Eurotunnel has fines lifted after tightening security

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David Blunkett has lifted penalty fines of £2,000 a head that were imposed upon Eurotunnel for any illegal immigrants who arrive in Britain on freight trains.

The Home Secretary told MPs he was rewarding the Channel Tunnel operator for improving security and cutting the number of stowaways boarding goods wagons at the French end of the tunnel near the Sangatte refugee camp.

Eurotunnel welcomed the decision which, it said, meant fines worth £560,000 that have already been already levied would now be lifted.

Mr Blunkett said the number of people arriving illegally on Eurotunnel freight trains had fallen sharply since the threat of fines. In December, 32 stowaways arrived in Britain, compared with 808 last July before the fines were imposed.

Mr Blunkett said: "Eurotunnel has taken steps to improve the situation at its Coquelles site and is complying with the code of practice. We are, therefore, lifting the penalties already imposed." He said fines on the French rail operator, SNCF, and the British rail freight operator, EWS, would also be lifted. He said: "It is important that where co-operation takes place we will reciprocate."

Home Office officials insisted fines could be imposed in the future if train operators failed to maintain security.

Mr Blunkett also announced British immigration officers would screen passengers boarding Eurostar trains at Paris, to prevent passengers with Paris-Calais tickets entering Britain illegally.

About 80 per cent of people entering Britain illegally on Eurostar trains used a loophole in French law preventing immigration officers checking passengers with tickets not valid beyond Calais.

Mr Blunkett's statement came as he prepared to announce far-reaching reform of the asylum and immigration system. A White Paper is expected to introduce a new system for those seeking citizenship, including planned migration and English lessons.

On Friday, a French judge rejected the latest attempt to force the closure of the Sangatte camp near Calais, which ministers say is a staging post for asylum-seekers hoping to come to Britain. Eurotunnel claims that up to 1,500 people a night attempt to break security at their French terminal.

The company has been challenging the system of fines through the courts. A spokeswoman welcomed the decision to lift the charges. She said the company had spent £6m on security at its terminal near Calais and was spending £10,000 a week repairing fences.

Oliver Letwin, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, said he was "delighted that we have won this important concession from the Government." But, opening an Opposition Day debate, he called on Britain to secure a new agreement with Paris to cut the number of immigrants travelling to Britain from France.

Mr Letwin told MPs an estimated 30,000 asylum-seekers in Britain had travelled through France. He insisted bilateral agreements between the two countries were not working.

Mr Blunkett said the situation would not improve until the Sangatte camp was closed, "and there is no alternative open along the coast".

He added: "We will need to look at how we could do that now, or after the French Presidential and Assembly elections."