HL Deb 17 June 1981 vol 421 cc631-3

3.2 p.m.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government to what extent, if any, they have accepted the principle of a Channel tunnel and whether they will make a statement.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, as noble Lords will be aware, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport last year invited potential promoters of fixed Channel links to put forward specific proposals which were commercially sound and could be financed by private risk capital. Nine proposals have been submitted, and the Transport Committee in another place has reported on the Channel link. The Committee's report and the various proposals submitted are currently being considered by my right honourable friend.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that reply, would he agree that there is a considerable body of opinion, however inarticulate, in this country as a whole who are opposed to the matter in principle? Does he feel that such a concentration of the nation's traffic is strategically prudent? Further, would not the treasure involved be better spent in meeting the unemployment situation by more diverse investment?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I know that in the debate on 21st January my noble friend spoke against the Channel Tunnel, but, reading the report of that debate, I also found that most of my other noble friends spoke from a contrary viewpoint. I do not particularly wish to comment on the finance at the moment. As I have said, my right honourable friend has invited proposals, and those submitted are under consideration. He will also consider the option of relying upon development of existing services.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, will the noble Earl be good enough to give us some indication as to when the Minister is likely to come to a decision on this matter?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, I cannot commit my right honourable friend on this matter, but he has himself stated that it will be towards the end of the year.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, can my noble friend inform me whether Her Majesty's Government are still adhering to the statement made by the Minister of Transport on 19th March 1980 that any Channel link, whether bridge or tunnel, will be for private capital, and that public funds will not be risked in this endeavour? I must also add that I do have an interest in this project.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am well aware of my noble friend's interest in the project. I can confirm that my right honourable friend said at that time that private risk capital would be involved, and that it would be commercially profitable and in the national interest.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that before a project of this sort could be achieved the promoters would need parliamentary powers, which in turn would require a Bill going through both Houses, to which of course objections could be raised?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, indeed the idea would be that there would be full consultations on any proposal put forward, but I must say that at the moment they are only under consideration and I think my noble friend is slightly jumping the gun.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the last time we were considering this in detail most of the objections were from the men of Kent, with a view to railway lines going through Kent at fast speed? If that could have been overcome, would it not have been considered to be totally advantageous to British Railways and all the people and traders in Great Britain, without any possible comeback against the taxpayer? Is that not still possibly the case if the men of Kent's objections can be overcome?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I must bow to my noble friend's long knowledge on this subject. It was in 1974–75 when we very nearly got the last proposed Channel Tunnel. In fact I do not think the men of Kent were responsible for our not building the tunnel: it was once again a matter of finance.

Lord Segal

My Lords, would the noble Earl not agree that the building of a Channel tunnel is the only safe means of avoiding the hazards and discomforts of Channel storms, which particularly affect elderly people? Would he not agree that the building of this tunnel is at least 150 years overdue?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, whether I agree or not, I like to hear the opposite point of view from the noble Lord, and no doubt he will get in touch with the questioner in due course.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that civilisation extends further than Watford? I have in my hand the minutes of the Transport Committee of the other place. Is my noble friend aware that there was no evidence given by either the Ministry of Defence or the Secretary of State for Scotland?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I was not aware of that, but I am under the impression that this is a commercial tunnel and not a strategic one.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, would not the noble Earl agree that the advantages of such a project would affect not only international transport but also British industry, and would assist with the unemployment problem? Would not the same constructive advantages be obtained whether the investment was private or public or a combination of both?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. This is an exciting project for Great Britain, and it is a sadness that in 1975 we could not go ahead with it.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether there is co-operation with the French railways and the French Government over this?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, so far as the railways are concerned, yes, British Rail and the SNCF have been together. So far as the new French Government are concerned, we have not yet approached them.