HL Deb 05 December 1985 vol 468 cc1407-10

3.18 p.m..

Lord Ferrier

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, as reported in the Daily Telegraph of 14th November, it is true that they are in the course of committing the United Kingdom to a fixed channel link.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, the newspaper report referred to by my noble friend was based upon a misunderstanding. It was corrected the following day.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that disarming reply may I ask him whether he is aware of the increasing number of people from Scotland, and the North and South, who are distressed by the prospect of a direct link because they regard it as a potential danger?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, yes. There is an increasing number of people who are against the link. However, I think that there is an increasing number of people who are for the link because of the advantages that it can offer to this country. I was in Scotland recently and I was tackled on this matter. I think that Scotland has a lot to gain from a link.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, in the light of the Minister's reply, do not the Government agree that it is highly desirable and essential that this House should debate the principle of a direct link as well as the relative nature of possible direct links before the Government make a decision on a particular project? I hope the Government will agree that through the usual channels it will be possible to arrange a debate on this issue.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, the United Kingdom-French Study Group reported on this matter in 1982, and a copy of the report was placed in the Library. It is for the usual channels to decide whether or not there is to be a debate.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, as this is probably the largest fixed capital investment ever to be carried out in this country without a public inquiry of any sort—and it matters not whether it be public or private in this context—is it not the case that last time round, in 1973, there was a full range of inquiries which, for instance, reported in detail on the effects of a fixed Channel link on all the ferry routes from Felixstowe right round to Southampton, and not just the short-sea routes? Is that not a fair instance of the sort of action that ought to be taken this time?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there has been a considerable amount of public consultation. This consultation has been undertaken by all those who have submitted schemes. There have been advertisements in the papers. There has been intense lobbying of Members of Parliament and Members of this House. I do not think it can be said that there has been no consultation.

Lord Chelwood

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that the environmental impact of a fixed link is bound to be very far-reaching indeed, and of course permanent? Is he aware of the widely held view that the amount of time that has been allowed to consider this impact is wholly inadequate?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, no, I would not consider the time for consultation to be too short. In this fast moving commercial world, and comparing it with that world, it is not too short a time.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, is the noble Earl not aware of the distinction between a public inquiry and public consultations?

The Earl of Caithness

Yes, my Lords, I am.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the noble Earl the Minister aware that he dismissed rather lightly the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, regarding the increasing concern in the North of England at this project going ahead without a public inquiry? I come from the North. Is the noble Earl not aware that the people up there consider that to go ahead with this tunnel without full consultation or a public inquiry could further exacerbate the grave economic differences between the North and the South?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I do not believe that my noble friend Lord Kinnoull has actually asked me a question; I believe that it was my noble friend Lord Ferrier. As I have said, there has been considerable public consultation, and if there is to be a fixed link I believe that the North stands to benefit both from the work that is available for a fixed link and in the long-term.

Baroness Burton of Coventry

My Lords, referring back to those long-ago days when I was in another place in the early 1950s, is it not correct that discussion on the desirability of having a Channel tunnel was then mooted? We have waited a very long time until now, and is the noble Earl aware that I for one very much hope that the Prime Minister and President Mitterand will make a decision to go ahead early next year?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness and I shall pass on those remarks.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that many of us share the anxieties of his noble friend Lord Ferrier on this matter? Is he further aware that the whole concept of a permanent link with the continent of Europe has to be considered within a far wider context than has been the case so far? Is the noble Earl aware that there is a difference between public consultation and lobbying, to which we have all been subjected?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am aware of the anxieties which are being taken into account in the assessments being carried out at the moment. I am also aware of the increasing frustration of those who long to see a Channel tunnel and who have been debating this at the slowness that it has taken to reach this stage.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that, if there were to be a public inquiry into this matter, it could drag on for years and years, cost the country an enormous amount of money, destroy a great many potential exports, and do nothing but total harm?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, it is of course open for those at public inquiries to keep matters proceeding for quite a long time. I believe that that is well understood.

Lord Hankey

My Lords, before the Government reach a decision, may we assume that they will carefully consider the defence aspects of this question from every point of view?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am very pleased to confirm that that is being taken into account at the moment.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, in view of the unusual conjunction of opinion, including that between the noble Earl, Lord Ferrier, and myself, will the Government look again at the whole matter?