Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 82-99)




  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 for Transport.
  (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, Minister?
  (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 SNCF.

  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.

Andrew Bennett

  87. Within the French Government or the English Government?
  (Mr Spellar) No, the French Government.

  Chairman: I think we will all want to join in this one.

Miss McIntosh

  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.

Miss McIntosh

  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 from September?
  (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.

Mrs Ellman

  96. Has your Department been in any discussions with the Home Office about asylum seeker claims being considered in France?
  (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 asylum claims.

  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 serious one?
  (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.

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