HC Deb 15 August 1882 vol 273 cc1816-26


Order for Second Reading read.


It will be in the recollection of the House that the Government have pledged themselves to lay Papers on the Table upon this subject, and that they would at a later stage make a recommendation to the House as to the course it ought to take with respect to these Bills. I have this day presented to the House the Papers in question. They are very voluminous, and they will be found to contain a full history of the Channel Tunnel project, commencing from 1867, and including the communications which have passed between the English and the French Governments, the evidence taken by a Departmental Committee appointed at the instance of the Board of Trade, and the Report of the evidence of the Scientific Committee, appointed by the Secretary of State for War, to inquire into the practicability of rendering a tunnel, if constructed, absolutely useless to an enemy in case of war. It also contains the Reports of the Surveyor General of Ordnance, the Adjutant General, and His Royal Highness the Commander-in-Chief. Another set of Papers will be presented, containing all the Correspondence between the Submarine Railway Company and the Board of Trade, with respect to the experimental borings carried out by the Company, the further progress of which has now been prohibited by the Board of Trade. The Government have carefully considered all these Papers, and, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, they have come distinctly to the conclusion that they cannot advise that the two Bills now before the House should, at all events in their present form, be allowed to proceed any further; and, consequently, I propose to move that both of the Orders now on the Paper should be discharged. The Government have also come to the conclusion that it will be their duty, early next Session, to propose a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider the whole matter, and to this Committee they propose to refer all the Correspondence on the subject. I beg to move that the Order in the case of the Channel Tunnel Bill be discharged.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Order for the Second Reading of the Bill be discharged."—(Mr. Chamberlain.)


said, he only desired to say one word. He was very glad indeed, and he congratulated the House and the Government, that the Government had come to something like a conclusion upon this question at last. They were told that all the Papers had been laid on the Table, and he should like to ask whether certain letters were included. In 1872 there was a letter written by the Board of Trade to one of the other Departments of the Government, which letter was revised by the present Prime Minister. That letter, he believed, by some error on the part of the late lamented Lord Frederick Cavendish, was mislaid; but he (Sir Edward Watkin) knew that there had been such a letter in existence; and it contained the views of the Liberal Government of that day, and of the present Prime Minister. He should like to ask whether it was included in the Correspondence to be produced, as showing what the opinion of a Liberal Ministry was in that day as to the question of a Channel Tunnel? There was another letter, which at present was in private hands, but which seemed to him to be a public document, and ought to be in the possession of the Board of Trade. It was a letter written by the late Lord Derby to the late Lord Beaconsfield, and handed by Lord Beaconsfield to the late Baron Lionel de Rothschild. In that letter the late Lord Derby stated his views of the Channel Tunnel project. The noble Lord believed that the carrying out of the project would be attended with very great advantages, although probably with some disadvantages; and, while it was doubtful whether it ought to be assisted by the State, it ought not to be discouraged by the Government; and, further, that the scare and alarm about the invasion of the country, through the Tunnel, was idle and weak, and ought not to be considered for a moment. In regard to that letter, he (Sir Edward Watkin) had seen it, and it had been seen, at all events, by one of the officials connected with the Board of Trade—Mr. Calcraft—and he had no doubt that Mr. Calcraft communicated the nature of its contents to the President of the Board of Trade, and the fact that such a letter was in existence. He was sure that the hon. Member opposite would agree with him that this was an important declaration of opinion by a man who really deserved to be called a statesman—the late Lord Derby—to another man whose predictions in a different line of statesmanship were now being very rapidly verified. For the information of the country this letter ought to be published with the other Correspondence. With regard to the general question, he thought it was to some extent to be regretted that the Government had not made up their minds somewhat sooner. Private persons had been put to considerable expense in the matter, and had been very greatly harassed by the President of the Board of Trade. If the right hon. Gentleman had been gratified by harassing them, all he could say was that the individuals in question had borne it with the greatest possible equanimity and with some consolation in knowing that they had proved that they were engaged in a very great experiment, and they were satisfied with having made it. They only regretted that the Board of Trade did not permit them to prove it to a still greater extent, in the interests of what they believed, rightly or wrongly, to be one of the greatest works of the kind that any country, in this or any other time, had ever attempted. They were quite satisfied with what they had accomplished; but, in the meantime, he would certainly make an appeal to the Prime Minister, that now the Government had practically approved the principle of the construction of a Tunnel by allowing the two Houses to appoint a Joint Committee to consider the circumstances, the Government should no longer vexatiously delay or obstruct that which was simply a scientific experiment—the obstruction of an experiment without any benefit to anybody. If there was any benefit in obstruction it would be for the Government to state what it was. He maintained that the experiment involved no encroachment on the rights of the Crown. The Company had offered over and over again to place the whole of the rights they possessed in the hands of the Government for the Board of Trade to do what they pleased with them, and the President of the Board of Trade had no excuse for acting in a manner that was unusual and arbitrary towards men who, at their own risk and expense, had been endeavouring to solve so important a problem and in carrying out a work which had received the undoubted approval of the Prime Minister, who, if he were present, would not deny what he had practically said—"Do not talk to me about traffic; only show me that it can be done." The proposal to build a Tunnel had received the support and sanction of the late Prince Consort—one of the most sagacious men of our time—of the late Earl of Derby, of the Earl of Beaconsfield, the Earl of Clarendon, and Mr. Cobden. It was, therefore, a scheme which could not be dismissed lightly, and he was glad that the Government had at length arrived at some conclusion in regard to it. In conclusion, he hoped that the President of the Board of Trade would give an assurance that all the letters on the subject would be laid before the House, and that the scheme would no longer be the subject of useless, factious, and vexatious opposition, which could do no good whatever, but would merely irritate individuals, and sow in their breasts a rankling sense of injustice.


said, it was pretty well known that legal proceedings had been commenced against the Channel Tunnel Company, and he thought it would be satisfactory to the House if the right hon. Gentleman, before the discussion closed, availed himself of the opportunity of stating what, so far, had been the result of those legal proceedings. He wished to know whether an injunction had been issued to restrain the further prosecution of the work, or whether the experimental borings were still going on? He knew that the matter had been under the consideration of the Court; and if the Court had pronounced an opinion upon it, it might go far towards disposing of the question raised by the hon. Gentleman who had just addressed the House — namely, the oppression to which the Company the hon. Member represented had been subjected. He took it that if there had been any oppression on the part of the Crown the Court would have expressed an opinion upon the attitude which had been taken by the Government against the Company. A statement as to what had actually taken place, and of the result of the legal proceedings, would, he thought, be satisfactory to hon. Members, and place them in possession of valuable information.


said, he could not but think that there was some ground for the complaint which had been made by the hon. Baronet who represented the Channel Tunnel Scheme (Sir Edward Watkin), that the Company had been unduly interfered with in carrying out what, on the whole, was a valuable experiment. So far as the experiment had gone at present, he really did not see why the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade should not allow the borings to be continued, if necessary, for some miles further, as an experiment merely. It would be quite as easy to put a stop to the Channel Tunnel when it had advanced 10 miles under the sea, as when it had advanced only 100 yards; and if some engagement were given by the Company under which the Channel Tunnel Company could be permitted to continue their borings, but which would in no way confer on them any rights in regard to the future, or interfere with any subsequent action on the part of Her Majesty's Government, he did not see why the hon. Member for Hythe (Sir Edward Watkin) should not be permitted to carry his experiment some miles further. The works, it must be remembered, would be carried on at the expense of the hon. Baronet's Company and at the expense of those who had confidence in the result of the experiment. If such permission could be given the cause of Science would doubtless be advanced, and there could be nothing whatever done that was injurious to the safety of the country, because, as he had already said, after the Channel Tunnel had been driven under the sea for five or six miles it would be just as easy for the Government to destroy it, if it was considered necessary to destroy it, as it was to stop it now. If the hon. Baronet the Member for Hythe (Sir Edward Watkin) would really give a guarantee that the Channel Tunnel Company only wanted permission for experimental purposes, and that no claim would be made against the Government for damages if the scheme were hereafter knocked on the head, in the interests of Science the necessary permission might be given. Such a course would certainly put an end to all idea of a grievance on the part of the Company. He threw out the suggestion for the consideration of Her Majesty's Government, and if there were no practical objection to it, he hoped it might be accepted.


In answer to the question addressed to me by the hon. Baronet the Member for Hythe (Sir Edward Watkin), I have to say with regard to one of the letters to which he referred, that it appears to have been a private letter from the late Lord Derby to Lord Beaconsfield, and, as such, it consequently cannot properly find a place in this Correspondence; but as regards all the public documents, we have included every shred and scrap of correspondence we have been able to find. Amongst other documents, there will be found the papers and communications to which, I imagine, the hon. Baronet refers. But perhaps, to insure greater accuracy, I may state what the papers will be. In July, 1873, this question was raised by the Board of Trade, who informed the Foreign Office that, while opposing any monopoly, it would gladly see any improvement carried out in the communication between England and the Continent by means of a Channel Tunnel, and it would therefore be satisfactory to hear that the British railway system was likely to be connected with the European system by means of a Tunnel between France and England. The Board of Trade then presumed that Her Majesty's Government would not be inclined to offer any objection to a concession being granted to the promoters of the Channel Tunnel Company on the usual terms upon which they were granted to public Companies in France, provided there was no reason to fear that a monopoly would be secured. These views were forwarded to the British Ambassador in Paris, in order that he might listen to any representations that might be made to him. A note was attached to the letter by the late Lord Frederick Cavendish, stating that the draft was in exact accord with the wishes of Mr. Gladstone. All I need add to the communications, which will appear in the Papers, is that it is certainly rather a singular thing that throughout the Correspondence at this time there appears to have been no idea whatever that the formation of a Tunnel under the Channel could raise any question of National security. That question, however, was raised when the present Bills were brought before the House, and it was a question of such importance that it was evident it was quite impossible that the Government could allow the Bills to proceed until a decision should have been arrived at with regard to it. The delay which followed, and of which the hon. Baronet complained, was a delay that was inseparable from the inquiries which the Government thought it necessary to make. As soon as they received the Report of the Scientific Committee appointed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War, it was referred to the military authorities, and again, as soon as we received the Report of the military authorities, the Government at once arrived at the decision which I have officially made known to the House. The hon. Baronet has said a good deal about what he is pleased to call the harassing action of the President of the Board of Trade. The hon. Baronet has always endeavoured, although I think entirely without success, to separate me in my personal and individual capacity from the action taken by Her Majesty's Government in the matter. I may observe that the action which I have taken on behalf of the Government has not been of a personal character, and I disclaim all personal feeling in connection with this matter. The hon. Baronet, in describing the action of the Board of Trade as harassing, has, however, omitted to refer to circumstances which I have on various occasions explained to the House, but with which, I am afraid, I must trouble the House again. The facts of the case are briefly these. We found that the experimental boring was being carried through the foreshore, and we claim the foreshore on the part of the Crown. We admit, however, that this is a question which will have to be decided by a Court of Law, and the hon. Baronet may be able to adduce evidence entitled to consideration. As we considered that there was not the slightest possible doubt as to the rights of the Crown when once the foreshore had been passed, and the territorial limits reached, we did not think it necessary to stop the works as long as they did not reach beyond the foreshore; but we gave the hon. Baronet full notice that, whenever he should reach the three miles territorial limit, we reserved to ourselves the right of taking such steps as we might think advisable; and when we found, from the plans submitted to us, that he had nearly approached to this limit, we gave him notice that the works must be discontinued. What did the hon. Baronet do? He gave me a personal assurance by letter that the works should be stopped, and that the wishes of the Board of Trade would be complied with. But, in spite of that assurance, I afterwards discovered, when at last I was enabled under an order of the Court to make a full inspection of the works, that they had been carried on for a distance of 600 yards beyond the limit at which the hon. Baronet had pledged himself that they should stop. I think the hon. Baronet, under these circumstances, has very little reason to come to this House and complain of the harassing action of the Board of Trade. My hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Gregory) has asked me to state what is the present position of the matter. We had, in the first place, to go to the Court to obtain an order for inspection, the inspection which we had been constantly promised having been again and again evaded without sufficient reason by the hon. Baronet and the Company he represented. We accordingly obtained an order from the Court, and an interim injunction pending the settlement of the questions affecting the rights of the Crown to the solum under the three-mile territorial limit. I caused an inspection to be made in compliance with this order, and the result was that which I have stated. After what had passed, I felt I could not place the slightest confidence in the assurances I had received, and accordingly I determined to have periodical inspections of the works in order to see whether they would be stopped, at all events, at this 600 yards' limit; and I found, on the occasion of the last inspection, that, in defiance of the order of the Court, the works had been carried a distance of 70 yards further. Under the circumstances, further application will be made to the Court on Wednesday next. It would not be right for me to say anything more on that point pending the decision of the Court. The hon. Member for Dungarvan (Mr. O'Donnell) has suggested that these works might be carried on to some further extent; but, as the continuance of the experiment on the terms proposed by the hon. Member would be a question of confidence, I must say that, for myself, I should very much distrust any experiment which would be made by parties who have dealt with the Government in the way the hon. Baronet has dealt with us; and I certainly think it is better, in the interests of the Crown, of the public, and also in the interests of the shareholders, that no further expense should be incurred by a continuance of the works at present, until the question whether the tunnel shall be made or not has been finally decided by Parliament.


said, that, with, the indulgence of the House, he might, perhaps, be permitted to make a remark upon the speech of the right hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman had not fairly and justly repre- sented the state of the case. He would ask hon. Members to read the Papers about to be laid before the House, and then to judge between the right hon. Gentleman and himself. With regard to the proceedings which the Board of Trade had taken, he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would endeavour to show what good to anybody could arise from the course which he had adopted. The right hon. Gentleman knew very well that, over and over again, the control of the works below the sea water-level had been offered to be placed in his hands; and it was his own fault if, at this moment, the Government had not the control of everything below low water mark.


said, he was of opinion that, whenever a question of National safety was involved, it was the duty of the House to support Her Majesty's Government in any action they took. It was, therefore, their duty to support the President of the Board of Trade in arresting these experimental works until the great National question had been solved. He felt very strongly the force of the last observations made by the President of the Board of Trade—that it was especially unfair to the shareholders of the Channel Tunnel Company to allow them to spend another shilling upon the works until it was finally settled whether or not it might be necessary hereafter to arrest the progress of the works. Personally, he did not profess to have any particular knowledge upon the subject; but he was quite ready to believe that it might hereafter turn out to be a very grave National question, and when such important interests were at stake the more absolute the action of the Government was the more consistent it would be with their duty.


said, he thought the Government were allowing themselves to be frightened by a mere bogey, and that there was not the slightest danger to the safety of England in permitting the construction of these experimental works, even if a war with France were to break out, because the works could readily be stopped, and even destroyed, unless there were reason to fear that already some concealed tunnel from the French shore existed which might be suddenly opened. If that were so, there might be some reason for all this indig- nation; but, knowing the incorruptibility of a Liberal Government, and the influences which specially actuated a Government that prided itself on not being founded upon the traditions of an old aristocracy, but a Government interested in the development of commercial relations, and ready to lend the full force of its power in support of the Egyptian bondholders, or of any other National speculation, he thought that all this indignation was wasted. He regretted to see so much feeling displayed from the Treasury Bench in putting down a scientific enterprize which had already proved its practicability; and he was afraid that the interests of another Company, of which one of the Government Whips was the Chairman, had something to do with the matter.

Question put, and agreed to.

Order discharged; Bill withdrawn.

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