Examination of Witnesses (Questions 82-99)|
WEDNESDAY 10 JULY 2002
MP, and MR PETER
82. Minister, it is always an honour and a pleasure
to see you here. Would you be kind enough to tell us who you are?
(Mr Spellar) John Spellar MP, Minister
(Mr Thomas) Peter Thomas. I am Head of the Railways
International and General Division in the Department for Transport.
83. What a lucky person you are, Mr Thomas.
Minister, do you have something to say to us?
(Mr Spellar) No. I think the general issues are very
well understood, that there have been several months of disruption,
that this has had a significant effect on the rail freight industry,
or the international part of it, there have been intensive discussions
at all levels of government and industry with our French counterparts
and we are now starting to see some progress.
84. What timetable would you put on that progress,
(Mr Spellar) SNCF tell us that the physical barriers,
the improved fencing, should be completed later this month and
the indications from the operators are that they think that is
likely to be achieved and that the next phase of the introduction
of detection and closed circuit television is coming in later
this year, although the French authorities are trying to speed
that up. Along with that, because after all, as Eurotunnel and
Eurostar will say, the physical barriers only buy you time for
a response, we have seen an increased police presence but we do
need to see that sustained. Certainly both the new French Ministers
and now SNCF are grasping this with a greater degree of urgency.
85. Do you sit in on meetings with the French
Minister of the Interior?
(Mr Spellar) Not in the meetings with the Interior.
The Secretary of State at the Home Office meets with the Interior
Minister. I have met both the current and indeed the previous
French Transport Minister and also last week I met the head of
86. Do you find any gap between your accounts
of the meetings with the French Government and the way that they
interpret what has happened?
(Mr Spellar) I am not sure whether it is that or whether
it is the level of communication between different departments
within the French Government.
87. Within the French Government or the English
(Mr Spellar) No, the French Government.
Chairman: I think we will all want to join in
88. On this point, Minister, you very kindly
replied to a parliamentary question of mine on 1 July, column
801; it is number 65743, where you said that the SRA will contribute
towards the cost of works in progress at the Fréthun terminal.
We have just had a very interesting exchange with the French Ambassador
in which His Excellency said that there was nothing more than
an expression of will on the part of the British Government to
contribute to this fence. Could you comment first of all on that?
Is there a guarantee first of all that we are going to pay for
the fence? SNCF suggested that we may not be paying towards the
fence; we may be paying towards the surveillance cameras. If we
are making any payment from the SRA what guarantee can you give
the Committee today that the level of service will resume to 100
rail freight trains per week as from September?
(Mr Spellar) With regard to the fence, as Sir Roger
Wheeler, the previous chief of the general staff who gave advice
to Eurotunnel regarding the Coquelles installation said, all a
fence ever does is buy you more time in order to be able to respond.
What the SRA did, in order to try and move matters on and to expedite
matters because of the considerable costs being borne by the rail
freight industry, was to offer to pay for facilities if that was
a constraint within the system, because time was important in
that. SNCF will have indicated to you that they do not believe
that is necessary and that they will be paying for that themselves.
They may also have indicated that they were hoping to cooperate
with us to see if we could provide detection equipment. I forget
the exact description of the type of equipment.
89. We will accept electronic surveillance.
(Mr Spellar) Passive millimetric wave imaging. We
have such equipment. It is quite simply an attempt to move the
process on as fast as we can in order to reduce the problems for
the freight industry.
90. It could be a language problem but they
seem to think that you are only making a gesture and the government
has expressed the will to contribute. You are quite specific in
this reply: "The SRA will contribute towards the cost of
the works in progress to increase security at the rail freight
terminal adjacent to the Channel Tunnel in order to enable early
resumption of full and reliable rail freight services throughout
the Channel Tunnel." At the risk of repeating myself, the
understanding of EWS is very clearly that the full and reliable
rail freight service is the resumption of 100 Channel Tunnel rail
freight services operating in each direction, through the Channel
Tunnel, each week. First of all, can we have a guarantee from
you that you are expecting a full and reliable resumption of services
(Mr Spellar) We want to see that as soon as possible.
That depends on both the physical defences and also the provision
of the police resources in order to back that up. Those are the
two crucial elements of it all and that is precisely what we have
been in discussions with the French government about, to steadily
improve the provision of those services whilst recognising that
pressures will come in other parts of the rail system.
91. The problem I still have with this reply
is that we all want that but you are in a position to negotiate
it. What commitments have you from the French? First of all, what
commitments have you given them that you will make that payment?
What commitments have you from them in return that a full and
reliable service will resume in September?
(Mr Spellar) SNCF have said to us that they very much
want to resume service as soon as possible, not least because
they say that they are losing considerable sums of money as well
as the British freight operators. In order to speed up that process,
the SRA at an earlier stage in the discussions offered to pay
for those facilities.
92. Offered to you?
(Mr Spellar) No. SRA in discussions with SNCF. SNCF
have indicated that they have budgeted for this and therefore
do not expect them to pay. That is fine by me as long as the facilities
are being constructed. My understanding is that they are being
constructed and should be ready shortly. The next phase is closed
circuit television and infrared detection. That should be in a
bit later this year, but we are trying to speed that up. At the
same time, the Home Office have been in discussions with the French
Interior Ministry about a more substantial, predictable police
provision in order to be able to operate within that protected
physical environment and to prevent incursions into the freight
yard. Along with that, there are discussions now taking place
regarding a variety of detection devices to deal with those who,
by whatever means, may have got into the yard or indeed may have
got access onto the trains further back within the rail network.
We should remember that previously clandestines had been getting
in in the yards in Milan until there was cooperation between the
British and Italian authorities and indeed, as we saw recently,
some may still be doing so.
93. There is no guarantee?
(Mr Spellar) Until such time as the facilities are
in place and the enhanced police presence is there, we will be
working with the SNCF and the British freight companies in order
to improve the service and also to recapture the business.
94. To your knowledge, is the SRA going to be
looking at alternatives to the Tunnel to support international
rail freight? You are familiar that the Potter Group is based
in my constituency. They are very keen to establish a rail ferry
service from the UK to Holland or Belgium that would provide a
rail freight alternative to the Tunnel.
(Mr Spellar) I am not aware of any such proposals.
(Mr Thomas) I am not aware of that proposal. I have
heard of the proposal but I do not know how carefully the SRA
have considered it.
95. Knowing my attachment to short sea shipping
what potential is there, in your view, for rail to rail connections
to be met through short sea shipping?
(Mr Spellar) I am not aware that that is a priority
within the rail system. Resumption of direct rail links through
the Tunnel is the main priority of the SRA.
96. Has your Department been in any discussions
with the Home Office about asylum seeker claims being considered
(Mr Spellar) We are aware of discussions that they
have been having with the French Interior Ministry but that does
not impact so directly on the work that we have been undertaking,
which has been very directly with the French Transport Minister
and directed via SRA with SNCF in order to deal with the transport
side of it. The Home Office deals with the question of processing
97. Are you saying you have not been consulted
at all on that issue?
(Mr Spellar) We have been advised and kept up to date
with progress, but I would not expect us to be particularly consulted
on such an issue which is very much a responsibility for the Home
Office, the processing of asylum applications, either in this
country or in an external location.
98. Do you think the current situation is a
(Mr Spellar) I think the current situation of clandestine
migrants is an extremely serious one. The impacts are being felt
throughout the country. It is a problem that we share with a number
of other European countries and I was in discussions with the
Italian Transport Minister yesterday on precisely these implications.
99. Do you not feel that joined up government
would require that you would be consulted at least on looking
at possible solutions?
(Mr Spellar) No, I do not. We have collective responsibility
and departments take a lead on different areas of policy. Obviously,
the question of asylum applications, where they are located, the
method by which they are processed and the criteria by which they
are accepted or rejected are very much areas where the Home Office
takes the lead. It would be even better if a number of Members
of Parliament followed that lead as well.