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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 20:37 GMT
Court defeat for stowaway fines
Ferry loading at Dover
Lorry drivers say they are unfairly punished
Lorry drivers have claimed victory after a court ruled against the government's policy of imposing 2,000 fines for every asylum seeker found hiding in their lorries.

The Court of Appeal agreed with an earlier High Court ruling that the penalty was in breach of drivers' human rights because individual circumstances were not taken into account.

Lorry drivers don't want illegal immigrants on board their vehicles anymore than you or I would do in their car

Geoff Dossetter
Freight Transport Association
Home Secretary David Blunkett has said he will not be mounting a challenge to the decision, which was delivered in London on Friday.

But he also claimed partial victory after the court ruled that the fines did not break European Union laws on the free movement of goods.

It is now likely that the government will amend the law, even though the Home Office says that it retains the power to legally enforce the controversial penalties.

Lorry drivers were jubilant at the ruling, hailing the result as "a pretty comprehensive victory" and welcoming the government's "common sense" decision not to appeal.

Drivers' reassurance

Geoff Dossetter of the Freight Transport Association denied the judgement would lead to a large increase in people-smuggling.

He said lorry drivers "don't want illegal immigrants on board their vehicles any more than you or I would do in their car".

Solicitors Davies Lavery, who represented some of the drivers involved in the legal action, said illegal immigration was "an issue of national security which could not be visited alone on the transport industry".

David Blunkett
The home secretary says new measures could be brought in
Another drivers' solicitor involved in the action, Jane George, said the court had recognised the "essential unfairness" of the fining policy.

She called on the government to remove the legislation from the statute books altogether.

A group of 50 lorry drivers and haulage companies launched a challenge to the 2,000 fines last December.

By then 7,000 cases had already been brought and more than 14m of fines issued.

The High Court backed their case on the grounds the fines breached the Human Rights Act and European free trade laws.

The government launched an appeal, warning that if it failed even stronger measures could be brought in.

The Appeal Court's decision means it rejected the government view that the fines did not breach human rights law but accepted they did not breach free trade rules.

'Unfair system'

The Home Office says it can still legally issue and enforce the fines if it chooses, although whether they do is under consideration pending an appeal by lorry drivers.

In December's High Court ruling, Mr Justice Sullivan said the penalty regime was "not fair".

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 added.

Jail sentences

Estimates indicate there are between 400 and 800 illegal stowaways every month.

Last month Mr Blunkett announced the maximum jail sentence for human trafficking would be increased from 10 to 14 years.

But earlier this month he decided not to impose the civil penalties of 2,000 per stowaway on Eurotunnel, as well as on French train operator SNCF and British freight company English Welsh and Scottish (EWS) trains.

He said the move was because of a "dramatic" fall in the number of asylum seekers using the trains to try to enter the UK.

The BBC's Tom Symonds
"Lorry drivers say they do all they can"
David Wells, of Cranleigh Freight Services
"We feel it is very unfair"
Home office minister, Angela Eagle MP
"We lost on two narrow points"

Human traffic
Who patrols our borders?
See also:

04 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Eurotunnel stowaway fines lifted
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