To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to increase the flow of passengers through the border control at the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras station.
The United Kingdom operates juxtaposed immigration controls on the Eurostar routes. Therefore, our immigration checks are carried out prior to departure from the stations in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Passengers disembarking on arrival at St Pancras are not routinely subject to any further checks. French border checks take place outbound at St Pancras as part of the juxtaposed controls agreement.
I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer—as usual, blaming the French for everything. Eurostar says that, whoever’s fault it is and at whichever end, it is losing 30% of its traffic because the frontier controls are not working properly, four years after Brexit started. Is it not about time that the British and French Governments got their act together to allow people more free movement without being held up for hours and hours at St Pancras, Paris, Lille and Brussels?
I simply do not recognise the noble Lord’s characterisation. Border Force has deployed in Paris e-gates which, in the last 12 months, have processed more than 1.2 million passengers. The service standard of a wait of no longer than 25 minutes for Border Force officers has been maintained throughout that period. There are no delays which are the fault of Border Force.
My Lords, in the interests of increasing passenger flow and in the spirit of co-operation, would it not be possible to agree a single, jointly manned border control?
As my noble friend will recall, the agreement at the time of the implementation of the Channel Tunnel was an international one between the United Kingdom and the French Republic. The agreement was that we should have controls in the way that we do. As I say, they work well, and the arrangements are successful.
My Lords, can the Minister say why Eurostar at St Pancras has not been made a designated port for CITES? If a decision has been made, will it be reviewed? This was a particular and reasonable ask from the music sector which would be, or would have been, very helpful. At the moment, UK musicians touring in Europe need all the help they can get.
St Pancras does not have infrastructure to process CITES goods. There is no red lane or counter, and no lock-up for detained goods. There is no need to overhaul the infrastructure at St Pancras to become a designated Border Force port for these purposes, but, of course, I am open to keeping the matter under review. The noble Earl can write to me, and I am sure we can look at this.
The Minister says he does not recognise the difficult situation of going through the Eurostar terminal. As a declaration of interest, I often have occasion to do that, so I see for myself what it is like. The infrastructure both there and at Eurotunnel was built at a time when there was, and on the basis that there would be, completely free movement of citizens between the UK and the EU. Looking ahead, is the Minister aware that the EU, at some stage, wishes to introduce fingerprinting for people who travel from the UK through Dover, Eurostar or Eurotunnel? What plans are the Government making to deal with that, considering the additional time that this is going to take?
I thank the noble Viscount for raising that important point. We anticipate that future digitisation, both in the EU system and in our own electronic travel authorisation scheme, will accelerate the rate at which people can cross the border. We are implementing infrastructure in Paris which will be able to accelerate the rate at which people can pass through our e-gates.
The Minister seems remarkably complacent in his answers. I invite him to travel more frequently on Eurostar to see the reality of the situation. Looking forward, the new EES will be accompanied next year by the European Travel Information and Authorisation System, or ETIAS. That will cost us €7 each to visit EU countries, as well as introducing new systems that require fingerprints. Can the Minister tell us what preparations the Government are making to expand capacity at border control for these more comprehensive checks and to raise public awareness of the new requirements?
As the noble Baroness will be aware, the European scheme requires people in advance to obtain these authorisations and to deposit the biometrics. It is not anticipated that this will cause delays at the border at St Pancras, as far as I am aware. As I say, for the reasons I gave to the noble Viscount, the anticipation is that increased digitisation will lead to faster use of e-gates.
My Lords, I was very interested in the Minister’s answer to the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and the recent answer regarding digitisation at ports. Does the Home Office intend to update the biometrics strategy, which was last updated in 2018, given some of the challenges with future-proofing these technologies and keeping up to date with AI and other technologies?
I can confirm to my noble friend that the Home Office takes seriously its duties to review the ethics of the biometrics that are retained. That is definitely on our radar as we progress the future border improvement scheme and the increasing use of digitisation to accelerate the rate at which people pass through ports and airports.
My Lords, will the Minister be kind enough to do a bit of homework so that in three weeks’ time, when answering my Question on the Order Paper, we might have a detailed appraisal of the real challenges that will exist on the back of the questions that have just been asked?
I of course differ from the noble Lord on the quality of the research carried out by my officials: I am satisfied that I have correctly answered the questions.
My Lords, on speeding things up, is there any truth in the rumour that the Government want to deal with the asylum backlog by requiring applications in writing in English, using online translation tools? If so, is the Minister aware that where complex details and evidence on trafficking, for example, are machine translated, the frequency and severity of errors in this unregulated field is notoriously high, and should not be used without human oversight, such as the provision of professionally qualified public service interpreters?
I am afraid that that question is a very long way from the Question about steps to increase the flow of passengers through the border control at Eurostar, and the Companion is quite clear on this topic. If the noble Baroness wishes to ask questions about this, she must do so in the correct way.
Is the Minister aware that it is not just at St Pancras that these extra checks are causing problems? Eurostar trains have not stopped at Stratford International or Ebbsfleet International for some time and, according to the train company, there is no prospect of their doing so because of the extra delays caused by these checks. Does the Minister regard the fact that people living in those areas must travel to St Pancras to get to Paris, Brussels or anywhere else as a triumph of Brexit, or shall we just put it down as something that the Foreign Office is really not conscious of in the first place?
I thank the noble Lord for that question. He is of course right that Eurostar trains no longer stop at those intermediate stations to take international passengers. I am not sure there is any reason from the Border Force perspective why they have not been reopened; as I understand it, these are matters for the train operating company. I am happy to look into the matter further, but that is the only answer I can give at this time.
My Lords, the Minister has given some very optimistic answers today, and I hope he is correct. What if he is wrong?
I am sure the noble Lord will bring me back to answer questions about it.
My Lords, the simple fact is that, yesterday, we saw a great achievement by the Prime Minister in the Windsor agreement. If there are further problems for Eurostar being able to operate up to capacity, does not the Minister think that there is now a better chance of getting a negotiated agreement with the French and other Governments on this issue?
I certainly agree with my noble friend. It is clear that we have an ongoing dialogue with the French on many issues, particularly in the department for which I appear. I entirely agree with what my noble friend says.