It is a ridiculous proposition.

I do not think my noble friend has heard me once today say anything negative about the French. The only thing that I have said is that it is essential that we work together. We are exploring all options on deterring people smugglers.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s repetition of the Statement. Will she please give some recognition, in terms of preventing yet even more loss of life in horrific circumstances, of the National Coastwatch Institution? We hear a lot, rightly, about coastguards and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, but we do not hear about the National Coastwatch Institution. Operating in Folkestone from Dover to Dungeness, it has been responsible for saving many, many lives. The members are volunteers: they pay for the privilege of serving. It would be good to hear them acknowledged.

I am very happy to acknowledge that institution. I acknowledge and praise everyone who saves lives at sea. It is a very important principle to us as UK citizens that the first job of anyone at sea is to save lives at sea.

I declare an interest, in that I am supporting an anti-human trafficking project that is supported by the Government. I will be travelling before Christmas into an affected area. I have been extensively in Sudan and in the Sahel. The Minister is absolutely right: she leads a committed team in the Home Office that is looking to address this issue at the source. She was also right, in response to my noble friend Lady Hamwee, about the international nature of trafficking and the distinct but connected crime of smuggling. However, they are not extraterritorial offences, and therefore the very nature of those offences means that it is incredibly difficult to bring forward prosecutions on an international scale. I believe that human trafficking should be a crime against humanity. Will the Minister examine this area for its extraterritorial dimension because, unless we have the ability to prosecute those networks across many countries, we will not tackle those heinous offences that she so eloquently outlined?

I am very grateful for the noble Lord’s intervention because he is absolutely right. I cannot go into a lot of detail about extraterritoriality, but I praise the NCA for its work both nationally and internationally, with Governments across the world to try to cut this off upstream before it gets to our shores.

My Lords, the sense of grief that has been hanging over this House for most of the afternoon is testimony to our sense of common humanity. I assure the families of those who died—whoever and wherever they are—of the prayers of this Bench, and I am sure that many other prayers have been offered around your Lordships’ House. We have heard, quite rightly, from the Minister, echoing the Home Secretary, that this requires a co-ordinated international effort. It also clearly has a European dimension. Can the Minister confirm that if, as the French President has suggested, high-level European crisis talks take place on migration, the UK will take a full part and even encourage those conversations to happen?

Indeed; I might be conflating the debates I have taken part in today, but I did earlier mention the G7, which is a really important forum to bring international partners together. It has to be an international effort, because it is an international problem.

My Lords, this is a very sad day. We have discussed it before but, as the Minister has said, the traffickers will find whatever route they can to get people to this country if it suits them financially. We heard earlier about people being smuggled in trucks but that could restart all the way up and down the coast, not just in France but in Belgium and Holland. Of course, it could happen on small boats because on the north coast of France there are an enormous number of those, probably parked up for the winter, which could be used. We have a very long coastline along the south. I live in Cornwall and pay tribute to the coast-watch people, but they are out only in the daytime and it is very difficult to police. I hope that the Government will spread their watch over a much wider area.

The noble Lord makes a really good point because, since the truck route has been severely curtailed, the small boat route has been much more obvious. Short of literally having patrols round the entire coastline, our agencies are very reliant on intelligence. That probably is, and will be, one of the most effective tools in our armoury—we were talking about it earlier in regard to France—when finding out where these people are, where they are coming from and where they are going to.