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4.43 pm

Mr. Tom Harris: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I would like to take this opportunity to remind the House why we introduced the Bill in the first place. The channel tunnel rail link was one of the largest construction projects ever to be attempted in this country, and it opened on time and within budget only a few months ago. It was rightly hailed as a success story, and St. Pancras station is acclaimed as a triumph of Victorian engineering and modern design.

Passengers arriving at St. Pancras can now travel to Paris in two hours and 15 minutes and to Brussels in one hour and 51 minutes. As it powers through the countryside at up to 186 mph, travellers looking out of the windows of Eurostar will see the evidence of the £10 billion in private sector funding going into regeneration and large-scale development along the route. From 2009, commuters from Kent will experience impressive journey time reductions through the brand new fleet of class 395 Hitachi trains, which will also be used to operate the high-speed Javelin service during the 2012 Olympics.

The successful opening of High Speed 1 is one of the achievements of London and Continental Railways' corporate structure, and of the role played by Government. The next step in the journey will involve the separation of LCR's three different elements—the infrastructure, the land interests, and the UK stake in Eurostar—into three sustainable self-standing businesses. Our intention in restructuring is to put in place a new, affordable corporate structure that maximises value for taxpayers.

The Bill will facilitate restructuring. The objective of the competitive sale process that will be completed during the next three years is to secure value for taxpayers from the project. Though small, technical, and financial in nature, the Bill is crucial to delivering that goal. It confirms that the Secretary of State can continue to provide financial support to the rail link in the same way as at present, and it will remove potential duplication between two different regulatory regimes for access contracts and clarify the role of the Office of Rail Regulation. It will also give the ORR the ability to charge for functions that it carries out in relation to High Speed 1, provided of course that those charges are reasonable. Finally and vitally, the Bill will add the word “operation” to the definition of a development agreement in the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1996.

I thank my colleagues on both sides of the House for the careful consideration and support that they have given the Bill during the past three months. The able chairmanship of the hon. Member for Hexham
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(Mr. Atkinson) in Committee and the useful and succinct contributions of most Members have assisted the Bill’s speedy passage through the House. I look forward to monitoring its progress in the other place. In the meantime, I commend it to the House.

4.46 pm

Stephen Hammond: I was wondering whether the conclusion of the Under-Secretary’s speech was a challenge to us to be succinct. This is a small Bill—it has only six clauses—but behind it lies a unique British achievement. High Speed 1 from St. Pancras launched its first service last year. It left to universal acclaim and accomplished the unique feat of achieving recognition on the front pages of all the national newspapers. The opening ceremony the week before was a tribute to British engineering and construction. Those of us fortunate enough to be there will remember our sense of excitement and achievement that night for a long time. The reinstated single-span roof is that achievement’s crowning glory.

High Speed 1, formerly known as the channel tunnel rail link, stretches from the mouth of the channel through the Kent countryside to east London and Stratford, terminating at St. Pancras. It runs for 109 km, or 67.7 miles. Although the London to Paris service is the railway’s focus, we must remember that about 40 per cent. of capacity will be reserved for high-speed domestic services from north Kent to Stratford. That will open up the City and docklands in central London, another exceptional achievement of the channel tunnel rail link.

On 20 February 1996, the Conservative Government awarded to London and Continental Railways the contract to build and operate the channel tunnel rail link. Who would have dreamed then that we would be able to travel at 186 mph through the countryside to France and beyond? The challenge is to ensure that our country can connect to the trans-European network and to expand high-speed rail in the United Kingdom. That is why I am delighted that the incoming Conservative Government are committed to a feasibility study of high-speed rail.

As the Under-Secretary said, the Bill is intended to make minor amendments to the current arrangements. That represents a general acceptance that the structure that contributed to LCR’s success in delivering the project might not be the best structure for the future or for operational purposes. The Government and LCR undertook an evaluation of the restructuring options for LCR, which resulted in the Bill before us.

In Committee and on Report, we have examined this relatively small Bill at great length—some might say exhaustively; the Under-Secretary probably did. Although the Opposition accept that exceptional projects require exceptional powers to ensure their facilitation and operation, the powers should still be subject to scrutiny for evidence of abuse. We have indeed subjected the Bill to scrutiny, although I remain concerned that clauses 2 and 3 grant truly exceptional powers, the continuing need for which is contestable. We shall look carefully at the operation of those two clauses.

The Bill is short and largely technical, but it is important. The channel tunnel rail link has been a great success for the United Kingdom. The prospect of
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Eurostar and domestic High Speed 1 being operational is exciting, and if the Bill facilitates that, we should assist its passage. I hope that it will enable the operational phase of the channel tunnel rail link to be as successful as the construction phase, and that in due course St. Pancras will be not only the centre of a UK high-speed rail network, but part of an international high-speed rail network.

4.51 pm

Norman Baker: I largely agree with the comments of the Minister and the spokesman for the Conservative party, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), both of whom support the Bill in principle. The Minister correctly says that it is a small, technical Bill, but it has significant implications for taking forward the channel tunnel link.

It is clear that we now have a railway of considerable capacity and one that we can be proud of, taking us from the channel tunnel through to St. Pancras. Many of us who used Eurostar when it first opened were embarrassed that we could travel through the French countryside so fast, yet clank around at probably 18.6 mph on the way from the Kent coast up to London. That has been dealt with. After a slow start, the Government have moved fast to help in their own way with the completion of the St. Pancras project, and the country is better off for that.

We on the Liberal Democrat Benches look forward to the day when high speed services do not stop at St. Pancras but run much further north, so that people from Edinburgh, Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool will be able to access high speed services and travel to Paris and Brussels without the need to change in London. I hope that the Government will bring forward plans to examine those possibilities sooner rather than later.

As we send the Bill on to the other place, as I hope we shall shortly, I should like to highlight a couple of points that it would be helpful for their lordships to examine. The first is about the implications of the potential sale of the infrastructure. The Minister is right to talk about the three constituent parts, but I would be concerned if the track were ultimately not owned by Network Rail. That would be inconsistent with the rest of the rail network, and it is difficult to understand how a sensible arrangement could be reached with suburban or domestic trains running on infrastructure not owned by Network Rail. It would be much cleaner if it were owned and run by Network Rail. I hope that their lordships will examine that.

The second matter, which we have not considered today but which is important, is freight movement. The Minister said at column 1123 on Second Reading:

might be appropriate. It should be made clearer in another place how freight will be able to access the line. I hope that that will not be, as the Minister said,

If that were the case, freight might be excluded.


17 Jan 2008 : Column 1164

Mr. Tom Harris: It is absolutely the Government’s expectation that freight will use High Speed 1, but the hon. Gentleman should know that in this country freight is an entirely commercial operation. Any freight movements on High Speed 1 will therefore have to be commercial. I am sure that that is welcomed in all parts of the House.

Norman Baker: I am grateful to the Minister for that. I was suggesting not that freight should not be commercial, but that it might be in the interests of individual parties to maximise the number of passenger trains to the exclusion of freight. That would be unhelpful.

Mr. Harris indicated assent.

Norman Baker: I see that the Minister agrees.

Having made those two simple points, I welcome the Bill on behalf of the Liberal Democrats and wish it well in the Lords.

4.55 pm

Mr. Greg Knight: I join those who have contributed to this Third Reading debate in welcoming the amended Bill and wishing it well. I understand that the Government give £6.5 billion annually in subsidy to the rail network; that is a sum of which any Government should be proud. However, it is interesting that, despite all the congestion problems that we have heard about, our railways still carry only 6 per cent. of all passenger travel. Some 84 per cent. of journeys are still undertaken by car. Although the channel tunnel rail link is rightly a priority, at some point in the not-too-distant future there needs to be either a shift or an increase in transport funding so that road users are treated equitably.

I thank the Minister again for the fair-minded way in which he has dealt with the Bill and for his approach throughout. If there is any justice in this world, he will be made Secretary of State at the next reshuffle.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No.118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),


Electricity

Question agreed to.

Sittings of the House

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 25 (Periodic adjournments),

Question agreed to.


17 Jan 2008 : Column 1165

Sri Lanka

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Khan.]

4.57 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting for today’s Adjournment debate my suggested subject of Government support for the peace process in Sri Lanka. I had previously applied for a debate on the subject, but it could not happen. Mr. Speaker has kindly acceded to my request to reinstate the debate today. Little did I know that the debate would be as timely as it has turned out; I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for understanding the appropriateness of this debate at this time.

It is sad—this year should have been one of great celebration for all the peoples of Sri Lanka. The 60th anniversary of the independence of Ceylon from the United Kingdom falls on 4 February. In normal circumstances, that would be an occasion for great celebration across that beautiful country. Furthermore, this year is the 30th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s change to an executive presidency. In the same year, under that constitution, Tamil was recognised, with English and Sinhala, as an official language. The country’s history suggests that there is much for celebration, but that is not how it has been in recent years.

Since I was elected to this place in 1983 there has been a state of emergency and a continuing difficulty that is most easily and sadly described as an effective civil war. It has continued month in, month out, and last year ended in sad circumstances—violence, attacks, deaths and a very dim prospect. Sadly, this year has begun equally badly in two senses. First, the Government, for reasons that I can understand but that are ultimately misguided, announced on 3 January that they were to terminate the ceasefire agreement that was entered into in 2002, and yesterday that ceasefire agreement ended. In parallel with that, over recent weeks there has been continuing violence, with attacks in the north and the south, the assassination of a Minister and of another Member of Parliament, and the killing of innocent people—people absolutely not part of the political process, including children—on bus journeys.

Let me make it absolutely clear that my view, like that, I imagine, of every single person in the House and elsewhere, is that violence is unacceptable, that killing other people in the pursuit of political ends is not the way forward, and that, as other places have learned—I welcome to his place the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who had direct experience of this in our country, in Northern Ireland—there must be an alternative route that says that violence is put aside and people talk to each other until they reach a solution.

So we have a dear Commonwealth country, with huge friendship between all its peoples and our people, now entering its 32nd year of unrest and civil war. Let me give just two or three sentences of background—shared knowledge among people here, but more for the record than for our debate. It is a country of about 20 million people, or thereabouts, three quarters of whom—approximately; I am not trying to be overly
17 Jan 2008 : Column 1166
precise—are from a Sinhalese background and an eighth of whom, about 3 million people, are from a Tamil background, with other smaller groups. Two thirds of the population are Buddhist by faith adherence, about 15 per cent. are Hindu, about 7.5 per cent. are Muslim, and slightly less than that are Christians and people of other faiths. In this country, we have, best estimates tell us, about 200,000, or probably nearer to a quarter of a million, people from Sri Lanka, almost equally divided between Sinhalese people and Tamil people, contributing wonderfully to our nation in every respect, in business, in teaching, in medicine, in the professions, in culture, in sport—just a fantastic contribution.

I have no vested constituency interest in this issue. I have friends who are Sinhalese and Tamil, but I do not have a huge Sri Lankan population in my bit of London, although friends in other parts of London have significant Sri Lankan populations. I am not doing this because I have 10 per cent. of my electorate to address and want to deal with their concerns.

Back in the ’70s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was formed as a liberation struggle movement. We know, in general terms, what its history has been. It led to the fact that in 2001, in this Parliament, we proscribed it as an organisation in this country. In May 2005, the European Union took a similar view. As a result, one of the players—an organisation that is not going to go away, whatever the Government and other people may wish—is officially illegal in the eyes of the rest of the world. We are familiar with that in this country, as we similarly banned the Irish Republican Army—the IRA—and placed restrictions on Sinn Fein in all those past days in Northern Ireland.

Just over two years ago, we had the latest political resolution when, in a very hotly contested presidential election, current President Rajapakse was elected by a narrow majority of 50.3 per cent. to 48.3 per cent. over Ranil Wickremesinghe, with the two big coalition parties providing the two main candidates. This is a country where, as you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, people in high office have often had a very difficult time personally. One Prime Minister and one President have been assassinated, as have a Foreign Minister and many others. As in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, families who have been involved in politics have sadly been afflicted by killing and terrible personal experiences. No one would wish that on anyone. A coalition Government are in place, who reflect the view of the President, by and large. There is a majority who reflect his view.


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