Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 129 - 139)




  129. Good morning and welcome to this further evidence session in the course of our inquiry into physical controls at ports of entry. There is a sombre background to this morning's hearing, of course, with the discovery early yesterday morning of 58 bodies in the back of a refrigerated lorry at Dover after it had arrived from Zeebrugge. I am sure that we, all of us, send our sympathies to all the families involved in that tragedy. I am wondering if I might just ask, perhaps, Mr Whitehead, whether refrigerated lorries create special problems in trying to check on their content and how they are dealt with at the moment?

  (Mr Whitehead) I am Mr Whitehead. Thank you for the question. I am not an operational person. Might I turn to my colleague from Dover Harbour Board, who might be able to give you a bit of that kind of operational information?
  (Mr Powell) In general terms, I think it is fair to say that any temperature-controlled transport is more difficult to examine than, perhaps, other vehicles or trailers. Having said that, we have facilities in Dover to facilitate the off-load of frozen and chilled goods when the statutory authorities need to do that.

  130. Would x-ray help, then? Or some similar scanning process?
  (Mr Powell) I do not honestly know. I do not think I am technically qualified to answer on that. There is, as you probably know, an x-ray initiative currently under way in the pursuit of searching for tobacco goods.[1]

Mr Linton

  131. Do you think it would help to prevent any further tragedies like this if it was possible for trailers to be examined before embarkation, particularly at Channel ports?
  (Mr Powell) I think, without a doubt, that would help. The problem is not a problem only in the UK, it is a problem abroad, which is where it starts, and the tackling of it must start abroad in order to be effective.

  132. For most people this is the first time they have heard of deaths on trailers being discovered after crossing the Channel. Have you experience of any other cases like this? I know there has been one other case in a refrigerated lorry, and there may be others.
  (Mr Powell) There have been other cases in Dover. I am afraid I could not quote you chapter and verse, but there have been far more deaths on other routes from places where refugees come from—in the thousands on some of the sea crossings and in the hundreds on the Straits of Gibraltar. It is not an uncommon event in that trafficking trade.

Mr Howarth

  133. We have seen, in France, the x-ray equipment that is available there, and although, quite clearly, it cannot cope with every lorry that passes through it is pretty sophisticated. I am slightly surprised to hear you say that you are not aware of the development of that particular kind of proposal as far as Dover is concerned, given that Dover is the principal port for these lorries. Does the Research and Development Manager know if there have been discussions with Government? Do you not talk to manufacturers of x-ray equipment about the availability of this kind of equipment for Dover?
  (Mr Powell) To answer your question, I did point to the x-ray initiative, so, yes, we are aware of it. However, it is an initiative on behalf of Customs & Excise. Our job, as a port, is not to run the law enforcement activity. We have to respond to it, react to it and work with it.[2]

  134. Surely you all work together? We were told last week by the Home Office that there is a lot of co-operation between the various agencies. Surely the Dover Harbour Board is part of those co-operative discussions?
  (Mr Powell) To be perfectly frank, on the x-ray initiative, we found out informally about that and without our prompting I do not think there would have been any central negotiation or consultation—which, in fact, we are still waiting for in the broadest sense, because it has not happened. We recently received a letter from Customs outlining their plan to take a large area of the Eastern Docks Ferry Terminal and site an x-ray machine on it—almost as a given that this is not going to be a problem and we will accept it.[3]

  135. In the light of what happened yesterday, presumably you are going to intensify your pressure for more co-operation with Government agencies?
  (Mr Powell) Absolutely, but referring back, I think the problem of yesterday's tragedy, which is a human one, is not, in a sense, directly related to border controls, and is a problem best dealt with overseas before they get here. The tobacco smuggling issue is a completely different ball game.

Mr Malins

  136. Having said all that, and recognising that this was a ghastly tragedy, am I right in saying that the proportion of lorries that are effectively searched coming across the Channel is no more than about one in a hundred?
  (Mr Powell) Broadly, that is right.

  137. And it will not increase by much?
  (Mr Powell) There are plans on behalf of some Government agencies to increase it, which is a worry to us. I think, perhaps, the one interesting and illustrative point that comes out of yesterday's tragedy is that whilst the eventual discovery was of an illegal trade in humans the agency that pulled the vehicle was Customs, who had no direct interest in that activity. They pulled it based on information and intelligence that they had gathered in their normal way in which they work with the ferry companies, and so on. From that, they are able to select particular target vehicles and intensify their checks on that selection of vehicles. It is that which allows us to let the 99 out of 100 go, which are not of interest to Customs, and concentrate on the 1 per cent.
  (Mr Whitehead) Just to add, our position as a port is to be as co-operative as possible with the authorities. We try and do that as much as possible. We can, perhaps, talk later about the ways in which we can do that across a broader range of issues as well. So we are there to do that, and we hope to work with the authorities to make things better where they need to be better.

Mr Fabricant

  138. The Home Secretary, yesterday, making his statement over the tragedy, said that sadly this would be a deterrent, perhaps, for those people seeking to get into the United Kingdom. Following on from Humfrey Malins' question, I suppose the ultimate deterrent would be if every vehicle were checked, though I know there is no intention to do that. Do you think that, following on from that earlier question—and perhaps I will direct this at Mr Whitehead specifically—that both Customs & Excise and United Kingdom Immigration understand the pressures that ports have on them to ensure that there is a rapid flow of traffic? How, in your view, can one balance up the need, both from the point of view of immigration and customs, to ensure that not only asylum seekers but also tobacco smuggling and drug smuggling is not successful from ports of entry, while, at the same time, ensuring a free-flow of traffic?
  (Mr Whitehead) Thank you for raising that. Free-flow of traffic is an issue, obviously, close to our heart. Let me say, first of all, I think sometimes there is a public perception of ports that they are there, really, as public authorities in some way, to carry out public functions all the time, whereas, in fact, they are highly competitive commercial entities, all competing with each other, all having to produce an interchange of passengers and freight as safely and as quickly as possible. So, all the time we are trying to achieve a balance between those commercial realities, and the public responsibility aspect, of course. I think our main concern in this area is that although there is a lot of good work, a lot more can be done in terms of bringing together the various authorities within the ports round the table, to look at these things in the round. At the moment, we believe it is very bitty and disjointed and unco-ordinated. We think it could be done a lot better. We say certain areas have started to improve, but it is the overview that we feel is lacking on this. We are very happy, very willing, to take part in that, because we believe it is part of running a good business as well as being publicly responsible.

  139. Are you, in effect, saying that you would welcome an official forum to be set up that involves both the Government agencies and port authorities, and that such a forum, at the moment, does not exist?
  (Mr Whitehead) We would welcome exactly that, with all the agencies involved—the various Government departments, the Immigration Service, the ports and the operators as well, if you like. It does not exist at the moment, and it should do.

1   Note by witness: What I failed to explain here is that ports themselves are not a part of government, but independent commercial entities running ports. In our case, we are, of course a trust and, as such responsible to the beneficiaries (stakeholders) of that trust, whom we view as the passengers and goods passing through and, in the wider sense, the local community and eventually UK plc. Back

2   See footnote 1. Back

3   Note by witness: The issue here is basically one of "keeping up" with all the various government and departmental changes and initiatives. For a relatively small organisation like ours, the overhead is enormous and we frequently miss things. However, it is also true to say that we (and our trade association, the BPA) are often not approached, even when an issue is of direct relevance to ports. An example might be the consultation paper on the review of the Prevention of Terrorism legislation. Back

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