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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)




  40. Good afternoon, your Excellency and M Douté. Can I welcome you most warmly this afternoon and say that we are very privileged that you have been prepared to come and give us evidence. This is a matter of great concern to both our countries and I know we can rely upon you to assist us in reaching a possible solution. May I ask M Douté first, given the numbers of illegal immigrants who are gaining access to trains and the fact that the number has been increasing since January 2001, why has it taken so long for SNCF and RFF to install fencing at Fréthun?
  (M Douté) Good afternoon, madam Chairman, ladies and gentlemen. I try to address this Committee in English but I may have to have some words translated if needed.

  41. Of course.
  (M Douté) In fact, the number of illegal immigrants trying to cross over has been increasing since 1999. Works started in that year, including the fencing. The original fencing was already there, just as on any other yard but not more, and works were decided in the year 2000 for improving a higher fence and intrusion detectors and so on. In France this is paid for by RFF, as you mentioned, and so works started there and then and were almost completed by the year 2001 except that from then on it was becoming almost impossible to complete the works because everything which was done by day was taken away by night by the immigrants.

  42. Why was it not possible to get the same result at Fréthun that you have at Coquelles, because the terminal at Coquelles is very effectively protected?
  (M Douté) The terminal of Eurotunnel—is that what you are saying?

  43. Yes.
  (M Douté) In fact, the two terminals are very different in the sense that in Eurotunnel it is a closed operation. There is only one rail access and this is towards the tunnel, whereas on the Fréthun yard you have regional passenger lines coming along to Fréthun and also you have access from Calais, from Lille and also to Boulogne and to the tunnel, so it is a very open area and in fact, and this is of course very important, including for the future, that means that even if there is a very high security around that yard (and this is what we are experiencing right now) clandestines go to other places, even far from Fréthun, to try to break in.

  44. Then may I ask you, your Excellency, what is the attitude of the French Government towards the disruption of services at Fréthun?
  (M Bernard) Madam Chairman, the French Government is even more preoccupied than you could imagine on this question which is as painful for us as it is for Great Britain. The situation is the following. As Britain is not a member of Schengen we are supposed, according to the Schengen rules, to control people coming into the Schengen area but we are not supposed to control people going out of the Schengen area. As we consider that our relations are close with Britain it gives us the responsibility of helping and avoiding clandestine immigrants coming to Britain and so we are controlling more and more and with extreme care the flow of clandestine immigrants and asylum seekers in order to help Britain. Many efforts have been made already, as you noted yourself, madam, in Coquelles. We are now facing the problem of Fréthun because as things go the problem goes elsewhere and so Coquelles has been secured by Eurotunnel. We are now—SNCF in particular and RFF—working hard to secure Calais Fréthun which is more difficult. However, one must not be candid. Even if we were to make Calais Fréthun safe, if we do not find ways and means to stop the flow, immigrants will go elsewhere and they are already doing so. For instance, now that they know that in Fréthun it is going to become impossible, then they go to the highway which is close to there and they jump in the lorries and trucks elsewhere. As you see, we are ready to co-operate as far as possible with Britain on this subject and the two Ministers of the Interior have already met on 25 June and will meet again on 12 July in order to find an appropriate solution but, as it may occur to you, madam, the real problem is far more important and far-reaching than the simple problem of security in Fréthun.

  45. Yes, except of course, Monsieur l"Ambassadeur, we must start where we are, not where we wish to be, and Fréthun must be a very important player in that sense. Is the French Government confident that it will be able to produce some kind of practical timetable in these discussions with the British Government on methods that will change the situation at Fréthun?
  (M Bernard) I think that things are pretty much going their way on this subject and, as I have been told, the fence around Fréthun will be completed if I am not mistaken by the end of July. Subsequently, in the following weeks, cameras will be put in and other devices of detection. Lights will be installed and also an access for the police forces to be able to come closer to the gates so we have to build some kind of a road. All this is going on but I think one has to pay attention to the fact that we cannot, from one day to another, easily satisfy two objectives like these; ie one is to make freight traffic free, which is an objective that we adhere to, of course, but it is a fact that we are also requested to prevent the clandestines from jumping on the trains. We think that this also the British Government wishes, so we are trying to do both but it is difficult.

Miss McIntosh

  46. Your Excellency, could I clarify what you said in answer to the Chairman's question about the provisions of Schengen? Can I be absolutely clear, that you and your Government obviously stand by the provisions in the original Treaty of Rome that there should be absolute free movement of goods, people and services throughout the European Union?
  (M Bernard) We totally agree to this principle. I was just saying, madam, that we are trying to complete two objectives that are difficult to reconcile and which are put forward by the British Government. One is to leave free access to freight trains and the other one is to prevent clandestines from jumping on the trains.

  47. So I have not understood you correctly that you do not wish the Schengen agreement to compromise the original treaty provisions?
  (M Bernard) You mean to introduce the Schengen agreement into the European Union provisions? It is a different treaty because there are not the same members.

  Miss McIntosh: I appreciate that. I simply want an open-ended commitment from you that free movement of goods is still of paramount importance.


  48. Does Schengen override the provision in the Treaty of Rome to allow the free movement of goods and people?
  (M Bernard) I do not think that you have to organise some kind of priority between the texts. There is a text that organises the Treaty of Rome trades within the European Union and you have another text with not the same membership which organises circulation of people within Schengen. I do not think that we have to establish a hit parade between the two.

Miss McIntosh

  49. The British Government have agreed to make a payment from our Strategic Rail Authority to improve the fence at the terminal in Fréthun. Could I ask in connection with that what guarantee the French Government have given to the British Government that once the security fence is improved, and we have heard that that is expected to be completed by the end of July, the level of rail freight services will return to the 100 rail freight services each way each week by September? What guarantee have your Government given our Government?
  (M Bernard) Madam, it will be on this item simply that the French Government can only give you its will to do its best efforts. Regarding the expenses incurred, I think I should ask the representative of SNCF to answer that question because there was some misunderstanding. The real situation is that the present fence, which is being completed by the end of July, will be, if I am not mistaken, financed totally by SNCF and it will be only thereafter, particularly for sophisticated detection devices, millimetric whatever it is, and cameras that the British Government or the British entities will be ready to co-operate.

  Miss McIntosh: Could I clarify that?


  50. M Douté, could you confirm that is the situation?
  (M Douté) Yes, madam Chairman. We had a meeting last week with the Strategic Rail Authority in Paris and we talked about three things. The first one is the current works which are under way, including all that the Ambassador describes. This includes the fencing which will be done by the end of July. This is entirely financed on the French side. What we proposed last week to the SRA were two things. The first was to provide some testing devices for human presence in wagons because for the wagons arriving at Fréthun we have overall at least one hour per train to stay in the yard for, first, change of locomotive, second, to check that there is no terrorist action so there is security just before crossing the tunnel, and this has been of course made since the beginning of the tunnel, and the third thing is to check within each wagon that there is no clandestine. This is regarding the third issue which is checking that there is no clandestine on board the wagons, and we were told that in the UK there were more sophisticated devices than we have in France. We proposed that tests be done and financed by the SRA and, if considered workable and efficient, such devices could be displayed in Fréthun.

  51. So you are saying that it would be restricted to the introduction of very specific electronic equipment of the kind that can be used to check from outside whether there is a human presence within the container?
  (M Douté) Yes, that is right, madam Chairman. This was the first proposal we made. The second one is to invest in studies and changes in the locomotives, the class 92s, which are used to haul the trains. These locomotives cannot go beyond Fréthun, so the proposal on this will take more time, which would be to modify these locomotives so that the trains would be able to start from Lille or Lens and not stop at Fréthun.

  52. How long will that programme of modification take?
  (M Douté) The original study was for six months and then, depending on getting all the parts, it could be up to two years to change over the locomotives, so it is clearly an investment to improve in any case the number of trains going through the tunnel and ease the operation.

  53. But the assumption is that if they started from a closed yard it would be easier to defend. Is that the assumption, that if they began further down, at Lille, the depot would be a closed depot where you could have more control?
  (M Douté) Not necessarily, but you would remove very far from Fréthun in different places the possibility for clandestines to go on board.

Miss McIntosh

  54. We have been told by our Minister for Transport that we are contributing the full cost of 7.5 million euros, which is approximately £4.8 million. I assume there is only one fence—we are talking about one security fence. We have been told by our Minister that the Strategic Rail Authority is contributing to the building of that fence, that the works will cost a total of around five million pounds and it is to increase security at the Fréthun rail freight terminal. Are you saying that is not the case, that the contribution from the United Kingdom is to a separate fence completely and to separate surveillance equipment?
  (M Douté) I will simply answer to the best of my knowledge because SNCF is not in charge of the works and not in charge of its financing. As I mentioned, we decided together what works will be done and then the decision is made and paid by RFF. There are two fences. As mentioned already, they will be finished by the end of July. The overall total cost is 7.5 million euros for the fencing plus many other things. As far as I know, at least up to now, there was no British financing in that.

  55. But it has been agreed, Ambassador, that there will be a contribution to that.
  (M Bernard) If I refer to the conversation that took place between the two Ministers of Interior of France and Britain, the idea was very generally referred to, not in detail. It was simply said on either side that we could co-operate financially to do the works. That was all that was said, in front of me anyway.

  56. So there is no guarantee that the fence will be built, there is no commitment from Britain to contribute to that fence, there is no guarantee that the level of service will return to the level it should be at by September?
  (M Bernard) There is a will expressed by the British authorities that they would contribute to assist the French entities in charge of that. I would not be in a position to say in detail what that means. There have been, since the meeting of the Ministers of the Interior, two meetings of senior civil servants in Paris and in London and there will be another meeting with the two Ministers on 12 July, and I think that will be an occasion to clear up the matter, but I cannot go any further to my knowledge.

Mrs Ellman

  57. Your Excellency, would France agree for UK officials to deal with asylum applications in France?
  (M Bernard) It is an idea that we are not opposed to but I understood that this was creating a problem for the British authorities.

  58. If the British authorities requested this would you agree to it?
  (M Bernard) I think that in the discussions we have discussed this idea in order to make a clear distinction, which is an absolute necessity, between the true asylum seekers and those who present a demand for asylum when they are only in search of a job—economic migrants. In the course of the different conversations that we have had with the British authorities this question arose and we said why not establish a clear distinction between those two types of people and why not examine the idea of doing that distinction in France. So far the British authorities to my knowledge have answered that they were studying that but that this created problems for them, or at least they wanted to look into the matter a little more closely.

  59. How could it be ascertained whether asylum claims were well founded or not without interviewing the people concerned?
  (M Bernard) You are right.

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