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Births and Deaths Registration (Amendment) Bill [H.L.]

Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to make further provision about the registration of births and deaths where particulars are given in Welsh as well as English and to make new provision about certificates of particulars of entries in registers of births and deaths. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.--(Lord Elis-Thomas.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.

Scottish Parliamentary Constituencies Bill [H.L.]

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to make new provision in respect of representation in the Scottish Parliament and in relation to the Boundary Commission for Scotland; and for connected purposes. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.-- (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.

17 Feb 1999 : Column 687

Severn Tunnel

3.26 p.m.

Lord Crickhowell rose to call attention to the planned closure of the Severn Tunnel this summer and the consequences for users and the Welsh economy; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am not raising this matter this afternoon in order to attack Railtrack or the railway companies, but because a great deal of information has reached me that causes me serious anxiety about the condition of the tunnel, and the threat that therefore exists to what is one of the most vital communication links in the country.

Over the past two years there has been a serious deterioration in the rail services using the tunnel in and out of South Wales. So frequent and lengthy are the delays that many people with business engagements at either end are now forced to travel the previous day and use hotel accommodation in order to guarantee their presence at morning meetings, or have to leave on a much earlier train than has been the practice in the past. The impact on business costs and efficiency, on tourism, and on the lives of large numbers of travellers is severe.

Not all the delays are due to problems in the tunnel; electrical and track failures elsewhere, and flooding in the tunnel west of Didcot are far too frequent. But the tunnel has been, and continues to be, a major cause of delay. Worse, its condition now poses a significant threat to passenger and freight traffic, and therefore to the economies of South Wales and the Bristol area. The tunnel serves Britain's two great steel strip mills, six ports in South Wales--I declare an interest in four of them as a director of ABP--and a huge range of other industries. Frequent delays over a long period, or prolonged closure, would have damaging consequences indeed.

In January I put down five detailed Questions to which I received a blanket response which failed to answer the Questions, and in which I was told that,

    "The maintenance and renewal of the Severn Tunnel is the responsibility of Railtrack".
That I understand. However, I was slightly more surprised that the Answer went on to say,

    "No assessment is made on the impact of such closures on the local economy".--[Official Report, 1/2/99; WA 182.]
It is surely government policy to encourage rail transport and it is surprising that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions seems so little concerned about the integrity of this vital link. I cannot believe that the Welsh Office has made no assessment of the impact of closure on the Welsh economy. If it has not, the operation of the department must have changed a great deal for the worse since I and my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy were in it.

The Welsh Assembly will undoubtedly take an interest, as, I suspect, will the Secretary of State as he journeys to and fro between Westminster and the Assembly. What is the threat? On 20th May 1998 in a Written Answer, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, informed the House that the Severn Tunnel was likely to be closed for three weeks in July this year for necessary

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engineering work to be carried out. Last month I received information that a six-week closure might be necessary this year. The DETR Answer refers only to a series of weekend closures from 3rd April to 30th May. But I shall quote from a letter I have received from the CBI Wales. A senior manager at Great Western has provided the following information:

    "Significant work needs to be carried out in the tunnel in terms of re-laying track, drainage and installing new signals; the rail industry and government have recognised that a long-term shut-down of the tunnel may be necessary; at present, all sides have accepted regular 52 hour closures as a solution although it may well not be adequate to complete the work; whilst the need for a shut-down may become unavoidable it will not happen this year as the rail companies would have been informed in plenty of time to arrange timetables.

    It would appear that fears of a shut-down this year are unfounded but that the general principle of a shut-down sometime in the future is not in doubt. Sunday is the second busiest day of the week for rail operators so to regularly lose a full service on this day, as part of the 52 hour shut-down over a weekend, is not a popular prospect. The bullet may have to be bitten and a one-off long-term closure may be more appealing to the operators".

My own sources believe that the situation is even more serious and that the integrity of the structures is in doubt; that a much longer closure might be required; that there are safety aspects which give rise to justifiable concern; and that, finally, the cost impact of the necessary work will have a damaging effect on the railway companies and their customers. I understand that already freight is being diverted via the Midlands to avoid the charges made for use of the tunnel. That there is a problem to be solved is not the fault of Railtrack--although I shall return later to justifiable criticisms of its conduct.

If it were above ground, the Severn Tunnel would be a Grade I listed historic monument, no longer used but preserved as an example of Victorian engineering enterprise and skill. It is four miles and 624 yards from mouth to mouth, the longest tunnel on the mainland rail system. The first work was undertaken over a period of seven years in the 1860s by Charles Richardson, a pupil of the great Brunel. An Act for the construction of the tunnel was obtained in 1872 by the Great Western Railway Company and work was begun in 1873, using the ring method of construction favoured by the consulting engineer, Sir John Hawkshaw, rather than the vertical bond technique favoured by Richardson. Sir John was another of the great Victorian engineers--for example, he built the Charing Cross and Cannon Street terminals and bridges and did pioneering work on the Suez Canal. I might add that he was a little less successful as a parliamentary Liberal candidate. Construction took 14 years and was completed in 1887.

During the construction period, the contractor hit coal seams--some of which he may have used to provide coal for his steam engines--and much worse: the Great Spring. Within hours the tunnel was filled with millions of gallons of spring water. The Victorians then sunk shafts, built underground sumps and installed pumps on a scale never seen before. A system of subterranean passages was installed below the railway tunnel to drain water to the sumps.

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The aqueduct built to carry water from the Great Spring to the shaft and pumphouse is still used--indeed all those bits of apparatus are used--to raise water to the surface. The water pumped out of the tunnel is sold to Welsh Water, and substantial quantities of it are used under contract by Whitbread's brewery, a few miles west of the tunnel, and by a paper mill.

Between 1929 and 1931, two contracts were carried out to fill all the cavities immediately behind the tunnel lining with cement, to fill and seal off any fissures having direct connection to the cavities, and to render the lining of the tunnel as waterproof as possible. The work was only partially successful. The pressures were such that some cement has been forced up to the surface and appears in farmers' fields. In the 1980s, two jets of water appeared through the shaft wall, and this water still has to be piped away. Engineers believe that water may well force its way through the shaft and tunnel walls in the future, and on a much larger scale than the steady seepage which occurs in any event. In 1957, the decision was taken to replace the old Victorian steam-driven pumps with an equal number of electric motors, and the new system was inaugurated in November 1961.

Railtrack states that during the past few years it has spent more than £10 million on replacing the 1950s pumps and control systems, on installing state-of-the-art control and data analysis equipment, and on replacing the old centrifugal ventilation fan with four new axial fans. That is good news. I congratulate Railtrack on those achievements and on the fact that great care was taken during the construction of the second Severn Bridge--which crosses the tunnel near the English shore--in order to monitor conditions and avoid structural damage. I took the decision with Nick Ridley to build that bridge. I am delighted to see that the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, is in his place; he is the chairman of the company which had the responsibility for seeing that the bridge caused no damage, and I know that it took the greatest possible care.

However, that is not by any means the end of the story. Railtrack refers to,

    "an on-going programme of refurbishment and maintenance to both the tunnel structure and railway structure"; there is, what it describes as, "an on-going feasibility study" to investigate opportunities to undertake a major overhaul of the entire tunnel; there are the Government indications last year that at least a three-week closure would be required; there is the statement by Great Western to the CBI that a shut-down may become unavoidable and that the rail industry and the Government have recognised that a long-term shut-down of the tunnel may be required; and there is the information that I have received that, although the central drain was cleared of ballast last year and the inspection chambers reconstructed, ballast continues to fall into the central drain, which has also suffered significant damage. Those much more expert than I believe that major repairs will be required in addition to the work of re-laying track and ballast to which Railtrack has referred in recent statements. There is the view of experienced engineers who have worked on the

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    tunnel that a closure of at least six weeks may well be required, and that current investigations may reveal that much more extensive work is needed on the whole structure.

In a recent letter to my noble friend Lord Robert of Conwy Railtrack's public affairs manager refers to "further phases of work" beyond that being undertaken this spring--which will take place in 2000 and 2001--which will include further track renewal, drainage work and general refurbishment of the tunnel. The total project cost is given as £6.5 million.

A few years ago the canvas survey rolls of the original design were still at Swindon, as were the reports of the 1929-31 cementation process. I hope that Railtrack will confirm that information in those surveys and reports, and the effectiveness of the cementation work, are being fully reviewed by those carrying out the current feasibility study. If the feasibility study has been completed, and is the foundation for the public affairs manager's recent statement to my noble friend, I very much hope that the nature of the conclusions will be made public. If I am wrong about damage having occurred to the central drain and the further ingress of ballast, that matter needs to be dealt with as well.

I also hope that in an early statement Railtrack will cover fully the safety issues and the effectiveness of the emergency arrangements. It is true that there have been earlier reports on safety, but I am told that the multi-track vehicle on standby on the Bristol side would be unable to help in an emergency on the more vulnerable Welsh side if the bottom of the tunnel was flooded, and that it would probably take well over an hour at best to get the emergency engine manned and moved from its branch line on the Welsh side into action in the tunnel.

I refer to the need to provide information to the public. At present there is an unhappy tendency for Railtrack, the rail companies and the Government to clam up when questions are asked. Responses and statements are inconsistent, misleadingly reassuring or non-existent. A prime object of this debate is to ensure that in future there is adequate information, adequate warning of closure and adequate consultation. The whole matter is so important that it needs to be kept under close review by the relevant Parliamentary Select Committees and, in due course, by the Welsh Assembly. The CBI view is that,

    "Railtrack must see the customers of the operators as their customers not just Great Western et al. Moreover, freight may lose out in the battle to please passengers, which would have a devastating impact on Welsh business prospects",
and, I would add, on business prospects on the other side of the channel around Bristol as well.

In my judgment, there is an urgent need for Railtrack and the Government to face up to their respective responsibilities. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, I express my regret, and I am sure the regret of the House, that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, cannot take part in the debate because he would be unable to conform to the conventions of the House. We are very sorry to miss his contribution.

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I very much appreciate the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, has brought this matter to the attention of the House. I have an interest to declare which the noble Lord has already declared for me. I am the chairman of Severn River Crossing plc, which controls and operates the two bridges across the Severn--the Severn Bridge and the second Severn crossing.

The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, has outlined a serious problem. When we were building the second Severn River crossing I was well aware of the problems with regard to the tunnel. It was a masterpiece of Victorian engineering, providing an enormously important artery to South Wales. The economy of South Wales depends particularly on the tunnel and the two bridges across the Severn. It is an obvious disadvantage that the Welsh economy, compared to the economy on the other side of the Severn, has to negotiate in one way or another the obstacle formed by the estuary.

It may interest noble Lords to hear some figures. I have access to the monthly figures of traffic crossing the two Severn bridges. The noble Lord, Lord Islwyn, indicated in a question yesterday or the day before that the venture of the Severn River crossing has gone very well. If present trends continue we will be in a position to hand the two bridges back to the Government in pristine condition years before that event was expected. It will then be open to government, of whatever complexion, to make them toll free if they so wish.

The amount of traffic has increased every year but has never reached the size that was estimated when the tender was made. The tender was made at a time of high inflation and a great deal of economic activity. The growth in economic activity has not matched the expectations that were then expressed. Having said that, I quote the figures for the year 1997-98. For cars, the increase was 5.3 per cent.; for light goods vehicles, 6.9 per cent.; and for heavy goods vehicles, 4 per cent. That is the lowest increase in heavy goods vehicle traffic in recent years. In December there was an increase in heavy goods vehicle traffic of only 0.7 per cent. Heavy goods vehicles are a good indicator of economic activity on both sides of the Severn estuary.

The obvious alternative for transporting heavy goods, if not by another road route, is by rail. I should perhaps make clear that I am speaking not on behalf of my party but as an individual who happens to have some knowledge of the problems involved. It is obviously in the interests of everyone that this important rail artery is maintained in as good a condition as possible. However, a great problem arises. At a social event I attended last evening it transpired that some Railtrack engineers were present and one of the design engineers of the Severn River crossing. He had had particular responsibility for designing the cantilever system that covers the tunnel where the bridge crosses it on the English side. It is well known in engineering circles that the tunnel has had drainage problems. It is a great Victorian construction but much of it needs to be repaired and restored. If I recollect correctly, we were unable to have a terminal for heavy goods on the Welsh

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side of the tunnel because the tunnel was unable to accommodate goods vehicles brought across by continental railways.

The situation that arises now is due partly to non-disclosure. Engineers have known of the problems for a long time. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. It is impossible to believe that the Welsh Office has not made some estimate of the effect of closure of the rail tunnel on the economy of South Wales and indeed on the economy of the other side of the estuary. It would have been better to have had a carefully worded announcement by the Government of a study of everything that is entailed. Obviously, one can carry out a certain amount of repair work to make the track more accessible to passenger traffic. However, the problem with regard to freight is rather different. More substantial work is needed to make the tunnel suitable for increased freight traffic. I subscribe to the view that heavy freight should, where possible, go by rail and that rail should at least be in a competitive position with road traffic. But if the tunnel is not available, Wales and indeed the other side of the Severn will be deprived of the only alternative to road use.

I support the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, in saying that a statement is needed from the Government. I have in my hand a cutting I received today from the Severn River Crossing plc. It is a newspaper article of last evening and is taken from a newspaper published on the Bristol side of the channel. It is headed:

    "Rail chaos ahead as tunnel is closed".
That kind of news will not do the economy or the prospects for the economy much good. The article states that holiday and week-end rail traffic is on the verge of chaos and details the six week-ends from 2nd April and into May during which the tunnel will be closed.

If this is a patch-up job, the country should know. If, on the other hand, it is the precursor to a more serious shutdown of the tunnel because there are serious problems in the tunnel the sooner they are tackled the better. If that means closure of the tunnel, we must face up to it and find out the cost and how long it will take to put matters right. The long-term interests of Wales and Severnside generally depend on the tunnel being restored as a proper alternative artery for crossing the Severn.

I am therefore extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, for bringing the matter to the attention of the House. I hope that it engenders an enlightened and constructive debate on the best course that can now be taken in the interests of the economy as a whole.

3.51 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, in the year of grace 1966, shortly after the opening of the first Severn bridge, which eased the growing strain on Brunel's tunnel and gave joy and hope to commerce and industry in Wales, the Welsh Nationalist poet

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Harri Webb wrote his fine "Ode on the Severn Bridge" which I beg leave to recite to your Lordships now, in full and unabridged. He wrote:

    "Two lands at last connected Across the waters wide, And all the tolls collected On the English side".
Much water has flowed under that bridge and over that tunnel in the 33 intervening years. The second bridge has been built, and the tolls are now collected on both sides, though any profits do not accrue to the Welsh Office. Yet the tunnel is still indisputably a vital conduit for traffic, and we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, a former and distinguished Secretary of State for Wales, for this opportunity to discuss its importance. It is part of a key route to and from Wales with effects on the Welsh economy. Railtrack is the steward of that network and surely has a duty--it is its meet, right and bounden duty--to enhance the network as it stands in whatever way it sees fit.

There may well be some "disbenefits" which may arise to the economy of Wales from the renewal of some 4.3 kilometres of track, which Railtrack deems to be essential and for which it says it must close the tunnel for six weekends between 2nd April and 24th May. Your Lordships will decide for yourselves how serious this disruption will be and what price will be paid for it by the industries, commerce and businesses of Wales, especially in the run-up to the birth of the Welsh Assembly.

Yet it may be relevant to consider briefly what the consequences of such closure might be for the state of the Welsh economy as it was inherited by the present Government at the last general election. We have often been told, and some have been led to believe, that massive inward investment under the previous administration brought happiness and prosperity to the Principality on a scale never before achieved. There was indeed considerable and continuous inward investment, and the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, played a distinguished and heroic part in achieving and sustaining it. But that is not the whole picture.

In 1996 per capita GDP in Wales was only 83 per cent. of the UK average, the worst performance of any UK region except Northern Ireland. Although unemployment was relatively low by 1997, participation rates were far lower than in the rest of the UK--around 6 per cent. below the UK average. Welsh earnings were the lowest in Great Britain--89 per cent. of average. In 1979, when a Labour government were in control, the figure was 98 per cent. Even in the most prosperous parts of Wales (for example, South Glamorgan), earnings are less than the average for the rest of Britain. In 1996, Wales had the lowest rate of business formation in Great Britain. Spending in Wales on research and development was lower than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Less than £100 per worker was spent on R&D in Wales compared with more than £800 in the Eastern region and £250 even in the hard-hit north-east of England. Workers in Wales had lower levels of qualifications than elsewhere in the UK. More than

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40 per cent. of the Welsh workforce were found to have poor numeracy skills and a shameful 1,600 16 year-olds left school with no qualifications at all.

These are long-term problems which it will take more than a couple of years to solve, but the Government have made a good start. New Deal has started to give hope and real jobs to young people and the long-term unemployed. Already 3,700 18 to 24 year-olds have real jobs and by the end of November 1998, 13,000 18 to 24 year-olds and 4,300 long-term unemployed had joined New Deal. This is good news and has nothing to do with the Severn Tunnel and its particular problems.

There has been a net increase of 15,000 jobs in the Welsh economy in the year to September 1998--even though Wales, of course, was affected by the economic downturn. We have almost certainly secured EU Objective 1 status for West Wales and the Valleys. That will bring a £2 billion boost in investment to the Welsh economy. We are increasing spending on lifelong learning to enhance skills. Spending on further education will increase by 13 per cent. next year, to a total of over £200 million. We are increasing spending on enterprise to stimulate Welsh businesses. We have merged the Welsh Development Agency, the Development Board for Rural Wales and the Land Authority for Wales to create a powerful all-Wales economic development agency, capable of addressing the needs of the whole of Wales. Some people have wondered whether it will be too powerful, but time will tell.

And, of course, the National Assembly for Wales--one of Labour's key pledges in the General Election, and delivered in just two years--will give Wales the chance to define distinctive Welsh solutions to Welsh problems within a co-ordinated UK strategy. There is already much of which this Government have no need to feel ashamed. The Welsh economy is large and it is strong.

The closure of the Severn tunnel for a few weekends--allowing passengers to enjoy the landscape of the Severn estuary and the charms of Chepstow--will not derail the economic benefits which this Government are already bringing to the Principality. But there is one commercial enterprise in Wales, and a very important one, which will certainly not suffer from the tunnel closures. I refer to the publishers of the Principality, on whom so much of our cultural pride and prosperity depend. They will be unaffected because so much of their output never sees the light at the English end of the tunnel at all. They export next to nothing.

Welsh book publishers are a skilled and devoted segment of the Welsh economy. They produce hundreds of titles every year in English and Welsh to a standard which none could excel and few could rival anywhere in Europe. They cover a wide range, from history to topography, folklore to folkdance, politics to poetry. And here I must declare an interest, since Gomer Press, in the pleasing little town of Llandysul, has published four volumes of my poetry, and printed them superbly, the last no more than a few months ago--order your copies now and avoid disappointment! But my last volume was sponsored entirely by Dwr Cymru/Welsh

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Water, and most of Welsh publishing rests on some part of the solid rock of subsidy in one form or another. There is serious concern about the continuing fall in the sale of books published in Wales, despite some £1 million of government money distributed in grant aid. If a poet sells 300 copies of a book in Wales he throws a party.

The writers are as good as they ever were. "Gwlad beirdd a chantorion"--a land of poets and singers, as our national anthem puts it--we still are. Equally good are the designers and printers. The failure lies in marketing. The publishers do hardly any marketing because they leave it to the distributors, the Welsh Books Council. The Welsh Books Council distributes books with great efficiency, but it fails to market its products. The proof lies in the sales figures.

May I commend to your Lordships an article shortly to appear in the magazine Planet, which circulates widely in Wales, by Mr. Meic Stephens, one of Wales's most experienced and distinguished literary figures, which will document this desert of achievement.

Radio and television in Wales virtually ignore literature. There is no serious books programme on the air, and sales figures for literature of all kinds continue to decline. Publishers and distributors must market their products far more vigorously if Welsh books are not to dwindle into becoming an expensive cultural indulgence, funded by the UK taxpayer.

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