Lord Roger Roberts writes… Exit checks and the Eurotunnel: A logistical nightmare

EUROTUNNEL calaisThe Coalition Agreement included a commitment to reintroduce exit checks by the end of this Parliament.

But any means of noting or recording who enters and who leaves the UK was removed in 1998 by Labour, who considered the checks, ‘an inefficient use of resources … contributing little to the integrity of the immigration control’. Clearly, today’s debate on immigration has moved on considerably.

Since the early ‘Noughties’, successive attempts have been made to restore some form of border records, principally through the introduction of technology-based checks for anyone departing the UK as part of a new ‘e-Borders’ programme. It was hoped that these checks would limit the escalating numbers of people illegally entering and staying in this country. These e-Borders were originally scheduled to be fully implemented by March 2014, but the programme has, unsurprisingly, fallen behind schedule.

Nick Clegg has said that the restoration of exit checks is the best way of dealing with the issue of those who overstay their leave: “the biggest single reason” for migrants residing illegally in the UK. This argument is difficult to dispute, and a perfect example of Lib Dems approaching the immigration debate with level-heads. It’s also clear that decisions made by previous governments to remove such checks has left the UK without a method of being certain that visitors leave the country when their leave expires. This is a situation which must be remedied, and Lib Dems are leading the way (in difficult circumstances) with a package of largely sensible reforms to our migration system.

However, problems rear their heads when we consider the scale of the operation required to properly implement this new scheme. And it’s clear to me the impact of these checks at our borders hasn’t been (publicly) debated enough.

To give a salient example, the EuroTunnel shuttle services transports vehicles (trucks, cars and coaches) between Folkestone, Kent and Coquelles, Pas-de-Calais. There are currently no out-bound checks carried out by our Border Force at Folkestone, and currently, the average transaction time for a car arriving at the EuroTunnel check-in is approximately 30 seconds – it’s a similar time for a truck. (Of course sometimes, it’s much, much longer than that.)

It is estimated that the addition of exit checks could increase this time by up to 30 seconds, per travelling person. Thus, an average family car with five passengers could see its check-in time increase from 30 seconds to up to 3 minutes. When we consider that over 50,000 passengers travel through the Tunnel every day, one might be forgiven for concluding that the slow progress made in the roll-out of the E-border scheme is perhaps for the best. Nightmare-inducing images spring to mind of traffic jams, miles in length, with passengers stuck in their vehicles – on hot days like today – for hours upon end, waiting for their information to be recorded. Hardly the image we want to present to the world.

No matter how well-intentioned the scheme, or how effective its full implementation may be in limiting illegal immigration, the hugely disruptive effect – i.e. anything less than a flawless roll-out of the plan – looks set to wreak havoc at the ChannelTunnel, on the M25 and beyond. If we are to avoid the South East becoming one, long tail-back, further consideration must now be given as to how best we can streamline an E-border system that’s fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Photo by hakzelf

* Lord Roberts of Llandudno is a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords

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  • Not just EuroTunnel. EuroStar will have similar problems at St Pancras, where there are also juxtaposed controls (ie French entry controls), and where 800 people boarding a train have to be processed in twenty minutes. At 30 seconds per person, that would require 20 Border Force staff working simultaneously, which there isn’t enough physical room for at the station.

    France does operate exit checks on behalf of Schengen in the other direction, but they are not applicable to EU citizens, so anyone with a burgundy passport can be waved through (note that new members of the EU don’t start issuing burgundy passports until their citizens have full freedom of movement in the EU, so Romanians and Bulgarians had national-colour passports as EU citizens until this year). This makes it much more efficient, as the overwhelming majority of travellers between the UK and France are EU citizens.

  • Exit checks are a ridiculous, pointless and unworkable idea. And offensive – why should we have to check with an official that we’re allowed to before we leave the country? We already spend far too much and waste far too much time on ‘border control’ theatre to keep bigots happy and lose out enormously in tourist revenue while we’re at it.

    There’s only one answer that’s not idiotic. Join Schengen, Now.

  • Charles Rothwell 19th Jul '14 - 12:01pm

    I think (1) there must be some form of IT which can accelerate processing times and reduce the time each traveller/group of travellers would have to wait for such exit checks to be processed as stated in the post and also (2) that if the reasons for the checks were fully and comprehensively explained to the public, the vast majority would accept the slightly prolonged waiting time in the same way as travellers have become totally used to accepting security checks (removing belts, jackets, shoes etc) at airports before boarding their flight. The whole problem with immigration (and, despite the Kippers droning on and on, it is very much NOT just a problem to do with the EU) is that very many members of the public have lost any faith whatsoever in what the government or the three established parties say on the matter, particularly since Labour’s total incompetence in (uniquely among established EU states) just throwing the borders wide open to unlimited number of Eastern European immigrants and hoping for the best (without allowing local authorities, trades unions, local community groups, regional authorities in the areas most likely to bear the major brunt of such immigration (i.e. the very groups Labour claims to represent and derive their strength from!!!) to have the faintest chance to prepare adequately for such an in-take in terms of schooling, community liaison and HOUSING in particular), while also taking the kind of idiotic steps as referred to in the opening line of the post from Lord Roberts above.
    On a related note, I was very proud to be a Party member when I saw an item on yesterday evening’s edition of “Newsnight” which covered a huge study into the impact of EU immigration into the UK which the Home Office had commisioned. The study made it clear that there had certainly been problems, particularly in terms of the impact on low skilled/low income UK workers (about to quit Labour in droves for UKIP in the grand vision of Farage and Nuttall (who drew the former’s attention to the fact that there is actually a working class in Britain (not that you would come across it much in the stockbroker commuter areas Farage comes from/has inhabited his whole life!)) and also (pace what I have said above) re community liaison issues. The overwhelming verdict of the study, however, was that immigration has had a massively beneficial impact on the UK, not in terms of providing ‘cheap labour’ but skilled labour in the shape of young, fit (much, much less likely to make use of the NHS than UK natives) and (above all) aspirational and dynamic people who contribute in taxation vastly more than they call down in the form of benefits and who, in an increasing number of cases, go on to set up businesses of their own in due time and then begin to provide work for others. The core of the news item, however, was that, naturally, May and the Conservative Home Office ministers had tried to quell the report from the study as being “too pro-EU” and likely to frighten died-in-the-wooll Tories either heading in the direction of the Kippers or ones who had already gone and whom the Tories desperately hope to win back in 2015( fat chance in my view; why on earth , (apart from the “Vote UKIP, get MIlliband!” argument) would ex-Tories want to rejoin Call me Dave’s lot again with their gay marriages, basically pro-EU membership stance, posh boy out of touchness etc etc after they have found themselves fully at home with the Kippers?) Made me swell with pride to hear Vince Cable and Julian Hubbert standing four square behind the Report and making it clear they were in favour of facts and analysis rather than prejudice, conjecture and half-truths tied to delusions about moving “Forwards to the 1950s!” Like gay marriage, apprenticeships, regionalism, equal pay and subsidiarity in general at all levels, this was precisely the kind of staking out of territory and delivering a clear and unequivocal presentation of where the Party stood on a crucial issue which we desperately need and which shows why we are light years from the two other main parties. There will be thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, who decidedly disagree with us, but I think it is infinitely better to stand up clearly for what we believe in than to duck, weave and get yourself into knots trying to appease such voters or (the other ‘main strategy’ on offer!) just ignoring the issue altogether and hoping for some deus ex machina arrival at the sacred 35% of the electoral vote via never-ending triangulation which will just about allow you to squeak into Downing Street (pathetic)!

  • Andrew Suffield 19th Jul '14 - 1:38pm

    It doesn’t have to be chaos. For example, we could resist the urge to have a big-bang news day when suddenly everything changes and everybody has to be checked. We could roll out the system as random spot-checks, and then increase the frequency as capacity allows, until everybody who passes through is being checked. We could even do it without setting an arbitrary up-front deadline for when this must be completed.

    That way we could get all the problems fixed, one at a time, in a sensible and efficient manner, without interrupting the service.

  • Richard Dean 19th Jul '14 - 2:26pm

    There are surely security issues here?
    Why not do the checks in motion, ie.on the train in this case?
    Could a system like contactless credit card transactions help?

  • Alex Macfie 19th Jul '14 - 5:55pm

    Slightly unusually I agree with Richard Dean; checking in motion was how it was done on mainland Europe pre-Schengen. We could then have a much wider variety of international passenger train services through the Channel Tunnel, such as trains to/from the North and West of the UK, and inter-regional services between Kent and Pas-de-Calais, as they could function as UK domestic trains while running in the UK. Instead we have a quasi-airline pre-book-only service that only serves the three nearest capitals, but what with the security theatre and over-stringent safety regulations, this is probably the only viable type of passenger train service through the Chunnel.

  • Peter Hayes 20th Jul '14 - 1:23pm

    Compare the queues returning to UK, there are few problems at the EuroTunnel passport control. The main requirement is a zone to pull any suspect passport or person out of the queue to keep the flow going. That was the problem we saw pre freedom of movement when we sat at a ferry port for 10 minutes behind a German car. Passport control did not appreciate my joke ‘who were they Baader & Meinhof?’ OK that dates me! I am not impressed with incoming checks either. A few years ago we had a bag with passports stolen. Barcelona consulate did not bother to ask for passport numbers and after discovering we were driving refused temporary IDs. 2 weeks later we drove back through France with nothing more than a return shuttle ticket, white skin, northern accents and a photo copy of the relevant passport pages that I had hidden in the car.

  • Roger Roberts 10th Aug '14 - 8:54pm

    Thanks all for the comments. I thought some of you may be interested in reading HMG’s position on this issue: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201415/ldhansrd/summer/04-08-2014.htm (see, HL1241).

  • John Baxter-Smith 23rd Mar '15 - 8:23pm

    Having read of the likely chaos if introducing exit passport checks at the channel tunnel and ferries – it is clear that this will be the case. You only have to look at the chaos the Border Police already create at Calais – however it appears that they expect the tunnel anf ferry operators to do their job for them. One assumes that the cost of tis will therefore fall on innocent travellers through higher fares. If the government wants to take this action the it is up to then to provide the necessary resources to carry this out to ensure there is no extra cost to travellers nor more than very minimal delays. It is a fact that residents of this country will never enjoy the simple freedom of movement that other Europeans do whilst it refuses to join Schengen, but it is up to the government to ensure their policies to not impact on the innocent traveller.

  • John Baxter-Smith 23rd Mar '15 - 8:28pm

    I would like to add that as far as i can recall – it is a liberal policy to introduce these exit checks. Which seems odd as the only Europhile party we currently have

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