HC Deb 01 July 1964 vol 697 cc1352-5
The Minister of Transport (Mr. Ernest Marples)

With permission, I will now answer Question No. 36.

The British and French Governments have decided that the further geological survey for the Channel Tunnel should begin this summer. Arrangements are being made for the Channel Tunnel Study Group to conduct the survey on an agency basis under the general supervision of the British and French Governments, who are to appoint a Joint Commission of Surveillance for this purpose. Half the cost will be met by Her Majesty's Government and half by the French Railways which, at the instance of the French Government, are participating in the contractual arrangements with the Study Group for this purpose.

The survey is expected to cost about £1¼ million. I shall shortly be asking the House to make provision for the British share by way of Supplementary Estimate. Meanwhile, any expenditure on the British side would fall to be met by an advance from the Civil Contingencies Fund. The survey arrangements are entirely without prejudice to decisions yet to be made by the British and French Governments on the organisation and financing of the Channel Tunnel project; but the present intention of both Governments is that eventually, the cost of the survey shall be charged to whatever organisation may be set up for the tunnel itself.

Copies of the texts of an exchange of notes between the British and French Governments on these matters will be placed in the Library of the House.

Sir W. Teeling

Is my right hon. Friend aware how pleased everybody will be at the success so far achieved—

Mr. Ellis Smith

Not the people in the North.

Sir W. Teeling

—how pleased everybody who is keen on the idea will be at the success that he has so far achieved in the negotiations and discussions with the French Government and also at the fact that my right hon. Friend should have given the work for the time being to the Channel Tunnel Study Group, which has spent much money, energy and risk in the past on this matter?

However, since my right hon. Friend told us when he last spoke on this subject that there was quite a possibility that private enterprise and the Study Group would not be allowed to have anything to do with this, will he give the reasons why the Group is now being allowed to deal with it for the time being?

Mr. Marples

I am grateful for the way in which my hon. Friend received my statement and to the Channel Tunnel Study Group, which carried out the first feasibility borings of the soil. That Group has the "know-how" to continue with this trial bore, which is now wanted because the previous one was a feasibility study while this one is necessary to decide what line the tunnel should take and whether it will be an immersed of a bored tunnel. We gave it to the Group for that reason. The Group has compiled a list of international contractors, in consultation with its advisers, and has put the survey out to tender. We must get on with this work as quickly as possible. This is the first of many studies which will have to be undertaken before the tunnel is built.

Mr. E. L. Mallalieu

Can the Minister say what is the best season in which to make this survey and whether the survey will cover the possible route for a tunnel in the form of an immersed tube?

Mr. Marples

The answer to the second part of that supplementary question is "Yes". The answer to the first part is that, naturally, all civil engineering work is better done in the summer than in the winter. That is why we have done our best to get the majority of the work, which these international contractors may have to do, done in the summer.

Mr. N. Pannell

May I repeat the request I have made before, that before the Government are irrevocably committed to this scheme there should be a full debate in the House? Is this not a matter of sufficient controversy and magnitude to justify a full debate, so that all views may be expressed on this very important project?

Mr. Marples

That could well follow this survey, but I will convey my hon. Friend's idea to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House.

Mr. Snow

Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to give an undertaking that when the contract is eventually placed it will go to a British engineering firm and not to an American one, which, it is understood, is already trying to "muscle in" on this?

Mr. Marples

We are quite a long way from that stage, but at this stage I do not think that I should give such an undertaking.

Mr. Costain

My constituents will welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement. Will he give an assurance that this survey will proceed with the minimum of delay, since it is already late, seasonally, in being put into operation?

Mr. Marples

There will be no delay at all. It will start as soon as they have assessed the merits of the tenders. I am glad that my hon. Friend's constituents will be pleased.

Mr. Ross

Did I understand the Minister to say that he will consult one of his colleagues about whether or not a debate should take place in the House? How does he propose to get a Supplementary Estimate of £1¼ million without the consent of the House?

Mr. Marples

That is a different matter. My hon. Friend asked for a general debate on the merits

Mr. Lubbock

While my hon. Friends and I are pleased to hear that some progress is to be made on this project, may I ask the Minister to let us have more information about the make-up of the £1¼ million, because it sounds rather a lot for a purely preparatory geological survey?

Mr. Marples

I can assure the hon. Member that a great number of technical considerations must be taken into account in an undertaking of such magnitude as this to find out what the soil is like under the Channel and to make certain that there is no fault in the line chosen for the tunnel.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

I recognise that there are many technical questions to be considered, but would it not be reasonable for the Minister to let the House have a White Paper before he asks for this money, so that we may debate the matter properly?

Mr. Marples

As I say, I will ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House whether time can be provided for a debate.