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Asylum Seekers Arriving From France

Volume 622: debated on Thursday 15 February 2001

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3.30 p.m.

What response President Chirac made at the summit meeting with the Prime Minister to the Government's reported intention to send asylum seekers arriving from France back to France.

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister had a full discussion at the summit on asylum and illegal immigration with his opposite number, Lionel Jospin. They agreed that a solution to the responsibility for considering asylum claims could best be found at EU level. The United Kingdom and France have worked closely to achieve that. Detailed discussions on those topics were also held between my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and the French Minister of the Interior, M Vaillant. They reached agreement on the introduction in June of juxtaposed controls on Eurostar services, whatever the destination of the passenger, and on further co-operative action to combat drugs and people-smuggling from the Balkans.

In reporting the outcome of the summit, President Chirac concluded that positive outcomes had been reached to further enhance UK/French co-operation on asylum and immigration issues. Current arrangements for returning asylum seekers to France and other EU countries are made under the Dublin convention agreed by the previous administration in 1990. The previous administration also agreed that the existing more effective gentleman's agreement between the UK and France should be terminated for the return of asylum seekers.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether illegal asylum seekers, when returned from this country to France, simply remain in, for instance, Calais, where they can have another go, or does France return them to their country of origin? I am not at all sure that the Minister has explained the policy of France as regards asylum seekers.

My Lords, what happens to illegal immigrants when they return to France is a matter for the French authorities. We are trying to establish and develop clear and effective communications with our French colleagues to ensure that such problems are dealt with between our two countries on a bilateral basis, and across the EU as a whole. It is only by having effective EU relations on such matters that we can tackle the problem together in the most effective and co-operative way.

My Lords, perhaps I may thank the "mighty Baroness Trumpington" for raising this matter and allowing me to comment on it. I do so seriously, as the grandson of four people who today would be regarded as asylum seekers. Perhaps I may ask my noble friend and the Government to deal with asylum seekers with fairness, and with strictness in appropriate cases, but also with compassion, decency and respect.

My Lords, I hope that I always deal with such matters with compassion, decency and integrity. Perhaps I may add that yesterday's debate on asylum seekers was a credit to your Lordships' House because it was conducted in exactly those terms. I wish that debates could be conducted in such terms more frequently.

My Lords, during yesterday's debate, the Minister boasted about the Government investing to create a modern and efficient system to handle immigration cases. A few hours later we read in the newspapers that they have just stopped the investment altogether. Did not the Minister know about that or did something else happen?

My Lords, I hope that I am not a boastful Minister in your Lordships' House. Yes, I am aware of the problem to which the noble Lord alludes. It should be put on record that the computer system in Croydon, to which I believe the noble Lord refers, has helped us to achieve a great deal. It was a major contributory factor to over 110,000 asylum decisions being made last year. The system may have shortcomings, but it has demonstrated considerable flexibility. That was how it was originally designed to be and what was intended when the contract was set, back in 1996.

My Lords, I should declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. Is my noble friend aware of the proposal to fine UK rail freight operators, rather than SNCF, for importing illegal immigrants when preventive measures are unable to be taken in France, and that that will probably cause the rail freight services through the tunnel to close? Is not that contradictory to the policy of the DETR; that is, to encourage, through the SRA, the promotion of cross-channel rail services?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for declaring his interest in the matter. It is important that we encourage the transportation of goods by rail. I cannot believe that measures which we have put in place, and which are designed to be effective in tackling the problem of illegal immigrants, will act as a disincentive to rail freight. As regards the longer-term nature of enforcement, if the noble Lord and the interests that he represents continue to have concerns, I shall be ready to facilitate any meetings necessary to deal with some of the problems.