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Immigration: Eurostar

Volume 736: debated on Monday 23 April 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to enable Eurostar to resume regular services between Brussels and Lille while avoiding any delays caused by immigration control being conducted at St Pancras.

My Lords, there has been no suspension of regular Eurostar services between Brussels and London which also stop at Lille. Following misuse of Brussels to Lille tickets by those seeking to avoid UK border checks, Eurostar has restricted the sale of tickets to casual travellers to three trains a day. Only these services are subject to routine immigration checks at St Pancras. We seek to keep delays to a minimum.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response but is he aware that the consequence of all this is that passengers coming into the UK from Brussels, Lille, Disneyland Paris and anywhere except Paris have to queue to get through immigration for between half an hour and one hour at St Pancras? I have queued twice and I saw lots of families travelling from Disneyland Paris, of whom probably 99 per cent were British, having to queue for an hour, which is rather hard on them. Why cannot the immigration service process passports on the train after the passengers have left Lille, as it used to?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, the ideal would be to process the passports at Brussels, which we try to do for seven of the 10 or 11 trains a day that go from there, stopping at Lille, that do not allow people to buy casual tickets. The noble Lord knows of the so-called Lille loophole, which we want to plug. As he has said, one solution would be to have staff on the train. We believe that that would be unnecessarily expensive and would not be cost-effective. We are talking about only three trains a day being affected by the Lille loophole. We think that we can continue to negotiate with the Brussels authorities to get them to allow us to do all the checks on all the trains, including the three on which casual tickets are allowed to be bought, at Brussels as would be appropriate.

My Lords, has the Minister been able to visit British Transport Police operations at St Pancras to look at what happens in relation to child trafficking? In a recent debate, he indicated that he would like to do so. My noble friend Lady Doocey pointed out that a number of simple steps could be taken to protect unaccompanied children coming into this country, including checks on the identity of such children and on the people collecting them, and a dedicated space on the train. Has he been able to follow any of those up?

My Lords, I have not yet been able to visit St Pancras but I certainly hope to do so. My noble friend’s question is going slightly wide of the Question on the Order Paper, but it is valuable in that it points to the need not only to maintain appropriate security to provide the proper checks and safeguards for those who potentially are being child trafficked but to be able to do that in as user-friendly a manner as possible so that the complaints to which the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, referred do not happen as well.

Following on from my noble friend’s question, just before the Recess when we had a debate on human trafficking relating to Eurostar, I asked the Minister whether the Government would look at negotiating with the Eurostar authorities and the company which runs it to have the same arrangements as we have with airlines. Airlines are fined for bringing through children and adults who are to be human trafficked. The Minister promised to look at this and we have not yet received a reply.

My Lords, I will make sure that a reply comes to the noble Baroness in due course. Obviously, we continue to negotiate on these matters with Eurostar. I should point out that Eurostar is a private company and we cannot order it to close the so-called Lille loophole with which we are trying to deal. Certainly, we will try to get to other matters and will negotiate accordingly.

Will the Minister turn his mind to the situation developing as regards trains from Germany which stop at several places before going into the tunnel? The same problem that applies to Lille will apply to a lot of other stations on the continent. Better arrangements need to be made.

I am very grateful to my noble friend for raising that point. I understand that the German railways are already planning this and that there might be services from late 2015, so we have some time. He is right to point to the problems because of the confines of the concourse at St Pancras and other places, and the need to make sure that we can sort this matter out in the country of origin. That is relatively easy when you are talking about Brussels, Lille and London. It is considerably harder in the case of trains coming from a number of different stations in Germany. At that point different options will have to be looked at, but we have at least three years to do so.

My Lords, I declare an interest, having been through the tunnel over 1,500 times, getting to work here and going home again, and indeed having lived to tell the tale. The Minister said that the Government would be trying to set up a system whereby the border agency’s immigration controls would be conducted in Brussels. He must be aware that this system works extremely well in Paris; it saves a lot of time and there is absolutely no delay arriving in St Pancras. I hope that he will look into this and tell us what the problem is. They are very friendly people. This morning when I came through I was asked by the immigration officer what I was planning to do with the House of Lords Reform Bill. I declined to share my views with him, in the same way that at the moment I decline to share my views with the House on that question.

I commend the noble Lord on his diligence in attending this House and the frequency with which he has come through the tunnel. The system in Brussels works pretty well for most trains, in that most people go through the appropriate border security checks. The problem is that a number of people use Brussels to Lille as a commuter line rather than what it was originally designed for, a Brussels to London line. Those people are exempted from going through passport checks by the Brussels authorities and we cannot order them so to do; that is under EU rules. We therefore had to seek with Eurostar some solution to that problem, which does not arise in the case of those coming from Paris. There is similarly not a problem coming from London because, as the noble Lord knows, we do not allow people to use London to Ashford as a commuter route. It is the use of Brussels to Lille as a commuter route on that service that causes the problem.

My Lords, I am a little disturbed at the Minister’s complacency that we have got three years to sort this out. After all, the Government have had two years to sort out a range of problems, and the problems are getting worse rather than better. It is a very serious concern to all of us that a service that we are all proud of, the Channel Tunnel service, may in fact prove to be less advantageous to the travelling public in future because of these difficulties over passport checks. I hear what he says about additional expense, but if the expense is not borne by the service, it is borne by the travelling passenger having to wait for hours at the receiving station, St Pancras. Can he look at this issue with some urgency and produce a solution to it?

I commend the noble Lord on the urgency with which he got to his feet, along with his colleagues on the opposition Front Bench. They have obviously been well rested by their three weeks off.

We are not complacent on this issue. All I am saying is that there is a serious problem. Part of the problem relates to the design of St Pancras and getting the passport checks done there. We would therefore like to have the checks done at the point of exit. Obviously that problem is going to be made more difficult once one has trains coming in from Germany and other places. At that point, we might have to look again at having checks done on the trains. As I said—although the noble Lord has not been that speedy—we have three years to do this because we are not likely to see trains coming in from Germany until the end of 2015.