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European Entry-Exit System Requirements: Port of Dover

Volume 705: debated on Wednesday 15 December 2021

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either in the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the application of European Entry and Exit System requirements to the Port of Dover.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about border issues in Dover. For once, this is not about small boats and illegal migration, on which my hon. Friend the Minister and his ministerial colleagues often hear from me, but about European border requirements and legal border controls operating at the port of Dover and other designated locations within the UK. More specifically, it is about the impact of those legal border controls as a result of the upcoming introduction of the digital borders programme by the European Union during 2022, in the context of the Schengen free movement area.

I will set out the context of the debate, which is what happens at, and through, the port of Dover. The port of Dover is the most successful port of its kind in the UK. It is of fundamental strategic and business importance to the whole country and will be well into the future. More than £144 billion in value of freight is transported through the port each year. The port manages a third of all UK trade with the EU, and together with the Eurotunnel, those combined routes—known as the short straits—manage almost 60% of all trade with the EU. The port is beautiful to behold, with a sheer operational efficiency, pace, speed and excellence that saw, pre covid, the port processing 1,000 lorries per hour and a passenger per second when combining inbound and outbound volumes. Few places anywhere have this level of speed and efficiency.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister has joined me at the port of Dover in the past and seen its operations at first hand. Those operations are possible not only because the port is really good at it and has been doing it a long time. It is the shortest route to market, and the market is competitive, and those competitive forces have required efficiency and excellence. I commend chief executive Doug Bannister and the Dover port team for all they do, which is fundamentally possible because border controls between the EU and the UK are part of this well-oiled machine.

Post Brexit, in spite of the many doomsters, gloomsters and fearmongers, trade flows between our nation and its European neighbours continued uninterrupted and unimpeded, other than the appalling consequences to my constituency when the French unilaterally and unreasonably closed the border before Christmas 2020, which predated our leaving the EU. That resulted in gridlock for Dover and the surrounding area. It meant residents struggling to get essential food, including meals on wheels, and to get to work or to hospital. It is a reminder of the realities of managing that level of lorries and passenger traffic and its impact on the Dover community, the whole of the Kent community and goods and services for the entire country. That is why I do not think it is good enough to allow the entry-exit system implementation to continue to be discussed slowly at the comfortable pace of the respective officials on each side of the border. Discussions between officials have been going on for some time. We do not need more discussions; we need practical, operable solutions that work in a juxtaposed context.

The work needs to be stepped up. It is vital that the Government are proactive and energetic in their diplomatic engagement to move things forward at greater pace and to bring forward a solution, which is now a matter of urgency, not just for Dover but for the country as a whole. Border controls are an essential and central part of the effective trading environment at Dover. I am in Westminster Hall today because border controls are about to change in a matter of months, and how they will work in a juxtaposed control setting at Dover has still not been settled. Let me set out in some detail what the border controls are now and how they will change, and say why a practical and operable solution is urgently needed and vital.

Currently, there are special border arrangements to support frictionless trade and border security between France, Belgium and the UK under the Le Touquet agreement and the Canterbury treaty, which are not EU agreements but bilateral agreements between the respective nation states. Under them, each country’s entry checks are made before exit and not after exit. By way of example, the French border security team—police aux frontières, or PAF—operate as PAF in Dover and carry out entry checks before exit from the UK to France. Likewise, the UK Border Force operates in Calais and carries out entry checks before exit from France to the UK.

I am sure that many of us, if not all of us, who are here today have experienced this system, which has been in place for many years, perhaps at Dover, or at St Pancras when taking the Eurostar. It is often the starting point for that fun family moment when someone says their first, “Oui, monsieur. Merci,” and when the smaller ones are encouraged to practise their polite manners in French.

That approach has been implemented for a very serious reason. It has been extremely successful in maintaining frictionless trade and in tackling people smuggling and other criminal activities at each of our borders. That is an approach and an agreement that has continued post-transition from the EU and it works very well.

Moving forward, both the UK and the EU will bring in digital borders, but not at the same time. The EU digital borders system—the European entry-exit system, or EES controls—is due to become operational in less than 12 months’ time. The UK equivalent is scheduled for 2024-25. That is really too far away and it is vital that our own UK digital borders programme is accelerated. We must not fall behind and we need to ensure that we are ready.

These new EES rules are part of Europe’s smart borders system, which will require biometric checking for every individual each time they cross an EU external border. The UK is such an external border and a third country for the purposes of these controls. There are further parts of the smart borders system to follow, including the European travel information and authorisation system, or ETIAS, which is in effect a new priority partner short-visa system for the non-Schengen countries, which include the UK. ETIAS is also due to come in in 2022.

In due course, as I have said, the UK will have its smart borders system, which will accordingly require changes in France, Belgium and other countries. The problem with the EES, to put it at its simplest, is that it has been designed for airports, by which I mean individual foot passengers. It has not been designed for people travelling in groups, it has not been designed for people travelling in vehicles and it has certainly not been designed for gateways operating juxtaposed controls.

The current EES design requires every driver to be stopped and every passenger to have their biometrics submitted and recorded either in or outside the stationary vehicle or in a purpose-built facility. In practical terms, what does that mean? At the moment, it would mean every passenger and every driver stopping and getting out of their vehicle in live lanes of heavy traffic in a port that manages the greatest number of vehicle movements in the United Kingdom every single day. That is not just impractical and dangerous—it simply will not work.

The matter was raised with the Home Secretary at a recent Kent MPs meeting with her, and it remains urgently important to resolve. It has been raised repeatedly by Kent MPs over the year with the Home Office, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Transport, as well as being raised by the port of Dover, Getlink—which runs the channel tunnel—and other operators. The House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee has also expressed concern in its letter to the Home Secretary on 22 November 2021—so a very short time ago—about unpreparedness. It raised concerns that there could be sustained delays and disruption. The Committee specifically highlighted concerns about traffic and trade disruption, which could occur on the short straits if the operational issues are not satisfactorily, and speedily, resolved.

To date, we, and the port of Dover, have struggled to establish where the ministerial lead sits, whether that is in the Cabinet Office or the Home Office, so I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) here today. These issues require close working between the Home Office and the Cabinet Office, and they may, indeed do, require a greater degree of diplomatic engagement to accelerate and bring forward operational solutions.

The port of Dover is the most successful port of its kind in the UK. More than £144 billion-worth of freight is transported through the port each year. It accounts for a third of all UK trade with the EU, supporting thousands of local jobs in Dover and Deal and hundreds of thousands of jobs across the UK. The port of Dover is a national asset that has a huge role to play in post- Brexit global Britain. What Dover and the short straits do simply cannot be replicated elsewhere. That success has been built on trade running smoothly. That success has continued post-Brexit.

We need to see that success continue with necessary decisions and investment, including upgrading the A2 and planning for the EU's new digital borders system when it becomes operational next year. With the clock ticking, it is now urgent that the Government sharpen their focus on implementing the new digital borders system seamlessly in a juxtaposed context. Otherwise, they risk big delays at the port, travel chaos in Kent and real damage to the British economy. It is a Brexit consequential in that the relationships to discuss and resolve have changed along with leaving the EU, and therefore it is an issue that ought to be properly funded, in whole or in part, from the transitional funding arrangements.

As with other transitional arrangements, the consequences of an operable solution not being found could place the whole of Kent at risk of traffic management gridlock, and leave the country and its businesses short of supplies. It is therefore of utmost importance to our country, county and East Kent that the operational, legal, diplomatic and practical solutions for EES and ETIAS are resolved as soon as possible. We have navigated the Brexit transition so successfully, but it would be extremely damaging for the EES issue to result in exactly the adverse outcome for traffic, the community and the country that we have sought to avoid, and have avoided—namely gridlock in Kent, and goods and trade disruption across the UK. It is vital that the issue is now progressed at pace and with urgency. This important issue will have huge implications for my constituents and residents across Kent, as well as the wider British economy, if it is not effectively and properly addressed at the earliest opportunity.

I will conclude by asking my hon. Friend the Minister several questions that would help the port of Dover and ferry operators, as well as hauliers and trade manufacturers, to understand how the system will work in practice. First, when is the target date for detailed guidance on the operational framework for the new arrangements expected to be available from the current Border Force and PAF discussions? Secondly, will hauliers have to stop and exit their cabs at the frontier controls, and will tourists have to exit their cars and coaches? If so, how will the consequential public safety concerns, and the inevitable delays that will result, be managed? Thirdly, what consideration has been given to forms of pre-clearance away from the port—whether on the factory floor, at the departing place of manufacture, at service stations or at border facilities, such as those at Sevington, Ashford and the White Cliffs Dover site?

Fourthly, do the checks need to be made physically by the frontier police, or can they be made by a remote entry system? Fifthly, what is the current state of discussion with France and/or the EU on EES and ETIAS implementation? Sixthly, given the state of current discussions, what do Ministers hope will be the eventual outcome or agreement, and within what timescales? Seventhly, does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that a successful outcome is in the interests of the EU and France as much as the UK, because frictionless trade and strong borders result in the freest trade and the greatest mutual benefit? Finally, does he agree that this should be paid for as part of the post-transitional Cabinet Office budget or another borders budget, instead of potentially needing to be paid for by the port and ferry operators?

I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister may not have all the answers to those questions to hand. Indeed, that is the reason for requesting this vital and urgent debate. Will he meet me and Kent colleagues in the first week of January, so that we can now make rapid and determined progress to resolve this issue? Finally, will the Minister join me in congratulating the port of Dover on its immense contribution to the nation, and on the excellent and efficient operations that it runs for the benefit of UK plc?

Before I call the Minister, I remind the hon. Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) that it is the convention of the House that the Member in charge does not get to wind up at the end of a 30-minute debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) for securing the debate, and to other colleagues for attending it.

This is clearly a topic of some importance, and I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s understanding of the current position. The EU’s entry-exit system, which I will henceforth refer to as the EES for brevity, is a new means of collecting identity and travel document data and registering entry and exit records to and from the Schengen area. The introduction of the EES will affect non-EU citizens travelling into the EU’s Schengen zone. Furthermore, on routes where juxtaposed controls are in operation, such as at the port of Dover, EES checks will be undertaken by French officers prior to departure from the UK.

I have to make it clear that as a Schengen border measure, the design and implementation of the EES is a matter for the EU member states. The UK Government do not determine the rules for it, and Border Force will not administer it or be involved in its enforcement. However, as outlined by my hon. Friend, the UK clearly has an interest in its efficient implementation and operation due to the potential impacts on passengers travelling from the UK into the EU, particularly in terms of freight operations across the short straits. As mentioned, we, too, have ambitious plans for the border in order to maintain our focus on balancing fluidity and security with the future implementation of the ETA scheme. That will particularly be the case on routes that operate juxtaposed controls, as checks for the EES prior to departure from the UK will be undertaken at the Eurotunnel entrance in Dover, and at St Pancras here in London. Similarly, ETA checks will be undertaken by Border Force before departure to the UK. It is therefore very much in our interest to work with our counterparts in the EU, as well as with port and transport operators, to identify the requirements and issues involved.

Today, passenger numbers remain a fraction of pre-pandemic levels in many instances, and we are aware that the return to normal volumes of passengers, coupled with increased checks, could have the potential to cause queues. The juxtaposed controls that we operate are a unique and valuable part of the border system. As has been said, they have been in operation in a variety of locations on rail and sea transport modes for almost 30 years: they enable secure checks to be made, and allow both ourselves and our partner countries to protect our borders. Those co-operative controls operate on UK soil, and we respect the fact that UK nationals who have abused the hospitality of our European neighbours by committing criminal offences are therefore not welcome to visit those countries again—and, similarly, the other way around. We are all working together to ensure that this is a success. Last year, we completed work with our international partners to successfully extend the arrangements to cover Eurostar services to and from the Netherlands, helping to cut down the overall journey times on this important route into the UK for the travelling public.

It is probably too early to quantify these changes exactly, but they will be a key consideration in discussions around how the EES is implemented by the relevant authorities. There are innovative ways to implement changes, such as those proposed under this new system, and we very much hope our French partners are as open to them as the UK was with the introduction of the very successful EU settlement scheme. Considerations over how much of this process can take place prior to arrival at the border are ultimately a matter for France and the European Commission. However, we remain open to discussing innovative approaches that take place on UK territory, as the UK was to the juxtaposed controls when they were introduced some decades ago.

Turning to the prospect of disruption, it will obviously be the responsibility of the police aux frontières to implement the checks on behalf of the EU member states. We are engaging with France with the aim of ensuring that the checks are implemented in a way that does not damage border throughput. Specific advice will be provided to the travelling public about the introduction of the EES with a view to increasing awareness of the new travel requirements and driving up compliance for both freight and non-freight travellers. However, to be clear, the requirements apply to the person travelling, not to goods and customs arrangements, which are separate and in place already.

I accept that any combination of near-normal levels of travel with the introduction of this new system could have quite a big impact. With people familiarising themselves not only with covid travel rules but with this new system, there could be queues, particularly at Dover. However, for many years there has been a productive working relationship between Border Force and its French counterparts to maintain flows at this key location, and we are constantly talking to them to try to make sure that we can continue to maintain flows, in the interests of both our nations—beyond the introduction of the EES.

I recognise that there is a particular challenge posed by passengers in vehicles. In line with our commitments, we will work with the implementing authorities to determine the infrastructure requirements, processes and procedures that result from the introduction of the EES. To reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Dover, practicality and safety considerations for passengers in vehicles are important elements to be agreed with our French partners. As she outlined, requiring all passengers to exit vehicles to register their biometric and biographic data would be hugely challenging, and we trust that our French partners will be open to exploring alternatives, especially given the obvious safety issues around requiring passengers to mix with active traffic flows at a busy port.

We have been engaging in this area to understand, in particular, what data the Schengen entry checks and the EES will look to secure. We understand that the biometric data to be captured is a facial photograph and four fingerprints, and that, for those enrolling for the first time, it must be captured under the supervision of a border official. Likewise, to counter fraudulent use, there will be a requirement for the supervision of any enrolment kiosks for all passengers. To be clear, this is something that will be in place at all entry points to the Schengen area; it will not be unique to entry from the United Kingdom. The juxtaposed controls present a particular situation, but also an opportunity, that we need to explore and resolve.

Last week, the European Commission announced that it is planning for the implementation of the EES in September. We of course want to finalise plans for the implementation under the juxtaposed controls that are based in the UK as soon as possible; however, we cannot set particular deadlines or timelines, given that it is all subject to further discussion with our French partners, who will operate them on behalf of the Schengen zone.

We recognise the port of Dover’s role as a key entry and exit point to and from the UK for a wide variety of time-sensitive goods, as well as passengers. Prior to the pandemic in 2019, it handled 1.2 million roll-on-roll-off units—more than all other ports serving mainland EU routes combined. It is also the UK’s largest international sea passenger port, handling nearly 11 million passengers in 2019. We are therefore fully committed to protecting this vital link, and that will be a key priority in our approach to assisting our partners in an effective implementation of the EES.

I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dover for securing the debate, and I join her in congratulating and thanking the port of Dover for the outstanding contribution to the economy that it facilitates through seamless daily trade with our European partners. I recognise the vital work that Dover Harbour Board undertook to complete a traffic management improvement project, which delivered an additional 4 km of freight holding capacity to help to keep traffic moving and better deal with traffic peaks. As the UK’s busiest roll-on-roll-off port, Dover is a recognised pressure point at the frontier and maintaining flow is a priority for UK customs planning, without compromising border security.

Across Government, officials will continue to engage with the port, the chamber of shipping and road hauliers to work through ways in which we can ensure that the border continues to be effective through 2022, with the staged customs controls coming to an end on 1 January and the prospect of the introduction of the EES in September 2022. It will have to be a cross-Government effort. I note the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover for a meeting with me. That meeting would almost certainly need to involve colleagues from the Cabinet Office, who take the lead on a number of the items that she highlighted in terms of the direct relationship with the European Union. To be clear, the Home Office’s role is very much on the operational side of how Border Force and the police aux frontières can come to sensible working arrangements on the ground that suit the shared interests of our two nations.

As I have a bit of time, and a colleague from north Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) is in the Chamber, for anyone querying what impact this may have on, for example, Holyhead to Dublin, the answer is none, because the Republic of Ireland is not in the Schengen zone. It is obviously part of the common travel area with the United Kingdom, and therefore routine immigration controls are not in place at Holyhead or Dublin in terms of entry to the UK; however, there are provisions for intelligence-led operations. To be clear, if people are wondering why we are focusing on Dover rather than mentioning other entry points from the European economic area, it is because the EES will not apply to travel between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, due to the common travel area and the Republic not being part of the Schengen zone.

The debate has been a useful opportunity to highlight and discuss the issues. I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend the Member for Dover and Cabinet Office colleagues to discuss some of the points that have been raised. Given that the decision process is going through the European Union and being implemented by French colleagues, I hope that she will understand that sadly I cannot give some of the answers today that I would be able to give were the UK Home Office deciding and implementing the process; however, I assure her that we are committed to doing whatever we can to make sure that the border functions effectively, not just when coming into the UK but when going out of it, because we recognise the strong impact that there will be if that is not the case, particularly in Dover.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.