The involvement of lorry drivers in organised immigration rackets has persuaded Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to extend to haulage companies the penalties faced by airlines and ferry operators, who can be fined up to pounds 2,000 for every unauthorised entrant they bring into the country.
Although the new penalties for truck drivers and private motorists will be lower, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) attacked the move as "ludicrous" and warned that small companies could be put out of business.
In protest, the RHA will instruct its 10,000 members to stop contacting the police if they find people hiding in their vehicles. Instead, they will be advised to release them without tipping off the police. "Our members are truckers, not immigration officials," said Dan Hodges, its spokesman.
But Mr Straw told MPs it was no use employers saying a truck driver did not know there were 20 illegal immigrants in the back of his lorry. He said criminal gangs were charging people between pounds 4,000 and pounds 5,000 to come into Britain in the backs of lorries or cars. Those in control of vehicles must ensure their passengers had proper documents, he said.
Legislation in the Queen's Speech next month will also extend the pounds 2,000 fines for Eurostar passengers who unlawfully travel to Britain from Paris. They already apply on trains from Brussels.
Mr Straw was giving evidence to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, in which he admitted that Labour had abandoned a pre-election promise to set up a new committee of MPs to monitor the security services.
After discussions with Tony Blair, Mr Straw said the Government would not create a select committee to supervise MI5 and MI6. He also refused to allow their chiefs to appear before the home affairs committee. However, he hoped long-awaited legislation on freedom of information would be included in next year's speech.
After Tory criticism that the number of police officers had fallen by 300 since Labour took power, Mr Straw said the police should improve its efficiency, put more "back office" staff into front-line duties, and reduce the amount of sick leave and early retirements.
Mr Straw refused to set a target for the prison population, which has risen to 65,900 since the election, saying sentencing was a matter for the courts. But he hinted he would support greater use of suspended sentences and other measures to reduce pressure on the jails.Reuse content