§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
I turn now to motion No. 3, which contains a small error. The words, "That these Orders be Standing Orders of the House", were inadvertently omitted from the end of the motion as printed on today's Order Paper. Therefore, the motion will be moved in the form in which it was tabled yesterday. Copies are available in the Vote Office, should hon. Members wish to refer to them.
§ 12.1 am
§ The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts)
I beg to move,That further proceedings on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill shall be suspended until the next Session of Parliament.That if a Bill is presented to this House in the next Session in the same terms as those in which the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill stood at the last stage of its proceeding in this House in this Session—
- (a)the Bill shall be deemed to have been read the first, second and third time; and
- (b)the Standing Orders and practice of the House applicable to the Bill, so far as complied with or (in the case of the Standing Orders relating to Private Business) dispensed with in this Session or in the Session 1994–95, shall be deemed to have been complied with or (as the case may be) dispensed with in the next Session;That these Orders be Standing Orders of the House.The principle of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill has been endorsed many times in the House. As hon. Members know, a great deal of work has been undertaken in this place in Standing Committee and in Select Committee under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant). It has also been subject to much scrutiny in another place. The purpose of the motion before the House today is simply to ensure that the Bill can be carried forward for further consideration in the next parliamentary Session and to ensure that the good work done here and in another place in improving the Bill since its introduction is not aborted.
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§ Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington)
The Opposition do not intend to delay either the House or the Bill tonight. We clearly support the motion that is before us and welcome the work that has been done on the Bill. We hope that, on its return, the Bill will move swiftly to a conclusion and receive Royal Assent. That will enable the work to be undertaken and completed as soon as possible—although, in view of the speed with which the Government have dealt with the Bill previously, I expect that a Labour Government will push it through to its conclusion.
§ 12.3 am
§ Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
As one of the 44 Members of Parliament who voted against the channel tunnel legislation on 5 June 1986 on the grounds that it would not pay and would be a dead loss, I think that the Government should listen to my views even at this late hour. Most of the other 44 hon. Members have either died or lost their seats in the intervening period.
My point is basic and simple: when the channel tunnel legislation was before the House, we were given the absolute assurance—it appeared in Hansard at the time— 722 that, as it was a dramatic commercial prospect, there was no question of any Government subsidy or contribution in relation to rail projects. The Minister will recall that some hon. Members said, that even if the tunnel were busy for seven days a week and 24 hours a day and the trains were packed all the time, there was no way it would be commercially viable.
Unfortunately, because the channel tunnel has proved to be such an appalling disaster, banks at home and abroad have lost a great deal of money and there is not the slightest prospect of the project paying its way. I am concerned that, when the Bill was discussed on 25 April, some hon. Members who obviously know a great deal claimed that there would be a Government contribution of £1.4 billion and that some assets worth considerably more would be handed over to London and Continental very cheaply. Is it proper, given the latest channel tunnel reorganisation of finances, which involves write offs and great losses to banks, to let the motion pass through the House without the equivalent of a Third Reading discussion? Should we not take into account the new circumstances of the reorganisation of the finances of the channel tunnel?
The Government may say that the new circumstances do not matter, but clear and specific assurances were given by the Minister responsible that there would be no question of any subsidy for rail projects in Kent and elsewhere. As it appears from Hansard that there are such payments, would it not be possible for some assurance to be given that it is lawful for these contributions to be made, given the clear and specific assurances that were given when the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill was being discussed?
The Government may think that these considerations do not matter, but at the end of the day they surely must take into account that the great majority of the House voted for the Bill on the specific assurance that was given by Members, including Ministers, that the channel tunnel would be a remarkably successful financial project and that there was no question of Government finance, direct or indirect. It now seems, sadly, that Government finance will be involved.
§ 12.6 am
§ Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)
I welcome the Bill and wish to speed its passage through the House. However, I have two small points to put to the Minister. I am glad to see that the Secretary of State for Transport is sitting beside him. The Minister may recall that the right hon. Gentleman, when responding to me on 26 April, confirmed that the rail link would be able to carry piggy-back freight. I accept that he said that the main purpose of the rail link was to carry passengers, but he said that, by taking passenger services from existing rail lines, it would free up capacity in the existing network, which would be more suitably used by freight trains.
The Minister may recall that the Secretary of State made some play of the benefit to domestic passengers of reserving capacity on the rail link by virtue of eight domestic trains per hour in peak periods. It was claimed that the increase in overall capacity within the network would ease congestion in the network. The cost of the exercise has been reported to be £360 million in the form of a domestic capacity charge to preserve the eight train cars. That is in addition to £1.4 billion for the construction costs.
723 Is the Minister aware that Connex South-East, the train operating company that has inherited the relevant domestic paths, now says that it does not want them? It says that they are not economically viable because there are unlikely to be sufficient passengers wanting to use a local service through to St. Pancras. If that is the case—I hope that the Minister will say otherwise—the Government's arguments about freeing up capacity lie in shreds. The justification for public money advanced earlier by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) falls by the wayside. It would appear that putting forward £1.4 billion of public money for the construction costs plus £360 for the domestic service grant is basically flawed.
Unless domestic services are directed on to the rail link, how will capacity be found for freight train services from Europe on to what is admitted is an already congested existing network?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but this debate must be fairly narrow because it relates to a carry-over procedure. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that he is advancing reasons why there should not be a carry-over, well and good. It seemed, however, that he was developing a general theme.
§ 12.8 am
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)
Perhaps I might make my point, Madam Deputy Speaker. I say in answer to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) that my constituents now take 50 minutes in commuting to London. The rail link will allow them from the Ebbsfleet international station to commute in only 19 minutes. I can assure him that there are thousands of people who would use the service.
My constituents view the Bill with mixed feelings, because they have suffered considerable blight since the project first appeared in 1988. The channel tunnel rail link will cause considerable environmental damage to my constituents in north-west Kent. However, the international station that is proposed for Ebbsfleet will be a catalyst for massive economic regeneration, and for that reason we would like to see an early decision on the Bill and want its enactment to take place during the next few weeks or months.
There are, however, outstanding issues that should be properly addressed, the principal one being Ashenhank woods—a major piece of ancient woodland in my constituency. If the current proposals, which have been considered in the House, by the Select Committee and in the other place, were to go through, they would have a major impact on the environmental record of the rail link, because geological studies have shown that the ground beneath that wood is made up of loose gravel and lignite, which would require the rail link to have a very wide cutting indeed, and that by definition means the devastation of the woodland.
Strong representations have been made to both Select Committees by Cobham parish council, the Woodland Trust and other environmental organisations. The Select Committee in the other place paid particular attention to the environment and in its interim report said: 724We recommend that the promoters start with the assumption that retained wall cuttings in Ashenhank Wood are the best option.The promoter, Union Railways, has replied to the House of Lords Select Committee—I quote from its commentary on the preliminary decisions:The Promoters note that the Select Committee does not require construction of a tunnel beneath Ashenbank Wood. The Promoters undertake to require the nominated undertaker to look further at the potential benefits of some ground retaining measures in reducing the amount of land-take to the wood. The conclusions of the studies to date, which Gravesham Borough Council, English Nature, English Heritage, the Countryside Commission, and Kent County Council have accepted, is that another solution, a package of mitigatory and compensatory measures … is more promising.That response is somewhat disingenuous. It refers to some ground-retaining measures and does not refer—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I am sorry, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is pursuing somewhat the same path as the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey). The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) has had his little fling. He must now come back to the point.
§ Mr. Arnold
My point is that I hope that the House of Lords Select Committee will stick to its guns and to the decision that it has taken on behalf of the environment and for my constituents.
I have another brief point to make. The Minister of State is present. I ask him to accelerate the interdepartmental review of blight. Both Select Committees have expressed great sympathy for my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Winzar and Mrs. Smith, who have been very severely hit by the blight impact of this proposal. We want action, not words. I hope that my hon. Friend will do his utmost to speed up the process of the interdepartmental review.
§ Mr. Watts
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T Taylor) asked whether the Bill involved any subsidy to the channel tunnel. It is important that we distinguish between the tunnel and the rail link project. The Bill does not provide any subsidy to the channel tunnel itself in the ownership of Eurotunnel. It does provide some element of Government support towards the private finance initiative project as a whole, and that is in recognition of the benefits both to domestic and international travellers from the provision of this high-speed link.
That leads me to the point made by the hon. Member for—
§ Sir Teddy Taylor
Does my hon. Friend not accept that, at column 1187 of the Official Report on 5 June 1986, a specific question was asked about rail links, and a clear, specific assurance was given that there was no question of any Government cash being used for rail links?
§ Mr. Watts
My recollection of the statutory position is that subsidy to the channel tunnel is prohibited, but if my hon. Friend will allow me I shall write to him with a more detailed answer than I can give him off the cuff tonight.
725 The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) asked about the domestic capacity. We have secured eight peak hour train paths and, as those will reduce journey times for Kent commuters by 30 minutes, it is inconceivable that they will not prove to be popular services.
As to who operates those services, the franchising director has said that the existing franchisee will have the opportunity to bid to operate them. But if the operator chose not to do so, the franchising director would offer them to other operators. I would be amazed if there was not intense competition for the right to run such premium services.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the rail link has to be capable of carrying freight, although it will be for the operator to decide whether he wishes to accept freight on the link. It is being built to a larger loading gauge than the rest of our network, so it should be capable of piggy-back.
As to the existing lines which will have capacity released, obviously a detailed engineering study would be required to identify whether modifications were needed for piggy-back traffic. However, as there is an active proposal for piggy-back services to start operation, I suspect that any such work will have been undertaken long before the rail link is up and running.
We are aware, because my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) has brought it to our attention so many times, of the importance of the proper treatment of Ashenbank woods. As my hon. Friend said, the Select Committee in another place expressed a strong preference for the design to start from a presumption of retained cuttings, and appropriate undertakings have been given by the promoters. As to whether I am right in believing that the undertakings are adequate for the purposes of the Select Committee in another place, I would rather wait to see the Select Committee's special report which is to be published tomorrow. If they are not, doubtless the Select 726 Committee will say so and there will then be the opportunity to take the matter further during the Report stage in another place and consideration in the Commons of Lords amendments.
When the departmental review of blight was announced by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, he said in Standing Committee that we would expect an interim report from the working party in the autumn. As far as I am aware, that is still on course to be delivered. However, I understand the urgency that my hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Friends have pressed upon me in the past and we shall seek to deliver that as rapidly as we can.
With those few remarks I commend the motion to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That further proceedings on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill shall be suspended until the next Session of Parliament.
That if a Bill is presented to this House in the next Session in the same terms as those in which the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill stood at the last stage of its proceeding in this House in this Session—
- (a) the Bill shall be deemed to have been read the first, second and third time; and
- (b) the Standing Orders and practice of the House applicable to the Bill, so far as complied with or (in the case of the Standing Orders relating to Private Business) dispensed with in this Session or in the Session 1994–95, shall be deemed to have been complied with or (as the case may be) dispensed with in the next Session;
That these Orders be Standing Orders of the House. —[Mr. McLoughlin.]