Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the issue of asylum seekers from France.

    Mrs. Thatcher said of Lord Young of Graffham that most people brought her problems, but that he brought solutions. Most people bring to the Chamber problems and issues that they want to highlight. I want to emulate Lord Young and bring a solution, or at least a partial remedy, to a problem. I do not need simply to highlight the problem and issue of asylum seekers from France, as that is constantly before us in the newspapers. We are aware of a continuous stream of people who often risk their lives and great hardship to get to this country across the channel from France. We know stories of attempted mass breakthroughs at Christmas. Only the other day, gangs‘ attempts were discovered to rig the signals so that people could stow away on Eurostar trains. People are conscious that the flow has become one way. Asylum seekers come from France to this country and they are not returned.

    I want to make a practical proposal, which I hope that the Government will take seriously. They should have taken this measure four years ago to alleviate the problem, but they could still implement it if they set about it with a will. I will set the scene in relation to asylum seekers. The House of Commons believes that we should be and remain a safe haven for that minority of asylum seekers who genuinely suffered persecution and torture in their home countries, or who face persecution and torture should they return. I go further: we should be sympathetic to most asylum seekers, although they are “bogus”?a word that the Prime Minister used?and are not genuine asylum seekers. [Interruption.] I assure the Minister that the Prime Minister described them as bogus. They are economic migrants who seek to enter this country to better their conditions and those of their families. They are often admirable people who would be of great benefit to this country. However, hon. Members from all parties recognise that this country is simply not in a position to become a country of mass immigration. We cannot alleviate the problems of economic migrants or of the troubled, disturbed, and impoverished countries from which they come simply by allowing them unlimited entry.

    The most humane thing that we can do is speedily to return economic migrants whence they came. That is humane to them, as it avoids the prolonged anguish and agony of a long drawn-out process during which they put down roots. We have to uproot them to return them or we create an unsustainable position in this country. It is also humane, as it sends the message down the chain that it is pointless for others to try to enter this country?an attempt that, sooner or later, we must render impossible.

    In principle, the easiest group to return rapidly whence they came are those who have crossed the channel from another safe country. The Geneva convention, under which we operate and by which we are bound, specifies that asylum seekers should seek sanctuary in the first safe country that they come to; they do not have the right to shop around for the country offering the most favourable conditions. Consequently, if they pass through one safe country to another, the end recipient has the right to return them under the Geneva convention, yet people pour in from France in significant numbers and are not returned.

    From 1995 to 1997, many asylum seekers were returned to France under a bilateral agreement that was negotiated by the Conservative Government but allowed to lapse in autumn 1977. My modest proposal is that the Government should renegotiate the agreement. They should have done so four years ago, but it is far more important that they do so now than that I try to lay blame for the past. They would have my support and, I believe, the support of the House of Commons and the country.

    The bilateral agreement between the United Kingdom and France specified that we had not only the right to return unacceptable asylum seekers to France within 24 hours but the obligation to do so or, if there were practical obstacles to overcome, to state within 24 hours that that was our intention. The agreement reflected the cordial relations that prevailed then between the United Kingdom and France. It was reciprocal and allowed movement both ways on equal terms although, in practice, the flow was largely one way. We were able to return large numbers of asylum seekers who had entered the country from France.

    As I said, the agreement reflected the cordial relations that existed between the United Kingdom and France, and which happened to be dear to my heart: I am a registered, paid up and leading Francophile of long standing. It worked well: both sides had the right to terminate it with two months‘ notice but neither did so, because they were satisfied with it and accepted that it was a logical, sensible arrangement. I believe that the agreement remains in force for non asylum seekers; according to the Home Secretary, some 6,000 have been sent back under the agreement. However, it contained a clause that allowed the arrangements for asylum seekers to be superseded by the Dublin convention, which came into effect in September 1997. The asylum seeker aspects were allowed to lapse at that point and have not been renewed.

    The Dublin convention was intended to make general what the bilateral agreement had achieved for Britain and France; namely, the return of asylum seekers to the first safe country that they reached in the European Union. In practice, the convention failed to achieve that. Instead, it makes the return of asylum seekers more difficult and complex than was previously the case. It was negotiated in the late 1980s and signed in 1990. Since then, asylum seeking has grown out of all proportion and out of all recognition in scale and sophistication. A large industry, which has grown on the back of asylum seeking, has learned how to exploit legal complexities in a way that no one envisaged when the Dublin convention was negotiated.

    With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, we can criticise the 12 or so Governments, including ours, who signed the Dublin convention for failing to foresee the situation 10 years later when it came into force. However, if the Minister wants to rest on criticism of the past, it should apply even more strongly to those who, in 1997, let the Dublin convention supersede the bilateral agreement between Britain and France without foreseeing that, in practice, it would remove our ability to return asylum seekers to France.

    It was certainly inexcusable that, once the problems emerged, the Government did not renegotiate the bilateral agreement with France, within the terms of the Dublin convention, to restore speedy “refoulement”, as the conventions call the return of asylum seekers to previous safe countries. Labour Ministers have defended their inaction by saying that the rules of the Dublin convention rule out such bilateral agreements, but that is nonsense. Since the Dublin convention came into force, Germany and Denmark have agreed a similar bilateral agreement to the one that we had with France, and it works well. It enables Denmark to send back 18 per cent. of the asylum seekers who make their claims in Denmark. In contrast, under the arrangements that have been established in this country, we send back only 1 per cent. to all safe countries, not just France.

    I hope that the Minister will answer the following questions. First, have the Government attempted to renegotiate the bilateral agreement between France and the United Kingdom to extend it again to include asylum seekers? Secondly, if so, will they place a paper in the Library that details the renegotiation process: the dates of meetings, participants, proposals, where and when things were discussed and why the negotiations failed?

    Thirdly, if the Government have not tried to renegotiate the agreement, will they do so forthwith? I believe that that would have the wholehearted support of the House of Commons, including, I hope, my party. I look forward with interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins). If the Government seek to renegotiate the agreement, we will certainly be there to help them.

    If the answer to those questions is no, why are the Government not taking steps to renegotiate the bilateral agreement? They sometimes give a second reason for not re-establishing the bilateral accord, which is that the French would not want it. However, they wanted it in 1995 and continued with it, even though they had the right to withdraw from it. The fact that the Government say that re-establishment is impossible is all the odder when they constantly caricature the relations that prevailed between Britain and our European partners in the past as hostile. In fact, as our success in negotiating the agreement revealed, our relations then were extremely cordial.

    The Government say that they are now at the heart of Europe, have warm, friendly relations with our continental partners and have made a range of unilateral concessions?from signing the Amsterdam treaty and the social chapter to agreeing to a European defence force?in the belief that that will give them greater influence. If that is so, let them call in their chips. If the Government have greater influence and better relations with our partners on the continent, let them turn that influence into something that is useful for Britain, in the shape of a renegotiated bilateral treaty for the rapid and speedy return of asylum seekers who reach our shores from France?a safe country.

    A longer-term issue relates to the flow of asylum seekers from France. To be fair to the Government, one factor that aggravated the problem of refoulement was the decision of the British courts to rule that France and Germany were not safe countries to which we could return asylum seekers. They said that we interpreted the Geneva convention to include persecution not just by states but by rebel and opposition groups in the countries from which people came so that people from Algeria, for example, which has endemic civil disturbance could claim either to have been persecuted by the Government or to face persecution by the Opposition. Continental courts and Governments who do not interpret the Geneva convention so widely believe that it applies only to persecution by a foreign state. The courts reached the conclusion that the foreign courts‘ narrow interpretation was not correct and therefore that those foreign countries were not safe countries to which we could return asylum seekers.

    I am not here to make party political points. I support what the Government did in 1999 in overriding that ruling by introducing the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which specified that all EU countries were deemed to be safe places to which to return asylum seekers. We hoped that that nonsense had been put to an end. However, that decision is open to challenge under the Government‘s own legislation?the Human Rights Act 1998. The court, in a case last Friday, ruled that the Home Secretary cannot rely on the 1999 Act alone to rebut such claims under the Human Rights Act; it upheld him in that case, but it was a worrying caveat that the 1999 Act alone cannot provide a rebuttal of human rights claims. How do the Government interpret that case, and will they need further legislation to prevent that loophole reopening if, indeed, it is possible without amending the Human Rights Act?

    Meanwhile, however, an absurd situation arises: while our courts have ruled that French and German courts are not safe places to which to send asylum seekers, we are invited to introduce a European arrest warrant that will allow UK citizens who are not asylum seekers to be arrested at the behest of those courts and sent, without any real right of review under habeas corpus, to France and Germany to face trial in courts that we have been told are not safe for asylum seekers.

    The Government‘s justification is that those courts are bound by the European convention on human rights; yet if our courts have said that continental courts cannot be trusted to interpret the Geneva convention safely, how can they be relied on to interpret the European convention on human rights accurately or safely if British citizens are to be sent back to them?I ask the Minister to think again about creating the extraordinary anomaly that the Government propose to introduce in the extradition Bill.

    I said that I came here in the spirit of David Young, offering solutions rather than problems; I have become something of a purveyor of policy to Her Majesty‘s Government in recent months. I put forward proposals on reform of the cannabis laws, which were initially rubbished, but then the Home Secretary acknowledged that there was sufficient truth in them to move some way in the direction that I proposed. Earlier, I put forward proposals for reform of the health service that were initially rubbished, but now the Secretary of State for Health has adopted the rhetoric of patient choice and patient power that I proposed.

    In all modesty, therefore, I put forward my proposal for the Government to renegotiate with France an agreement that will enable us to return to that country asylum seekers who arrive at our ports. People will welcome that essential step to stem the unsustainable flow of immigrants from the continent to this country. I remind the Minister why they come here: it is because this country is a more attractive place and a softer touch for immigrants than other continental countries. The judge in the court case that gave rise to the conclusion that France and Germany were not safe countries noted that the evidence showed that 80 per cent. of asylum claims by Algerians in France were rejected and the claimants were liable to be sent back to Algeria. Only 5 per cent. of Algerians who made claims in this country were refused asylum and sent back to Algeria.

    Britain is therefore a magnet for asylum seekers. It is only right that we should try to restore the bulwarks against that excessive flow of people seeking to enter the country and return those who should, in all conscience, make their claims elsewhere. I hope that the Minister responds positively to that proposal.