Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill

Part of Orders of the Day — Schedule 3 – in the House of Commons at 6:59 pm on 1st November 1995.

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Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson , Cunninghame North 6:59 pm, 1st November 1995

I was interested to read in a biographical note about the Secretary of State that he once wrote a book called "Blessing or Blight?" It was on the tourist industry, but in his leisure years the right hon. Gentleman may be able to follow it up by writing about the channel tunnel link and rail privatisation.

We have had a good debate. I add my congratulations to the members of the Select Committee who did the drudgery and, as has been said, listened to the many objections and concerns. I pay tribute, too, to my colleagues who have made such effective representations on behalf of their constituents.

Perhaps the most interesting comments in the debate were made by the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), who asked when and whether the link would be built. He said that the worst thing would be if "some future Government" said that they would not complete it. However, as the hon. Gentleman and everybody else here should know, under the present scheme it will not be within the gift of the Government to say that they will or will not complete the link. The intention is to hand over the works to a private company, which will decide whether to complete the link.

Let us look at the scenario that Ministers are creating, and the trail of past Secretaries of State for Transport. It seems that an announcement will soon be made that the assets of European Passenger Services—almost £1 billion worth of public assets, every penny of which was paid for by the taxpayer, every brick and pane of glass in the Waterloo international terminal, and every coach and piece of livery on the Eurostar trains—will be handed over to a private company.

From that day the revenue stream, the most lucrative in the history of the British railway network, will go to the private operators. If the Secretary of State wants to contradict me, he is welcome to do so. When the traffic reaches its expected peak, 15 million people a year will travel on the service and every penny of the money will go to the private operator.

The trade-off for that is incredible; if the Mafia had suggested it, it would be regarded as beyond the dreams of avarice. At some future unspecified date, the private consortium will start building a channel tunnel link along a route not yet defined, within a time scale which, as the hon. Member for Mid-Kent rightly said, is undefinable.

If one of the consortia were unscrupulous enough it would go round east London funding the objectors, saying, "Keep this going as long as possible. The last thing we want to do is to build a channel tunnel link. Why should we, because our revenue stream is guaranteed ad infinitum?"

Will the Secretary of State contradict any of that? When the announcement is made will he tell us why the operator would have a vested interest in speeding up the process of building a channel tunnel link? More important, will the Minister who replies to the debate give me one reason why the assets of European Passenger Services should be handed to a private operator before the Bill has completed its passage, and before a sod has been turned on the route that is finally decided?

Why is it essential for the private operator to have the revenue stream before there is agreement on either the route or the financing of the rail link? Will the Minister answer that simple question, because it has never been answered? What precedent is there for giving an operator the money in return for an unspecified, and I believe ultimately unsustainable, expectation that the link will be built according to criteria laid down by the Government and the Select Committee?

What is the rush to give away the assets, other than that which underlies all the activities of the Tory party? It is the desire to shovel as much wealth and as many public assets towards its friends in the private sector before the day of judgment when the Tories are finally turfed out. Why is it a matter of public urgency to give away the assets of European Passenger Services?

Let us look back at the timetable for the process. Government is about more than rhetoric; it is about record. The Government should be judged harshly on what they have done to the constituents of many hon. Members on both sides of the House, and for what they have done to British prestige, leaving us with the poor relation, the national embarrassment of the slow line to the channel tunnel, where the French take over with a high-speed railway line.

Let us look at the record of disaster and fiasco. The Channel Tunnel Act 1987 ruled out public funding to support passenger services. Not a penny of public funds was to go to support rail passenger services to or from the channel tunnel. In those days Parkinson's law ruled, under section 42(3) of the Channel Tunnel Act.

In 1988 British Rail launched a competition for a public-private partnership. In those days the Tories hated even public-private partnerships because the word "public" was mentioned. In 1989 Cecil Parkinson reaffirmed: It remains the policy of the Government that no subsidy will be given to channel tunnel rail services". In June 1990 the public-private idea was killed off. British Rail had done a deal on it and then it was killed off, throwing the whole thing into disarray—the ideological hammer blow. I shall return later to the figures involved at that time.

In October 1991 a proud announcement was made at the Tory party conference. By that time it was the present Foreign Secretary, then Secretary of State for Transport, who made the announcement. The route had been definitively finalised and would go through Stratford, terminating at King's Cross.

In 1993 it was the turn of the right hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor), who has now gone off to his merchant bank, where he belongs. He said that the decision was not final at all. Stratford was called into question and Ebbsfleet mysteriously appeared—the Rumbold memorial terminal. Stratford was no longer on the agenda.

In 1994 the Bill finally got going—and here we are carrying it on into 1995–96. Thank heaven that, while the Tories blundered around and went to every conceivable length to take the project away from the public sector, the public sector was getting on and doing the job. That is why we have that wonderful Waterloo international terminal, and the trains built and designed in the public sector. The whole job has been done by the public sector, and the public sector is proud of it.

What were the costs? In 1990 when Cecil Parkinson killed the joint public-private sector venture, British Rail was requesting a grant of £500 million and a low-interest loan of £1 billion. For that, the job could have been started and the Committee would have been under way in 1990. The work on the link would have been well in progress by now; perhaps it would even have been completed.

However, that was ruled out—it was far too much money. But look what the Government have done with taxpayers' money now. According to the British Rail annual report and accounts for 1994–95, the assets of European Passenger Services, now being transferred to the private sector, are worth £800 million. For Union Railways the figure is already £42.6 million, and cumulative expenditure on the railway project to date is £492 million.

In other words, without a sod having been turned on the project, as much money has been spent as would earlier have been spent to have had the whole thing finished, with a link built and the national embarrassment avoided.

Of course the expenditure continues. Will the Minister tell us how many hundreds of millions of pounds the Government now intend to hand over to the purchasers of European Passenger Services—or rather, "purchasers" is the wrong word, because they will be getting it for nothing? How much cash will they get, on top of the assets? What will be the total bill to the taxpayer for handing the enterprise over to the private sector? The Minister should give us some answers, because that is a fraud on the nation and on the taxpayer.