Inside Parliament:Low-speed legislation ahead

Tunnel-link Bill to take two years Meacher attacks `years of muddle' EU contributions Bill given Assent
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Indy Politics
The Bill to allow construction of a high-speed rail link from London to the Channel tunnel was given a Second Reading yesterday. But it will still take at least seven years to confound President Mitterrand's elegant jibe about Euro-trains ambling throughKent to enable the passengers to savour the countryside.

Such is the complexity of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill, it will take up to two years to pass through Parliament. As private interests are affected, notably by the compulsory purchase of land, the Bill has been declared "hybrid" and will go before a select committee.

Objectors will be able to argue for extra tunnels, limited deviations, an extra passenger station at Stratford in east London, more compensation for property owners along the 68-mile route, and improved protection for the environment.

Kent Tories and Labour MPs from east London put down markers. Sir Keith Speed, MP for Ashford, called compensation levels "mean" while his Medway colleague, Dame Peggy Fenner, voiced constituents' concern about noise from new rail and motorway bridges over the river.

Introducing the Bill, Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, eschewed political knockabout, despite Labour's vulnerability over rail privatisation, and focused on the benefits of the high-speed line - "one of the longest and most ambitious pieces of infrastructure to be built this century". It would, he said, more than double the capacity for passenger trains between Britain and the Continent, cut the journey time from Paris to London by half an hour, to two and a half hours, and give a major boost to rail freight.

Costing nearly £3bn, the line will be privately operated and financed. Mr Mawhinney conceded the line would have an impact on the environment. "As with roads, nearly 68 miles of brand new railway cannot be built painlessly." But he said considerable efforts had been made to minimise damage - 21 per cent of the route is in tunnels.

Some Thurrock residents nevertheless face the prospect of watching Euro-trains speed past their homes on a viaduct which their MP, Andrew MacKinlay, estimated would be as high as the upper gallery in the Commons. And, arguing for more tunnelling, Michae l Meacher, Labour's transport spokesman, said that on present plans trains would be travelling at 140mph just 20 feet from the back of houses in Dagenham.

Never one to understate his case, Mr Meacher said the Bill ended seven years of muddle. "If one wants a monument to the Government's arrogance and ideological stupidity, one need look no further than the funding of the high speed link. It is now likely that the long-suffering taxpayer will have to pay half the nearly £3bn cost."

Recalling President Mitterrand's comment at the opening of the TGV service between Paris and Lille about savouring the countryside on the British side, Mr Meacher said it was a "humiliating put-down" of the Government's incompetence.

"The French have got their high-speed link before the completion of the tunnel, the Belgians will complete theirs over the next three years, and only in Britain will we have to endure the indignity, let alone the inconvenience, that for eight years Eurostar trains will race across France at speeds of up to 185mph, through the tunnel at 85mph and then trundle their way to London at 50mph."

While the rail link is expected to take two years grinding through Parliament, the Bill increasing the UK's contributions to the European Union by up to £250m has completed its passage in just two months. Royal Assent was announced for the European Communities (Finance) Bill - a seemingly mundane piece of legislation, but one which left nine Tories without the party whip after John Major made it a confidence issue.

Meanwhile, the House of Lords is likely to be split once again over a Bill planned by Lord Kilmarnock, a crossbencher, to allow daughters who are the eldest child to succeed to titles. As Ruritanian rules require, the Queen has given her consent for peers to discuss changes to the laws of succession. The Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Airlie, said the Queen would "rely on the wisdom of my Parliament" in considering the backbench move. A similar Bill last year by Lord Diamond earned the crossbencher the tag "Diamond is a girl's best friend", but was rejected after hereditary peers warned of serious family upsets if their sons' expectations were thwarted.

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