The Port of Dover is taking legal action to overturn an “irrational” government decision not to fund a £33.5m project to build more passport check points which it says are needed to cope with post-Brexit immigration controls.
The UK channel port, which handles more EU lorry freight than all other UK ports combined, has won the right to seek a judicial review of a Cabinet Office decision last December not to grant funds for the project that would have doubled passport checking capacity.
Dover applied last September for a grant from the £200m Port Infrastructure Fund but was rejected after the fund attracted applications worth more than £450m.
Seeking leave to have the decision overturned in the courts, Dover’s lawyers said the government had “acted irrationally” and “contrary to the published criteria” of the Port Infrastructure Fund, as well behaving “procedurally unfairly”.
UK government lawyers asked the court to refuse Dover’s application, arguing that the government had “wide discretion” in deciding which applications to accept and that Dover’s application did not meet the full requirements of the fund’s rubric.
However, a High Court judge ruled Dover raised issues that were “clearly arguable” in court and granted permission for the case to be heard. Dover is seeking that the government’s original decision is quashed and their application reconsidered.
The case raises the prospect of significant disruptions to cross-Channel travel and trade when passenger numbers rise following the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions. The French border police informed the port that passengers and lorry drivers will face “100% immigration checks” after Brexit.
As a result of leaving the EU, British passport holders can now only spend 90 days in any 180 day period in the EU without obtaining a visa, requiring passports to receive a dated entry stamp, increasing the time needed for checks.
In its submission to the court, Dover said the UK Border Force had warned the new checks could reduce the “flow rate” through Dover’s passport lanes to “50 people per hour, per lane” — about a tenth of pre-Brexit flows of 500 per hour, per lane.
Dover currently has just five passport lanes and on a busy holiday weekend can expect up to 20,000 passenger vehicles in a day.
Under special arrangements known as “juxtaposed controls” designed to speed travel over the Channel crossing, French border and immigration checks are conducted at Dover so that passengers can disembark without stopping when they reach Calais.
A National Audit Office report last November estimated that new post-Brexit checks could mean passenger queues of one to two hours after January 1, but warned that in peak periods “the queues and delays could become much longer”.
Travel restrictions imposed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic have meant that the NAO’s estimates have not been tested. The lack of passenger vehicles has also helped keep freight traffic moving, with lorries currently using four of the five available lanes — compared to just one lane before Brexit.
Tim Reardon, the head of EU exit planning at Dover, said French frontier police had requested the extra booths and the UK government, according to the agreement on ‘juxtaposed controls’, was obliged to provide them.
“This project is essential to maintain the flow of freight and passenger traffic now full immigration controls are required post-Brexit. As host to the French police, the UK government has a legal obligation to provide the resources they require,” he said.
Downing Street said it would not comment on a legal proceeding, but added that the government was “robustly” contesting the claim from Port of Dover.
Additional reporting Jane Croft