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Letwin: Asylum crisis - Detente will deter

Today, the Home Secretary is due to meet his French counterpart to discuss the controversial Sangatte refugee camp. My message is clear: it's time to sign a new bilateral agreement with France on asylum.

The British people are decent and tolerant, with a history of welcoming genuine refugees fleeing persecution. But nobody likes being taken advantage of; nobody wants to see a system for genuine refugees abused by illegal immigrants - but that is where we find ourselves, and the worst abuse occurs daily in the vicinity of the Sangatte camp in northern France. The notorious Red Cross centre symbolises the shambles that our asylum system has become, and the camp is now little more than a base for people waiting to break the law and enter the UK illegally.

My fear is that David Blunkett wants to persuade us that any improvement he can bring about in trying to tackle the asylum problem is a near-miracle in the face of insuperable odds. This strategy would permit him to trumpet even the smallest glimmer of progress resulting from his Anglo-French summit as an unexpected success.

This would be regrettable. I have always believed that we have to be responsible when we are dealing with asylum, and the key to that is a pragmatic approach.

A pragmatic approach would recognise that it is far from impossible to make significant reductions in the numbers of people entering the UK illegally. Indeed, progress has been made before with the very type of Anglo-French bilateral agreement that Iain Duncan Smith and I have repeatedly demanded be reinstated.

Until September 1997 there was a bilateral agreement in place between the British and French Governments that allowed us to return asylum seekers who had arrived from France, to France, within 24 hours, in order for their applications to be processed in France.

As a result, many fewer asylum seekers contemplated coming from France to the UK, many fewer asylum seekers were present in Northern France, and there was no camp at Sangatte. Today, by contrast, there is no bilateral agreement in place between Britain and France, there are large numbers of asylum seekers attempting to cross the Channel and there is a camp at Sangatte.

The results speak for themselves. In the last year of the Conservative government, also the last year of the bilateral agreement, there were 29,640 applications for asylum in the UK. Annual applications over the past three years have averaged 74,392.

It is true that the bilateral agreement that was reached between Britain and France in 1995 contained a clause providing that it would come to and end when the Dublin Convention came into force. This was because the Dublin Convention was expected to work. The underlying principle was that asylum should be sought in the first EU state entered.

This would of course have been highly beneficial to the UK. The failure to implement it properly is the failure of the present government. They are forever telling us about its excellent relations with other EU governments. They have had five years to persuade them to make the Dublin Convention work properly. They and they alone are responsible for their failure to achieve this.

One reason David Blunkett has previously given for failing to re-establish a bi-lateral agreement with France to tackle the cross-Channel asylum problem is that this is 'not possible' while the Dublin Convention remains in force. This is misleading. Denmark, which has a similar relationship with Germany, has overcome deficiencies in the Dublin Convention by maintaining a highly effective agreement with the Germans. By this means Denmark is able to send back nearly one in five of the asylum seekers who make their claims on Danish soil.

So it would certainly be within the realms of legal possibility for David Blunkett to secure a renewal of the successful Anglo-French bilateral agreement. Will he do it? The will is certainly there on the French side to achieve meaningful progress on asylum, with a new centre-right Government and the lesson of Le Pen's success in the first round of Presidential elections.

Unfortunately, neither recent Anglo-French or EU negotiations provide much encouragement. The Prime Minister raised the profile of the asylum problem at Seville, but no commentator has been able to detect any serious measures emerging from these discussions - other than the use of the asylum debate to achieve unwelcome extensions of EU powers in the field of justice and home affairs.

Having stressed the need for a new bilateral agreement, I should stress that this is by no means all that is required to make progress on tackling illegal immigration. When Mr Blunkett meets the French Interior Minister, Monsieur Sarkozy is likely to repeat his concern Britain is too attractive to asylum seekers.

Again, there is a need to be responsible and recognise that certain unique factors will always make Britain relatively attractive for illegal immigrants, particularly the English language, the flexible labour market and the presence of significant migrant communities. However, the pragmatic approach must also recognise that there has also been progress in the past in making Britain less attractive for illegal immigration. A key example is in respect of the UK benefits system.

The last Conservative government took action to ensure that benefits were available only for those asylum seekers who made their applications for asylum immediately upon entering the UK at a port or airport. Benefits were paid only until a judgement was made on an application, not for years of drawn out appeals.

Due to these measures, the number of asylum applications fell by a third from 43,965 in 1995 to 29,640 in 1996. In that same year decisions were made on 38,965 asylum cases, many more than the number of applications. The backlog was being reduced effectively. Within two years of Labour coming to power, the number of decisions being made almost halved to 21,305.

Meanwhile, the number of applications more than doubled to 71,160. Rather than falling as it had been until the summer of 1997, the backlog started growing by a thousand cases a week.

Much of the blame for this turnaround rests with Jack Straw, Home Secretary throughout the last Parliament. However, David Blunkett is now meant to be in charge and it is up to him to take action. His big idea is accommodation centres, but they are much too big, in the wrong places and without some of the facilities required to achieve quick processing.

So the spotlight now turns on Mr. Blunkett's negotiations with the French. Regrettably, there appears to be very little sign of his even harbouring the ambition of re-establishing the vital bilateral agreement. I hope this pessimism is misplaced.

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