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Essex: Major Incident

Volume 800: debated on Monday 28 October 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. Before I do so, it might be helpful before our debate to set out our advice on what would be covered by the sub judice rule under which the House abstains from discussing the merits of a dispute about to be tried or decided in a court of law.

In the case of the major incident in Essex, the following parts of the sub judice rule are relevant: cases in which proceedings are active in a United Kingdom court shall not be referred to in any Motion, debate or Question. Criminal proceedings are active when a charge has been made or a summons to appear has been issued. This means that Members should not discuss the criminal charges laid against Maurice Robinson in respect of the 39 deaths in the lorry found at Grays, Essex. The charges are manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and money laundering. The other investigations, under which three people have been released on bail, one of whom is being investigated by the Gardai, are not sub judice, nor are the wider policy issues of trafficking, port security et cetera. If noble Lords need any further advice, they should not hesitate to contact me. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the investigation into the tragic deaths of the 39 migrants discovered last week in Essex. This morning, the Prime Minister and I visited Thurrock in Essex to sign the book of condolence and to pay our respects to the 39 individuals who died in the most appalling circumstances, trying to reach the United Kingdom. These were people’s sons and daughters, friends and family. They were the victims of brutal and unscrupulous criminal gangs and they paid the ultimate price.

We have been confronted with a stark reminder of the evils of people smuggling and human trafficking. This trade is a blight on the modern world. For the sake of these victims and for millions like them, we must do all we can to stamp it out. I would like to pay tribute once again to the outstanding professionalism shown by all our emergency services, and in particular the swift and professional response by the East of England ambulance service, Essex County Fire and Rescue Service and the Essex police, who are leading on the ongoing criminal investigation. I thank also our operational partners who are working round the clock to assist the investigation, including the NCA.

The families of the victims, at this incredibly difficult time, are in all our thoughts and have my full sympathy. Nothing can ever undo the loss that they have suffered. We owe it to them to identify those responsible and ensure that they face the full force of the law. And I want to work with those families to ensure that they can bring forward any evidence that they may have to help solve this appalling crime. With their help, we can bring the perpetrators to justice.

I also remind colleagues that this is a long and meticulous ongoing investigation. It will, as I heard from Essex police last week and today, involve working with partners overseas and with foreign law enforcement agencies, to unravel a threat of criminality that could stretch half way across the world. We are already working with a range of operational partners to piece together information. Essex police will need to be given the time and space to do just that, while respecting the dignity of those who have died and of course the privacy of their families.

The process of identifying the victims is continuing, and I stress that their nationalities at this stage have not been confirmed. On Friday, three further people were arrested in connection to the incident. A 38 year-old man and a 38 year-old woman from Warrington were arrested in Cheshire, while a 46 year-old man from Northern Ireland was arrested at Stansted Airport. All three were questioned on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people and have now been released on bail.

The driver of the vehicle was 25 year-old Maurice Robinson, from Northern Ireland. This morning, he appeared at Chelmsford magistrates’ court via video link, charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and money laundering. He has been remanded in custody and is due to appear at the Old Bailey next on 25 November.

Following the devastating discovery of the lorry at Tilbury, the Home Office set up a dedicated team to co-ordinate an immediate and long-term response to this tragedy. I can confirm that Border Force is also increasing its presence in Purfleet, and it too is working with Essex police to gather further information regarding this incident. The Home Office will also accelerate its joint intelligence-led operation between the police, the National Crime Agency and immigration enforcement, which aims to disrupt and deter organised crime gangs that use refrigerated and hard-sided lorries to smuggle clandestine immigrants.

I stress once again that the nationalities of the victims have not been confirmed at this stage. But work is under way to co-ordinate the international response to this incident. I have already spoken to my Belgian counterpart, Minister De Crem, to invigorate the work that is taking place across both countries. I can confirm to the House that, as of today, I have received agreement from the Belgian authorities to deploy extra UK immigration enforcement officers to Zeebrugge. I have also been in contact with other international partners to offer assistance to any foreign nationals who may have been affected by this tragedy.

Last week’s tragedy was the culmination of a broad, more general rise in global migration, but also of organised criminality. It is one of the most pressing issues for the UK and our international partners. Illegal migration fuels organised crime, erodes public confidence and, most importantly, endangers the lives of desperate people. The perpetrators conduct their activities under a cloak of secrecy. The motivations that lead people to try to cross borders illegally are also broad and complex. They are often the most vulnerable people and then of course they are further exploited. It is clear that we and all our partners must enhance our response.

All areas of government have a role to play, whether it is in strengthening our borders and eliminating the pull factors in this country, or in addressing the root causes to suppress demand for illegal immigration. We already have an illegal migration strategy in place, but as the tragic event in Essex last week has shown, there is much to do—much, much more to do.

I will be working across government this week to plan how we can strengthen and co-ordinate our response to the wider migration crisis that led these victims to try and enter the UK. The organised criminals who drive this practice are dynamic, unscrupulous and highly adaptable. But failing to confront them comes with a terrible human cost. We must now be ruthless in our response”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier in the House of Commons. I endorse what it said about the professionalism of our overstretched and understaffed emergency services. It is almost too awful to imagine the hell that the 39 people who died must have been through or the grief that families on the other side of the world and fearing the worst are now experiencing. Our thoughts are very much with them.

The callous, criminal people traffickers must be caught and brought to justice. I have two points to make. First, can the Government give a categorical assurance that departure from the EU will not lead to any weakening of our links with or our partnership and co-operation arrangements with the EU and any of its agencies which we now use and work with to combat people trafficking? Secondly, why do we apparently not have control of our borders at our recognised ports against illegal entry, whether trafficked or otherwise, as the Government have previously maintained is the case? How was a container with such a large number of people inside able to get into this country, apparently on a recognised shipping route through a recognised British port of entry, without being detected and stopped? Surely one way of putting pressure on the traffickers using recognised shipping routes would be the near certainty of detection. I note that the Government are now—belatedly, it seems—increasing the stretched Border Force presence in Purfleet. How many people do the Government think may have been trafficked into this country through a recognised British port of entry in the last 12 months for which figures are available, and how many people have been prevented from entering this country at the port of entry through which they were being trafficked over the same 12-month period?

My Lords, from these Benches, I, too, thank the Minister. This is a tragedy for so many people. In putting on record our thanks to the emergency services, we need to recognise how difficult it is for them to respond to such a situation. I trust that this—I do not like to use the word “incident”, because it seems to trivialise it—will not be a catalyst for statements about having tougher immigration arrangements. We want to see fair, compassionate and effective immigration rules.

The Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner—I acknowledge that we do not know that these people were trafficked—has recently published her strategy. Her priorities are:

“Focusing on prevention, working with the private sector, encouraging the role of the public sector, raising public awareness”—

sadly, that has certainly been done—and “preventing victimisation”. Can the Minister assure the House that all her priorities will be better than adequately funded?

My other point takes up in a little more detail that made by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. The political declaration regarding our leaving the EU sets out a “framework” for our future relationship and deals with issues that are not in the withdrawal agreement, one of which is security. They are dealt with in the political declaration in language such as:

“The Parties should consider further arrangements … The Parties … will … work together to identify the terms for … cooperation via Europol and Eurojust … The Parties should consider further arrangements appropriate to the United Kingdom’s future status for practical cooperation … with the view to delivering capabilities that, in as far as is technically and legally possible, and considered necessary and in both Parties’ interests, approximate those enabled by relevant Union mechanisms”.

I am sure noble Lords will understand my emphasis on the rather conditional wording. Do the Government recognise that replicating all our current law enforcement arrangements without any hiatus, which I have heard suggested, is of immense importance, and that will be helped if we make it clear that we regard the EU and its member states as our friends, colleagues and partners?

My Lords, this is an incredibly moving incident to talk about at the Dispatch Box. It is also a very sensitive live investigation, so I hope that noble Lords will understand if I do not talk about the nature of it in detail. However, perhaps I may share with the House that one of the most impressive and interesting aspects of the briefing was the incredible amount of international collaboration that is clearly occurring to tackle this horrible crime. I can update the House with the news that an international co-operation agreement has been signed—Belgium having been the first to have signed it—and a joint investigation team is being put together, with input from many countries. This is very much the spirit in which the investigation is being put together.

As I am sure the House knows, this form of crime begins many thousands of miles away and then comes to our doorstep at the channel, but there is no way of investigating it properly if you do not look at all its elements. An incredible amount of work is going on involving many different agencies, and that characterises this Government’s approach to security—putting first the interests of the people of this country and solving crimes. We have put together a deal around Brexit that seeks to protect and even strengthen that spirit, and that is why we are pushing to get it signed.

On the controls at Purfleet, it is a sad fact that the investment of time and money in challenging people-smuggling across the channel has led criminals to be more adventurous, ingenious and reckless in their efforts to escape detection. We saw in last week’s events how reckless their efforts have been and what a huge human cost that brings. None the less, the Government are committed to new resources for the 62 minor ports and will work hard to close the loopholes.

In terms of the anti-slavery commissioner and the Act, the focus on human trafficking has borne fruit. Prosecutions have gone up dramatically in the past year, and I can assure the noble Baroness that the necessary resources for the commissioner will be made available.

My Lords, I recognise the difficulties that the Border Force experiences in searching more vehicles passing through points of entry. Can more be done to search vehicles while they are on the ferries, where there would be more time? It might be possible in appropriate cases to use the staff of the ferries to carry out some of those searches and thus expand the search force.

My noble friend has put forward a creative and interesting suggestion but I do not regard myself as qualified to judge it on its merits. All I can say is that a large amount of the police work done in this area is intelligence-led. Searching the millions of vehicles that cross the channel is a very tough challenge. Many of them are securely fastened before they go on to the ferries and, as we know, many have freezer components that prevent them being opened easily. However, I will take away my noble friend’s idea and make sure that it is sent up the line.

My Lords, perhaps I may trespass on the fact that I was the chair of your Lordships’ sub-committee that went into a lot of this business, such as the Protocol 36 negotiations, led by the former Prime Minister. I am afraid that the noble Lord has not answered the question that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, put to him about the consequences of our leaving the European Union for the sort of co-operation that is going on. Is it not a fact that if we were outside the European Union, we would not be able to set up the joint investigation team the Minister referred to, because it is an instrument of the European Union alone? Is it not true that in the prevailing circumstances, we would not be able to use Europol or Eurojust, which we can use because we are still in the European Union and will continue to be for the next few months? These are important questions.

Can the Minister tell us with some precision what the situation will be during the standstill period—the implementation period, or whatever one likes to call it—up to the end of 2020, should the Prime Minister’s deal be approved, and if, by that time, the security arrangements in the political declaration referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, are not yet in place? We need precision on this. I am not just talking about the exchange of intelligence, which I know perfectly well normally happens on a different basis and does not go through EU enforcement activities. However, the things that I am talking about matter just as much as the exchange of intelligence.

The noble Lord raises understandable concerns, particularly when we have a crime such as this on our hands. Our concern is very much to seek to solve that crime and find justice for the victims. I do not recognise the characterisation that he puts forward regarding Europol and Eurojust. It is perfectly possible for third-party countries that are not members of the EU to have working arrangements and collaborations with both Europol and Eurojust, and to create the kind of JIT that was created earlier today. An example of how America works with both Europol and Eurojust has been cited in another place.

Regarding the standstill agreement, I can reassure the noble Lord that it is very much the attitude of this Government to collaborate closely. We cannot speak on behalf of other countries. I suspect that the kind of precise reassurance that he seeks can be found only in the capitals of other countries where they will make their own decisions on some of these matters. Regarding the security arrangements going forward, these will be subject to negotiation during the standstill period and I look forward to their being successfully pursued.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s mention of the co-operation agreement that has been signed; this is obviously very helpful. I also associate myself with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay; the European Union connections are clearly very important and I hope that we can replicate them. In the light of the evidence that has been accumulated so far, does the Minister think that the scale of the smuggling operation—if that is what it was—and the geographical area from which those people likely to be among the deceased come, illustrate the existence of a very large tip of the iceberg in relation to trafficking?

The noble Lord will forgive me if I do not speculate on this investigation in the way that he invites me to do. The nationality of the victims has not been confirmed. Although there is widespread press speculation, it is up to the coroner to indicate the nationality for the coroner’s own purposes. We will wait for that to be done formally rather than speculate. However, he is right that international people trafficking is a massive business. It is ingenious, clever, ferocious and reckless. We have seen in this instance its horrible costs and the Government are determined to crack down on it.

My Lords, when all this happened, I remembered like yesterday the 58 Chinese people who died. Noble Lords might remember that at that time, in July, around 2000, the outside temperature was 96 degrees Fahrenheit. When these trailers come over—in this case, it was on a P&O ship coming from Zeebrugge—of course, they do not have any drivers at all. Let us think of that heat when the air conditioning broke down; I want to comment not only on what we are talking about now but on the fear factor. When the doors were opened, those people had been fighting; they had torn their clothes off in fighting to get to an area around 18 inches deep.

If you want to go back to an even earlier example of the fear factor, in the Nazi days they experimented on people’s reactions. In Auschwitz and so forth, if you think that people just died in five minutes, they did not. That fear factor has been huge. When I saw everything that had happened the other day, I thought to myself, “For goodness’ sake, these people froze to death, but not immediately”.

I would like to ask the Minister to ask the Justice Secretary that we can be assured that whoever is caught for trafficking—instead of putting them up against the nearest wall and shooting them, to put it bluntly—is given the highest possible sentence?

My noble friend speaks very movingly about an incident that many in this House will remember, and the image that he describes is difficult to imagine. One does not like to think about the similar situation in Purfleet and the circumstances in which the victims of this horrible crime died. It is very moving indeed. One can only hope that there may be some kind of positive outcome and that the renewed focus and determination of the law enforcement bodies to track down the perpetrators of this crime will lead to an improvement in the circumstances for those seeking asylum and refuge in Britain.

While I understand that the Minister does not wish to speculate, it is possible that there are people already in this country who may have been illegally trafficked here and will know the identity of those people when it emerges. In order to fully understand the depths of the depravity that leads to this kind of evil, will consideration be given to offering immunity to those who are here illegally at present who can offer good, solid evidence that will help us to understand and bring people to justice? Will immunity be considered for those who are already here, perhaps illegally?

The Secretary of State has spoken in another place of her determination to track down the perpetrators of this crime. When asked a similar question, she communicated her determination to use whatever routes or opportunities she had, including the kind described, in order to achieve that objective.

My Lords, while I acknowledge that we do not yet know the nationality of the people concerned, it seems likely that they were from Vietnam. As someone who lived for some years in that wonderful country, my heart goes out to both the victims and their families. However, these 39 are just the tip of the iceberg. I understand from press coverage that at least three lorries may have been involved in this incident, and we know that somewhere between 18,000 and 40,000 Vietnamese people are trafficked or smuggled every year along these routes.

People smuggling and trafficking from Vietnam has been well documented for some years now. If we are to prevent further tragedies, we need to resolve this problem at source. What work have the Government been doing in recent years with the Vietnamese authorities to stop the people traffickers? What level of co-operation have we been getting from the Vietnamese Government? What plans do we have now to increase assistance to that Government to prevent future tragedies?

The noble Lord will forgive me if I refrain from speculating about the nationality of the victims of this crime. That is for the coroner to decide. Until the coroner does, I am afraid my hands are tied.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that action needs to be taken before containers leave Europe? By the time they reach the UK, it may be too late. Has the overall number of Border Force officers deployed at British ports increased or decreased since June 2000 when, as the noble Lord, Lord Sterling, has just said, 54 men and four women died in similar circumstances?

As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, bearing in mind that security and policing arrangements after any transition period are not contained in the withdrawal agreement, if the UK does leave the EU, will co-operation with our European neighbours to tackle this issue become easier or more difficult? Will such incidents become more or less likely as a result? And is it acceptable for the Government to say simply, “Well it depends what deal we can negotiate after we have left”?

The Government’s migration strategy, which was agreed in 2015, has three basic principles: to encourage migrants to seek protection in the first country they reach; to strengthen international adherence to legal frameworks that distinguish between refugees and economic migrants; and to uphold the rights of all states to control their borders, while taking responsibility to accept the return of those nationals. The principles of that British strategy were endorsed at the United Nations General Assembly in 2016 and the “whole route” approach that the noble Lord refers to is very much at the centre of our approach. I do not have at my fingertips the figures on the total number of enforcement officers at the ports, but I would be glad to share them in a letter.

My Lords, when tragedies happen, there is always an opportunity to review what we can learn from these terrible events. I guarantee that there will be intelligence in the system on this, and that someone might have noticed that this was happening. This is a mass movement of people, involving many different parts. Whether it is the people who put the migrants in the lorry or those who took the money from them, or the places where they arrived or changed lorries, there will be a trail and someone will have noticed something unusual. I urge the Government to review the gathering of intelligence across Europe, because this event has happened despite our present arrangements and not because of a future lack of them. I suggest that in this country and across Europe we review again how we gather intelligence and find out who is responsible. I am fairly sure there will be intelligence in the system that could have predicted this.

The noble Lord has considerable expertise in this area and his advice resonates with authority. I have little doubt that there will be intelligence in the system on this. I reassure him that huge resources are going into this investigation, from the British Government and from Belgian, French, Dutch, Greek, Chinese and Vietnamese agencies. The vivid image of the victims’ plight has clearly electrified enforcement bodies around the world and they are very focused on tracking down those responsible. I very much hope that the intelligence will be developed quickly and the perpetrators apprehended.

My Lords, I recognise that there are limits on the extent to which my noble friend can commit the Government, but I urge him to take very seriously the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and others about the nature of the withdrawal agreement and the other negotiations we will have with the EU. It is absolutely essential that when the legislation comes before this House and the other place there is detail on how the arrangements with the law enforcement agencies across Europe will not be diminished by our withdrawal but hopefully enhanced. I recognise that my noble friend cannot give assurances now, but the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, will loom large in the examination of the Bill in Committee.

My noble friend is very reasonable to ask this in the way he does, but I hope he will forgive me. Being in my position and knowing the detail of the large amount of collaboration that is happening, and the positive efforts that are being made by partners on all sides of the Channel and in many different countries on many different continents, it is reasonable to focus on that spirit of collaboration. We should pause for a moment in dwelling on the fears of an unknown threat on the horizon.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the enforcement officers at all the ports vulnerable to this kind of traffic have the equipment they might need to conduct a search of these very sophisticated vehicles? I think particularly of refrigerated vehicles; I think he mentioned that they are sealed and cannot readily be opened. The enforcement officers therefore face a closed container. Thermal imaging equipment might be available. If I am right about that, is enough of that equipment available for the enforcement officers in all these vulnerable ports?

The noble and learned Lord asked the question that all of us are asking ourselves. A police investigation, Operation Rulles, has been running for at least two years to look specifically at the techniques, hardware and intelligence necessary specifically for refrigerated lorries, which clearly present a massive technical challenge. They are heavily lined, temperature control means that heat-sensing equipment does not work in the same way, and they are sealed emphatically to prevent the goods transported being spoiled. That is why people smugglers are using them. There is clearly a technical challenge that we have not yet solved. I hope very much indeed that one of the outcomes of this tragic incident will be renewed focus on figuring that out and, if necessary, further investment in the right kind of technology.

I listened very carefully to what the Minister said in reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Tugendhat. Will he look at what the European Union has said about the implications for co-operation with Europol of our position on the Court of Justice? If he were to find that he has inadvertently in any way misled the House, would he correct the record?

My Lords, following on from the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, I remember the multiple occasions that I have been through Tangier port, which uses a mixture of high-tech and dogs, and frankly does a very thorough job. I have first-hand experience of it. Are the Government satisfied that sufficient high-tech solutions, particularly for the minor ports—I think that the noble Lord mentioned 60 ports in the UK where these unfortunate people could come through into the UK—are sufficiently resourced with high-tech solutions?

The noble Viscount clearly has more recent experience of Tangier than I. I remember it being an incredibly romantic and low-tech port when I used to travel through it many years ago. That is a very interesting piece of advice and I will make sure that it is passed up the line.