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

Memorandum by the Department For Transport (CHT 10)



  1.  The problem of would-be illegal immigrants exploiting rail freight services through the Channel Tunnel has been developing over the past four years. Initially the problem largely originated in the Italian freight yards around Milan, where illegal immigrants were smuggled into containers before these were despatched through France; but increasingly would-be illegal immigrants have been arriving in the Calais area by other routes. The problem of illegal migrants living rough in the Calais area led to the decision by the local authorities to requisition, from Eurotunnel, a disused construction hangar at Sangatte to convert into a Red Cross hostel. This has since been exploited by criminal gangs of traffickers and facilitators who direct the residents towards the various cross-Channel operations.

  2.  From January 2001 the numbers of illegal immigrants arriving in the UK on Eurotunnel's shuttle trains each month increased rapidly, reaching a peak of 807 in July 2001. To combat this disruption to their services, Eurotunnel installed progressively more robust anti-intrusion measures and increased its security resources. These took effect from August onwards; the result was that the traffickers looked to the weakest link in the area, which was now the freight yard at Fréthun. Although the French railway companies SNCF and RFF (the French infrastructure manager) had been talking since April last year of installing improved fencing and other security measures by the end of the year, this work had not started in October 2001 when the mass invasions of the freight yard began.

  3.  On 5 November 2001 the French rail freight operator, SNCF, announced that it was imposing restrictions on freight services through the Channel Tunnel because of the activities of illegal immigrants. These came into effect on 6 November 2001 and are still in place.


  4.  The effect of the restrictions on rail freight through the Channel Tunnel is being felt most particularly by the operator English, Welsh and Scottish Railway International (EWSI) and their customers, by freight aggregators and those responsible for rail freight terminals such as Daventry and Hams Hall. Before the restrictions began, EWSI and SNCF ran some 96 import trains a week. Since restrictions came in, the best week has seen 47 import trains run. Most weeks have seen fewer than 40. Up to 180 immigrants per week have been reaching the UK on these services. SNCF are currently trying to process six trains a day.

  5.  EWS advises that it is losing £500,000 a week. The disruption is also affecting wider interests, both major industry (in particular Scotch whisky and car industry) and freight forwarders/aggregators. Some of the operators have advised that they have been obliged to switch to other modes of transport in order to keep their supply chains running. The Rail Freight Group estimates that 8,000 jobs are at risk. Some forwarders have commenced redundancies. SNCF estimates that the current commercial demand is for around 75 trains per week (cf 96 pre-November). The damage to the business will be long-lasting.

  6.  The Rail Freight Group has approached the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) to provide compensation to UK companies affected by the disruption. The SRA has indicated that those companies should in the first place pursue the options for compensation open to them under their commercial contracts, or through direct enforcement in the French courts of European Regulation 2679/98 on the free movement of goods. Companies seeking to enforce it directly through the French courts could include in their action a claim for losses incurred as a result of the restrictions. The Government has offered practical advice on the French legal system through its Paris Embassy.


  7.  In 2001, the Home Office extended the Civil Penalty regime (introduced in 2000 for the road haulage industry) to rail freight through the Channel Tunnel, to put pressure on SNCF to adopt tighter security at its Fréthun terminal. The improved checking procedures introduced, in particular at Calais port, to avoid these penalties resulted in a displacement of the illegal immigrants' activities to the Eurotunnel terminal at Coquelles (to which the Civil Penalty regime was subsequently extended in October 2001)[1]

  8.  The Government has been pressing the French Government from the outset to take decisive action to address the problems at Fréthun. The problems at Fréthun however illustrate, starkly, broader issues concerning migration which affect borders elsewhere within the EU and the EU's external border. The Government has therefore also been actively seeking solutions to the wider problem, multilaterally within Europe, bilaterally with France, and by reforms of our procedures for dealing with asylum applicants.

  9.  The Minister for Transport, John Spellar, raised the problems at Fréthun with the then French Transport Minister, Jean-Claude Gayssot, on 7 November 2001 in New York, and had regular contact (meetings, telephone conversations, four letters) from then onwards. Stephen Byers wrote on three occasions to M. Gayssot and, after the French presidential elections, to Gilles de Robien.

  10.  The Prime Minister wrote to Lionel Jospin three times on this issue, as well as urging a resolution of the problems in conversations at London, Stockholm and Barcelona Summits.

  11.  There had also been contact between the Home Secretary and the French Interior Minister, and between the Minister for Europe and both Hubert Vedrine (the previous French Foreign Minister) and the French Ambassador.

  12.  A sub-group of the Anglo-French Cross-Channel Commission has been set up specifically to deal with rail freight disruptions. So far it has met once, on 25 March.


  13.  The Government welcomes the strong interest that the European Commission has taken in this matter and the action it has taken in invoking Regulation 2679/98 on the free movement of goods to seek explanations from the French Government on the action it has been taking to remove this restriction. In an attempt to seek a fuller understanding of the problem, the Commission called a meeting in Brussels on 30 May between representatives of the British and French Governments and representatives of the Commission Directorates on the Internal Market, Transport, and Justice and Home Affairs. The outcome is reported below.


  14.  The response of SNCF and the French Government has been disappointing. UK Ministers have made clear to the new French Government that the current position is intolerable. The Government considers that four concurrent actions are necessary to enable normal train services to resume:

    —  substantial fencing and other fixed security measures such as closed circuit television, intrusion detectors and lighting;

    —  sufficient security guards to deal with the numbers attempting to breach the fixed security measures and maintain a secure environment for the train services;

    —  sufficient police or gendarme support for the security guards to enable them to maintain the secure environment; and

    —  efficient searching of the trains within the secure environment, both to remove any clandestine migrants that manage to breach the security there, and second to remove any clandestine migrants who boarded the train before it arrived at Fréthun.

  15.  A first stage of physical works-improved fencing-was finally completed in February 2002. This fencing has, however been repeatedly breached.

  16.  Police support has, since November, been focussed on a night-time window, now running from 17:00 to 06:00. The level of police resources available was only significantly increased in April this year. It has however not been dedicated to the terminal, and there have been occasions when the support has been temporarily reduced or withdrawn for operational reasons.


  17.  The interim French Government appointed following the May presidential elections has shown a much stronger desire than its predecessor to get a firm grip on the situation in Northern France. In a telephone call to the Home Secretary, the interim Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy indicated a commitment to ensuring that policing resources were made available around the clock. He has subsequently announced that the gendarmerie resources currently in place would be permanently posted to the region and that additional (temporary) resources would be made available in September.

  18.  At the meeting in Brussels on 30 May, the French provided a timetable for improved security measures, to be completed in November. We would prefer a faster timetable and have pressed the French to look carefully at how they could accelerate it. We expressed our willingness in principle to help in any way we can. In particular we are willing to provide specialist detection equipment. Close bilateral contacts between UK and France will continue.

  18.  Some 30 trains are currently operating each week. Over the past 10 days, there has been a significant drop in the number of illegal entrants (29 reported by the Immigration Service in the last 10 days, compared to 107 in the previous 10 days).


  20.  The Home Office is dealing with the underlying immigration and asylum issues, some of which require multilateral measures that will inevitably take time. Meanwhile the Government will continue to urge SNCF and the French authorities to bring forward proposed improvements in physical security at the Fréthun freight yard, to offer practical support and financial support (though we understand SNCF and RFF have funding in place), and to review progress regularly with them. Physical measures such as improved fencing and automated surveillance systems are, though, necessary but not sufficient. Experience has shown that there is a need for an integrated programme including police resources to intercept and disperse large groups of intruders. We shall be seeking ways of working with the French to encourage and develop "best practice", drawing on the experience from Eurotunnel and others.

Department for Transport

June 2002

1   As a result of various legal challenges, the Civil Penalty is not currently being enforced against road hauliers, has been ruled not to apply to EWSI and has been quashed in relation to Eurotunnel. The Home Office accepted in February 2002 that the penalties raised against SNCF for the period from March-September 2001 should be waived, as SNCF had provided evidence that it was complying with the terms of the relevant Code of Practice. The penalties have not been reintroduced, despite the problems since October 2001, because of the danger of alienating the French in an area where their co-operation is essential. Back

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