Mr Speaker, I want to update the House on the action the Government is taking to tackle illegal immigration, particularly in light of the current situation in the Mediterranean and the disruption caused by the recent strikes which affected the port of Calais and the Eurotunnel site at Coquelles.
The close co-operation between the United Kingdom and France on this issue dates back many years, and our governments have been working closely together to respond to the pressure caused by the growing number of people migrating across the Mediterranean in recent months.
As the House will be aware, aggressive strike action by French port workers recently exacerbated that pressure, temporarily closing the port of Calais and also disrupting services by Eurotunnel. This had significant repercussions for the UK – in particular for lorry drivers, the travelling public and local residents in South East England. Tourists and freight drivers endured long and difficult journeys in the summer heat. Illegal migrants in France – taking advantage of the situation – made increasingly bold attempts to board vehicles heading for the UK, and we heard worrying reports about intimidating and violent behaviour. And I am conscious of the forbearance of the residents of Kent, who suffered disruption due to the build up of traffic on local roads caused by the French strike. That forbearance has been powerfully championed by their Members of Parliament, who I will be meeting to discuss this issue shortly.
Since last week, strike action has paused to allow for talks between French trade unions and the French authorities. The Port of Calais re-opened on 2 July and ferry companies and Eurotunnel are operating near normal services. But the repercussions are still being felt – and the risk of further French strike action remains.
It is, of course, the responsibility of the French authorities to police French soil – and they have, like our own Border Force and Kent Police, worked extremely hard to maintain law and order during this difficult period.
Since disruption began on 23 June, Border Force, working closely with the French authorities, put in place well-tested contingency plans, deploying a range of additional resources to reinforce security and support traffic flow at the juxtaposed ports. Freight vehicles entering Calais, the Eurotunnel site at Coquelles and Dunkirk underwent intensified screening for clandestine illegal entrants using some of the best techniques and technologies in the world – including sniffer dogs, carbon dioxide detectors, heartbeat monitors and scanners – as well as visual searches to find and intercept stowaways.
Between 21 June and 11 July, over 8,000 attempts by illegal migrants were successfully intercepted at juxtaposed ports in France through the joint efforts of the French and British authorities.
That reflects the particular pressures caused by the recent industrial action. But Her Majesty’s Government has been working closely with the French Government for much longer to deal with the broader situation in Calais. At the beginning of this month, I met the French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, in Paris where we agreed to further strengthen our cooperation and build on the Joint Declaration we made last September. Since November 2014, we have committed to investing £12 million of which £6 million has already been spent to reinforce security at our juxtaposed ports in Northern France. This includes new fencing to secure the approaches to the port of Calais and joint work to improve traffic flow through the port and Border Force controls, so that more tourist vehicles can queue within the secure environment of the port. This work is due to be completed at the end of this month. In addition, we have funded a £2 million upgrade of detection technology and boosted our dog searching capability by another £1 million.
We have also provided funding for additional fencing to help secure approaches to the Channel Tunnel at Coquelles, where repeated incursions have taken place over the last few weeks. This work, which we announced last week, has already begun and is also due to finish by the end of this month.
In addition, we have made considerable progress in targeting criminal gangs in Calais through better intelligence sharing and increased collaboration between law enforcement agencies, and are running joint communications campaigns to tackle myths about life in the UK. We continue to keep the situation under review and will assess whether further measures may be required.
As I have mentioned, the recent strike action has had significant implications for both the travelling public and in particular hauliers – who have not only been subjected to long delays, but repeated attempts by illegal migrants who try to stow themselves away in their vehicles. We are working with the British haulage industry to support our drivers, and my Right Honourable Friend the Immigration Minister had a further meeting with representatives of the industry to discuss their concerns.
It is of course important that vehicles are secured properly to help mitigate the threat of illegal immigration. We provide clear guidance on lorry security – which many responsible drivers take steps to follow. But as the vast majority of vehicles arriving in the UK are foreign registered, the bigger part of our challenge is international. Approximately 7% of fines issued last year were to British drivers –we need to ensure that the rest of the world’s freight transport industry is keeping up with the UK’s. So we have offered to host an international event focused on best practice in lorry security.
I am sure the whole House will agree that British hauliers work tirelessly to keep our economy moving. Without the hours they spend on the roads importing and exporting goods, it would grind to a halt. It is imperative that they are allowed to continue their business unimpeded.
So today I can announce the creation of a new secure zone at the port of Calais for UK-bound lorries. This will provide a secure waiting area for 230 vehicles – the equivalent of removing a two-and-a-half mile queue from the approaching road. This should transform protection for lorries and their drivers – removing them from the open road where they can become targets for migrants attempting to board their vehicles.
Mr Speaker, the problems in Calais are clearly symptomatic of a wider issue that needs to be tackled at source and in transit countries. This was reflected in the recent European Council discussions which my Rt. Hon. Friend the Prime Minister attended and reported to this House. The Government is clear that we must break the link between people making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean and achieving settlement in Europe. And we must target and disrupt the organised criminal gangs who profit from their fellow humans’ misery, selling them false promises before loading them onto dangerous vessels and sending them – in many cases – to their deaths.
To this end, we are enhancing our work with European and African partners to tackle these callous criminal gangs and increase the support for genuine refugees in their regions of origin.
Recently, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of a dedicated law enforcement team to tackle organised immigration crime in the Mediterranean. Around 90 officers will be deployed in the UK, the Mediterranean and Africa to pursue and disrupt organised crime groups. They will make use of every opportunity at source, in transit countries, and in Europe to smash the gangs’ criminal operations and better protect the UK and the vulnerable people they exploit.
In addition, we are providing practical and financial support to other EU countries – including help to process newly arrived illegal immigrants and distinguish between economic migrants and genuine refugees.
We must also work to stop this problem at source, and the UK has a proud record of providing aid to alleviate poverty and suffering overseas. We have committed £900 million to help people displaced by the Syrian crisis – making us the second largest bilateral donor in the world in response to that humanitarian crisis.
But just as we are generous to those who need our help, the UK will be tough on those who flout our immigration rules or abuse our hospitality as a nation.
Since 2010, the Government has introduced new laws to make it harder for people to live in the UK illegally – restricting their access to rented housing, bank accounts, driving licences and our public services. We have revoked the driving licences of 11,000 illegal immigrants, closed down nearly 900 bogus colleges, and carried out over 2,900 sham marriage operations in the past year.
The new Immigration Bill we will bring before the House later this year will build on this work and enable us to take stronger action still. It will include measures to make it even more difficult for people to live in the UK illegally, make it easier for us to deport them, and make Britain a less attractive place for people to come and work illegally – not least by making illegal working a criminal offence in itself.
So, Mr. Speaker, the approach of Her Majesty’s Government is clear. We are continuing our close collaboration with the French authorities to bolster the security of the ports in Northern France; working closely with them to mitigate the consequences of irresponsible French strikers; providing the assistance our hard-working hauliers and the travelling public deserve; and leading the international efforts to tackle this problem in the longer term – with generous support for those who deserve it, and tough sanctions for those who do not.
I commend this statement to the House.