HL Deb 28 November 2001 vol 629 cc298-300

2.59 p.m.

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have discussed with the French Government the provision of a joint military force at the SNCF terminal in Calais to protect railway workers from attack and to enable rail freight services to restart.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, we are concerned about the situation, hut we think that effective civil rather than military action is required for us to improve physical security. We are pressing French authorities to act urgently.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. I have two questions to ask him. First, he has ruled out military involvement, but does he agree that last year, when the lorry drivers were blocking the fuel depots of this country, military involvement was certainly on the cards? The Government had a plan to implement that.

Secondly, does he agree that, if a government want to keep people out of their country, they build the fence and patrol it? In this case they have decided that the fence should be in Calais. However, does it not remain the responsibility of our Government to sort out the fence rather than, as I understand to be the case, the Prime Minister writing to Mr Jospin telling him that he should build the fence and that if he does not do so we shall fine his railway when it brings in illegal immigrants?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I shall not comment in detail on what may or may not have happened with the petrol crisis last year. However, there is a world of difference between considering military action in the UK and the deployment of British Armed Forces in another European country. As I suggested, the situation requires powerful and effective civil policing, backed up by effective security measures.

As regards the noble Lord's second point, the matter is for SNCF and the French authorities. Our police have no powers of trespass and arrest within French territory. We are co-operating with the French but are urging them to treat the issue with considerable importance and to take much speedier action.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, we should by now be seeing 10 million tonnes of freight go through the Channel Tunnel each year. We are at about 2.75 per cent and that is falling rapidly. There are two reasons for that: first, the inability of the Government to deal with SNCF, which is thoroughly inefficient; and, secondly, the inability of the Government to deal with the problem of illegal immigrants. When will we get some effective action on both issues?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, that question invites me to roll two large issues together—and as regards this problem they are rolled together to some extent. In relation to the SNCF issue, the Prime Minister wrote to Lionel Jospin on 16th November stating how seriously we considered the matter. Tomorrow there will he the UK summit between France and the United Kingdom when we expect the Prime Minister to raise the matter again with Lionel Jospin. On 3rd December there will be a meeting with the head of security of SNCF when we will again be pressing it to build the fence it has talked about since May in order to provide effective security. Finally, the European Union wrote to France about the regulations relating to the free movement of goods and the infringement.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, is the Minister aware that United Kingdom operators are losing about £8 million a week as a result of the action that has been taken by SNCF? Will he give the House some information about the compensation which will be sought, and from whom, for those operators in future?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, no, I do not have the detailed figures relating to the potential amount of business that is being lost. However, we view the matter with considerable concern. Government policy is clearly to try to increase rail freight and to increase international rail freight. We would like to reach 6 per cent rather than the current figure which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, mentioned.

I shall look into the matter of compensation and come back to the noble Baroness. However, I imagine that the redress should be against a breach of contract by SNCF rather than the UK Government.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, although security at this point and elsewhere on the coast of France is important, is not the real answer to press ahead to reach agreement with our EU partners for a common asylum policy and for understandable policies relating to the economic migration into the countries of the European Community? Can my noble friend say what progress is being made on that?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, yes, I strongly agree. The Government's view is that the Dublin convention has not worked in the way we hoped and expected. We are pressing other European countries rapidly to bring the matter on to the agenda. There are initial discussions about that but we are still in the early stages. It is crucial that that convention is revised. In the mean time, in this situation we must rely on physical security measures and effective police action at the French end. Where that has been taken at Eurotunnel PLC and through the Channel ferries, it has been effective. We are now seeing displacement on to SNCF's site and if it had hardened that site when it said it intended to do so we would not be experiencing the scale of problem we are now seeing.

Forward to