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Monday, 4 February, 2002, 18:24 GMT
Eurotunnel stowaway fines lifted
Asylum seekers
Asylum seekers try to enter the Channel Tunnel
Eurotunnel and two other train companies will not have to pay the threatened fines for the stowaway asylum seekers found on their services, says the UK Government.

Home Secretary David Blunkett told MPs he had 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.


The government is doing absolutely nothing to protect the European international freight industry

EWS spokesman
The move was because of a "dramatic" fall in the number of asylum seekers using the trains to try to enter the UK, said Mr Blunkett, but EWS say numbers have dropped because they are being allowed to run fewer trains.

In a separate development on Monday, a loophole which allowed thousands of asylum seekers to travel to Britain on Eurostar trains by pretending they were getting off in Calais, has been closed.

Fines powers remain

The home secretary made his announcement about the fines as the Conservatives pressed him to restore a bilateral agreement with France on how to deal with asylum seekers.

The Home Office says the number of clandestine entrants arriving in tunnel freight wagons fell from 808 in July 2001 to 32 in December.

The prime minister's official spokesman said the move was because the companies had taken all the steps they could take and had been working with the government to reduce the numbers of illegal immigrants.
David Blunkett, Home Secretary
Blunkett says stowaway numbers have fallen "dramatically"

But the spokesman said if the numbers went back up, the powers were still there to reimpose the fines.

Mr Blunkett also underlined that the French Government had agreed that British immigration officials would be able to check all passengers boarding UK-bound Eurostar services, including those passengers with tickets only for domestic travel.

Embassy officials in the Paris say that until recently as many as 800 illegal immigrants a month were getting to London by simply staying on the trains.

'Concession'

Conservative shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin welcomed the lifting of the penalties.

"I am delighted that we have won this important concession from the government," said Mr Letwin.

But a spokesman for EWS dismissed the fines issue as "irrelevant".

The company has long argued it is not the "liable operator" on the French side of the channel and so any attempt to impose the fines would have been "flung out of court".

"They are doing absolutely nothing to protect the European international freight industry," the spokesman told BBC News Online.

EWS says the penalty scheme has not worked and the fall in stowaways is because SNCF cut the number of trains EWS could run from France to the UK from 15 to five.

That move was because French police could only offer proper security from 9pm to 3am each day, added the spokesman.

But the move was welcomed by Eurotunnel who said it had taken its 6m security investment very seriously.

Eurotunnel spokeswomen Anne Leva said: "We are delighted that the government has seen fit to recognise the expensive measures that we have put in place."

Oliver Letwin
Mr Letwin says France and UK should share the asylum burden
Addressing the wider asylum issue, Mr Letwin said he was not using the opposition debate to attack government failures.

Mr Letwin said no group of officials were able to deal with the number of asylum seekers currently entering the UK, however hard they tried.

Sharing the load

Exact figures about the numbers of asylum seekers coming to the UK from France were not available, he explained.

But estimates suggested that 30,000 of the UK's 90,000 asylum seekers every year came to the UK from France, he said.

Bringing back the bilateral agreement could roughly share out the burden so each country took about 60,000, he argued.

Mr Blunkett said the powers invested in British immigration officers in France showed co-operation between the two countries was taking place.

Closing the refugee camp at Sangatte was needed to help solve the asylum problem, said Mr Blunkett, but the government was taking other vigorous measures.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Simon Hughes said his visit to Sangatte last week had shown him efforts to prevent asylum seekers entering the Channel Tunnel were succeeding.

Sending asylum seekers back to France, as would happen through a new bilateral agreement, would not stop people repeatedly trying to reach Britain, said Mr Hughes.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Mark Mardell
"The government's argument is simple"
The BBC's Sean Curran
"David Blunkett said that Oliver Letwin had got his history wrong"
See also:

31 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Asylum seekers given 'smart' ID cards
26 Dec 01 | Scotland
New calls to close Sangatte
25 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Tories relax stance on gay rights
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