HL Deb 26 March 2001 vol 624 cc6-8

2.52 p.m.

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Following the announcement of the suspension of most Channel Tunnel rail freight services due to the introduction of charges on operators of £2,000 per illegal immigrant from 1st March, what action they plan to take, in conjunction with the French authorities, to ensure that only those who are in a position to prevent illegal immigrants from boarding these trains are liable for these charges.

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

My Lords,I am not aware of any suspension of Channel Tunnel rail freight services following the extension of the penalty provisions on 1st March this year. Liability for civil penalty arises when there is an involvement in a service or operation that has brought clandestine entrants to this country. We shall continue to work with the railway operators to improve security to prevent unauthorised persons travelling in rail freight wagons. There is close contact with the companies concerned at ministerial and official level and we shall continue to engage in constructive dialogue.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer and I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. He is correct in saying that there has been no suspension so far, but is he aware that the level of fines has reached £250,000 in three weeks? I am sure that he agrees that no company can stand such fines for ever. Is it not unfair to expect a British company to take action against the French state and the French railways when the British Government have failed to do so? Surely the key is for the two governments to reach agreement. The two railway companies would then comply in stopping the terrible trade in immigrants.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am aware that since 1st March, £252,000 of civil liabilities have been placed on the rail companies in 23 penalty notices. It is interesting that as a product of that 126 clandestine entrants were detected. However, I cannot agree with the noble Lord's assumption. The companies jointly share the benefits and have a joint arrangement, so they jointly have to share the liabilities. That being the case, it is entirely proper that the civil penalty regime operates as it does.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, in every other case involving the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987, the operator has the opportunity to take precautions overseas against illegal immigrants coming in on their services. That is the case for the airlines, the shipping companies and other freight companies. In this case, it appears that the operators have no means to stop illegal immigrants coming in on the service. They can make an inspection only when the service gets into this country. The incentive for them to declare illegal immigrants when they come into this country is being lost. At the moment they are doing it out of a spirit of co-operation with the Government. The alternative for the companies is simply to let the illegal immigrants slip into the undergrowth. Surely something must be done. The Government must co-operate with the French somehow to allow inspections in France before the carrier becomes liable for the fine.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says, but EWS and SNCF are working in co-operation with each other. They have always had joint liability. In addition to their joint liability under the new penalty provisions, EWS and SNCF are also liable for and share the costs of the detention and removal of illegal immigrants whom they have carried. In some cases, those costs could exceed £3,000 each time. That legislation has been on the statute books since 1971. The then Conservative Government took the view that liability should be shared. I invite the noble Lord to agree that our policy is consistent with that.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the noble Lord invites me to agree, but, as I have just said, in every other case the operator has the opportunity of dealing with the situation overseas. In this case, the operator has no such opportunity.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, because EWS and SNCF work together, they have the opportunity to design such measures. The Government have been working closely with our French colleagues. I am advised that SNCF has agreed to ensure that it fully plays its part. If it does so, it will have a defence against liability. That is the key issue at stake.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I declare an interest. Does the Minister believe that there is any hope of the 80 per cent increase in rail freight set out in the 10-year transport plan being achieved unless there is a significant increase in freight traffic through the Channel Tunnel? Will he also confirm that under the minimum usage contract in the Channel Tunnel Act 1987, if freight trains cease to run through the tunnel Her Majesty's Government will become liable to pay Eurotunnel a large sum of money until 2006?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am not the Minister for Transport, although I speak for Her Majesty's Government. I am not in a position to answer the noble Lord's second, more technical question. We take the view that the course that we have operated is right. Of course we wish to encourage more rail freight through the tunnel. That makes perfect good sense in terms of our national strategy. However, I do not believe that the civil penalty regime that we have in place should act as a serious deterrent. The rail freight companies have a responsibility for the safety and security of everything that they carry on their wagons. That must include those who seek to travel on their wagons illegally. Proper enforcement of the law and the regulations is in everybody's interests.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, may I check that I have understood the Minister correctly? Will the new relationship between EWS and SNCF result in a prompt end to the current situation, in which an operator can commit an offence that it has no means of preventing? We want to get away from that situation as soon as we can.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we take the view that both companies have an equal and shared liability. We seek to enforce that against both operating companies. They both have a responsibility and a defence against liability, which is to ensure that they can demonstrate that they have undertaken the necessary precautions.