Inside Parliament: Euro-sceptic derides 'white elephant' line

No amount of tinkering with the line of the Channel tunnel rail link will satisfy Sir Teddy Taylor, MP for Southend East and unsleeping champion of Tory Euro-sceptics.

Remaining true to his principles as the 'final' route was announced to the Commons yesterday, Sir Teddy deplored not only the spending of public money on the project but the very idea of a link with Europe.

'The Channel tunnel is basically an outdated white elephant which is going to cost the taxpayers of Britain a fortune,' Sir Teddy said. He recalled how, in 1986, his views were dismissed as 'rubbish' when he and others suggested considerable public funds would be needed - doubting the then Thatcherite policy of wholly privately financed high- speed link.

John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, conceded the need for a 'substantial' contribution from the public purse a year ago. Yesterday he announced the Government's conclusions on a 68-mile route running north-west across Kent from the Channel, under the Thames at Greenhithe, through east London and terminating at St Pancras.

Local difficulties remain. 'There is no easy choice at Pepper Hill,' he intoned. Whether to tunnel under this corner by Northfleet in Kent, or go around it, has still to be decided.

The county's MPs made little fuss. Sir Keith Speed expressed the disappointment of his Ashford constituents that a tunnel west of the town had been ruled out on the grounds of the pounds 65m cost and several were concerned about continuing property blight and compensation.

Mark Wolfson, MP for Sevenoaks and a 'lonely' Tory advocate of public support when the high-speed link was first mooted, urged that the Bill to safeguard the route and its construction should be 'pushed forward with a great deal more urgency than we have had for the last eight years'.

But though Mr MacGregor promised the project would go ahead 'on the fastest possible timetable', his emphasis on the need for further consultations and 'inevitable' petitions on the Bill suggested otherwise.

Frank Dobson, Labour's transport spokesman, said that if the Government had accepted from the start that there was no chance of private investment without a government contribution, the link might have been built by now.

'For the next decade, goods and passengers from all over Britain will face a 70-mile bottleneck from London to the tunnel. This will be an inconvenience for London but a disaster for people in the rest of the country who want to trade with Europe and travel to Europe,' he said.

'When the first train leaves Paris it will travel at 185mph to the tunnel, through it at 85mph and then trundle at around 50mph to Waterloo. On arriving at Waterloo, the international travellers will have to lug their baggage across London to King's Cross, St Pancras, Euston or Paddington.

'This is a national disgrace when the French link is already in place,' Mr Dobson added.

Never far below the surface with Mr MacGregor is a tendency to revert to his old job as Chief Secretary to the Treasury when he enjoyed nothing better than totting up the Opposition's spending plans. Labour's answer for the railways was the same as on everything else, he repeated yesterday - 'more and more taxpayers' money. And that's what makes such a nonsense of the claims they are making on tax at the present time.'

Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, kept the pressure on as MPs debated the Social Security (Incapacity for Work) Bill, which it is estimated will save almost pounds 1.5bn a year in benefit payments by 1997.

Mr Dewar said it was not just the size of the coming tax hike - pounds 24bn over three years - but the way the burden was distributed that worried people. Through the Bill, a 'pay now, pay later, pay more and more government' was targeting those struggling with the effects of long-term ill-health and disability. 'Very many people don't like what they are seeing,' he told the House. 'There is undoubtedly hypocrisy and cynicism at large and it isn't difficult to see why.'

Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, said the Bill was not an attack on the sick and disabled. 'It is designed to protect their benefits against those who abuse it.'

The Bill - given a Second Reading by 313 votes to 272 - replaces sickness and invalidity benefits with a new benefit called incapacity benefit. There will be a stricter medical test and new recipients will be liable to tax from April 1995 if other income exceeds their allowances.

Mr Lilley said that spending on IVB had more than doubled in the last 10 years from pounds 2.7bn to pounds 6.1bn last year. Yet the nation's health had been improving. 'Those who are working for a modest wage resent seeing neighbours - apparently as fit as themselves - living on IVB.'

Too many people saw it as a readily available supplement to their occupational pensions when they took early retirement, he said. 'There are well-publicised cases of people on invalidity benefit earning money by cleaning windows at the same office where they were actually claiming benefit, enjoying cycling holidays and winning javelin contests.'

But Alan Howarth, Tory MP for Stratford on Avon and a former minister, warned that some of those who came off invalidity benefit would end up on the dole. There were good and bad reasons to tax, he said. 'The good reasons include helping the poor and the sick to live in less poverty and more dignity and more hope. Are these the people who should bear the cost of our economic difficulties of recent years?'

(Illustration omitted)

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