HL Deb 06 April 1883 vol 277 cc1621-30

Message of the House of Commons, of yesterday, considered (according to order).


in rising to move— That a Committee of five Lords be appointed to join with the Committee appointed by the House of Commons, as mentioned in the said Message, to inquire whether it is expedient that Parliamentary sanction should be given to a submarine communication between England and France; and to consider whether any or what conditions should be imposed by Parliament in the event of such communication being sanctioned, said, that this was a question which was of great national importance, and had of late excited very considerable interest in the public mind. The Government considered, having regard to the negotiations which had been carried on for many years with the French Government, together with the results obtained from the International Commission which sat on the subject, that the Executive Government, to a great extent, had their hands tied until Parliament should have an opportunity, with all the facts before it, of expressing a decided opinion on the whole subject-matter. In the opinion of the Government, this was no longer to be regarded as a purely national question, but was now an international one. It was fully recognized in France that Parliament was the master of the situation, and had a perfect right to speak plainly, and that nothing final could be done without its sanction. In order to put the matter clearly before the House, he would endeavour to state briefly what had taken place up to that time. As long ago as 1867 the subject of the Channel Tunnel was raised by an Anglo-French Company; and, although certain negotiations were entered into, no practical results were arrived at for three years, owing to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. In 1871 the matter was again opened up. Correspondence took place between the promoters of the French and English Companies on the one hand, and the French and English Governments on the other. In 1872 the Channel Tunnel Company was incorporated. On June 2, 1872, Lord Granville, then Foreign Secretary, wrote to the English Ambassador in Paris, informing him that Her Majesty's Government did not consider it advisable to give its consent to the Tunnel—if ever constructed—becoming a perpetual private monopoly; but that, subject to that observation, it saw no objection in principle to the proposed Tunnel between England and France. In 1873 the Board of Trade again raised the question, and informed the Foreign Office that, while opposing any monopoly, it would be glad to see an improvement in the communication between England and the Continent, and would, therefore, be well satisfied to hear that the British railway system was likely to be connected with the European railway system, by means of a Tunnel between France and England. These views of the Board of Trade wore communicated by Lord Lyons to the French Government. Therefore, even before the late Government came into Office, the principle of a Tunnel had been agreed to, though the matter had not advanced beyond that stage. In 1874 the French Government granted a concession to the Company, contingent on making arrangements with the English Company for carrying on the English portion of the work. In October of that year the French Government forwarded a Report of their Committee on the subject, and asked to be informed of the views of the English Government. Thereupon Lord Derby, then Foreign Secretary, expressed his opinion to the Board of Trade in these words— That it is very desirable to support any well-considered scheme, the result of which may be to increase the facility of communication between the two countries, provided that such support was not confined to any one undertaking. In the following December Lord Derby wrote to the French Ambassador in London— I have to state that there appears no reason to doubt that the Government will offer no opposition to the scheme, provided they are not asked for a gift, or loan, or guarantee in connection therewith. In 1875 a Bill was introduced into the Legislatures of both countries, and passed without opposition. In March of that year a very important step was taken. At the request of the English Government, an Anglo-French Commission, consisting of three gentlemen from each country, was appointed to consider the conditions on which the undertaking might be carried out; and to that Commission the Admiralty, War Office, and Treasury Departments were parties. The Commission met in London and Paris, and reported in 1876 on the question of the management of the traffic and jurisdiction, and suggested that the Government should be able to suspend the traffic or destroy communication in the ease of war. The late Administration considered the Report of that Commission, and arrived at the decision that negotiations for a Treaty with the French Government on the basis of a Protocol should be entered into. Owing to the financial collapse of the Company nothing further was done; but when the present Government came into Office it was clear they found their Predecessors committed in favour of the project. In 1881, the South-Eastern Railway Company obtained additional power to purchase land between Folkestone and Dover. In the same year the House of Commons had before them the rival projects of that Company and the Channel Tunnel Company; and the attention of the Board of Trade was called to a report of a meeting of the Railway Company, in which the Chairman had held out the possibility of completing an experimental Tunnel in five years. A Departmental Committee was thereupon appointed to consider the conditions which ought to be imposed on the undertaking, and that Committee took a great deal of evidence. The question of the national security was then brought forward for the first time; and a most able Report was presented to the Committee by Lord Wolseley, in which reasons were stated for considering the Tunnel as a danger to the country. A Report of an opposite character was presented to them by Sir John Adye. It was immediately seen that that was a matter of vital importance, far too large to be dealt with by a small Departmental Committee; and they were, therefore, relieved of their functions; and the Secretary of State for War then decided that before the military question could be properly considered by the Government the opinion of a mixed body of military men and civilians should be obtained as to the practicability of effectually closing the Tunnel when necessary. That Committee took a great deal of evidence, and reported in May, 1882. On receipt of that Report, the Government considered what further steps they should take in the matter; and they came to the conclusion that the inquiry up to that time had related almost exclusively to the military aspect of the question, and that it would be necessary to consider the advantages of greater facilities of communication between the two countries, and the general effect of the Tunnel on commerce, before a settlement could be arrived at. The Government then determined that the best manner to complete the inquiry would be by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament; and that was the present position of affairs. The negotiations entered into by the late Administration, and the conclusion of the Protocol laying down the basis for a Treaty, left not the slightest doubt that the late Government was pledged to a very great extent to the French Government to allow the scheme to be carried out; and, that being so, the matter had undoubtedly assumed an international character. It would be a precedent of the worst kind if the Executive Government were to take steps to upset these almost final negotiations, which had been entered into with the French Government by their Predecessors, unless they had the strong opinion of Parliament at their backs; and he apprehended the Government had no choice in the matter. The 18th clause of the Protocol entered into by the late Government in 1876 for the basis of a Treaty distinctly stated that— The provisions of the Treaty to be concluded shall not come into force before they have been sanctioned by the Legislatures of the two countries; and it was obvious that Parliamentary inquiry into so large a matter was highly desirable, and would certainly be demanded, before Parliamentary sanction was given to such a Treaty. The Government did not shrink in the smallest degree from their responsibility; and after the Parliamentary Committee, in accordance with the Protocol, had fully inquired into the matter, it would, undoubtedly, be the duty of the Government to finally decide whether the Channel Tunnel should be made or not.

Moved, "That a Committee of five Lords be appointed to join with the Committee appointed by the House of Commons, as mentioned in the said Message, to inquire whether it is expedient that Parliamentary sanction should be given to a submarine communication between England and France; and to consider whether any or what conditions should be imposed by Parliament in the event of such communication being sanctioned."—(The Lord Sudeley.)


My Lords, I have listened with interest to the speech of the noble Lord; but I must confess I have not gathered from it any reason to justify so remarkable a step as the appointment of this Committee to consider matters which are usually decided by the Executive Government itself. The noble Lord does not even tell us what are the precise questions to be submitted to this Committee. For the questions, as he observes, are of various kinds and of different natures. There are technical and commercial questions which are usually considered when a railway is to be made, and those would be referred seriatim to Committees of the two Houses and dealt with by them. But the noble Lord, at the beginning of his speech, appeared to indicate that very much more than this was to be submitted to the Com- mittee, and he gave as his reason for a Joint Committee certainly the very oddest reason I ever heard; for he said it was an international matter, and was, therefore, a very proper thing for a Joint Committee of the two Houses to consider. It would be a very proper thing, indeed, if we could get a Joint Committee of the French and English Assemblies; but the Government do not appear to contemplate that. Now, what are the questions this Committee have to decide? There are military questions raised in this discussion as to whether the entrance to the Channel Tunnel on this side can, or cannot, be adequately defended. But these questions have already been submitted to a competent tribunal, and I do not suppose that any Joint Committee of the two Houses would ever dream of reviewing that decision. Behind that there are large questions of policy. It is known that this scheme is opposed very strongly, and by very influential personages in this country; and I suppose the ground on which it is opposed is the presumed intention and capacity of Foreign Powers to invade this country, and the presumed difficulty which this country might find in meeting any such hostile attack, supposing the Channel Tunnel existed. Are these questions to be submitted to the Committee? Is the Committee to be asked to consider what is the disposition of France, her past history and present condition? Is the Committee to be asked to consider the power of France; what is the amount of the Naval and Military Force she possesses; what are the chances of an invasion; what an invader would do; and in what way his position would be affected by the existence of the Channel Tunnel? One of the arguments relied upon by those who are opposed to the Tunnel is that, whatever precautions you may take for the purpose of stopping it up or rendering it useless when made, such is the clumsiness of our Executive Government, and such the disinclination of our public men to assume responsibility, that it is probable that at the critical moment it would not be closed, and would fall into the hands of the enemy. I do not for a moment give any opinion as to the justice of the estimate which is formed of the Government of this country, or of its public men; but that is one of the most commonly used arguments in reference to this question. Is the Committee to form an opinion as to that? Is the Committee to hear evidence or the arguments of counsel as to what sort of people the public men in this country are, and how they are likely to view their responsibilities in regard to the Tunnel in case of an attack on this country? I must say we are launching this Committee upon a kind of inquiry to which the Committees of both Houses are quite unused—in fact, to use the words of the Prime Minister, we are engaged "in a delegation and devolution of duties" wholly strange to the Constitution of this country, and no satisfactory result can come from their deliberations. The noble Lord says that the Executive Government is bound partly by the acts of the Government of 1869, and partly by those of the Government of 1874. But if the Government is bound to a Foreign Power, no decision of a Committee of the two Houses can unloose that bond, and the decision of the Committee would not have the slightest weight in respect to the question of International Law. The Government appear to wish to occupy the position of some firm of money-lenders, in which there is a very obliging and agreeable partner, who sees all the clients, and says—"I should be very happy to do your business for you; but my partner, who is very obstinate and disagreeable, will not permit me." This Committee is to take up the position of that obstinate and disagreeable partner; and the Government will go to the French Government and say—"We are internationally bound, and nothing would give us greater pleasure than to fulfil our engagements; but there is that Joint Committee, which is composed of very obstinate men, who have come to a resolution to prevent us from gratifying our desire." I am afraid, if this is the intention of the Government, the device, however ingenious, will be penetrated by the French Government, and that if there are any international engagements they will not be disposed of in that way. But the noble Lord has said that, after all these investigations, the Government will not hold themselves in any way bound by the decision of the Committee, so that the Committee will come to their duty with a consciousness—and I do not envy them the feeling—that if they decide the way the Government mean to go, they will be covering the action of the Government; but, if not, they will be calmly pushed aside. If the question had been proposed to your Lordships in the first instance, I think your Lordships would have done well to hesitate before embarking on a Constitutional precedent of such a grave and serious character; but as the House of Commons has decided on appointing a Committee, I do not see that the precedent will be made any the less objectionable by your Lordships refusing to acquiesce in the decision of the House of Commons. I do not, therefore, propose to ask the House to resist the proposition of the noble Lord; but with reference to the nomination of Members on the Committee, as it seems they are to take the responsibility of the Executive Government, at least in name, the Government must take the whole responsibility of nominating them; and I hope that when the task of the Committee is ended they will be satisfied with the way in which their suggestions are treated by the Government.


My Lords, the noble Marquess has certainly not spared remarks of a condemnatory kind upon the proposal before your Lordships; but he has conjured up evils, some of which, at all events, do not exist the noble Marquess went into a number of matters which he said the Committee would have to consider, and among these he mentioned the disposition of the French Government towards us. I think, whatever else the Committee may have to consider, it appears to me that they cannot possibly have to consider that, nor whether that country has a more or less considerable Military Force, because everyone knows that the French nation in time of war would be a very formidable Power; and that, therefore, may be accepted as indisputable. Happily, at the present time, this country is on friendly terms with Franco, and we all hope we may long continue to be so. But it is useless to inquire into the disposition of the French nation unless you can show that under no circumstances could its disposition be unfriendly to us; and it is clearly in reference to the possibility of disagreement that we have to discuss this matter. Therefore, I think those matters of foreign policy will not be considered by the Committee. Then the noble Marquess says that the matter is of a very delicate and difficult character. That I admit, and the reason must be sought in the peculiar position of the question. Both the Government of which I had the honour to be a Member in 1868 and the late Government made some communications to the French Government as to there being no objection whatever against proceedings of this kind. The noble Marquess has said that there does exist in this country a considerable body of opinion adverse to the making of the Channel Tunnel. While, therefore, on the one hand, the Government find that two successive Governments have stated to the French Government that there would be no objection to the scheme, on the other hand they have to deal with a large section of public opinion which holds that there are considerations of the gravest kind which require to be weighed with reference to it; and although there may be inconveniences in referring this question to a Committee of Parliament, there is also the inconvenience of going to the French Government, and saying—"We have changed our minds." That condition of things would be still worse, if we were not able to say that we had been to Parliament, and that the country had changed its mind on the question. The matter having assumed a new position, it is eminently one which a Committee of both Houses of Parliament may examine fully into, and without any of that prejudice which attaches to an examination by the Government. That is a reason for referring the question to a Joint Committee; but the Committee will not enter upon a technical examination of the scientific or the military details—these will be dealt with by a Committee of each House in the ordinary way. What they will have to determine is whether there are considerations arising from the Report which has been placed before the Government by the military officers, looking to the general result which a Tunnel might have as regards the position of this country, which render it, on the whole, not desirable that sanction should be given to the projects laid before Parliament. I do not think myself that the proposal is an objectionable one; and I heard with satisfaction that, notwithstanding his criticism, the noble Marquess does not consider he would be justified in refusing to assent to it.


said, that the course proposed, was an unusual one; and he should like to ask whether the Government would consider themselves bound by the Report of the Committee?


The minds of the Government will be absolutely open, and they will certainly attach very great weight to the suggestions of the Committee.


asked when it was proposed to name the Members of the Committee?


It is impossible to state with perfect certainty; but I think the names of the Committee will be selected on Tuesday.

Motion agreed to.