HC Deb 24 July 1973 vol 860 cc1414-20
The Minister for Transport Industries (Mr. John Peyton)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement about the Channel Tunnel.

The House will recall that on 15th June I said that if the Government were to decide in favour of the Channel Tunnel I would announce the fact and publish a short Money Bill before the recess.

Financial negotiations between my French colleague and myself and the private interests are still continuing but they have not yet been concluded. This is necessary before the Government can take their decision on the project as a whole and I am therefore not yet able to announce one today.

The Government's decision, when it is taken, will be announced in the form of a White Paper. If it is affirmative, draft clauses of a Money Bill which we would propose to introduce into the House immediately we resume in October would be included in the White Paper. There is, of course, no question of signing any agreement or Anglo-French treaty before this Bill is passed.

I am sure that the House will agree that it would be wrong for the Government to decide on a matter of this importance before all aspects of the proposals, including the financing terms, have been satisfactorily resolved. Equally, once a decision is reached, it would be wrong to delay an announcement. We would wish to provide the fullest possible opportunity for it to be considered, by the public as well as hon. Members, before we resume in October.

Mr. Crosland

What an admirable Minister we have! He is a true object lesson to his colleagues. He keeps his word to the House, he wants us to have the fullest information before we come to a decision, he refuses to sanction gigantic expenditure on grandiose projects without adequate discussion. He is a man of great virtue—at least on this occasion.

We must contrast him, inevitably favourably, with his colleagues the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for the Environment, determined to push on with their mad plan for Heathograd in South-East Essex. Is he aware that, while many of us feel that there is a prima facie case for the Channel Tunnel on certain conditions, the House must have, before it reaches a final decision, the following studies: first, a study of the regional effects, promised in the Green Paper; secondly, a study of the balance of payments effects, which was also promised in the Green Paper; thirdly, a statement about the consequential rail investment which will be more than is stated in the little, glossy and flimsy brochure produced by British Rail; fourthly. a definite decision on the site of the London rail terminal on which the Greater London Council is still undecided; and, fifth, perhaps the most important, that a Government analysis should be provided with consideration of the case recently argued by Professor Bromhead, amongst others, and by more and more people, of confining the project to a rail-only tunnel without car and lorry shuttle services and therefore without a huge terminal in Cheriton in Kent. Without this further information it will be impossible for anybody to come to a rational decision and we shall have the tragi-comedy of Maplin all over again.

If the Minister provides this information to the House before a decision is taken, as I am sure he will, then he will genuinely earn the gratitude of the House and the country.

Mr. Peyton

I am half grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his compliments, because one has to judge a compliment not only by its content but by the direction from which it comes. On this occasion the right hon. Gentleman might have been doing me a doubtful service. Nevertheless, in a manner of speaking, I am grateful. Of course, I take note of all the important matters to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. If the Government were to reach a favourable decision on the matter to go ahead with the next phase, naturally many of these points would be fully dealt with in what would be a large White Paper.

Mr. Crouch

I take my right hon. Friend's answer in a somewhat different attitude of mind from that of the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland). I take it with a considerable degree of caution, although I am glad that my right hon. Friend and the Government have given themselves more time to consider not only the financial arrangements but the whole proposals. I am not dog-in-the manger about the proposition for a Channel Tunnel, and nor is anyone in Kent, but there is growing anxiety among the people of Kent that their views about the protection of their environment may not be taken sufficiently into account. With great sincerity I ask my right hon. Friend to consider the question of there being no terminal at Cheriton but that a loading stage in London for roll-on, roll-off vehicles would overcome a great deal of opposition which otherwise would undoubtedly grow in Kent.

Mr. Peyton

I shall not be tempted even by my hon. Friend to go into details at this stage. I am glad to recognise, however, that he is not a dog and he is not in a manger.

Mr. Jay

In order to earn further gratitude from the House, will the Minister tell us whether the project, if it goes ahead, will involve extensive widening of railway lines in South-West and West London?

Mr. Peyton

The answer is that it probably will not. I prefer not to go into detail, but British Rail has given some idea, in an admittedly slim brochure, of its approach to the tunnel if the Government give it their approval. In the event of that approval, it would be for British Rail to develop its attitude to the project much more clearly.

Mr. Peter Rees

In view of the widespread concern in my constituency about the impact of the tunnel on East Kent, and in view of the feeling that a hybrid Bill may not give sufficient scope for objectors, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will make himself available for consultations with local authorities and interested parties before any major decision is taken?

Mr. Peyton

I have been in regular contact with hon. Members who represent Kent constituencies. I have been also on a number of occasions to Kent and had regular contact with Kent County Council and other local authorities. If we decide to go ahead it will be my immediate concern to do all I can to minimise the inevitable nuisance and inconvenience which will be caused.

Mr. Pardoe

Did the Minister approve the glossy leaflet sent to hon. Members by British Rail? Did he approve of the implication that British Rail would have monopoly services through the tunnel? How does that fit into the Government's competition policy? Will he refer to the Monopolies Commission before making a decision?

Mr. Peyton

That is an original idea, but not one that I shall follow to its ultimate conclusion. It would be strictly accurate to say that British Rail let me see a copy of the brochure before issuing it. But it is British Rail's document and I do not believe in running its business.

Mr. Fell

Will my right hon. Friend, who has come half way to agreeing with the Opposition, help some of his hon. Friends to agree with him by giving us a promise that no Government or taxpayers' money would be involved in building the Chunnel if it ever happened?

Mr. Peyton

It is impossible for me to give that sweeping guarantee. The finance for the project is to be raised by private sources, but there will be Government guarantees. It is unlikely that we would go ahead with the project if there were any foreseeable likelihood of those guarantees being called. Even in the most perfect organisation things can go wrong. One must always admit that possibility.

Mr. Charles R. Morris

Will the Minister say that financial considerations will not be the sole criteria for determining the Government's policy on building the tunnel? Is he aware of the widely-held belief that building the Channel Tunnel will have a contradictory impact on the French and British economies, that it will go some way to alleviate French regional problems while accentuating Britain's regional problems by encouraging a drift to the South-East? Why is the Minister reluctant to give an assurance that a study of the impact on Britain's regional problems will be undertaken before the Government's decision is finally made on the project?

Mr. Peyton

The regional aspects of the problem have been carefully considered. It is no fault of mine that the South-East of England happens to be the bit nearest to the Continent of Europe. It happens to be one of those mischances of geography for which not even the Department of the Environment is to be blamed. The hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Woodside (Mr. Neil Carmichael), who made an interesting speech on this subject in the recent short debate, pointed out that undoubted advantages were to be gained in Scotland from having the tunnel because it would introduce a long rail haul from Scotland and other regions of the country to the Continent of Europe.

Dame Irene Ward

Has my right hon. Friend seen my motion on the Order Paper arguing that expenditure on the Fleet Air Arm is more important than expenditure on the Channel Tunnel? Will he bear in mind when he is discussing all these factors about the Channel Tunnel that I would far rather see the Fleet Air Arm satisfactorily settled and its expenses met before we take a decision about the Channel Tunnel? It is far more important for the defence of this country that the Fleet Air Arm is properly provided for. If my right hon. Friend does not bear that in mind, I shall vote against the Channel Tunnel.

Mr. Peyton

I am covered in confusion and shame, because I have not seen my hon. Friend's motion on the Order Paper. I shall immediately remedy that dreadful omission, for which I apologise to her. I must also apologise to her for the fact that my responsibilities at the moment do not include the Fleet Air Arm, greatly as I should wish to support that important arm of our Services.

Mr. Sheldon

Will the right hon. Gentleman use the coming two or three months while making up his mind on this project to examine further the alternative forms of a Channel link? Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that when a group of international civil engineers visited him a couple of months ago and discussed these matters with him they were far from satisfied that there had ever been even a cursory examination of other forms suitable to modern technology?

Mr. Peyton

Bitter experience has taught me that it is very hard to satisfy some people, however much one tries. Alternative means have been studied exhaustively throughout the period—

Mr. Sheldon

They have not.

Mr. Peyton

The project which has been brought to a certain stage of development now is that of a bored rail tunnel under the Channel. We have to decide yes or no about that one. It may be that we ought also to start looking at other projects. But there is no question of any alternative being available to meet the needs of traffic in the 1980s.

Mr. Deedes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we may find ourselves in a difficulty? To judge from the plans which have appeared on paper, what is planned by British Rail for this project may be more environmentally disruptive than the tunnel itself. If the Government propose to produce a White Paper during the recess, a number of matters such as this will remain highly speculative and we shall not be able to give the public the material on which to make up their minds until British Rail has gone a lot further in its planning.

Mr. Peyton

I readily acknowledge the difficulty to which my right hon. Friend draws attention. The exhaustive study which will have to be made by British Rail will take place after and not before the Government have made this decision. This decision is merely to go ahead to the next phase, after which a hybrid Bill will have to be produced, which would take some time before it completed its passage through Parliament. During that time it would be for British Rail to carry out far more detailed study than any thing that they have done to date and to make the results available.