Speech in the House of Lords on the report of the European Union Committee on 'A Common Policy on Illegal Immigration'
I, too, thank the Committee for giving us the opportunity to debate this important matter. I agree that illegal immigration is a major challenge to all EU member states. It undermines policies governing the admission of legal immigrants; it acts as a pull factor for further illegal immigration; it creates insecurity among host countries; and it attracts increasing involvement of organised crime, on which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made important comments. In addition, it leads to the exploitation of illegal immigrants themselves; it provides opportunities for organised crime involving the smuggling and trafficking of people and the provision of slave labour, and, over the past decade, it has been identified as a serious and growing problem in nearly all member slates. As noble Lords have observed, it has risen to the top of the agenda in this country.
I agree with the three basic assumptions about illegal immigration that underpin the Commission's communication. They are: first, that illegal immigrants should not be considered as a pool to meet labour shortages; secondly, that illegal immigration has an internal security dimension; and, thirdly, that illegal entry or residence should not lead to the desired stable form of residence. I shall return to that theme, in particular, at the end of my remarks.
The committee points out that several factors make the UK attractive to illegal immigration; in particular, our language, employment availability and a lower level of control by public authorities on access to work and public services. The Chairman, the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, and the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, drew attention to the issue of entitlement cards. I would be grateful if the Minister would expand on the comments made in his letter of 28th January to the Chairman on the issue of entitlement cards and the role that they might play in dampening our attraction to illegal immigrants.
I share the Committee's concern about evidence given by the immigration crime team at Heathrow that, in many major smuggling or trafficking operations, there may be an element of corrupt collusion by some of those employed at airports or ports of entry. Does that mean UK ports and airports? If so, what action has the Home Office taken, on the basis of that evidence?
The committee is right to draw attention to the importance of the work of Europol and Eurojust. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, properly referred to that in her opening speech. We have also referred to it during our consideration of the Crime (International Co-operation) Bill over the past couple of months. I am also interested in the committee's recommendation that large urban forces in the UK should establish specialised units for serious immigration crime. Will the Minister give us some up-to-date information on Reflex?
In the absence of my noble friend Lord Attlee, who has been called up to serve in the Gulf, I shall draw attention on his behalf to the recommendation on carriers' liability in paragraph 80. It seems a practical suggestion to let the recent legislation bed down before further measures can be justified. The Minister's letter to the Chairman suggests that the Government agree with that view, and I would like the Minister to confirm that.
I disagree with the conclusions in paragraphs 54, 56 and 61. I support the view of my noble friends Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach and Lady Knight of Collingtree. The report goes too far towards harmonisation and a common policy, instead of seeking what I consider to be the preferred route of co-operation in such matters. In particular, I support the Government's decision not to participate in the common visa list. Unlike members of the committee who have spoken today, I agree with the comment made by the Minister in his letter to the Chairman that participation would not be consistent with the principle of maintaining control over policy on who should be admitted to the UK. I hope that the Minister will continue to adopt that robust response.
The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, the Chairman of the committee, made the central point that one should not equate illegal immigration with asylum seeking. Several noble Lords made that vital point. However, in paragraph 13, the report recognises the fact that, in practice, there is an overlap. That problem has bedevilled the UK Government's attempts to provide an effective and fair system of asylum in the past couple of decades.
The Government have made the problem worse because of the nature of the agreement that they reached with the French on the closing of Sangatte. That agreement will provide hundreds of asylum seekers with work permits and transform them overnight into legal economic migrants. Effectively, the position of that group was regularised. Under what rules or powers was that decision made, in the absence of any evidence from employers that they needed the services of those particular asylum seekers? How many other applicants for asylum or immigration who did not come from Sangatte have been granted work permits without needing to show that an employer has shown a need for their services? We may be discriminating unfairly against the asylum seekers and illegal immigrants who are in our country now.
The Home Secretary's pronouncements since the agreement on Sangatte make it look as though the Government are trying to solve their failure to sort out the processing of applications for asylum by shifting the applicants to another category. I hope that that is not the case, but if it is, the Home Office should say so clearly. That would enable grown-up debate. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, that there is no use the papers getting into a tantrum about the issue; there must be grown-up debate.
We had a debate about managed migration last summer. On these Benches, we made it clear then, as we make it clear now, that we support a sensible approach. My right honourable friend Oliver Letwin has developed that theme in recent weeks and has made it clear that we should study policies throughout the EU and beyond to ensure that we take a proper quota of refugees. We must have constructive policies on managed migration, to ensure fair treatment of all.
I was intrigued to hear of the policy statement on immigration made by the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, a Minister in the Lord Chancellor's Department, on 25th February at a seminar at Oxford University on national identity and migration. She said that it was the Government's view that the United Kingdom should receive a net in-flow of 2 million immigrants over the next 10 years. That overall figure and the further breakdown that she provided appeared to be in harmony with the figures provided by Migration Watch. It does not accord with what the Home Office has said publicly, as far as I am aware. I may have missed some announcements, but I do not think so.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, went on to say that, although the Government were intent on controlling the entry of asylum seekers into the UK, they intended to use the work permit scheme to facilitate that inward migration. Was the Home Office consulted about that statement by the Lord Chancellor's Department in advance of a statement of policy with regard to the in-flow figure of 2 million over 10 years and the use of work permits?
As other noble Lords said, the issue of regularisation is not straightforward; it is highly complex and sensitive. Parliament is owed a long debate on it before we come to any conclusion. On this occasion, as so often, I find myself thinking—worryingly for me and, perhaps, also for the noble Lord—that the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, hit the nail fairly and squarely on the head. In a brief comment that summarised everything about the issue, he said that it was important that we should have a clear and known policy on immigration. I agree.