Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) for rescuing this subject from the comparative obscurity of Westminster Hall, where I raised it early last week, and introducing it in the Chamber, where it is assured of a blaze of publicity and packed Benches?at least for his speech. I am glad that my hon. Friend has done so, and that he adopted a positive and constructive tone which has infected most of the subsequent speeches. There was however a degree of complacency in the Government‘s response, which is reflected in their amendment.

    It is generally accepted that the flow of asylum seekers to this country represents a significant part of a major problem. I do not want to repeat in the Chamber what I said in Westminster Hall, but we must reaffirm what we mean by the problem, which is not about individual asylum seekers. In so far as they are genuine asylum seekers genuinely seeking refuge from persecution elsewhere, Members on both sides of the House endorse and accept our responsibility to take them into this country and give them the security that they need. Even in so far as they are economic migrants who constitute a great proportion of those who come here allegedly seeking asylum, we should respect the fact that they are trying to do their best for their families. They often come from impoverished and troubled countries and, by definition, they have shown themselves to be entrepreneurial and ambitious even to have got here in the first place. As individuals, they could no doubt make a sizeable contribution to this country.

    The problem is one of numbers. We cannot be a country of unlimited immigration, and must therefore limit the number of those who come here; we must try simply to meet our obligation to those who are genuine refugees and perhaps, beyond that, those who are given exceptional leave to remain. We must restrict and prohibit entry for those who are not true asylum seekers.

    There is plenty of evidence available to all of us that the flow from France is a major part of the problem. There are continual newspaper stories of people being discovered in the back of lorries; people waiting in the Sangatte camp and repeatedly trying to get in; large numbers of people trying to break into the tunnel at Christmas; and gangs trying to rig the signals so that people can get on the trains before they reach the tunnel. All those stories provide qualitative evidence of a sizeable problem. The quantitative evidence, however, is less clear. The Government amendment cites the figures for 2000 and 2001, when 13,500 and 11,000 would-be asylum seekers, respectively, came here illegally from France.

    Those figures are puzzling. First, why did the Government just give us figures comparing 2001 with 2000? Our debate is about the situation between 1995 and 1997, and whether we could replicate and reproduce it if we restored the bilateral agreement that obtained then. Will the Minister give us the figures, comparable to those that the Government gave for 2000 and 2001, that applied during 1995, 1996 and 1997? The Government amendment says that there was a 20 per cent. reduction between 2000 and 2001, which is obviously welcome. It then says that

    “the number of clandestine entrants was reduced by 27 per cent. in 2001”.

    Can the Minister tell us the distinction between the number of people crossing illegally into the United Kingdom, which showed a drop of almost 20 per cent., and the number of clandestine entrants, which showed a drop of almost 27 per cent. in 2001? Is there a distinction that we need to know about? We also need to be told whether either category?illegal entrants or clandestine entrants?is the whole story? Do not a number come here legally, then claim asylum? In addition, are there not people who come illegally, but about whom we subsequently know nothing? And are there not people who claim asylum, but we do not know which route they took? Are there not also dependants of claimants, since the practice is simply to give the number of claims, not the number of people covered by those claims? In addition, are there not people who will subsequently be brought here as dependants of claimants? Once people are given the right to stay here they ask, not surprisingly, whether their dependants can join them. We need to know those figures in more detail if we are to understand the size of the problem constituted by the flow of people from France to this country.

    My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset rightly pointed to the fact that we had a bilateral agreement between 1995 and 1997. So far as I know, no one denies that it was pretty effective. It may not have been 100 per cent. effective; it did not seal this country hermetically and stop the flow of immigration from France. However, it was effective and gave us the capability to return people either within 24 hours or, if we lodged a statement that we might have difficulty doing so within that period, within seven days. In certain circumstances there was a month‘s further grace, if I understand the agreement correctly.

    If the agreement was effective then, why cannot it be renewed now? A number of reasons have been given by the Minister and the Home Secretary. The first is that France will not agree. But France agreed in 1995 or, to be precise, the agreement was drafted in 1994 and came into force in 1995. France continued to agree, even though it had the right to resile from the agreement with a month‘s notice. Indeed, it continued to agree with terms that did not lapse when the Dublin convention came into force. Are the Government saying that our influence over our French friends and partners is less now than it was then? Are they saying so despite the fact that, in the interim, they have made many unilateral concessions to our partners in the European Union, including signing up to the Amsterdam treaty, unilaterally agreeing the social chapter, and agreeing with the French to co-sponsor a European rapid reaction force? All those unilateral changes, we were told, would increase our influence and take it to previously unknown heights. If that is the case, why cannot that influence now bring about something that we could achieve in 1994 and 1995?

    The Government argue that everything was stopped by the Dublin convention; the agreement was superseded by the convention, so we cannot rely on bilateral agreements any longer. As my hon. Friend pointed out, that is not the case. Germany and Denmark have, subsequent to the Dublin convention, entered into a bilateral arrangement. We are told that Germany is different from France; it is in a different geographical location, which means that, more frequently than France, it is the first place of entry into the community; and more people have made a claim there before making a claim in Denmark. All those things were true in 1995; the relative geography of France and Germany has not changed since 1995, and the arrangements have remained rigidly in place. What was possible in 1995 must surely be possible now.

    The Minister has also said that the agreement was not much use because action had to be taken within 24 hours, which has become more difficult. I am glad that some of the difficulties created by the courts have subsequently been overridden by legislation introduced by the Government, which specifies that the courts cannot treat France or Germany as unsafe countries, in the sense given in the Geneva convention. That would make it easier for us automatically to return people within 24 hours if we restored the agreement and renegotiated bilaterally.

    I repeat to the Under-Secretary, who has the misfortune of facing me once again, the questions that I put to her in the previous debate and which she did not answer. Have the Government tried to renegotiate the bilateral agreement? If so, when, where, with whom and on what terms? Why was it refused? As all of us are more interested in the future than in the past, an even more important question is whether the Government will try in future.

    The Home Secretary made the legitimate point that the French are facing elections and that, in the immediate run-up to an election, it is more difficult to get an agreement with them. That may or may not be true, but may we at least have an assurance that once those elections are out of the way, the Government will not rule out trying once again to resume the bilateral arrangement with the French, or something like it?

    A characteristically thoughtful and even more characteristically lengthy and unfocused speech from the Liberal Benches failed to address the question whether there should be a bilateral agreement. When pressed on the point by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the view of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) was that there was no point. If we sent people back, they would keep trying to enter the country, so we might as well let them in in the first place. That was the logic of the hon. Gentleman‘s position.

    That highlights an important point. We must ask why the United Kingdom is so attractive to so many people who, having got to France?a country which I love and in which I would willingly spend more time, if the House would allow me?do not want to stay there, but want to come to this country. Theoretically, under the terms of the Geneva convention and the obligation of those seeking asylum to seek it in the first safe country to which they come, the United Kingdom should, for that reason and because it is an island, probably have the smallest flow of asylum seekers of any major country in Europe. Instead, it has the highest proportion of asylum seekers per head of any major country, though not as high as some smaller countries, such as Ireland?that is even more strange, as reaching it requires crossing two stretches of water?and Denmark.

    Why, then, is the UK so attractive? It is not just language; it is not just the generosity of our benefits. I have made it clear in the past that our benefit levels are not supremely generous, compared with those often available on the continent. It is not just because jobs are relatively available in the UK, although that obviously is a factor. When one asks asylum seekers, they say, and all the surveys show, that it is because they know that when they get to this country, they face the least likelihood of being returned to their country of origin.

    That is demonstrated by figures quoted in one of the court cases, which was held to prove that France was not a safe country and the UK was. Five per cent. of claimants who come to the UK seeking asylum from Algeria are returned to Algeria, and 80 per cent. of those from Algeria seeking asylum in France are returned to Algeria. There is a great disparity between the likelihood of their being returned once they get to the UK, and the likelihood of their being returned from other countries.

    That has not come about intentionally or wilfully. The House did not decide to make this the most attractive country in Europe for economic migrants. It has come about by accident, because we moved from a system that was essentially administrative to one which was put in the hands of the courts. In so doing, we have effectively extended to every inhabitant of the globe who can find his way to these shores the right, once he has done so, not just to seek asylum, but during the period of seeking asylum, to obtain benefits; after six months, to obtain a job; after refusal, to appeal; after the appeal being turned down, to seek a judicial review; and after the judicial review failing, to seek remedy under the Human Rights Act. By that time the person will have been here so long that he will have put down roots in this country, become part of the community, perhaps have married and probably have had children.

    The people who come to my surgery expressing generally racist views about asylum seekers one day will come the next day about Mohammed who lives next door, whom they want to stay because he has been here five years already, he is part of the community and a member of the parent-teacher association, his children go to the same school as their own, they like him, he is a good chap, and they worship in the same church, or whatever. They are right, of course. It would be inhumane to send people back, and it becomes increasingly inhumane to send people back the longer they have stayed in this country and the deeper their roots are.

    Effectively, we have created a system for ourselves under which we cannot send people back because the whole process takes too long. They know it, so they come here and will go to great lengths to come here, including running great risks and facing great dangers to do so, because once here, they are pretty confident that they will not have to return.

    We know, although no one expresses it with as much bluntness as I perhaps can, now that I am on the Back Benches, that there are only two ways to solve the problem. One is to make the UK a less attractive place for economic migrants and asylum seekers to stay. The other is to make it a more difficult place for people to stay.

    The options for making the UK less attractive include the period during which people may not take a job, the experiment tried by the previous Home Secretary and scrapped by the present Home Secretary to introduce voucher payments instead of benefits, and the changes that I introduced to the benefits system, which meant that if people had entered the country with a visa, to get which they had had to convince the visa authorities that they had the means to support themselves, they would not be entitled to benefits.

    All those measures were designed to make the UK a less pleasant place for asylum seekers to be. On the whole, I would prefer not to rely on such methods, even though I was responsible for one of the ones I mentioned. I would prefer to make it legally more difficult for people to exploit all the loopholes in our legal system to stay in the UK when they are essentially economic migrants, not asylum seekers.

    Bob Russell: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the Home Office figures which show that people born outside the UK, including asylum seekers, contribute 10 per cent. more to the economy in taxes and national insurance than they consume in benefits, which is worth about ?2.5 billion a year to the British economy?

    Mr. Lilley: I will not comment on the figures, most of which are pretty dubious, but I accept the hon. Gentleman‘s general point, which I made earlier. As individuals, not just genuine asylum seekers but economic migrants can make a positive contribution to this country. However, I do not believe, and I should be interested to know whether the hon. Gentleman and his party believe, that we can open up the country to unlimited immigration. We cannot?there must be some restriction.

    Already the number of asylum seekers coming to the UK last year approached 100,000, taking into account their dependants. The vast majority will stay, under our present arrangements. That equates to the population of my constituency. It means that every year we will have to house the equivalent of the population of my constituency. One of the great issues in my constituency is the constraint on housing and building in the green belt. I would be hypocritical in the extreme if I said that all those people should be allowed to come into the country as they would make a wonderful contribution to the economy, but that we would not provide extra houses for them, or extra towns or settlements.

    We cannot have it both ways. Not being a Liberal, I will not even try to have it both ways. We must accept that we have to make this country less pleasant in terms of the magnets of attraction, or less easy for people to stay in by exploiting legal loopholes. We need to review the way in which the Geneva convention has been enshrined in law, rather than the process of dealing with asylum seekers being essentially an administrative one, relying on a judgment of officials which will inevitably prove fallible and difficult.

    The reason is that, ultimately, the courts cannot, while meeting the usual standards that we require of them, assess what happened in a distant country on the basis of evidence supplied by the people who are coming here. It is nonsense to suggest that we can prove beyond reasonable doubt that such people have no case or that they can prove beyond reasonable doubt that they have a strong case. An assessment must be made as to whether they are genuine asylum seekers, but ultimately it cannot be made to the normal, rigorous standards that would apply in the court in relation to events that happened in this country.

    We must also realise that the process of dealing with asylum seekers has specific problems. I had to look into the matter in some detail when I was Secretary of State for Social Security. My right hon. Friend the then Home Secretary and I conducted an analysis?it was carried out by my officials and his?of the whole process. We established that there was a series of bottlenecks, arising in respect of initial asylum applications, appeals, judicial reviews, further appeals and deportation and removal orders. All the effort of the bureaucracy tends to be spent on widening the bottlenecks that are already widest, but as anyone who has ever understood process engineering will know, that is the wrong way of going about things. One should try to widen the narrowest bottleneck first. In this case, that is the process of removal and deportation. Until we enhance and speed up that process and reduce the length of the pipeline?the period between an initial claim and liability for deportation and removal?we will not solve that problem, or at least we would be able do so only by taking the less humane approach of making this country less attractive for people to live in. I do not think anybody in the House would like to do that.

    I hope that the Government will take the small step that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset pressed upon them so eloquently and endeavour to renew the bilateral agreement. In the longer term, I hope that they will look to see whether we need more fundamental changes in the process and the legal structures through which we handle the asylum problem, if we are to gain some control of it in future.

    4 February 2002 c636-42