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House of Lords

Thursday, 29th February 1996.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Royal Assent

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Humber Bridge (Debts) Act,

Hong Kong (Overseas Public Servants) Act,

Wild Mammals (Protection) Act,

Edinburgh Assay Office Order Confirmation Act.

The Channel Tunnel Ltd: Funding

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether any and, if so, what amount of the total liabilities of the Channel Tunnel Ltd. could fall on the British taxpayer.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen): My Lords, the Channel Tunnel has been constructed, and is operated, entirely by the private sector. The Channel Tunnel Act 1987 specifically precludes the Government from any commitment of public funds, either directly or in the form of a guarantee.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for the most reassuring Answer that I have ever received from him.

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, you cannot say better than that.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I live in hope--so far unrealised. However, can the Minister give the House some indication as to whether there is any truth in the reports that have appeared in the press today stating that the project which is to be undertaken in relation to the Channel Tunnel will in fact cost a great deal more than might have been the case if British Rail had been able to undertake a project in partnership with private finance in 1989? Is it likely that the cost of £1 billion then--the partnership being with Trafalgar House--is likely to be exceeded by some £2 billion as result of the Statement that is likely to be made elsewhere?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, could not possibly expect me to pre-empt the Statement of my right honourable friend which is due to be made in another place reasonably shortly. Those issues will be raised during discussion

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on the Statement. Suffice it to say, I am sure that the well-known ability of the private sector to inject funds and expertise into large capital projects will be demonstrated.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, despite the Answer that he gave to his noble friend and bearing in mind the fact that Commissioner Kinnock voted against the Channel Tunnel whenever he could, can I have an assurance from the noble Viscount that there will not be a public subsidy paid for in part by British taxpayers through a subsidy given to the Channel Tunnel by the Commission?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I have outlined the situation. Eurotunnel is a public limited company and there is no injection from Her Majesty's Government of funds. That is very clear within the Act. We fully expect that any financial negotiations will have to take place between the company itself and its own bankers. That is the end of the matter.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, in that case, is the Minister saying that the tunnel will close if the money is not forthcoming from the private sector?

Viscount Goschen: No, my Lords; that is not what I am saying at all. The Channel Tunnel operates at an operating surplus. It is very clear to those who finance the Channel Tunnel that the only way that they will get moneys coming back to repay those debts is through the operation of the tunnel. Indeed, closure of the tunnel would not help in any way.

The European Union and Slovenia

3.11 p.m.

Lord Bethell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they favour the establishment of an agreement between the European Union and Slovenia and, if so, what steps they are taking to achieve this.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, we are strongly in favour of Slovenia concluding an association agreement with the European Union. The agreement has been initialled; but not yet signed, because of outstanding differences between Slovenia and Italy. We have encouraged both governments to resolve their difficulties so that the agreement can be signed without further delay.

Lord Bethell: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for that Answer. Does she agree with me that Slovenia has done well in recent years to establish itself as a democratic and prosperous young nation? Further, does my noble friend not think it a pity that relations between Slovenia and the European Union should be held up on such a matter as property rights by one member state? Can my noble friend use her influence with her Italian colleagues in the European Union to try to get the matter resolved?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend that Slovenia has

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done well. Indeed, she has become one of the most economically developed of the central and eastern European countries; she is politically stable; and she has a pluralist liberal democracy. We believe that Slovenia is entitled to look forward to the day when she will be a full member of the European Union. However, I also agree with my noble friend that it is tragic that Italy and Slovenia have not been able to resolve their bilateral property issue which is preventing this particular signature.

I should stress that we have indeed encouraged a resolution of the issue, but the right is not all on one side. The Italians feel that this is a sensitive, domestic issue, but so do the Slovenians. We are trying our best behind the scenes to resolve the matter.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, will there be standard clauses in the agreement regarding human rights in Slovenia, and, if so, what enforcement mechanisms are written into those standard clauses in the event of default by the state concerned? I am not suggesting there is any reason for particular anxiety in the case of Slovenia. However, as I understand it, in all future association agreements there is provision for these clauses to be inserted.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am not sure because it would depend on the drafting date as to whether those clauses have been included in the association agreement. However, I will check that and write to the noble Lord. As he rightly says, I do not think there is any reason for anxiety over Slovenia's progress on human rights. I repeat, she is politically stable and has a pluralist liberal democracy. She is setting a good example to many of the countries around her.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, if the Italian Government's opposition to an association agreement continues, can the Minister comment on the implications for enlargement more generally, given the Government's commitment to unanimous voting in this area?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, it is important that this problem is kept within context. It is not a huge problem. It does not have anything to do with European membership per se. The problem is that the Slovenians have proposed some amendments to their property laws which the Italians do not like because those laws would not allow their citizens who have lived in Slovenia in the past to buy up property until they had fulfilled the new three years of continuous residence requirement. This matter ought to be capable of being resolved between the parties. Although right is not all on one side, as I have said, I do not believe that it is a matter of such import that it will result in more than hesitation.

As to the wider question of enlargement and the requirement for unanimity on enlargement, I still believe, as a member of the Government, that it is important that we maintain that unanimity. The question

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is, how best to work for a resolution of the problem between Italy and the other 14 members who are in favour of this association agreement.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, will the noble Baroness give the House an undertaking that she will in due course provide particulars of the nature and extent of our involvement in the agreement referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, certainly if there is something further that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, needs, he knows that he has only to ask. I always try to give him as much information as possible.

The Royal Naval College, Greenwich

3.16 p.m.

Lord Kennet asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have received any support for the Secretary of State for Defence's proposal to lease the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, for unrestricted purposes for 150 years and, if so, from whom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe): My Lords, nine proposals relating to the whole site, and three for part use, have been received. At this stage we regard such expressions of interest as commercial-in-confidence. It is for the interested parties to decide whether they wish publicly to declare their interest. Two have so chosen; namely, the University of Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum.

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