Robert Hughes – 1986 Speech on the Channel Tunnel

Below is the text of the speech made by Robert Hughes, the then Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, in the House of Commons on 10 February 1986.

I beg to move, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

‘whilst accepting that the Channel Tunnel Group-France Manche scheme may have the potential to encourage the development of modern British Rail network and bring benefit to some parts of the country, declines to approve the White Paper “The Channel Fixed Link”, Cmnd. 9735, without full knowledge of the terms of the Treaty and its Protocols, without any Government commitment to necessary financial assistance to British Rail, without any Government plans to maximise the opportunities for industry and communities away from the immediate location of the Fixed Link, and without the Government accepting responsibility for and safeguarding against the damaging employment implications of the scheme, or providing adequately for the rights of those affected by the decision to have their views ​ taken into account; and recognises that the proposals present a threat to consumer choice in crossing the Channel with the creation of a private monopoly with its implications for prices and charges, without the guaranteed continuation of port and ferry facilities’.

Three hours to debate what has been described as a historic decision is far too short a time. I apologise to the House in advance if I do not give way to interventions as frequently as I might have done. There are a lot of issues to be covered, many of which were not covered by the Secretary of State.
In the speeches and statements and in the White Paper, the Secretary of State repeats that the Channel tunnel is an imaginative and exciting project. He has waxed eloquent about the job creation factors of the scheme and the benefits that he hopes will accrue. When he has been asked pertinent and penetrating questions, he has replied, “All will be revealed in the White Paper.” We have the White Paper now and there is little in it, if anything, which could not have been put before us a fortnight ago. There is nothing in it which could have delayed its publication for a few days, as the right hon. Gentleman said, but which became a fortnight.

We accept that the CTG-FM scheme is the best of the schemes that the Government examined. In our view, it suits our transport needs and provides opportunities for British Rail. We believe that it could allow the benefits for some parts of the country to be distributed more evenly. If we were starting afresh to consider job creation schemes, we might well not start from where we are now. However, we are starting with the Government’s decision, and we have a responsibility to ensure that the best outcome is achieved. We have tabled a positive amendment, and we are not defensive about it.

The problem is that the Secretary of State, having made a decision—or having had it made for him—wishes to cut and run. He wishes to avoid responsibility for developments that are damaging to the economies of various parts of the country and for the necessary planning to maximise potential benefits. He has prepared his alibi well in advance. In page 2 of the White Paper there is an all-embracing disclaimer which appears as a footnote:

“The Government expressly asserts that it makes no representation, either express or implied, as to the viability of the project with any intention or desire that such representation be relied upon by any investor. It should be noted that, in this White Paper, estimates of CTG-FM’s financing needs are their own, and the impacts of the CTG-FM scheme — on employment, the environment, the merchant fleet etc.—are all based upon the promoters’ estimates of traffic.”

I cannot recall seeing such a massive cop-out in any other White Paper. We shall press the Secretary of State to accept the figures and to take the action appropriate to them.

The treaty is due to be signed on Wednesday. It is unfortunate that the White Paper gives us only the broadest outline of what the treaty contains. We are merely told in paragraph 50 that the treaty

“will also enshrine the private sector nature of the link and the concessionaire’s right to compensation in the event of political interference or cancellation by either Government.”

Can we not be told, less than two days before the treaty is signed, what the financial penalties are that the Government have negotiated? Why are we being asked, in effect, to buy a pig in a poke? Surely the Prime Minister will not sign a blank piece of paper in Canterbury in less than 48 hours from now? ​ Paragraphs 53 to 60 tell us that negotiations will continue on the concession agreement and that the final package will contain the freedom to set tariffs, subject only to the European Community’s and the Government’s rules on competition. These and many other issues need to be clarified.

I was disappointed when the Secretary of State told us that he would leave the consultation arrangements to be dealt with by his hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Transport when he replies to the debate. The White Paper suggests what will happen. The Secretary of State from the beginning ruled out a formal public inquiry. In earlier debates he has asserted that the hybrid Bill procedure gave better opportunities for those affected to canvas their concerns, and it is clear in the White Paper that he has conceded his failure to convince a wide section of opinion in the House. Equally, he has failed to satisfy the doubts of many interests in Kent, for example. In paragraphs 46 to 48 he attempts to present a more convincing case and to answer the many representations that have been made on consultation.

I shall deal with paragraph 48 in some detail. It seems that an extra statutory authority of planning machinery is to be established between the Government, the Kent county council and the other local authorities concerned. We understand that the committee will be chaired by the Minister of State and that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold), will be involved in discussions. I note that the hon. Lady is in her place.

We are told in paragraph 48 that there will be widespread consultations. It adds:

“Among the subjects to be considered by the committee will be the adequacy of the road system in Kent to cope with the traffic flows expected to follow the building of the link, and specific local economic and environmental problems that may be caused by the development of the link. As one of its first tasks the committee is expected to commission a more detailed study of the potential impact on Kent of the CTG-FM scheme both during and after construction. This is to be carried out with the widest possible consultation of relevant interest groups in the county.”

So far so good, but what will be the result of the consultation? Everyone knows that there will be economic dislocation of the local economy. That appears not to be in doubt.

Paragraph 41 makes it clear that 7,000 jobs will go in the ports and ferries if the promoters’ forecasts are accurate. Several questions follow from paragraph 48. To whom will the consultative committee report? When will it report? Who will carry out the detailed study of the potential impact on Kent? A responsible Government would have carried out those studies before, not after, taking a decision in principle.

Further questions will have to be posed. Will the consultation group make recommendations? There would seem to be no point in having such a formal machinery, nor in commissioning these studies, unless the schemes are drawn up and acted upon. Will the findings of the consultative group be finalised and incorporated into the drafting of the hybrid Bill? What will be the effect of the consultations on those who may wish to petition the Select Committees which are due to be set up under the hybrid Bill procedure? If any of those affected by the scheme take part in the consultations, will they be prevented from gaining access to the Select Committees?

Paragraph 62 of the White Paper sets out the hybrid Bill procedure and attempts to define the term locus standi. In paragraph 62, the Minister, trying to assuage the feelings of his Back Benchers, says:

“However, the Government, as sponsor of the Bill, will not seek to oppose the right of anyone to appear before the Committees on a petition to secure protection, either for their personal interests, or for the proper interests of any organisation or group which they may have been appointed to represent.”

The use of the word “proper” seems to be a heavy qualification on who will go before the Select Committees. Will the Secretary of State give a categorical guarantee that appearance before the consultation group or submission of objections to it will neither prejudice the right of petitioners to appear before the Select Committees nor extinguish those rights? Unless these questions are answered fully, the consultative machinery will be seen as nothing more than a gigantic public relations exercise and a hoax on the public.

At the heart of our concern is what will happen not just to the south-east, but to the rest of the country. If the economic benefit is to be distributed about the country, British Rail must be given the opportunity to develop its services and to have its infrastructure, its motive power and rolling stock ready for the opening of the tunnel. Therefore, I welcome the British Rail press statement, issued on 4 February, in which it explains how it intends to run through-trains from different parts of the country and hopes that there will be discussions with immigration and customs officials to have these facilities carried out on the train, although there seems to be some doubt as to whether those bodies will co-operate.

British Rail, in its press statement, appears to be thinking ahead, even if the Secretary of State is not. If the required investment is made available, it will give a boost to British Rail’s estimates of both freight and passenger services; and if the money is spent in the United Kingdom, jobs will be created. However, I dispute the Secretary of State’s assessment of when the investment needs to be made available and whether his policy towards British Rail is adequate to match its requirements.

At Question Time on Monday 3 February, in column 6, I asked the Minister to give an assurance that British Rail’s external financing limit would be expanded to accommodate Channel tunnel-related expenditure and that other BR expenditure would not suffer. It astonished me when I was given such an unequivocal “Yes” to that question. However, in a subsequent answer in the same column, he back-pedalled very fast and said that BR’s EFL would be smaller during the period 1990–93 in any event. If that means that the investment and infrastructure will be in place before that time, we might accept it. However, I suspect that the opposite is the case. I believe that investment in BR must be expanded, even if the Channel tunnel is not to go ahead. If passengers and freight traffic are to be encouraged back to the railways, then BR’s customer image needs to be enhanced throughout the entire network, and not just that part that is related to the Channel tunnel service.

The Government must put money into BR. The White Paper concedes that there will be public spending associated with the tunnel. That much is evident from paragraphs 29, 30 and 31. There is a little hedging in paragraph 31, which says: ​

“The Government will give sympathetic consideration to supporting with Transport Supplementary Grant proposals from the County Council arising directly as a result of the fixed link project.”

We know with certainty that public money will be going into roads development. Why, then, will the Government not do the same for British Rail? Paragraph 27 makes it clear beyond any doubt:

“It will be for BR to raise the money for this”—

that is all the investment about which we have spoken—

“as for all its investment programmes, out of its own resources or borrowing, and not by way of Government grant.”

Nothing can be more clear that the Government will not put any money in.
In paragraph 66, the Minister expresses his hopes in this way:

“The Government has high hopes of seeing the link built and of it becoming a valuable national asset serving the interests of the nation for many years to come.”

I should like to see those high hopes come to fruition, but they will remain just pious hopes unless there is positive Government intervention.

I commend to the House the latest issue of Town and Country Planning. In an article called “Where have all the planners gone?”, Andrew Thorburn says:

“So far, no one has sketched out the consequences for Britain of the funnelling of traffic through this small corner, and the extra traffic likely to be stimulated … Never has the need for proper regional planning been more apparent.

Some have felt that we can get by without this in times of recession when little is changing, but the construction of the largest infrastructure provision in Britain’s history will require the rethinking of many development and investment policies, and rural conserveration policies, as well as a review of the transportation services throughout the south east. Where is our machinery for this?”

I concede that that was written about the south-east of England, but it is of equal relevance to the country as a whole. The Secretary of State will have nothing to do with this. His view is that if everything goes well, the scheme will be a success; and, if it does not, he is simply abrogating his responsibility in advance. He is like an old lag in a Scottish court pleading the special defence of “incrimination” or “impeachment”. He is saying, “It wasn’t me who did it; it was someone else. It was market forces that did it.”

Without proper planning, investment and regional development, the nation will come to regret the decision and wonder what went wrong. The Opposition have a duty and a responsibility to the nation to seek to remedy the failings of the Minister and of the Government. We shall press the Government for as long as we are in opposition, and we shall discharge our responsibilities and duties to the nation when we become the Government. I commend our amendment to the House and invite right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House to join us in the Lobby tonight.