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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 16:21 GMT
Stowaway fines ruled unlawful
Customs officials discovering a stowaway in the back of a truck
Lorry drivers said they had been unfairly punished
Fines on lorry drivers carrying stowaways have been branded "legislative overkill", throwing the government strategy on illegal immigrants into disarray.

A group of 50 lorry drivers and haulage companies have successfully challenged regulations allowing fines of 2,000 per stowaway.

The High Court in London ruled the system, which has resulted in 7,000 cases and more than 14m in fines, was a breach of European law.

The penalty regime is tough but it is not fair

Mr Justice Sullivan
The ruling was welcomed by haulage companies.

The Road Haulage Association said the fines had "caused nothing but misery for those who have unwittingly fallen victims to those determined to enter this country illegally".

The Freight Transport Association said: "It confirms what the FTA has said all along - lorry drivers are the innocent party but are treated as guilty criminals."

Penalty regime

Home Secretary David Blunkett suggested even stronger measures could be brought in if its planned appeal fails.

Transport Secretary Stephen Byers said he was "not prepared to tolerate a situation where people can bring illegal immigrants into this country and not suffer the consequences".

In his 131-page ruling, Mr Justice Sullivan said the penalty regime was "tough but it is not fair".

David Blunkett
The home secretary says new measures could be brought in
He said it imposed liability upon a wide range of "responsible persons", regardless of whether they were to blame.

It was a "disproportionate" response to the problem of clandestine entry and amounted to "legislative overkill", he said.

He said some form of penalty regime was justifiable, but the current one was not.

The ruling, citing breaches of EC free trade laws and the Human Rights Act, means the government can issue fines but not enforce them until the appeal is heard next year.

Fair trial

Trucks seized by the government will remain impounded, although it will not be able to confiscate more.

Transport Secretary Stephen Byers
Stephen Byers: Cannot tolerate people bringing in illegal immigrants

The judge said the penalties, part of the Immigration and Asylum Act, were not compatible with the right to a fair trial under article six of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The judge also ruled the power to detain vehicles under the act was not compatible with the protection of property under article one in the first protocol of the convention.

Mr Blunkett issued a statement saying he was "concerned that once again the courts have intervened with an interpretation that fails to take in account the reasons for the implementation of the policy".

His statement continues: "Should the appeal be unsuccessful we will have to find an alternative way of holding people to account."

Human rights

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "We believe requiring those who enter the country to indicate the goods or people they are carrying, and to carry responsibility for the goods and people they should not be carrying, is a fundamental right of any nation.

"We do not accept that it either infringes trade or human rights."

An appeal hearing is likely to take place in February or March.

The court was told that there were between 400 and 800 illegal stowaways every month.

The BBC's Robert Hall
"Hauliers are delighted their protests have been vindicated"
Freight Transport Association's Geoff Dossetter
"It is the decision we have been looking for"
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