HL Deb 12 December 2000 vol 620 cc211-3

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Pursuant to the draft Immigration and Asylum Carriers Liability (Clandestine Entrants) (Application to Rail Freight) Regulations 2000, whether SNCF (French railways) has agreed safeguards to prevent clandestine entrants gaining entry to the United Kingdom by rail freight through the Channel Tunnel and, if not, how United Kingdom companies can protect themselves against liability.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, the consultation process with the rail freight industry on the extension of civil penalty to rail freight has involved a wide range of interested parties, including SNCF, the French Ministry of Transport, the DETR, and English, Welsh and Scottish Railways. A consultation document, which included drafts of the regulations, code of practice and regulatory impact assessment was sent out on 13th November. Consultation continues until 25th December.

Our aim is to encourage industry members to work with us so that we can develop a code of practice which is both practical and achievable.

We are providing a defence against penalties where an effective system to prevent the carriage of clandestine entrants is operated. SNCF retains overall control of the rail freight operation at the Calais-Fréthun freight yard. But since it and EWS in practice share responsibility for the Channel Tunnel rail freight operation, we think it reasonable that both should incur liability for any clandestine entrants who arrive here.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very full Answer. I declare an interest as Chairman of the Rail Freight Group.

The document to which he refers also states that French railways have not agreed to co-operate. Under those circumstances, is it not somewhat unfair to penalise British companies, which have no control over the French side and cannot, therefore, stop the emigrants getting on the trains?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am not aware of a statement that the French companies will not co-operate. We believe that it is right and proper for all companies involved as operators, employers, and so on, to share liability. We are, of course, entirely open to representations on the issue. That is the reason for an extensive consultation process and period. We are willing to receive comments and notes on consultation up until Christmas Day. I hope that all concerned in the industry will avail themselves of that cheerful seasonal opportunity.

Lord Elton

My Lords, if the consultation document states that the SNCF does not intend to comply with these regulations, why is the Minister not aware of that? Should not Her Majesty's Government note this great gap in their commercial regulation and do something to fill it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, statements that a company may make are one matter; enforcing the law is another. We are seeking compliance. We are working co-operatively with our partners across Europe to common standards and common objectives. That remains the Government's aim and objective. We think it right and proper to do so if we are to have effective controls on immigration, in particular as regards asylum. That is why these civil liability measures were put in place. We shall seek compliance to that end.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there does not seem an adequate degree of co-operation with our partners across the Channel; and that if adequate co-operation is not established the viability of the Channel Tunnel is brought into question?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I do not accept that we do not have adequate co-operation. We are working in close relationship with our European partners on this issue. It has been a long-standing policy development. It is in everyone's interest that we work closely. So far as I am aware, we intend to proceed in that way. It is the best way to proceed and will ensure that measures we have adopted in our domestic law are effective and that we block this appalling trade in human misery—because that is exactly what it is. Only through adopting the civil liability measures can we have a meaningful impact on that trade. We have already demonstrated that. It is an issue on which we should have widespread support.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, if immigrants enter this country illegally from France, are we entitled to return them to France?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we may well end up doing so. However, we have to go through the proper procedures. That is exactly what the Government have done. We carry out our international obligations and stick to the protocols to which we have agreed.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, when will the Government start to return immigrants to France if that would be the simplest way to resolve the issue?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that we have to go through all the proper legal processes and appeal systems. Indeed, his Government were instrumental in putting many of those measures in place.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a wider problem relating to the Hatfield incident? The growth of rail freight has been disappointing. This matter is another obstacle to growth in the cross-Channel rail freight industry. An early agreement which takes that into account is highly desirable.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the question is wide of my policy field. However, it is to be welcomed that rail freight has grown over the past few years. I do not accept the noble Lord's presumption that this is a brake on that development. It is important that rail freight operators with access to rail freight vehicles, and so on, accept their liability in controlling documentation. That must be part of their responsibility; it is one that we believe in. It helps us to have effective controls on points of entry.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, given that all the inbound trains are operated by French railways, the English companies cannot have proper inspection procedures without the co-operation of the French. Unless French railways accept their responsibilities, how can the English operators do anything about the problem? Would it not be unfair if they are fined and French railways are not?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, there is a contractual relationship between EWS and SNCF, but the details are somewhat vague in business terms. Sometimes SNCF trains are driven by EWS drivers. In other circumstances, EWS drivers are not in place, but EWS assists SNCF. We believe that there is joint and several liability. The regulations that we are seeking to put in place will ensure that that liability is carried into effect. We think that it is an effective deterrent—it certainly appears to have been so for other transport operators. P&O now employs people to carry out detection work. That is what we are seeking to establish. If companies face liability, they will pretty smartly ensure that they have effective detection methods in place at points of departure.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, are the Government satisfied that countries of first entry of illegal immigrants into the EC are carrying out their duties properly?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we are not at all complacent. We seek the utmost co-operation to ensure that there are no breaches in our defences, as it were. Co-operation is the best way to secure a better system and a more rational approach. We must continue that close working relationship to ensure that that is the case.

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