HL Deb 02 April 1985 vol 462 cc151-9

4.38 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement reads as follows:

"I would like to make a Statement about the Channel Fixed Link.

"The House will know that in November 1984, I met the French Ministers responsible for transport to discuss the possibility of a fixed link across the English Channel. At that meeting we reaffirmed the willingness of the British and French Governments to take whatever steps might be necessary to facilitate the construction of a fixed link between the U.K. and France within the framework of the European Transport network. We agreed that this project, for which essential political guarantees would be provided, should be financed without support from public funds or Government guarantees against commercial or technical risks and on the basis of conditions prevailing on the international financial markets.

"We also agreed to establish a working group of officials of both Governments to draw up guidelines to potential promoters, in order to give them a clear understanding of the requirements of the two Governments on, for example, safety and the environment, the undertakings the two Governments would be prepared to give, and of any constraints affecting commercial exploitation.

"At the meeting on 29th November between my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the French President, these decisions were confirmed, and it was decided that officials would be instructed to report to Ministers by the end of February.

"Officials delivered their report on 28th February, and on 20th March we held a further meeting with the French Ministers to agree the final texts of the guidelines and to decide certain further points. In particular, we agreed that the closing date for proposals would be 31st October, and that the two governments would aim to reach a decision around the end of the year, on which proposal, if any, they consider should be enabled to go ahead. We also agreed that we should begin contingency work now on those elements of the Treaty which would be common to any form of link chosen.

"I have placed copies of the guidelines—or, to give them their proper name, the Invitation to Promoters—in the Vote Office.

"In saying this, I do not want honourable Members to think that we have prejudged the issues. When they have had time to study the guidelines they will recognise my concern to ensure that there is adequate public consultation, that environmental, social and employment impacts are fully appreciated, and that the financial conditions are fully met. All these matters will be carefully considered before the two Governments arrive at a decision.

"Mr. Speaker, I cannot yet tell whether a fixed link will be built across the Channel or not. What I can say is that the private sector now has a unique opportunity. We have reached full agreement with the French on the conditions which the promoters must meet. I wish the promoters well in this great endeavour".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this Statement to the House and for providing an opportunity to question the Government on one or two matters. The Minister will be aware that there has always been contention from all parts of the House, among all parties, over the whole question of a Channel tunnel link. Many of us from the North, in particular, have always supported the idea of a link, principally because of the ease with which rail traffic would be able to go from the North right into the heart of continental Europe.

I have one or two questions to put to the Minister. With regard to the protection of the environment in the South-East of England, in paragraph 12.43 of the guidelines it is suggested that land in the South-East and in south-east Kent already acquired by the Government will of necessity be conceded to the promoter. That land was secured by the previous Channel tunnel company, and from them by the Government when the previous scheme was aborted. That was done under the special procedure legislation of another place for a specific purpose. Is there a possibility that the specific purposes could be challenged if any drastically new scheme were to be introduced under the new conditions of the Invitation to Promoters? Is there a possibility that the whole question could be opened up again, thus causing much longer delay than there was before and which would otherwise not be the case?

I accept that the Minister has not said that there will necessarily be a tunnel or a fixed link, but it is important that we should have some idea of a possible completion date, however approximate. The reason I raise this particular point is because the Port of Dover will be entering a period of great difficulty and uncertainty. Dover has carried the bulk of the traffic across the Channel for the past 2,000 years or more. I know that Dover is very concerned over the question of what will become of its investment.

If there is a fixed link, I have no doubt that Dover will be able to maintain a good share of the growing traffic across the Channel or will be able to diversify to other ports. But if the Channel link is built, will the Government be willing to help the Port of Dover in the saving of jobs and in the saving of that port's heavy investment, if traffic should fall drastically because of the new fixed link?

Also, what will happen if the fixed link is started but not completed for some reason? It will be remembered that in our earlier debate on this subject it was pointed out that new technology is always highly suspect. For example, the Humber Bridge was started at a cost of £19 million but was finished at a cost of £72 million. The suggested cost of a Channel bridge is in the region of £5,000 million. If the same rate of escalation occurred in this case, I doubt whether any consortium would be capable of carrying such a figure and therefore Dover would suddenly be left with the problem of handling an enormous amount of traffic.

Can the Minister provide any reassurance to the Port of Dover as to what would happen in such circumstances? Even during the construction of the link and the early days of its operation would Dover suddenly be dropped as a major port or would it be given any interim help by the Government?

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, for the second time this afternoon we on these Benches should like to congratulate the Government on their Statement. We are delighted that there is a sense of urgency and commitment in the Statement which has been repeated. Those of us who have been examining the question of a Channel tunnel link for some time were a bit concerned as to whether there would be a firm commitment this afternoon or whether we would be watching the re-run of an old film. But there is a commitment that a decision will be made by the end of this year, and that is progress.

It will be recalled that Napoleon discussed this matter in 1803 and that a Colonel Bowman dug one mile of Channel tunnel in 1880. Unfortunately, just as we felt that progress was being made, a Labour Government unilaterally departed from the concept of a Channel tunnel with consequent disastrous effects on Anglo-French relations. I am glad that those relations are now sufficiently well established to bring to the proposition some sense of reality.

We welcome the political guarantee contained in the Statement. I assume the political guarantee means that if contractors and hankers spend a lot of their time and energy preparing a scheme, and then that scheme is departed from by the politicians and by the Government, then there will be reimbursement to those people who have spent their time and money as a result of their assumption that the proposition was going forward.

We welcome the Statement for a number of reasons. First, it strengthens our commitment to Europe, in which we believe very strongly. Secondly, it involves increased investment in the British infrastructure, for which many of us have been campaigning recently. Since 40 per cent. of our exports are now to Europe, this link can make a useful contribution to British industry. Finally, the link would create jobs in the manufacturing and contracting industries in Britain, which are presently depressed. For all those reasons we very much welcome and support the Statement As the mandate will presumably be awarded in anticipation of legislation—because there is a suggestion that the mandate will be awarded after the decision made at the turn of the year—may I ask the Minister whether there will be necessary discussion with environmental and other groups? In the light of previous consultations with environmental and other groups, may I have an assurance from the Government that the proposal will not be unduly delayed by such necessary considerations?

Perhaps I may also echo the hope expressed in the Statement that the contracting industry and the financial institutions together with their French partners—because we must recognise that this is a Channel tunnel and not a British contract—will grasp the opportunities implied in the Statement, so that we may live to see the reality of this proposition.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lords, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove and Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for their reception of the Statement. I shall deal with their questions as best I can. The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, mentioned the land conceded, referred to in paragraph 12.43. This means that it would be the subject of a concession agreement; it would not simply mean "given". It is a precise use of the word "conceded", I am told. The noble Lord also asked about the date of completion and its effect on Dover, and he wondered whether the Government will be able to give any assistance to Dover. It would be extremely difficult to say at this stage when the date of completion will be. As was said in the Statement, promoters are invited to complete their proposals by 31st October.

The two Governments would then, it is hoped, decide on a proposal by early next year or around the end of this year. There would then have to be legislation in this Parliament. I think that that answers the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe. There would need to be a hybrid Bill and that would involve consultation with interested parties in the area. This is covered in paragraph 12.4 of the invitation. Consultation would have to take place and anyone, whose interests or rights are injuriously affected would be given the chance to voice their objections to a Parliamentary Select Committee by petitioning against the Bill; and it is no part of the Government's intention to constrain that right". However, we go on to say to the promoters that, it should be noted that the more effective the informal consultation carried out by the promoters with local authorities, expert bodies and other interested parties in advance of the Bill's Committee hearings, the greater the likelihood of a smooth passage for those hearings". I think that covers that point.

As regards the effect on Dover itself, that would very much depend on the scheme chosen. The 1982 Anglo-French study group report pointed out that a massive increase in total traffic was expected by the year 2000. I should have thought that if the link goes ahead, the impact on employment will be favourable for the Dover area. We also believe that it is quite possible that there will be room for both ferries and the link to cope with the increased demand.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, specifically asked what would happen if the link was started but not completed. This is set out in paragraph 16.52 of the guidelines and, briefly, says that we, will require the promoters, taking account of the international standards in force at the time, to clear promptly all abandoned or unserviceable structures in the Channel so as to ensure the freedom and safety of navigation". They would, of course, have to prove their financial ability to do that, whether through insurance or otherwise, before we accepted a proposal.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, asked what political guarantees we would give against the Government making a decision which would stop the project going ahead after the promoters had started. These are clearly set out in the first chapter, and I think the noble Lord will find the answer there.

I think that that more or less covers all the points which both noble Lords raised. I should just like to add, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, said, that our relationships with the French througout these proceedings have been extremely good and we hope that they will continue in that way and see the conclusion of this project.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is a large body of opinion which, anxious as we are for a permanent link with France, feels that there are two aspects—a rail link and a road link. Arising from something said in the debate on the Motion last week of the noble Lord, Lord Somers, concerning the railways, is my noble friend aware of the fears that many of us have about the vulnerability of a rail link? We feel that if there is an ultimate decision not to build a rail link and to confine the project to roads, we must not have British Rail involved in planning expenditure. There will be a vast amount of planning if all the rail traffic is passed through a Channel tunnel. British Rail should not be involved in expenditure which would be fallible in the event of the vulnerability of a rail link being tested by time.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. I make it absolutely clear that it will be up to the promoters to decide whether they wish to include a rail link in their proposals and, therefore, it will be up to the promoters and British Rail to negotiate the extent of British Rail's involvement. That would be subject to British Rail's involvement being on a strictly commercial basis and applying the tests which we already do to British Rail's investment programme.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this Statement will be very warmly welcomed by the construction industry, which has been very hard pressed for the past several years, sometimes almost to the point of despair? Can he go a little further in response to the question put by my noble friend, Lord Carmichael, on when the project might be completed by giving us an informed guess about when it might be started, which is probably more important at the moment? Secondly, in view of my noble friend's remarks about new technology and his fears about escalating costs, can the Minister reassure my noble friend by reminding him that the technologies involved in the fixed link are, in fact, extremely well understood by the construction industry and are not new at all? If there is an escalation of costs, it will not be for that reason.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I do not know whether or not to be tempted into giving an estimate of when building could start. As I have said, proposals are to be completed by 31st October, with the end of the year for our decision. There is then the question of legislation which, as I have mentioned, would have to pass through both Houses. The French, of course, will have their own legislation. Perhaps it will be in two years from now. As regards completion, of the three schemes which one has heard have been proposed, I think the shortest construction period is about four-and-a-half years, and another scheme would take about seven years to complete. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, took note of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, regarding the construction industry.

Lord Somers

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the issue of road versus rail means that a road link would involve the difficulty of ventilating the tunnel, whereas an electrified rail would ventilate itself?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Somers. That would be a problem, but it is, of course, for the promoters to decide how to cope with it.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I should like to be associated with the welcome which other noble Lords have given to the Statement and to be particularly associated with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe. It is an essential feature of the Statement made by the two Governments that this project should go ahead without support from public funds or Government guarantees. It is, therefore, all the more important that there should be a minimum of constraint on commercial exploitation, because otherwise viable propositions could not be put forward. In that connection, I put two questions to the noble Lord.

First, it is said in the document Invitation to Promoters that, United Kingdom, French and European Community law will apply to the project, particularly as regards abuse of a dominant position and anti-competitive practices". This will have to be clearly defined in relation to a major project of this kind which, by the very nature of things, will be operated by a single company.

Secondly, later on it is said that: The Governments will reserve to themselves certain rights not affecting the conduct and operation of the Link", and they may wish to have a preferential holding in the companies as finally set up. Here also I think that a degree of clarification is required before reasonable proposals cart be put forward by commercial enterprises.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as to the noble Lord's first point, I think that it is worth quoting from the proposals regarding competition and market freedom: The construction and operation of the Link at the promoters' own risk and in the absence of Government financial guarantees, will be matched by freedom within the framework of the respective national laws of the countries for the promoters to decide their own commercial policy, tariffs and the type of service to be offered. Within this framework the Treaty will guarantee the freedom of tariffs". Regarding the noble Lord's question as to the various articles of the Treaty of Rome which apply to the competition rules for transport by rail, road and inland waterway, I think that that would apply to a company exploiting its dominant position, for instance, to put ferry companies out of business by predatory pricing. That, I think, would be the meaning of that.

The noble Lord asked me another question which I am afraid I cannot answer at the moment. We shall take the point closely into consideration, but I cannot give him an answer at the moment.

Lord Mulley

My Lords, I also should like to thank the Minister for the Statement and to welcome it. As the Minister who introduced the abortive legislation previously, may I say how difficult it is to get a hybrid Bill through both Houses of Parliament? I hope that there is a way to reduce that lengthy process. Secondly, if British Rail were to be fully associated with the project, I think it would be welcomed in many quarters. Most of the problems of the hybrid Bill were concerned with objections to the projected route of the railways in this country. There are also problems, if British Rail are to profit from the tunnel, of its being able to carry goods right through the country, without having to transmit them from one set of wagons to another.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. I take note of what he says about hybrid Bills. I do not think that there is much that I can say at the moment that might speed the legislation through Parliament other than to record the good will, on the whole, which the Statement has received in this House. I hope that that will help its progress. I have, I hope, already covered the point about British Rail. As I say, it is for the promoters to decide whether to include a rail link.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, although there is nothing wrong with the Statement—indeed, it sounds a good Statement—all the schemes that have been mooted over the past seven or eight years have intimated that there would need to be an element of Government guarantee; some think that it should be greater than others do. Has it been made clear to the people who will be likely to be putting in their schemes by the end of the year that there will be no Government guarantee at all? That is not in keeping with the various suggestions made in the past when schemes have been submitted for general approbation.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that the only guarantees that the Government would give would be of a political nature; there would be none of a financial nature.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, may I thank the Minister particularly for clearing up the point about the hybrid Bill? That was the point I was making about Cheriton. I am sure that he will return frequently to the question of the new technologies. I listened with hope rather than conviction to what my noble friend Lord Howie of Troon said. On the question of hybridity and the collapse of the previous Bill, I think that it is rather important that we should realise that it was not, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, said, a total unilateralist decision by the Labour Government. In earlier debates the reason for the collapse of the previous Bill was spelt out clearly. I shall send the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, references which show that a body with which he had a great deal of involvement at the time had a great deal to do with the fact that the Bill did not get through.

Lord Denham

My Lords—

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I must just say one word—

Lord Denham

My Lords, I think that we are getting a little out of order here. The rule is that on a Statement brief comments are allowed and questions for elucidation. If it comes to differences between more than one noble Lord being settled on the Floor of the House, I think that that is a little difficult. I wonder whether we can possibly turn to the next business.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, since I was referred to a moment ago—and I am not continuing a political discussion—I point out that my reference to a unilateral decision was in relation to the French. It was a unilateral decision of Her Majesty's Government. That is all I said.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I would hope that we can now carry on. I am sorry that the noble Lord felt that he had to add that.