Members present:

Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody, in the Chair
Andrew F Bennett
Mrs Louise Ellman
Chris Grayling
Miss Anne McIntosh


Examination of Witnesses

RT HON JOHN SPELLAR MP, Minister for Transport, and MR PETER THOMAS, Divisional Manager, International and General Division, Department for Transport, examined.


  1. Minister, it is always an honour and a pleasure to see you here. Would you be kind enough to tell us who you are?
  2. (Mr Spellar) John Spellar, Minister for Transport.

    (Mr Thomas) Peter Thomas. I am Head of the Railways International and General Division in the Department for Transport.

  3. What a lucky person you are, Mr Thomas. Minister, do you have something to say to us?
  4. (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.

  5. What timetable would you put on that progress, Minister?
  6. (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.

  7. Do you sit in on meetings with the French Minister of the Interior?
  8. (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.

  9. Do you find any gap between your accounts of the meetings with the French Government and the way that they interpret what has happened?
  10. (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

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

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

    Miss McIntosh

  13. 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?
  14. (Mr Spellar) With regard to the fence, as Sir Richard 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.


  15. We will accept electronic surveillance.
  16. (Mr Spellar) Passive minimetric 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

  17. 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?
  18. (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.

  19. 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?
  20. (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.

  21. Offered to you?
  22. (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 protect 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.

  23. There is no guarantee?
  24. (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.

  25. 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.
  26. (Mr Spellar) I am not aware of any such proposals.

    (Mr Thomas) I am not aware of that proposal. I have heard the proposal but I do not know how carefully the SRA have considered it.

  27. 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?
  28. (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

  29. Has your Department been in any discussions with the Home Office about asylum seeker claims being considered in France?
  30. (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.

  31. Are you saying you have not been consulted at all on that issue?
  32. (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.

  33. Do you think the current situation is a serious one?
  34. (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.

  35. Do you not feel that joined up government would require that you would be consulted at least on looking at possible solutions?
  36. (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 are 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.

  37. The Home Office might take the lead but do you not feel as the Minister responsible for transport, where there are serious issues, that you ought to at least have the opportunity of offering an opinion?
  38. (Mr Spellar) We are kept informed of what other departments do. If we felt that we had an input to make, we would make it but it is very much which department is in the lead on which area under the collective responsibility.


  39. Can I understand you very precisely? Are you suggesting that there are two parallel sets of talks being held at the present time, one with the Minister for Transport talking to the SNCF and to the Minister of Transport?
  40. (Mr Spellar) Yes.

  41. And the second parallel series of meetings being held between the Home Office and the Minister of the Interior. There is no joint working with both departments being represented on the committee at the same time, talking to the French government at a senior level. Is that what you are telling us?
  42. (Mr Spellar) I am saying we have had meetings with the Transport Ministry and the Home Office have had meetings with the Interior Ministry.

  43. You are saying that, yes, that is the situation. There are two parallel sets of meetings?
  44. (Mr Spellar) We keep in close touch with each other as to what is happening on that.

  45. Except that you are saying that some of the aspects of these discussions must only be a matter for the lead department.
  46. (Mr Spellar) No. The question I was asked was who took the lead on these policy issues and the answer is it is the Home Office who rightly take the lead.

  47. Do you have any joint meetings between the Ministry of Transport and the Home Office and the Ministry of Transport in France and the Ministry of the Interior in France?
  48. (Mr Spellar) We have not had that at ministerial level. There will have been such meetings at official level.

  49. Mr Thomas, are you aware of any meeting at official level which has addressed this joint need for a package of various measures in order to have some effect on the movement of clandestine traffic?
  50. (Mr Thomas) There has not been a meeting which has gone into the details of all the individual matters on the agenda.

  51. We have had a broad brush meeting, have we?
  52. (Mr Thomas) I have led a UK delegation to a meeting in Paris at which I helped with members from the Home Office. Similarly in Brussels.

    Andrew Bennett

  53. What does this Anglo-French Cross Channel Commission do?
  54. (Mr Spellar) That is a quite different body to do with the management of Eurotunnel. It is the formal body for dealing with that.

    (Mr Thomas) There is the Intergovernmental Commission which is the Channel Tunnel body which represents the two governments dealing with the concession in Eurotunnel.


  55. That was set up under the original Bill and that is not something that we want to concern ourselves with, for the moment.
  56. (Mr Thomas) There is the Cross-Channel Commission, set up largely at official level, on which the Cabinet Office leads.

    (Mr Spellar) They are responsible for security.

    (Mr Thomas) It looks at issues which come up on the border between the two countries. It has certainly been involved in this subject. It was in that context that I led a delegation to Paris. That was in the context of the Cross-Channel Commission which has set up a sub-group on this matter. It only met once. We pressed the French to have some additional meetings. They were not ready to at that time and in the meantime work has progressed without that body having to meet.

    Andrew Bennett

  57. We have three sets of government departments involved in this. We have the Cabinet Office looking at overall security issues; we have the Department of Transport looking at trying to improve the number of trains that move freight from road onto rail and then we have the Home Office looking at the immigration and asylum issues. Is that right?
  58. (Mr Spellar) Pretty much so, yes.

  59. Have you not been able to impress on the other departments how far their failure to solve this problem is absolutely sabotaging one of your key departmental interests?
  60. (Mr Spellar) I do not think it is fair, if we are talking about the domestic, British departments, to say that it is their failure to solve this problem. They have been pressing their French counterparts extremely hard in order to try and speed up the process and to ensure that there is a resolution. Fortunately, we are now seeing some progress in that direction, particularly on the physical structure. That has to be matched by the provision of police forces in order to be able to police and enforce the restrictions that we hope will be in place shortly.

    Mrs Ellman

  61. I did not ask you if you were taking the lead on Home Office matters; I asked if you had been consulted and you said no. You gave the impression that you did not see why you should have been.
  62. (Mr Spellar) Informed, yes, but I do not see that we would necessarily be part of the decision making process on that.

  63. You do not think you should be consulted?
  64. (Mr Spellar) No. The lead department on asylum and migration issues is the Home Office but it is important that within those discussions that we are having with our French counterparts we are aware of progress that is being made or otherwise with their French counterparts.

  65. Does that mean that you might find out through discussions with French counterparts things that the British government is doing that the Home Office does not tell you about?
  66. (Mr Spellar) No, it does not. It means that there is full exchange of information so that we are fully aware of the developments that are taking place on the asylum and migration side of government, but that the lead, obviously and rightly, is taken by the Home Office.

  67. Who do you think is responsible for impeding the free flow of trade and goods through the Channel Tunnel because of this problem?
  68. (Mr Spellar) The problem is quite simply the organised criminal gangs who are bringing large numbers of clandestine migrants in who are seeking to enter the United Kingdom as illegal migrants and who are then looking at whichever part of the system at any time looks most suitable for getting into the United Kingdom. Previously, that had been the road haulage sector. As we clamped down on that, rail became more attractive. As Eurostar put very effective barriers round their terminal, the freight terminal became more attractive. The prime responsibility lies with the organised criminals who are bringing large numbers of desperate people to northern France in order to get access to the UK.

  69. What responsibility would you say the French government and your Department and indeed the British government have in trying to deal with this problem?
  70. (Mr Spellar) The next stage self-evidently was to provide protection at the freight terminal at Fréthun. It would have been preferable had those physical restrictions been put in earlier, as we had been promised that they would be. However, it is fair to say that now construction is moving on apace in order to provide that protection, but that does need to be backed up with a very strong, effective police presence as well.

  71. What could the French authorities do better?
  72. (Mr Spellar) The French authorities could have built the sort of physical protection before that they are building now. They could have put in a more sustained police presence, because it has not just been the level of police presence but also the variability.


  73. Variability of numbers, quality or status?
  74. (Mr Spellar) Variability of numbers in particular. While it was understandable during the French presidential election that there was some diversion of police forces, that did have an unfavourable effect on the situation at the freight depot.

    Chris Grayling

  75. Minister, can I ask you about the cost of the slots in the Channel Tunnel itself while this hiatus is taking place? I assume that there are long term contractual arrangements in place for the picking of slots within the Channel Tunnel. As far as you are aware, who is paying the bill for that at the moment?
  76. (Mr Spellar) It is a slightly different position, is it not, in that there is already a payment to Eurotunnel. I have forgotten when that agreement expires.

    (Mr Thomas) The current arrangement, which was a commercial arrangement entered into by British Railways Board and SNCF, was part of the finance for the construction of the Tunnel. It was that British Railways Board and SNCF would pay minimum usage charges for the first so many years of opening. As part of the deal for the sale of what was BR's international rail freight section to EWS, the SRA agreed to continue paying their share of the rail freight charge. When the BR international rail freight business was sold to EWS, part of the sale deal was that British Railways Board would continue to pay the Channel access charge, this minimum usage charge, until April 2005, I think, but I stand to be corrected on that date. Should the amount of rail freight exceed that minimum amount by that time, EWS would have to start paying the addition, but I do not think there is any expectation on anybody's part that it will.

  77. At the moment, the tax payer is paying Eurotunnel for slots that are not being used by freight trains?
  78. (Mr Spellar) No. At the moment they are paying a minimum usage charge and therefore if those slots, for whatever reason, are not being used they are still being paid for. They would be, whether those are being used by trains or not.

  79. Nonetheless it is the case that there are empty slots being paid for by the tax payer which cannot be used because of the hiatus.
  80. (Mr Spellar) That is a slightly different issue to the impact that this is having on the freight business.

  81. What assessment have you made of the current problems on the growth patterns in freight and rail set out in the ten year plan? Is that going to retard progress?
  82. (Mr Spellar) Not a great deal because in terms of volume the international rail freight business is a small though important part of the freight business. It is however very important as part of the Europe-wide policy of ourselves and other members of the Community in order to shift freight from road to rail. We do not under-estimate the significance and the importance therefore of getting the system back and running, but in terms of the volumes that we are looking at carrying this is a small part of that.

  83. Are you confident that, when this is over, if it ends in the near future, the freight transfer from rail to road which has taken place can be reversed?
  84. (Mr Spellar) That can be the cause but I would not anticipate that that could happen too quickly because a number of companies where they have had to shift back to road will of course have had to sign contracts for a period of time in order to make that worthwhile for road hauliers. Again, I do not under-estimate the importance of the difficulties that have been created.

  85. Basically, the longer this goes on, the more it will add to the congestion problems in and around London?
  86. (Mr Spellar) Not necessarily in and around London but particularly on the roads leading into Dover which is a significant problem.

  87. Those lorries come up via the M25 and predominantly they will be going different ways around some of the most congested parts of the country.
  88. (Mr Spellar) Yes.

  89. Frankly, this ought to have been for a very long time a very urgent priority.
  90. (Mr Spellar) It has been a very urgent priority from ----

  91. It does not feel like it, observing from outside. The impression those of us outside have had is that this has been a slow, long, laborious process and very little progress has yet been made.
  92. (Mr Spellar) It has been a slow and long process. British ministers from a whole range of departments, including the Prime Minister, have been regularly raising this issue with their French counterparts in order to get a remedy. I am pleased to see that the physical construction is now taking place. It would have been preferable had it taken place earlier but I would remind you that this is on French sovereign soil and therefore our scope is to persuade and encourage.

  93. One suspects if the boot had been on the other foot things might have happened rather quicker, but that is another story.
  94. (Mr Spellar) I am not aware that we can take unilateral action on other countries' sovereign soil.

    Andrew Bennett

  95. How does the imaging equipment that you referred to earlier work?
  96. (Mr Spellar) There are various types of equipment that we are looking at. There is thermal imaging equipment which is capable of detecting clandestine entrants in soft sided vehicles and wagons. There are also acoustic detectors capable of detecting vibration on trucks, set up in the chassis of a lorry, by the beating of a human heart. Carbon dioxide detectors detect the traces of CO2 exhaled by clandestine entrants. Again, those are only effective with soft sided rail wagons.

  97. How soon are they going to be in place?
  98. (Mr Spellar) Discussions are taking place with SNCF as to how and where those could be located.

    (Mr Thomas) The expertise on all this equipment, which is very much state of the art, lies with the Home Office and the Home Office have been in discussion initially. They have some of this equipment already at Coquelles and Dover.

  99. Have you a clue how practical it is to use this equipment? If you are doing one lorry, you can do the one lorry and it can move on. If you are doing a freight train, how long does it take to do the freight train effectively?
  100. (Mr Thomas) I do not know. I expect the equipment would probably be used not to test every single wagon. It would only test the soft sided ones, not steel containers. As I understand it, it can operate as the vehicle moves past it or as the train moves past it.

  101. You do not think it is going to slow trains down?
  102. (Mr Thomas) It has not ever been used on a train. I am speculating but I imagine that it would be used, for example, as the train entered the yard slowly. This is very new equipment and nobody has ever used it to test a train.

  103. It is a bit hopeful?
  104. (Mr Thomas) Exactly how it is going to be used is beyond the wit of us.

  105. One of the problems at Fréthun is that trains spend too long there. If you want to speed it up, I am not quite sure how this equipment is going to speed the process up rather than slow it down and make the trains more vulnerable at that depot. You have referred to gangs on several occasions. What success are we having at prosecuting the gangs in this country when they are collecting money from the people who have already got in?
  106. (Mr Spellar) You would have to ask the Home Office about their overall success rate with regard to that.

  107. Would it not be something that the government ought to be publicising, because if we were having a success rate it might deter some people from trying to get in in the first place, might it not?
  108. (Mr Spellar) Yes, although if those who were coming in as economic migrants had their claims dealt with rapidly and they were removed rapidly that would also be a deterrent.

  109. If they were dealt with rapidly?
  110. (Mr Spellar) And if they were removed rapidly.

  111. Is getting EWS back on the rails as far as this is concerned going to be trying to get compensation from the French government or is it going to be extra assistance in some way from the UK in order to make it viable and to encourage more people to get back on to rail freight?
  112. (Mr Spellar) In the first instance, any claim would be with the French government and the industry is looking at the options in that regard.

  113. Are you helping them with those claims?
  114. (Mr Spellar) We will certainly be prepared to provide assistance on any information for them.


  115. I know that there is still one question that Miss McIntosh wants to ask you but what is it you really think that you have agreed with the French government? I am not very bright. Be patient with me. What have you agreed? Have you agreed that SNCF and the French government will be responsible not only for more physical constraints but also for an increased police presence and, according to the word you have used, a consistent police presence? Is that agreed?
  116. (Mr Spellar) Yes. That is our understanding.

  117. They are quite clear about that?
  118. (Mr Spellar) Yes. If I can read the joint communique from the Home Secretary and the French Interior Minister issued on 25 June, they talked there about increased security at Fréthun, including best endeavours for the double fence to be completed by 31 July. They talked about financial participation by the UK Strategic Rail Authority enabling speedier completion of these works.

  119. Do you interpret that as being a financial involvement?
  120. (Mr Spellar) Part of that was the installation of British personnel detection technology at the port of Calais.

  121. Have you been consulted about a timetable for that installation?
  122. (Mr Spellar) They are endeavouring to do that by the end of July. Discussions are taking place on that. Provision of the latest forgery detection technology by the UK in order to detect false identity documents in France is a separate issue. This is to do with the passenger systems. As you know, the French government changed French legislation to enable operations to take place in the station in Paris. Also, we have been doing work for the coach operators at Calais, which is another area of concern.

  123. As far as you are concerned, would you say that you are quite satisfied that you and the French have now arrived at a common position about a timetable for not only improving the security at Fréthun but continuing to make sure that the depot cannot be used by clandestine immigrants?
  124. (Mr Spellar) We certainly believe that the improvement to the physical arrangements coupled with a reinforced police presence should make this a much less attractive proposition for the clandestines.

  125. Would you be surprised to learn that His Excellency the French Ambassador gave us the impression that it was only if the British government who were outside the Schengen Agreement were prepared to make Britain less attractive -- I think he said rather neatly that we have an 'attractivity' and that was the reason why we got so many immigrants, but he implied that it was only if the British government was prepared to do something about that that they would be able to deal with the problem of clandestine immigrants.
  126. (Mr Spellar) He may have been saying that in general terms because one of the issues that we are facing and are fully aware of is that, as we have seen with the improved security at the Eurostar Tunnel, it meant that the focus of activity moved to the freight terminal. There would then be a concern that we would have to look at the freight terminal at Lille once we get better security at Fréthun and indeed yesterday, in my discussions with the Italian Transport Minister, I was focusing their attention on the fact that the focus of activity might shift to depots further afield. Mr Thomas was talking about containers. We have seen clandestines previously entering containers in Italy to come through France. I see this as an important battle in the war that we are conducting against clandestine migration, but it by no means finally resolves the problem. We have seen the shift of emphasis particularly being well directed by the organised criminal organisations that are moving these people around.

    Miss McIntosh

  127. The tax payer slots that we fund in this country: I put it to you that they may not be empty slots but they may be being used by SNCF.
  128. (Mr Spellar) I beg your pardon?

  129. I am relating to Mr Grayling's question.
  130. (Mr Spellar) These are trains going through the Channel Tunnel for which there is a minimum user charge. The concern is that the trains coming through the Channel Tunnel have had a sizeable reduction in their number. It is absolutely right that we have that concern.

  131. Could you give evidence to the Committee in writing?
  132. (Mr Spellar) We can send you a note on this, yes.

  133. As to the number of slots being used by SNCF and by EWS since November last year?
  134. (Mr Spellar) It is a joint service between SNCF and EWS, but we will send you a note on it. There is not a distinction.


  135. How hopeful are you that EWS will be able to get back some kind of viable commercial service before the autumn?
  136. (Mr Spellar) I certainly hope that, with the improved physical security coupled with improved police presence, this will reduce the problem and enable the services to be resumed and therefore will provide the predictability and reliability that the freight operators are looking for in order to enable them to be fulfilling their contractual requirements. I fully understand the difficulties that EWS and the freight operators will have in the short run in recapturing the market and we will need to be working with them to that end.

  137. Had you thought of financial incentives?
  138. (Mr Spellar) They may have been in some discussions with the Strategic Rail Authority but I am not sure of the details on that.

  139. Do you expect to come back here in October and speak to our successor committee about the same problem?

(Mr Spellar) That depends on the successor committee.

Chairman: I can assure you that you will always be welcome. Thank you very much, Minister. You have been very helpful, as always.