Orders of the Day — Channel Tunnel Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th April 1974.

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Photo of Mr Fred Mulley Mr Fred Mulley , Sheffield Park 12:00 am, 30th April 1974

I am well aware of that provision. Had the hon. Gentleman been in the last Parliament he would have known that I referred to it myself on a number of occasions. This is one of the points I shall wish to discuss with my French colleague. I am always willing to give way to hon. Members, but I hope that if I do so there will not be complaints if my speech is longer than usual. If I give way to hon. Members I shall not be able to accept responsibility for going on for 10 or 15 minutes longer than I would otherwise have to take.

If we are to keep the option open to complete the project we need to ratify the treaty by the end of 1974 and to have available all the powers needed before we could enter on Agreement No. 3 and the main works—phase 3—due in mid-1975. The Bill provides the necessary powers. If we are not able to ratify the treaty covering phase 2, signed on 15th November last, by 1st January next —or such later date as mutually agreed by the two Governments—the project is automatically treated as being abandoned. That is why the passing of the present Bill is an essential part of the process of keeping open the option to proceed while the further studies continue.

But this in no way prejudges the decision to be taken at the end of phase 2, as my right hon. Friend made clear in his statement of 3rd April. No such decision will be taken without putting the matter again before the House. It does not involve any additional commitment to the principle of the tunnel, nor as I shall try to explain does it involve any limiting commitment to features of the project which we are concerned to review.

The Channel Tunnel Bill is largely a technical measure which would enable the British Government to carry out their obligations under the treaty and agreements, if it is agreed that construction should be authorised. As I have explained, it needs to be passed now before a final decision can be taken, to avoid delay and to fulfil our treaty obligations. I must also add that it will be necessary for British Rail to continue urgently with the planning of the rail link to London on which it initiated detailed consultations three months ago and for which it will seek the necessary powers in a Private Bill which it hopes to present next November A new link is an essential element in the scheme as a whole. A tunnel able only to carry road traffic and such rail services as could be got through the overcrowded Southern Region would not be acceptable to us. But no final decision on the route to be included in that railway Bill has yet been taken.

The present Government would wish to see some changes in the project. Some of these, for instance possible measures to increase through rail traffic, will not call for any change in the treaty, the Agreements or the Bill, but be purely internal matters while others, for instance over the details of financial arrangements, we may need to negotiate with our partners.

Any such changes could, however, be made within the general framework of the Bill and the treaty in the negotiations which must in any event be held prior to reaching Agreement No. 3. It is for that reason that it has been possible to take the course of reintroducing the Bill and thus, under the motion passed at the end of the last Parliament, to save both the complexities of complying with the Private Bill Standing Orders again and, more important, to save the costs of the existing petitioners. It would have been quite wrong if petitioners against a Bill had been put to additional expense because of the accident of the timing of the General Election, and I am advised that it would not have been possible to save their costs unless we reintroduced the Bill in exactly the same form as it had been when put before the last Parliament.

I should indicate certain amendments which we shall wish to make to the Bill, with the consent of the House, in Committee. Some of these are to increase the control of the local authorities over certain aspects of the design and method of execution of the works, while others are more technical.

There are, however, two gaps in the Bill as it stands. First, we propose to put an obligation on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider with the British Railways Board and the National Freight Corporation how best full advantage can be taken of the opportunities of the tunnel to divert traffic from road to rail. Secondly, while the Bill contains provisions about annual reports during the operation of the tunnel, there is no provision for regular reports to Parliament during the crucial construction phase of the project. I would wish this further provision to be made, too.

I hope that the House will agree, in view of the lack of time, that I should not go in great detail through the various clauses. I see present some hon. Members who will recall our previous debates. Part I and the bulk of the schedules provide for the necessary "land and works" powers. Clause 5 will require some amendment to increase local authority control over the works. Part II provides the framework of financial powers. The financial terms as between the public and private sectors, which we shall certainly wish to review in great detail before the renegotiations which are due to take place in 1975, are set out in Agreement No. 2. Under the Treaty and until it is ratified by an exchange of notes between the two Government, all liabilities falling on the Governments, for example in the event of abandonment, and all profits if the scheme is successfully completed, are shared on a 50–50 basis.

The maximum limits of the guarantee are the same as in the original Bill. There has been no change in the forecast cost of the tunnel in real terms, although this will be reviewed during phase 2. The out-turn cost will depend on rates of inflation and interest over the next six years. I should be reluctant to accept that the recent rates will continue throughout that period. Part III of the Bill establishes the British board as the British component of the Channel Tunnel Authority.

The provisions of this and Schedule 4 are based largely on existing nationalised industry statutes with such changes as are needed to allow for the binational nature of the project and the minority participation of the Channel Tunnel companies. Part IV contains a number of miscellaneous provisions. My hon. Friends will appreciate even more than Opposition Members the possible advantages of Clauses 33 and 34 which would enable construction of the tunnel to be continued should the present arrangements ever be abandoned. "Abandonment" is a technical phrase which can cover nationalisation. But while one Government can "abandon", it takes two to complete the tunnel.

If the Bill is passed this will keep our options open. The House is not now being asked to decide whether the tunnel should be built. That question will arise only after the reassessment has been completed. Only the signature of Agreement No. 3 after Parliament has considered the outcome of our reassessment can initiate phase III and the main works. We hope that the revised traffic forecasts will be available at about the end of this year and our complete reassessment of the project in the early months of 1975. At that time, too, the financial terms will have to be renegotiated.

The results of the studies and the terms negotiated will be published. I give a categoric assurance to hon. Members that there will be an opportunity for the House to debate and vote on the project at that time before any commitment is undertaken to carry it forward into phase 3 and the main construction works. I ask the House to allow the Bill to go forward for detailed examination in Select and Standing Committees.