Port of Dover: security in an age of uncertainty

Ports play a huge part in keeping people safe. Often they are the first line of defence, but what does port security look like in an age of uncertainty?


Port of Dover

The Port of Dover is the busiest passenger ferry port in Europe, in operation 364 days a year. Up to 13 million passengers pass through each year; that includes 2.5 million tourist cars, 2.5 million HGVs and 96,000 coaches.

In today’s world, where the terrorist threat looms large, it is vital that ports such as Dover play their part - in much the same way as airports do - in ensuring people are safe, and operate an effective policy of security checks.

At the end of July, it was shown just how much of an undertaking this really is. Motorists attempting to reach the Port of Dover – many to get away for their summer holidays – were faced with delays of up to 14 hours, with heightened security checks causing tailbacks as far as the eye could see.

Following the recent appalling attacks in France, no one can seriously argue against tougher, more rigorous security. France’s continued state of emergency has led to tighter border checks, and no amount of traffic or passenger dissatisfaction is going to change that, and nor should it.

Rather, it is an apparent lack of staff to cope with the number of people that has been criticised. Helen Deeble, chief executive of P&O Ferries, which operates a Dover to Calais ferry crossing, was quoted in the Guardian as saying: “Increased security checks at the border are completely understandable but the French authorities must provide adequate numbers of staff to ensure that these checks can be processed quickly and efficiently.”

This view was backed by the Port of Dover authority, which added that the French border control booths in Dover were "seriously understaffed". According to the BBC, Kent County Council said only one French officer was able to check passengers, resulting in a 40-minute wait to process coaches.

An extraordinary situation

Calling it an “extraordinary situation”, the Home Office drafted in UK officials to help ease congestion by assisting with vehicle searches.

It is valid ask why more people weren’t manning those control booths. For security to be a sustainable component of port operations, it is vital that people do not feel they are getting a raw deal. Is a 14-hour delay acceptable, in any circumstance?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some travellers stranded at the Port of Dover were unhappy at what they perceived to be a lack of information, with one telling the BBC: “When we went to join the motorway there was no indication you were likely to be sitting here all night.” Others who were stranded said they had “no real frustrations”, but “no-one knew what was going on”.

"Motorists were faced with delays of up to 14 hours."

Some of the strongest criticism came from Dover MP Charlie Elphicke, who insisted that officials should have been better prepared. “The Department for Transport and Home Office knew there would be heightened security checks in place in France,” he said. “They should have been prepared. They weren't.”

In response, A Port of Dover statement, dated 25 July, said: “We raised concerns over French manning levels with the UK Government days before the situation developed, and the government, in turn, raised the issue with its French counterparts.”

Dover officials added that they were “determined to continue working with the UK authorities to find a way of ensuring that French border control posts are suitably staffed in future”.

It’s important to note, though, that the Port of Dover has no authority over French border operations, so collaboration is paramount. And what about France? How has it reacted to what unfolded?

Jean-Marc Puissesseau , president of the Côte d’Opale Chamber of Vommerce, which runs the Port of Calais, said he was ashamed, with harsh words for those who did not do more to plan. “When we know that there will be big traffic, as it was yesterday because it was starting holidays, it should be organised,” Puissesseau told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Summing up the mood, Puissesseau agreed that greater scrutiny at the door was needed, but “what I cannot understand is that they don’t put on enough policemen to control”.

Port security regulations and police

Manning a border post is just one piece of the puzzle that makes up port security. The International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS) – to which Dover is signed up – was developed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and came into force in 2004. ISPS is an amendment to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and therefore applies to all contracting parties to SOLAS.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) describes ISPS as a means to create a “standardised, consistent framework for evaluating risk”, adding, in a Q&A published on its website, that “the threat of terrorist acts against the shipping and port industry are real and not imaginary”.

"Increased security checks at the border are completely understandable."

Codes such as this can control who has access to certain areas of ports, while there are training courses available to help port security officers meet ISPS obligations. In the UK, there’s also the Port Security Regulations 2009, which compel port security authorities to appoint a person as a port security officer, and maintain and update security plans and hold training exercises for port staff.

And then there’s port police. From Liverpool to Bristol, Felixstowe to Dover, specialised forces created with one aim: to police ports and protect staff and visitors.

But of course, in the event of an emergency or attack it’s not just port authorities that will have to respond. Agencies from outside of ports’ control will be needed. Dover has simulated such a scenario with Operation Tungsten. The first of its kind in the UK, this multi-agency exercise saw the port closed for five hours.

At the International Port Security conference, held in London earlier this year, a delegate mentioned that people will not travel if they feel their safety is at risk. That not only damages what democracies stand for, but also the bottom line of businesses that rely on people moving from one destination to another.

Even if you take the view that the port sector is yet to witness an event on the scale of 9/11 or the more recent attacks in mainland Europe, it follows that now is no time to relax or become complacent, especially in an age of uncertainty.