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Port of Dover: Border Controls

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2022

I will call Natalie Elphicke to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered border controls at the Port of Dover.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. Today I will raise three matters of concern about border controls: illegal entry of people; legal transit of people and goods; and illegal dangerous food and goods.

Dover stands as the guardian of and gateway to England. Currently, with the number of people in small boat crossings at over 35,000 people, that guardian role is being sorely tested. The Home Secretary says that this situation is out of control and it is. There is much more to do to secure our sea border.

We need to recognise that every person coming into Britain through this route is breaking the law, and every person organising and facilitating such small boat crossings is committing a crime. This is organised criminal activity and it is no different from the smuggling of guns, drugs or any other contraband. Indeed, it is not simply criminal: it kills people, too. I will never forget how 27 people died in the channel last year; they drowned when their small boat sank.

Every person who steps into an inflatable boat on the French coast is putting themselves and others at risk when they are completely safe in France. They are not safe at sea, crossing the English channel in an overcrowded, unseaworthy inflatable boat. They will become even less safe as winter approaches and the weather becomes colder and the sea rougher.

I was pleased to meet the Home Secretary last week and again earlier today to hear about her plans and her determination to tackle this issue. I was also glad to be able to raise it directly with the Prime Minister at last week’s Prime Minister’s questions, urging her to take urgent action with President Macron.

The bottom line is that it is only when migrants and people smugglers alike know that they cannot break into Britain through the channel that this route will be closed down and lives saved. That will only happen when Britain and France act in concert, jointly patrolling the French coast and the English channel, and jointly ensuring that illegal entrants are returned to France.

In my area, people are fearful that there will be further tragic loss of life this winter. Both the UK and France have a human and moral obligation to act now to save lives. That starts and ends with ending this crisis for good and the best way to do that is to keep people out of the dangerous inflatables and safe on land. In order to help genuine refugees, save lives and stop the criminals, more must be done to tackle this issue and secure the border. I look forward to hearing the Minister on this point.

Stopping illegal entry of people is vital, yet ensuring the smooth flow of legal trade and people through Dover is essential, too. The channel ports, Dover and the tunnel together transit around 60% of the UK’s trade with Europe. Goods come from across the whole country to Dover for export, and goods come from across the EU to Dover for import. Whether that is just-in-time manufacturing goods for the hubs of the midlands or seafood from Scotland bound for the continent, Dover plays a key role in making the midlands engine rev, in driving the northern powerhouse and in ensuring that the economy as a whole continues to hum. It is not just trade that goes through Dover. There are also the HGV drivers and a huge number of passengers—both tourists and workers—who come and go from the EU and the UK.

Last December, I secured an urgent debate here in Westminster Hall to set out my belief that we should be immediately ready for the upcoming EU entry-exit checks at the port of Dover. Those checks are part of the EU digital controls and they are now due to come into force in 2023—a matter of months. I am sorry to say that since I first raised this issue in this place, over 10 months ago, it is still not clear how the checks will work. There appear to be working groups, but we do not know if they have an implementable plan. Indeed, judging by the evidence given by the chief executive of the port of Dover to the Transport Committee last week, I fear not. If not, a delay in processing could result in miles and miles of traffic jams all along the Kent roads. The impact of that is not just traffic misery for those in Kent, Dover and those stuck for hours and hours, even days, in those traffic jams, but it would be catastrophic for UK trade and tourism. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could tell the House what the progress has been, so as to avoid delays to the preparation for those checks.

Danger to our trade comes not simply from failure to be ready on day one for entry and exit checks, but it also comes from the failure to invest in necessary physical infrastructure too. We have long needed upgraded roads, lorry parks, check-in facilities and so on, yet these have simply not been progressed. They need to be if we want to avoid the risk of tailbacks and delays on Kent’s roads. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who so ably chairs the Transport Committee, for his and his Committee’s diligent and expert work on pressing for infrastructure investment and facilities to facilitate this important trade route. I would encourage the Minister to meet with him as well as me, as he has much information and expertise on this matter that would be of great assistance to the Department in planning for and delivering effective borders and a strong national transport and transit infrastructure.

I have explored the dangerous small boats crossings and the danger of trade disruption. I will now turn to the dangers of poisonous food and unsafe goods coming from the EU to the UK through Dover. Since leaving the EU, a new port health facility at Dover has been fitted out, fully ready for border checks. It was ready to go live, with extra staff recruited, but then it was unexpectedly mothballed in the summer by the then Brexit Opportunities Minister. That was in spite of the Cabinet Office receiving a shocking report from Dover’s port health authority in May, ahead of the decision, about poisonous food and serious biosecurity concerns. The report said,

“To not mobilise the facility would be an act of negligence that would significantly increase the risk of devastating consequences of another animal, health or food safety catastrophe.”

Further, it said that

“we cannot control what is coming through the border and ensure national food safety, public and animal health and biosecurity are maintained, as we do not have a facility to complete the escalating number of checks required”.

The evidence is that the problem with poisonous food and dangerous goods has not gone away. Indeed, the evidence from the Dover border is that the problem has got worse, if anything. At the beginning of this month, Dover Port Health Authority undertook Operation Ouzo, a multi-agency exercise designed to check the adequacy of existing controls at the border. Over a 24-hour period, from Saturday lunchtime to Sunday lunchtime, they searched some 22 vehicles of Romanian, Moldovan, Ukrainian and Polish origin. In those vehicles, they discovered raw animal products loosely stored in carrier bags and paper tissue without temperature control, refrigeration or labelled identification. The products were not separated from ready-to-eat products such as cheese, crisps and cake.

In one case, raw, unlabelled and loosely-wrapped pork had been popped in the bottom of a taped-up wheelie bin, which was filled with other products intended for free circulation within the UK. The operational report contained some 20 pages of disgusting images from this very small operation. We need to remember that it is not 22 vehicles a day entering the UK at Dover. There are up to 10,000 vehicle movements across the channel each day. It is clear that the risk of maggoty meat, meat of unknown origin, which often means horse or other illegal meat, rotting meat due to the lack of temperature controls, as well as fresh blood dripping on to other products, is of real concern.

It is not just meat. Pesticides on eastern European flax seeds, the sort that we might sprinkle on our cereal, have been found to exceed the maximum level for UK health safety—in other words, they could be dangerous to human life. None of that food meets the EU requirements, and it should not be coming in; it is illegal for the UK market. That highlights why it is wrong to outsource our food and biosecurity to the EU, and not have our own robust controls. Moreover, those are just the things we know about. What about the things that we do not know about because the Government mothballed the facility and slashed the funding for port health officers at the Dover border?

Biosecurity is also a real concern. Take African swine fever, about which the Government have said,

“The disease poses a significant risk to our pig herd and our long-term ability to export pork and pork products around the globe.”

Ministers deem the risk of African swine fever to be high, and have even put in special measures to prohibit certain types of EU pork. However, the illegal pork trade is rife at the port of Dover—so rife that around 80% of that illegal trade comes through the short straits. Without adequate checks, there is nothing to stop it. The October Dover port health report concluded,

“The exercise validated Dover Port Health Authority’s advice to Government that biosecurity at the border is not secure.”

The Port Health Authority has said that

“greater mitigation is needed to control the risk of African Swine Fever entering the UK via illegally imported EU porcine at the Short Straits.”

The port authority says that it has been left in limbo, without direction or appropriate engagement, so can the Minister say when controls, facilities and staff will be put in place to tackle the risk of more poisonous food, dangerous goods and biosecurity risks coming into the UK?

The Cabinet Office is thought to believe that due to digital borders, little or no infrastructure or extra staffing is now required. Given the unhappy history of Government with IT systems, that is inevitably a real worry, especially given the many delays to date in border-related IT systems. Those systems have been subject to scrutiny in the official reports of the expert Joint Committee in the House of Lords, and are very troubling and long delayed. Digital borders, blockchain, end-to-end invoice processing and the rest are part of a modern border and trade environment, but do the Government recognise that the digital world will not stop the real-world gaming of the system, and for that reason, physical audits will always be needed? Digital borders can absolutely improve the efficiency of physical borders, but cannot replace them.

To conclude, it is vital to end the dangerous small boats crossings, prevent the danger of trade disruption and endless traffic queues, and stop dangerous poisonous goods and other dodgy goods entering the UK. The smuggling of illegal goods and people is rife at Dover, and it is shocking. It is time for the Government to confront those dangers and bring them to an end, to restore order and effective controls. That includes a review of the decision to mothball the port health facility and reinvestment in port health staff. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government intend to restore order at the border, and would be happy to meet with him to discuss the matter further.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) for securing today’s debate. She has been a tremendous campaigner on this issue since her election, not just in her constituency but nationally. It is something that has certainly been raised in my constituency many times, and I am grateful for the contribution she continues to make on this matter.

I will respond to the helpful contributions that my hon. Friend has made in a moment, but before I do, I would like to underline the Government’s commitment to safe, secure and—of course—efficient borders. In April, the Government announced that the remaining import controls on EU goods will no longer be introduced this year, saving British businesses up to £1 billion in annual costs. The controls introduced in January 2021 on the highest risk imports of animals, animal products, plants and plant products will continue to apply in order to safeguard the UK’s biosecurity.

The Government further recognise the negative effect traffic build-up can have on the residents of Kent. My colleagues and I are committed to working with all the relevant stakeholders and the Kent Resilience Forum, which has the statutory responsibility for planning and holds operational decision-making powers in managing any disruption in Kent if and when it occurs.

Alongside my colleagues from other Departments and on the Back Benches, I am taking the issues that will be posed by the new entry-exit system seriously. This is an EU requirement being implemented by France, which is responsible for the systems, technology and processes. We have been working with French logistics operators and others to ensure the implementation of the entry-exit system minimises any impacts on border flows and traffic build-up. We are working closely with the operators of locations with juxtaposed controls, including the port of Dover, Eurotunnel and Eurostar to support them in their engagement with the French and with implementation plans. I am encouraged by recent developments on transition arrangements that have been proposed by the EU Commission; however, we need to see more progress on implementation and transition arrangements, and we will continue to actively raise this with our EU counterparts.

We recognise that the entry-exit scheme has the potential to impact on throughput at the port of Dover, and minimising that is a priority that we share with the port. We are already engaging with the French Government on this, and will meet them again at the start of November to look at the progress implementation plans and ways of mitigating negative impacts: the port of Dover will be involved in those discussions. The UK and French Governments share commitments to determine the infrastructure requirements, processes and procedures that take place on one another’s territory through the juxtaposed control arrangements. The entry-exit scheme is to become one of those processes, as part of the EU operating a secure border. We are fully aware that requiring all passengers to exit vehicles in order to register their biometric and biographic data would be hugely challenging, and we are exploring alternatives to this with the French Government—especially given the additional safety considerations around requiring passengers to mix with traffic flows.

While it is not the direct focus of the debate, it is worth noting that EES presents similar challenges, particularly in terms of disruption to passenger flows for Eurostar services both at St. Pancras International and its continental stations. Officials are equally engaging with Eurostar and French counterparts to agree plans for installing EES kiosks at St. Pancras, albeit there are major space constraints there too. As with the short straits, we are pressing for pragmatic solutions so we alleviate pressure at the border as far as possible. The Government recognise the strategic importance of the short straits for UK trade.

The Department for Transport works closely with the Kent Resilience Forum to manage disruption in Kent. The Kent Resilience Forum has extensive traffic management plans in place, including Operation Brock, to keep traffic moving. The Kent Resilience Forum, which is operationally independent from the Government, is responsible for managing traffic disruption. The Kent Resilience Forum has well-tested traffic management plans in place in their Operation Fennel plan, which includes the option to deploy Operation Brock on the M20, allowing portal-bound freight to be stored on the coast-bound carriageway while a contraflow enables both the coast and London-bound carriageway to remain open to passenger and local freight traffic.

The Kent Resilience Forum can manage a queue of up to 5,000 HGVs while keeping the M20 open; that figure rises to 8,450 HGVs with partial or full closure of sections of the coast-bound M20. The Government recognise the strategic importance of the short straits for UK trade, and my Department works closely with the Kent Resilience Forum to support it in managing disruption in Kent whenever it comes. Operational decisions on how best to manage this therefore sit with the Kent Resilience Forum, including the deployment of Operation Brock.

The disruption at the start of the summer holidays, in the busiest period for passenger travel so far this year at the port of Dover and the Eurotunnel, was caused by a combination of fewer than expected French border officials staffing the controls at Dover and a serious road traffic accident that caused the M20 to be closed for a prolonged period. Kent Resilience Forum and local partners worked tirelessly throughout to manage the worst of the disruption and cleared it within 48 hours.

On border controls, the Government announced in April that the remaining import controls on EU goods will no longer be introduced this year, saving British businesses up to £1 billion in annual costs. The controls introduced in January 2021 on the highest-risk imports of animals, animal products, plants and plant products will continue to apply to safeguard the UK’s biosecurity.

Having left the EU, we can now put in place a new global import regime that best suits the UK’s needs, and it is important that we get that right. We will design a global regime for importing goods that is safe, secure and efficient, and that will harness innovative new technologies to streamline processes and reduce frictions.

We also want to speed up our system and get closer to frictionless trade. Our live “ecosystem of trust” pilot tests how we can use supply chain data and physical assurance technology to give border agencies confidence about goods moving in and out of the country, enabling better targeted checks at the border. If the Government can confer more trust on traders, we can start giving them benefits in return, such as fewer admin burdens, less physical intervention and delay at the border, and other policy facilitations that make it quicker and easier to move goods.

The Government have been clear that, in consultation with industry, we will publish a target operating model in the autumn. That will set out our new regime of border import controls and will target the end of 2023 as the introduction date for our controls regime, which will deliver on our promise to create the world’s best border on our shores.

The target operating model will describe the user journey for the import and export of goods across the border, explaining what must be done, by whom, and when. For traders, it will explain what must be done upstream of the border before goods arrive at it, and what must happen at the border—including border control posts—and after goods have entered free circulation. For the border industry, it will explain how policy, processes, systems and infrastructure act together to deliver that user journey, and what is required of them to implement those.

The new approach will apply equally to goods from the EU and the rest of the world. It will be based on a proper assessment of risk, with a proportionate risk-based and technologically advanced approach to controls. That includes a single trade window, which will start to deliver from 2023 the creation of an ecosystem of trust between Government and industry, and other transformational products, as part of our 2025 border strategy.

Inland border facilities were introduced to deal with customs checks at the border post-Brexit, and are constantly under review to ensure they provide value for money. A new proposed site at Dover was part of that review and, after looking into the amount of cross-channel traffic and the necessary associated checks, a decision was made in June 2022 not to progress that site. The review showed that the existing facilities had enough capacity to deal with the flow of traffic and that, therefore, a new site was not necessary. The decision saw a taxpayer saving of around £120 million, which was the anticipated cost of developing and running the Dover inland border facilities for the intended duration, and allowed the funds to be utilised elsewhere.

That decision to not build the inland border facility, however, does not mean that that asset is not required by the Government. The Department for Transport is exploring alternative options for its development to ease pressure at the border, given the issues with disruption on the strategic road network in Kent and at the ports. The Department for Transport will continue to engage with my hon. Friend the Member for Dover, local leaders, businesses and residents to ensure that any development will also benefit the local economy and the community.

Alongside Dover inland border facilities, the Government are also considering our options concerning the future of Dover sanitary and phytosanitary border control post sites. Importantly, no decision has been made at this stage about the future of the site. I reassure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue to engage with local leaders, businesses and residents before one is made.

The Government are committed to investing in towns across the country and, in Dover, we have put our money where our mouth is. The future high streets fund is providing £3.2 million for Dover town centre and waterfront, and the UK shared prosperity fund is providing £1 million for Dover as part of the £7.5 million for constituencies across Kent. For Kent as a whole, the Government are also providing £6.8 million for 10 projects as part of the community renewal fund.

Small boat crossings are dangerous and unnecessary, and scores of people have been killed attempting to cross the channel in unseaworthy vessels. Every crossing attempt is a potential tragedy. The UK remains committed to continuing to address illegal migration via France through our enduring relationship. We continue to engage with the French at all levels, political and operational, and are supporting the provision of technology and the sharing of intelligence to meet our strategic aims.

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 includes significant new measures to increase the fairness of our system, so that we can better protect and support those in need of asylum, deter illegal entry into the UK and remove more easily from the UK those with no right to be here. Since the passage of the Act, the number arriving on small boats has passed 33,000, far exceeding the 2021 total in just nine months. We cannot continue, year on year, with the inexorable rise in the number of illegal arrivals, which adds to the pressures on our public services.

We will break the business model of the people smugglers and deter those seeking to enter the UK illegally only by putting in place a system in which it is clear to all that anyone arriving in this country illegally will not have their asylum claim considered here, and that they will instead be removed to Rwanda, or another safe country, to have their claim processed. We will be able to solve this issue only when those facilitating and attempting hazardous and potentially fatal journeys realise that their claims will not be processed. Following the decommissioning of the temporary structures at the Tug Haven site at the start of 2021, reception and processing facilities have been significantly improved, with the opening of the new premises in Dover and Manston.

Active consideration is being given to investment in the road network in Kent as part of the third road investment strategy. We are continuing to work closely with my hon. Friend and local stakeholders, who are making a strong case to improve the A2. Final decisions on the schemes will be taken in the investment plan for the road investment strategy, which is set for 2024.

In their recent joint statement, the Prime Minister and President Macron recognised the need to strengthen our co-operation, with a view to concluding some ambitious packages this autumn. We will update the House on that in due course.

The Nationality and Borders Act is a long-term solution to the long-term problems that have beset the asylum system over decades. It has three central objectives: to make the system fairer and more effective, so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need; to deter illegal entry, breaking the business model of evil criminal trafficking; and to make it easier to remove those with no right to be here. The Government remain committed to delivering the partnership between the UK and Rwanda, so that we can break the business model of the people smugglers.

The Government remain committed to all their international obligations, including the refugee convention. As we review the Bill of Rights Bill, we remain a committed party to the European convention on human rights. UK policy on migration should not be derailed by the abuse of our modern slavery laws, the Human Rights Act 1998 or orders of the Strasbourg Court. Although we will work within the bounds of international law, we cannot allow the abuse of our system to continue.

In conclusion, it is a pleasure to close the debate on behalf of the Government. I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate, and for all the hard work she has done, and continues to do, on the issue. To be truly world leading, we need to look beyond improvements to the border that other countries have already implemented, to a radical reimagining of how Government and industry can work together to enable secure trade. That will ultimately enhance the reputation that Kent and the UK have for facilitating business and encouraging investment.

Question put and agreed to.