Row over security levy

PORT chiefs at Felixstowe are today waiting to see if cargo agents pay a newly-imposed security charge to fight terrorism – after many voted to boycott it.

PORT chiefs at Felixstowe are today waiting to see if cargo agents pay a newly-imposed security charge to fight terrorism - after many voted to boycott it.

Shippers are angry at the surcharge being imposed on every container being exported or imported through the terminal, Britain's biggest boxport.

A survey by the Freight Transport Association showed a majority of shippers and freight forwarders would refuse to pay, and port owner Hutchison Whampoa has written to all firms to put its view.

Meanwhile, the British International Freight Association (BIFA) is issuing a legal challenge over the levy, which it claims may be unlawful.

All ports have been told to step up security following the attack on the World Trade Centre amid fears that the shipping industry could be a major target.

The biggest fear is that a "dirty bomb" being hidden in a container - not a nuclear weapon but a conventional bomb able to spread biological or radioactive material over a wide area.

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In the letter to companies following complaints, Felixstowe's chief operating officer Peter Morton said the government was paying for radiation-testing equipment - which has been extensively tested at the port over the past year and will be in full use next month - but the port will bear the operating costs.

"The UK government has made it clear that it will not provide any funding and that it envisages that ports will pass on the costs to customers," said Mr Morton.

"Some correspondents have suggested that we should defer any charge and that they would join us in lobbying the UK government.

"Frankly, we do not believe that lobbying would change government attitude and, in any case, we cannot be expected to bear the cost in the meantime."

He warned that any delay would mean higher charges later.

"We debated, internally, the best approach for the introduction of these charges, bearing in mind our view, supported by government, that the industry should not pay: shipping lines, agencies or ports.

"The charge has been designed to ensure that the costs are ultimately borne by consumers.

"We believe that the charges should be transparent, published and applied without discrimination."

The levy is £5.50 per container on exports and £10.50 on every imported box.

Port corporate affairs manager Paul Davey confirmed the port had received a letter from the BIFA's solicitors and said the port's legal advisors would respond to it. The port would not defer the charge in the meantime.

A number of extra security measures are already in place at Felixstowe, including having American customs officers to gather intelligence, extra UK customs officers, and some use of remote radiological detection devices.

More armed police have been stationed at the port, too, to deal with any incidents and help investigative work.

But the international shipping community is drawing up measures to tighten security further - including insisting that every port has a terrorism plan and a security officer by July.