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Mr. Dalyell: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Fatchett: No.

I understand the humanitarian concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Kelvin. We share those concerns. Our actions have been designed to deal with them. I must stress to my hon. Friend that he should never lose sight of an evil--the existing regime in Baghdad, which has inflicted massive suffering on its people and on people in the region. He must never find himself, in the context of a debate, defending that regime. That is against any ethical view of the world and international relations.

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1999 Eclipse (Cornwall)

12.30 pm

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell): The Minister and I will at least agree on the fact that there will be a total eclipse of the sun in the late morning of 11 August 1999. In the United Kingdom, that will be seen across most of Cornwall and in parts of south-west Devon. It is the first place in the world that the effect will be seen, and will bring travellers from abroad. I am told that people follow eclipses wherever they occur around the globe. The rest of the UK will experience only a partial eclipse, so undoubtedly many people from other parts of the country will go to the south-west to see the total eclipse.

I admit that I do not know how many people will come to see the eclipse. The trouble is that no one knows, not even the Minister. However, we know that it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The last total eclipse in the United Kingdom was 71 years ago, and the next one will not be for 92 years. It is no surprise that vast numbers of people want to see it. The majority of the accommodation in Cornwall has a waiting list, and vacancies are immediately filled if people hear of the likely problems and cancel their booking. Private properties are being let on the internet for as much as £3,500 a week to people travelling from as far afield as Japan.

The last total eclipse visible from mainland United Kingdom was on 29 June 1927. I have a picture of it taken by my father's brother, because his family travelled to see it. At that time, 3 million people went to see the eclipse in the north of England, despite the fact that most of them did not have a car or other personal transport. It remains the biggest-ever recorded movement of people by train in one day. If even a third of that number come to Cornwall, we shall have a huge national event in an area that already suffers from bottlenecks.

Moreover, 11 August 1999 is a Wednesday, so local people will be travelling to work. It is mid-harvest, the middle of the tourist season and in the middle of the school and university summer holidays. Cornwall and Devon are pretty much full at that time of year, even without an eclipse.

A large influx of visitors is expected at the busiest time of the year. Some still believe that the problem is being exaggerated, and that interest in the event will not be that great. They may be right, although it is a gamble, but the media do not seem to agree, and they are professionals at judging public interest. The BBC estimates that 6,000 members of the media will be in Cornwall. Sky News will deploy 80 per cent. of its satellite relay stations, and expects to reach 70 million people in broadcasts to 40 countries around the world.

Judging by international experience of other eclipses, the county expects 100,000 astronomers and specialist eclipse chasers to arrive. Interest will be further generated by the study of the eclipse as the central focus of the 1998-99 national core curriculum for science for every school in the country, with many schools already booking visits to the county.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): I did not know that we had a Minister for the eclipse, but I think that I can assist the hon. Gentleman. As the southern part of my constituency in the South Hams--the tip around

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Salcombe, where I fortunately live--will have the same advantages for watching the eclipse as Cornwall, the public could view it from Devon, thereby reducing the number of people going to Cornwall, and the problems to which the hon. Gentleman refers. People can come to my constituency to see the eclipse as well as go to Cornwall.

Mr. Taylor: I shall make reference to south-west Devon, because it faces the same problems, which are not unique to Cornwall, although we shall bear the brunt of them. West Cornwall will have the first and the longest eclipse, and will have the most problems--bookings certainly suggest that.

How many people will come, and can we cope? Some 500,000 people live in the county. The number of people expected during the eclipse period will far outreach the capacity of the county's infrastructure, which is able to cope with about 900,000 without special measures. That is only 150,000 more than the usual August holiday population, so anything in excess of 150,000 visitors for the eclipse will cause problems. However, we expect far more than that.

It is estimated that 1.2 million visitors can get into the county by road, provided that they spread out their travel over a realistic period rather than arrive immediately before and leave immediately after the eclipse. Travel about 10 days before and 10 days after the eclipse would be realistic. That would bring the population up to about 1.7 million, rather than the 900,000 that the existing infrastructure could cope with.

It is almost impossible to estimate how many people will arrive by train, on cruise liners--many people have already booked berths--by yacht and by air on the many special flights into Newquay that are being arranged. That is likely to bring a further 100,000 visitors.

By that stage, main roads will be jammed, as already happens on summer weekends in many parts of the county when hundreds of thousands travel to temporary camp sites. Sewerage and mains water provision for those sites is a serious problem.

Many estimates far exceed those figures. The general prediction is in excess of 2 million visitors, and some estimates have been as high as 4 million. When we met the chief constable, he said, "That can't be allowed. We can't take more than 2 million." I asked him how we can prevent them coming, once they are in their cars and on their way, let alone stuck in a traffic jam, but there is no obvious answer.

The Cornish riviera brochure gives us a feel of the problem. It is important to understand that this event is not being promoted by the tourist industry in Cornwall. Official brochures deliberately downplay the event, because of the concern about the number of visitors. The brochure provides

by giving "Dos" and "Don'ts". It says:

    "Do allow plenty of time for your journey and travel early.

    Do bring essential toiletries, water, or drinks and packaged food.

    Do expect delays and traffic disruption, please be patient.

    Do keep abreast of radio traffic information for local updates.

    Use Park and Ride facilities wherever possible.

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    Don't set off without a firm confirmation of accommodation.

    Don't travel on the day of eclipse.

    Don't observe the eclipse without following the recommended safety precautions."

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): The danger to the naked eye is an important point to mention. I am particularly concerned about children and visitors who may not be aware of the information available in the build-up to this event. Could the Government provide public information to ensure that people protect their eyes in the hour before the eclipse?

Mr. Taylor: The Government have an extremely important role that goes way beyond anything that we can do in the two counties.

I want to concentrate on the capacity in the area because, if it is exceeded, the worst case scenario would be a disaster involving huge road gridlocks, supply failure problems for food, money and petrol, mains water supply failures with taps running dry and emergency services unable to reach casualties or incidents.

The Minister may think that this is primarily a local issue. It will happen locally, but if an unexpected natural event caused such problems, huge support would be available. Because it is predictable, so far no support is available.

There are two key problems, the first of which involves sewerage and water. South West Water's best estimate is that it can purify and distribute water at a rate that would sustain a population of between 900,000 and 1 million, which is half the estimate of the number of visitors. South West Water has said that the take-up of spare bedrooms in domestic residences by friends, family and unofficial bed and breakfast guests will use all the available capacity of sewage treatment plants. That does not take account of any of the planned temporary camp sites, one of which will take 200,000--a population the size of Plymouth.

All camp site portaloo waste will have to be disposed of by other means, and not during the eclipse, because of traffic congestion and other difficulties. That is likely to be difficult, and will cause concern about noise, odour and pollution. We do not know whether it will be possible to supply pure water at reasonable pressure to those sites. South West Water is currently working on that. It is essential to draw Ministers' attention to the funding difficulties, and to the severe risk to public health from water and sewage problems.

Secondly, the emergency services will be affected. In a monthly newsletter to Cornwall's 312 general practitioners, the local medical committee recently announced:

The committee believes that, nine months from now, jams caused by the eclipse could make it impossible for expectant mums to get to hospital in time.

That sounds quite funny, but the problem will not affect just expectant mums--although in that regard it is actually fairly serious. Any casualty may find it difficult to get to a hospital. Health services have already expressed concern about how they will cope when so many people flood into the county. Normal clinics may have to be suspended, and doctors and district nurses may have to be positioned around the county in order to deal with casualties, rather

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than assuming that ambulances will be able to take casualties to hospitals. The ambulance service has told me that it is budgeting for at least one extra air ambulance, as well as motor-cycle medics and extra ambulances. It believes that it may have to call on the Royal Air Force to give helicopter assistance, and that it may also need the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service.

The key problem is a combination of severe congestion and the fact that the county is surrounded on three sides by water. For the most part, there are no neighbouring services to help out if ours are overstretched. There is only one main general hospital in Cornwall, along with Derriford hospital, which serves east Cornwall and the Plymouth area. Although much excellent work is already being put into planning, there is only so much that local services can afford--and that, of course, will have a knock-on effect on the provision of services during the rest of the year. Moreover, there is only so much that local services can do at any price, because of the practical difficulties.

The combination of hot weather, camping, overheated vehicles and open-air festivals is bound to cause a problem. A large number of festivals are being organised, although the best advice would be not to organise them. The difficulty is deciding what to do with all those people for all that time, as the eclipse will last for only about 20 minutes. It will be a problem either way. I understand, however, that some major bands want to give concerts on the day, and that will bring into the county people who would not have gone there to see the eclipse.

The usual summer increase in crime will be amplified. That increase inevitably happens when extra people are present, but in this case the police will be further stretched by the need for traffic control, and by the many large events taking place. The police and other emergency services have already cancelled all leave, and will be fully manned from 30 July until 22 August, at considerable cost. I pity them: having had no holiday in the summer, they will then be allowed no holiday in the new year because of the millennium celebrations.

The Devon and Cornwall constabulary has made an initial request to the Ministry of Defence for assistance for all three services with traffic control, recovery, the provision of helicopters for route monitoring and medical facilities during the two main weeks. Measures exist allowing the Government to declare a need for military aid to the civil community, and to agree to finance it from the contingency fund. Such aid may be needed to assist the south-west's emergency services. Support already being considered goes as far as the use of a field ambulance regiment for field hospitals, the secondment of additional doctors and dentists to help with primary care, the provision of helicopters for the movement of emergency supplies and for traffic monitoring, and the employment of the Royal Engineers to help with roads, tracking on camp sites if the weather is wet, and water supply. Someone said to me, "If it is wet, there will be no problem." On the contrary, if it is wet there may be 2 million people in the area with nothing to look at, experiencing appalling conditions. They will be on temporary camp sites, with no proper sewerage and water.

When I asked the fire service how it would cope, a senior officer admitted that, if road congestion is anything like as severe as it is expected to be, the service does not know how it would transport firefighters to emergencies, especially if they are on the main roads.

25 Nov 1998 : Column 170

I have already raised the costs of the eclipse with the Prime Minister. They will have to be borne by ratepayers, the health service and the police, and they will be considerable. The estimate provided by Cornwall county council following consultation with all the emergency services, and with local government, is about £5 million. That amount has been committed, but the need is greater, and many local authorities do not think that they will be able to meet that need. The police have asked the Home Office for additional support, but have received no positive response. Work is under way to produce a more co-ordinated effort. I think that there will be results early in the new year, and I hope that whichever Minister is responsible will agree to a meeting.

Without extra help, our ambulance, police and other services will struggle to cope. Central Government will benefit from extra revenue generated by the eclipse, and businesses in the counties will certainly benefit, but emergency and other public services will bear a cost with no extra return.

When I raised the matter with the Prime Minister, he said that funding mechanisms allowed for it. I think that, after a little more research, the Minister will agree that there is no eclipse fund as such, and that the source of any extra funding is not obvious.

I stress that we need not just financial but practical support. I do not expect the Minister to promise huge sums today--I have participated in too many Adjournment debates to expect that--but I hope that the debate will help to focus Ministers' attention on a problem that has not received the national attention it deserves, perhaps because an even bigger event, the millennium, will take place later in the same year. The Jubilee line extension may or may not be ready for the dome, but it is certain that no new roads will be built to cater for the eclipse in Cornwall.

I am very pleased about the vast amount of preparation being undertaken by local councils, co-ordinating groups, emergency services and the Cornish eclipse county planning co-ordinator, but I fear that it is not enough. The Government should recognise that this is a national event, which will need national support. The problem is exacerbated by an accident of geography, and by sheer uncertainty about the number of people who may arrive. That makes planning next to impossible.

As recently as last night, the Government were not sure who would respond to the debate. The issue, after all, is covered by the Department of Health, the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office and, of course, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I welcome this Minister, and suggest that it would be practical to give our county co-ordinating committee a point of contact, in helping to co-ordinate the Government's response.

I do not know whether the Minister fancies the job, but what we need is a Minister for the eclipse.

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