HL Deb 03 April 1974 vol 350 cc945-50

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, I feel that I must apologise to your Lordships' House for intervening now to repeat the Statement on the Channel Tunnel that was promised earlier in the afternoon. I did not intervene on the previous Statement in the hope that we should have received clearance for this one; and the irony is that if I had waited only two more minutes we could then have proceeded directly to this Statement and I should not have had to interrupt this important debate again. The Statement which has been made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in another place is as follows:

"On October 25 last year, my colleagues and I, then on the Opposition Benches, divided the House on an Amendment which stated that while we were not opposed in principle to a Channel Tunnel, we declined to approve the scheme in its present form and demanded an inquiry into alternative transport strategies. In line with this attitude, the Government have decided that a full and searching reassessment of the project should be carried out before any decision is taken to embark on the main works.

"The current Phase II already provides for a joint reassessment of the traffic, revenue and financial forecasts in the light of changes in, for example, the energy outlook. But I shall in addition, as a matter of urgency, consider whether the studies now in hand fully cover the points which we and others raised in the last Parliament, and I propose to seek outside advice on this. In particular, I shall examine with the French Government and the Railways Board the need to orientate the project more strongly towards through rail services.

"I have concluded that to keep open the option of eventually going ahead with the Tunnel it would be right for Phase II to take its course. I shall therefore reintroduce the Channel Tunnel Bill. In order to avoid abortive costs to petitioners I shall introduce it in the same form as in the last Session. I stress that the object of proceeding with Phase II is to keep our options open. It does not prejudge any decision on the project beyond the end of the present phase.

"Before Phase II ends in the summer of next year, I shall report the outcome of the reassessment to the House. Parliament and the Government will then have finally to decide whether or not to sign Agreement No. 3 and build the Tunnel."


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for repeating this Statement; and, as this is the first opportunity that I have had to congratulate him on his new job as Leader of the House, I should like to do so, and to congratulate him equally on inheriting my private secretary. I am sure he will be well looked after.

My Lords, we very much welcome the fact that the Statement says the Government are to go ahead with Phase II and that we shall have the Channel Tunnel Bill in the form in which it was originally introduced into the House, not only because we are sure this is the right way to proceed but because, of course, there would have been very undesirable consequences for the petitioners if the Bill had not been reintroduced in its original form. However, I should like to ask the noble Lord in what way his further assessment differs from the assessments which were always allowable under the second phase of the Channel Tunnel proposals. My understanding of the position was that it was always possible for us to reconsider the matter in the light of any evidence that was produced. Is he suggesting some further reassessment, other than that for which provision was made?

The Statement refers to "alternative transport strategies", and I should like to ask what this means. It suggests something long-term, but I gather from a later paragraph in the Statement that it is going to be looked at "as a matter of urgency". I should also like to ask him what is meant by, "orientating the project more strongly towards through rail services". Does this mean through rail services to London? Does it mean a rail-only tunnel? I do not think that is very clear. Perhaps the noble Lord could also indicate who are the other outsiders, who are to be asked to give advice on this matter, besides the French Government and the British Railways Board. Is he, for example, going to take into account the views of local authorities, and in particular the Kent County Council? There will be a number of people in Kent who will naturally be very concerned if there is to be further uncertainty about this project in the areas where they live.


My Lords, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, will forgive me if I ask: is this further re-assessment really necessary? Surely nothing has been re-assessed so often as the Channel Tunnel during the last hundred years, and surely the French Government must at least have satisfied themselves on the viability of the project. I should also like to ask the noble Lord: can we be certain that in a time of chronic inflation there will not be such delay occurring as a result of re-assessment that we shall escalate the costs even further than they will be escalated as a result of inflation itself? May I finally ask him, if it is decided not to go ahead after Phase II, what is the amount of money which will have been spent and lost, which I understand will in fact be private enterprise money and not necessarily Government money?


My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord. I am indeed glad that I have inherited the noble Baroness's private office, and I hope they will do as well for me as they undoubtedly did for the noble Baroness. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, the Statement means that the re-assessment which was always within the understanding of previous Administrations and which is provided for in the agreement with the French will proceed, and that will not cause delay in any way if a decision is finally made to go ahead. There will be no delay in such developments. My Lords, in answer to the noble Baroness, we intend that the re-assessment shall be very much on the lines which the previous Administration had in mind, but we feel that there is a case for taking outside advice. At this stage I would not wish to go any further as to where or how that advice will be sought; but clearly the Secretary of State wishes to have further advice made available to him.

With regard to orientation towards through rail services, there was a very strong feeling in another place, and I believe in your Lordships' House also, that this project should be more orientated towards rail services. I am not sure how practicable it is (this is a further reason for reassessment) but certainly many would like to see more through-services from other parts of the United Kingdom, so avoiding the possible congestion, or the real congestion, that will arise in the White City Complex and also in Folkestone. In regard to the bodies with whom we shall consult, names have been specified in the Statement. I would agree with the noble Baroness that one does not wish to raise more anxieties than there have been in the past; but, of course, since the Channel Tunnel Bill is, unfortunately for your Lordships' House, a hybrid Bill, there will be an opportunity for those who have a case to put against the Bill to raise these matters. It is the intention of the Government to carry out a full reassessment as soon as possible and, as we say in the Statement, on that reassessment a further Statement will be made to Parliament.


My Lords, would my noble friend allow me to ask him not to be too easily seduced by the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Byers? That is exactly how we got into the disaster of Concorde. Those of us who in 1964 and 1965 thought it was right to cancel that ridiculous commitment were led astray, or rather overborne by colleagues—and the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack will know exactly what I mean—who argued along exactly the same lines as the noble Lord, Lord Byers. May I ask my noble friend: if this ugly beast's throat is to be cut, will he please tell us how much we have spent until now, do the blood-letting and get rid of the bloody thing?


My Lords, in response to my noble friend's Parliamentary language, I am sorry that he reminded me about an omission deliberately made in response to the noble Lord, Lord Byers. If we were to cancel now, the cost to Her Majesty's Government would be of the order of £10 million; but the feeling is that we should make a full assessment of this project, on the basis of which advice will be offered to Parliament. It will then he for Parliament to make a decision as to whether to proceed with the project.


My Lords, may I welcome the decision that has been made, particularly from the point of view of the railway? I believe this is quite right: it is something we pressed for when the matter was discussed previously in this House. I hope the direction will be such as to take some of the traffic away from the roads, which would certainly be very desirable. I certainly welcome the Government's decision to proceed immediately to Stage 2, and I also welcome the assurance given by the noble Lord that there will be no delay in going beyond that stage if the reassessment gives reason for believing that we should do so—and I think that we ought to, despite the fact that I have not seen any reassessment.


My Lords, I have a great affection for my noble friend, and I thank him very much for what he has said. However, I do not intend to be drawn further on this matter.


My Lords, would Her Majesty's Government give an assurance that in connection with the question of through-rail services consideration will not be given only to through services from the Continent as far as London but will also include services to other parts of Britain, not excluding Scotland? Unless that is so, my Lords, there will be very little support for the project from those parts of the country.


My Lords, this is clearly a factor which the Government will bear in mind.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that my noble friend Lord George-Brown, with his usual perspicacity, has hit the nail right on the head so far as taking the judgment of other people regarding the costs is concerned? May I ask my noble friend to say whether the reassessment will halt the surveying and the building of a rail- way and the environmental upsurge that will be caused by building a new rail centre into London? Finally, is my noble friend now reaching the conclusion that to study the possibility of building a bridge might be a better project?


My Lords, of one point I am sure—there is no alternative to a tunnel. Regarding the continuing work under Phase 2, this is mainly concerned with investigations into the possible project, the borings and the like. However, I can assure my noble friend that this does not involve any form of genuine capital development.


My Lords, is the noble Lord the Leader of the House aware that the Statement he has made will give great satisfaction in the North of England as to a reassessment of this project? We have been appalled at the prospect of the concentration of earth-moving equipment and of resources, when houses need to be built. Houses must now be the first priority, and not this Channel Tunnel.


My Lords, clearly the question of resources is involved in any consideration of this matter, but I think the House will judge the Government to be right in not taking any precipitate decision and that it will permit the Government to carry forward under Phase 2 a further assessment of the situation so that a judgment may be made following the reassessment.


My Lords, when my noble friend Lord Goronwy-Roberts was so rudely interrupted by my noble friend who has just sat down, I was not quite sure whether my noble friend had resumed his seat or not. If I may intrude upon the courtesy of my noble friend and that of the House, may I ask him a question before he does resume his seat?


My Lords, I am sorry but I must say that I think the noble Lord would be stretching even the endurance of your Lordships' House if he were to suggest that my noble friend had only just sat down. I think that if my noble friend wishes to put a question he should do so later in the debate. I can understand and sympathise with the noble Lord, but if we were to let him get away with it this time I fear there would be no end to it.