Examination of Witnesses (Questions 129
TUESDAY 20 JUNE 2000
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
130. Would x-ray help, then? Or some similar
(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.
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 fromin 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.
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.
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
consultationwhich, 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 italmost as a given that this is not going to be a problem
and we will accept it.
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.
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.
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 questionand perhaps I will direct
this at Mr Whitehead specificallythat 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 involvedthe 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
See footnote 1. Back
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