WEDNESDAY 10 JULY 2002
Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody, in the Chair
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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Spellar) No, the French Government.
Chairman: I think we will all want to join in this one.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Spellar) Yes.
(Mr Spellar) I am saying we have had meetings with the Transport Ministry and the Home Office have had meetings with the Interior Ministry.
(Mr Spellar) We keep in close touch with each other as to what is happening on that.
(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.
(Mr Spellar) We have not had that at ministerial level. There will have been such meetings at official level.
(Mr Thomas) There has not been a meeting which has gone into the details of all the individual matters on the agenda.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Spellar) Pretty much so, yes.
(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.
(Mr Spellar) Informed, yes, but I do not see that we would necessarily be part of the decision making process on that.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Spellar) That is a slightly different issue to the impact that this is having on the freight business.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Spellar) Not necessarily in and around London but particularly on the roads leading into Dover which is a significant problem.
(Mr Spellar) Yes.
(Mr Spellar) It has been a very urgent priority from ----
(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.
(Mr Spellar) I am not aware that we can take unilateral action on other countries' sovereign soil.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Thomas) Exactly how it is going to be used is beyond the wit of us.
(Mr Spellar) You would have to ask the Home Office about their overall success rate with regard to that.
(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.
(Mr Spellar) And if they were removed rapidly.
(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.
(Mr Spellar) We will certainly be prepared to provide assistance on any information for them.
(Mr Spellar) Yes. That is our understanding.
(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.
(Mr Spellar) Part of that was the installation of British personnel detection technology at the port of Calais.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Spellar) I beg your pardon?
(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.
(Mr Spellar) We can send you a note on this, yes.
(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.
(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.
(Mr Spellar) They may have been in some discussions with the Strategic Rail Authority but I am not sure of the details on that.
(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.