MERSEYSIDE PASSENGER TRANSPORT BILL (By Order)

Clause 21 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th March 1977.

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Order for Second Reading read.

7.0 p.m.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The purpose of the Bill is to enable urgent and difficult decisions about public transport on Merseyside to be made by the people of Merseyside, for the people of Merseyside, in and on Merseyside, not 200 miles away in Westminster or Whitehall.

The Merseyside County Council and the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive have the responsibility for operating public transport services on Merseyside. These include bus services, the ferries, rail links, the loop line and liaison with British Rail and the airport authority. These are no easy responsibilities at any time, and they are particularly difficult at times of severe restrictions on local and national expenditure.

It is estimated that the operation of the river ferries costs the Merseyside PTE about £1 million more per year than the income from the ferries. The loss of income to the transport authority caused by the 15 per cent. or so of bus passengers who deliberately do not pay the full authorised fares for bus journeys is estimated to be a further £2 million per annum. The Bill proposes—not disposes—means to enable the Merseyside PTE and the Merseyside County Council to attempt to deal with these losses of at least £3 million a year. That is no small sum.

The Mersey river ferries have a long honourable and lively history, and the rights of ferry across the Mersey, particularly between Liverpool and Birkenhead, have origins that are centuries old. The Woodside ferry originated under a Royal Charter granted to the monks of Birkenhead. I do not know whether any monks still live in Birkenhead—

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. Those foundations are worth preserving. The charter was granted to the monks of Birkenhead Priority in 1330. The charter referred to the right to ferry over the arm of the sea for men, horses and goods with leave to charge reasonable tolls. The Woodside ferry franchise passed through many different hands until invested in the commissioners for the township of Birkenhead in 1842. It was passed by the Birkenhead Corporation to the Merseyside PTE in 1969.

The Wallasey ferry has been in existence at least since 1541 and possibly longer. The Wallasey Improvement Act 1842 authorised the Wallasey Corporation to acquire the franchise, which it did in 1862. It took 20 years because the people like to make a proper job of it on that side of the river, as we do on ours. Those rights were passed to the Merseyside PTE in 1969.

The ferry services prospered and grew to meet the social and economic needs of the time. Over the years, eight ferries have been operated from various points on the Mersey. From the most seaward point, there was the New Brighton to Pierhead ferry, which was closed in 1971, with the consent of the Secretary of State, under the Wallasey Corporation Act, 1852. The Egremont ferry was closed in 1941. The Seacombe ferry is still operating, but no vehicle transport has been carried since 1947 and there has been no night service since 1962. The Woodside ferry is still operating but there has been no vehicular traffic since 1941 and no night service since 1956.

The Rock ferry was abandoned in 1939, the New ferry was abandoned in 1922 and the Eastham ferry was closed at the turn of the century. There was another ferry which I think would be of particular interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden), and this was Job's ferry, a rowing boat service between Garston, my hon. Friend's constituency, and a point on the other side of the river close to the present Bromborough power station.

The ferries prospered with the growth of the ports and cities of the Mersey Estuary. Their heyday was between 1880 and 1910. Even in 1955–56 10½ million passengers used the Seacombe ferry, which made a profit of only £2,000. By 1975–76 there were fewer than 2 million passengers using the service and the loss was £477,000. The Woodside ferry carried 8 million passengers in 1955–56 but lost £60,000, and in 1975–76 it carried only 1½ million passengers, at a loss to the executive and the authority of £418,000.

The reduction in demand for ferry services was caused not by any dislike of the ferries but by alternatives becoming available. These included the Mersey Railway, opened in 1885, the Queensway road tunnel, opened in 1934, the Kings-way road tunnel, opened in 1971, and the almost-ready new Merseyside loop line and the rail link that will have an even greater effect on demand for ferry services. The new loop link will provide the largest underground rail link outside London and the most modern in Europe.

I have always been fascinated by the ferry boats. The names of the ferry boats have been a roll call of honour, the pride of many generations. Perhaps my earliest memories—which probably go back to a time before my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry) and the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) were about—are of going from Pierhead to New Brighton and seeing that most dangerous of men, the one-legged diver of New Brighton, who used to collect halfpennies and pennies. This is part of our heritage and of all our traditions.

In recent years the "Leasowe", the "Egremont" and the "Royal Daffodil" have all been decommissioned and sold. Today the Woodside and Seacombe ferries are operated by the gallant ladies the "Mountwood", the "Overchurch" and "Woodchurch". The "Royal Iris" is still in commission.

I confess that my admiration is for the blunt, busy, no-nonsense working boats rather than that faster, painted little hussy the "Royal Iris", but that is only a personal preference. I give place to no one in my determination that the working boats must remain part of the Mersey scene. The River Mersey without the ferries would not be the Mersey to me.

The question is how we are to keep them. On the information that I have been given, there is no way in which they can remain part of the transport services on Merseyside. There are other ways in which they ought to be and can be made available, but from the information given to me by the Merseyside PIE, which has been made available to every other Merseyside Member, one sees that the estimated loss on the two ferries for 1976–77 is £959,000, of which the loss on the Seacombe ferry is £487,000 and that on the Woodside £481,000. That does not include items of major capital expenditure which are due shortly, including the maintenance, repair and renewal of landing stages. It is estimated that the Woodside stage would cost another £1¼ million. The fare at the moment is 10p and the loss per passenger is 22p.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

Perhaps I may bring the hon. Gentleman up to date. I have travelled more recently on the ferry than he has. The last time I crossed—the weekend before last—it cost 12p for a single crossing. The question, therefore, is whether the subsidy has kept pace with the increase in the actual fare paid.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

I am delighted that the hon. Lady should come to my side of the river more often than I go to her side. The loss is still 20p, and that is no way to run a ferry. The losses have to be borne by the other users, the ratepayers and the taxpayers. In the next two years the transport subsidies which may be made available on Merseyside will be halved so that the authority will have to find another £5 million one way or another.

The transport authority has gone a long way to meet the determined requests of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Dell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bebington and Ellesmere Port (Mr. Bates)—who I am glad to see here this evening but who, because of his position as a Whip cannot speak in the debate. That, however, has not prevented him from putting his case strongly to the transport authority.

The Merseyside Members are all united that an alternative service has to be provided for those in the areas which would be affected by any future ferry closures. I am assured that full alternative services will be available if ferries have to close. These services will operate from the Mersey Tunnel and they will be a much improved version of the services that were operated in 1976 when the Liverpool landing stage sank and alternative services had to be operated.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has the task of putting the Government's case on the Bill. He must be aware that all Merseyside Members are united in maintaining that the Mersey Tunnel tolls must be ended and that the tunnel should be financed in the same way as any other part of the motorway network.

With the alternative transport services ready to be made available, the transport authority asks Parliament in Part 1 of the Bill to authorise the discontinuance of ferry services now operated across the river Mersey between Birkenhead and Liverpool (the Woodside Ferry) and Wallasey and Liverpool (the Seacombe Ferry) should the County Council decide that the operation of either or both the ferries can no longer be justified". We are not deciding the fate of the ferries tonight. That should be decided on Merseyside.

Let me now turn to the documents. The immediate, united, clear and uncompromising reaction to them of Merseyside Members of Parliament on both sides of the House was to tell the Merseyside PTE that there could be no Bill without a public inquiry on Merseyside. That would give everyone on Merseyside the chance to have his say before any decisions were taken. After presentation, the Bill was blocked by two Labour and two Conservative Members, acting with the knowledge and support of the rest of us. That block is still on.

We have made our first priorities clear. The officers of the PTE and the Merseyside County Council were not too happy at first with what was being done. I think that over the past few months frequent meetings between the Members of Parliament, Councillor Sefton, who is the leader of the county council, Mr. Duffy and his colleagues on the PTE, and their parliamentary agent have produced a better understanding of what we may achieve between us rather than what was put forward last November.

The transport authority has given a clear and specific undertaking that there will be a public inquiry on Merseyside. It will be open to all, and it will be held before any decisions are taken about possible ferry closures. Having put this firmly in the annexe that has been provided to every Merseyside Member, it has put on record its commitment to public consultation. Accordingly, a public inquiry will be held on Merseyside—

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

How far will the inquiry be independent? Will it be a county council public inquiry?

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

I am advised that it will have to be held under the authority of the Merseyside County Council. The conditions are set out in the annexe. It might be an excellent idea if my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) were invited to take the chair, but that is not a matter for me.

A public inquiry has to be called by someone, and in this instance it will be called by the PTE, which happens to be the Merseyside County Council. Under the proposals for public consultation, the chairman of the inquiry will be selected by the six Merseyside local authorities, any one of which will presumably have a veto on a candidate it does not like. That means that there would have to be an agreed chairman.

Any person or organisation will be entitled to make verbal or written representations to the inquiry, and before a final decision as to possible ferry closure is taken all the Merseyside district councils—we have an infinite variety on Merseyside—will be asked to make recommendations. All local Members of Parliament will be specifically requested to submit their comments to the county council and the inquiry. If called for, public meetings will be held on both sides of the river. Those clear and categorical assurances by the county council are written into the annexe.

I know that the hon. Member for Wallasey has been very determined in trying to get from the county council an undertaking that a final decision on ferry closure should be carried by a two-thirds majority of the council. So far, talks have been continuing between the county council and the Wirral authority.

The system of local government on Merseyside was created only two or three years ago by the then Conservative Government. At the time the proposals were going through the House, it was never suggested that decisions by local authorities should have to be carried on a two-thirds majority. The reorganisation legislation included no entrenched clauses.

Some hon. Members might now suggest that lottery Bills should need a two-thirds majority. Others might say that street lighting proposals should be carried only on a two-thirds majority. But there is no provision in any local government legislation for a two-thirds majority on any subject.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

It is important for me to place on the record my concern that we should have a full public inquiry. I hope to catch your eye during the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in order to develop this point. The concern of the Wirral Borough Council is that the areas of three of the borough councils within the Merseyside county do not use the ferries very much and, therefore, are not as concerned about their future as are the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) and his colleagues and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) and myself.

The Wirral authority feared that a decision might be made by members of the county council who are not concerned about the ferries. That explains the opposition to proposals going through on a simple majority. We have therefore sought to continue discussions with the Merseyside County Council and with the borough council. We hope that these matters will be resolved in the course of tonight's debate and during the Committee debates on the Bill.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

The hon. Lady is a most determined protagonist of her point of view and has certainly represented the views of her constituents. Perhaps my constituents use the ferries less than her constituents do. Possibly the constituents of my hon. Friends the Members for Bebington and Ellesmere Port and for the Scotland Exchange Division of Liverpool use it slightly more. That, however, is no measure of the concern felt by the district or county councils. After all, these are the Mersey ferries, and they strike a note in our hearts. That is why there is still a lively debate on the matter. I must stress to the hon. Lady, however, that there is no provision in any local authority legislation for two-thirds majorities, and it would be unfortunate if there were.

I am certain that hon. Members will take an interest in the progress of the Bill. I am sure that Mr. Gordon Lindsay, of 25 Howbeck Road, Oxton, Birkenhead, will be interested. He wrote to Members of Parliament on 4th March to ask us to a meeting between him and the Birkenhead History Society at the Liverpool Playhouse, at which an organisation called the Friends of the Ferries was inaugurated. That organisation will want to have its say.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walton passed me a letter from a young man in my constituency, close to his, who wrote: I am the Liverpool schoolboy who has been collecting signatures for a petition to save the Mersey ferries. As you are my representative in Parliament I hope that you will do all in your power to press for a public inquiry when the Bill is discussed in the next week. A further meeting of the Friends of the Ferries will be held at Birkenhead Town Hall on 30th March at 7.30 p.m. Young people will be taking an interest in the future of the ferries. I know well that while this is not a party political matter in the normal sense—and not of the kind we had last night—the Wirral and Walton Labour Parties have made their opinions known clearly to their Members of Parliament by letter, by telegram and by personal meetings.

Early in March Miss Hilary Hodge, the prospective Labour parliamentary candidate for Wallasey, wrote a clear and cogent letter to Merseyside Labour Members in which she said: As you are aware, the Merseyside Transport Executive are promoting a Bill to give them powers to close the Ferries crossing the Mersey from Liverpool to Wallasey and Birkenhead.There is strong feeling about this, especially in Wallasey. More than 3 million trips are being made on those Ferries each year. The Wallasey Labour Party has set up a small Committee … to examine this whole matter and present a case for retention of the Ferries at the Public Inquiry when the MPTE sets it up—with of course an independent Chairman and the proceedings public.We are writing to ask that you do all in your power in Parliament to prevent this Bill's passage until after we have had the Public Inquiry and it has made its findings public.If, after we have presented our evidence and cross-examined the MPTE with regard to the figures adduced to support their case to close the Ferries, and other matters connected with the Ferries, we lose our case—well, that will be that. At least the Labour Party will have shown that it has done all it can to preserve the Ferries. That contact has been continued. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and I met Miss Hodge together with the leader of the Merseyside County Council at Blackpool last Saturday, and we went over the details provided by the council. The council seemed to make a good case that at the public inquiry it will be one of the groups which will be putting forward strong arguments about means by which viable financial arrangements can be made for saving at least one of the ferries, if not both. But that is something for the public inquiry.

I cannot say that I yield to anyone in my determination that the ferries should remain part of the Mersey scene. I cannot see, from the information available to me, that they can remain part of the transport scene. That will be a matter for the Merseyside County Council after a full and open public inquiry.

The second part of the Bill is no less contentious than the first. In some cases it is even more so. It proposes ways to meet and to reduce the estimated loss of £2 million a year which arises because 15 per cent. of bus passengers avoid paying the proper fares. This has nothing to do with concessionary fares, school passes or pensioners' passes. It is simply the minority of 15 people in 100 who deliberately pay for a shorter journey than they know they intend to travel. That is a common problem in almost any transport authority, but it is greater in Merseyside because we have a higher percentage of one-man buses—about 94 per cent.

My hon. Friends have received the detailed proposals put forward in its statement by the passenger transport executive. It proposed that if a person was found on a public transport bus who had deliberately paid less than he knew ought to be paid, he would be given a choice of paying a £1 fine at the time or of going to court. Because of objections to that, it is proposed to revise Clause 7 of the Bill. Instead of having fines on the bus, it is proposed to ask the traffic commissioners to allow the penalty to be the difference between what the person had paid and the maximum standard fare at any given time. For example, if I pay 20p and I deliberately travel a 40p journey, there is at present no penalty and I merely expect to pay the extra 20p if I were caught. I have nothing to lose by bilking my fellow passengers. Instead of that, it is proposed that if someone is found in those circumstances with no reasonable excuse he would pay the standard fare, which would be linked with the maximum authorised fare at any given time. At the moment it is 56p.

I know that some of my hon. Friends are extremely worried about whether the police will become involved if some foolish person tries to implement this idea at 11 o'clock on a Saturday night at Lime Street. What is the attitude of the unions who will have to operate this'? I am advised that there has been the fullest possible consultation between all those responsible in the executive and those who will have the duty to operate the policy.

There are two groups. In one case there is complete agreement, and in the second case there is almost complete agreement. I have received no objections to these proposals from any of the unions involved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Garston knows, in West Derby we have one of the largest passenger transport depots on Merseyside—the Gillmoss bus depot.

Photo of Mr Robert Parry Mr Robert Parry , Liverpool Scotland Exchange

I raised this matter today with the regional organisers of the Transport and General Workers' Union, which represents the bus staffs. They told me that their union is not happy with this clause.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

The union is rightly concerned. It is equally concerned that the authority is losing £2 million a year. If it continues to lose that revenue, it will mean a loss of jobs and the union will be even more concerned. This proposal will not be introduced in a dictatorial manner. There will be ample time for consultations.

My hon. Friend will confirm that we have not had any complaints direct. He has had a clear assurance that: The traffic Trade Unions comprising platform staff (i.e. drivers and the very few conductors we now employ) have been informed of our proposals and are generally in favour of them. Negotiations with the Executive's inspectorate staff, who will have the initial duties of enforcement on the bus, were opened in October 1976 and are continuing. We are confident that they will be successful not only because road inspectors know the true extent of the losses being incurred (and their implications for future bus operations) but also because control fares really represent an extension of the excess fares system. I understand that the police have expressed some concern, but those fears have been to a large degree allayed. The police have raised no objections to the proposals.

My hon. Friends are absolutely right to be concerned about the operations and the difficulties. They know that there are ways in which they can directly consult members of the executive. We know that officially they are not here, but if one looks around one might receive help. If any hon. Members have doubts about the issue, it is possible for consultations to take place with the executive before we get round to the later stages of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Eddie Loyden Mr Eddie Loyden , Liverpool, Garston

We are touching on an important point. This matter was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) during the discussions we had with the agents acting on behalf of the metropolitan county for the Bill. There was no evidence at that meeting that consultations had taken place with the trade unions. The point made by a number of hon. Members, and my hon. Friend has underlined it, is that the main cause of overriding was the move from two-man operations to one-man operations. It is tragic that the executive should be looking for solutions to a problem for which it has been largely responsible.

Our concern is that the other options open to Merseyside, such as the zoning of fares, have not been examined. The county seems to be looking for the easiest way out of the problem.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

That is a difficult problem. We do not say that what is proposed in the Bill is the only way. There would be time in Committee to argue those things in detail.

We cannot suddenly change the buses over to two-man operation. The one-man system was brought in with the agreement of the unions involved. We cannot put the clock back. My hon. Friends have strong objections to this part of the Bill. It is understandable and right that they should be expressed. There is time to sort out those objections if the Bill is allowed to go into Committee. There is ample time during the remainder of this debate from my hon. Friends to take up their worries and fears direct with representatives of the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive. I cannot say that members of the executive are here, but there is ample time for further consultations. I hope that my hon. Friends will avail themselves of the opportunity.

To sum up, the Bill proposes to deal with the annual loss of up to £1 million on the ferries and £2 million on bus fares. This is not something we can lightly forget. We cannot say that we are not bothered if someone bilks and robs other passengers. The money has to come from the ratepayers, the taxpayers or the bus routes. We should not connive at such robbery. This is £3 million which ought to be provided to maintain the services or else to bring about a reduction in rates.

I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading, not a Third Reading. I do not ask for an Act of Parlament. I ask for the chance to put the Bill to a Committee of the House, on which none of us will be able to serve. It has to be comprised of independent Members, who will go through the Bill line by line and clause by clause, no doubt amending it even more than it has been amended. Ultimately, I want the Bill to make it possible for decisions about Merseyside Transport to be taken by the people of Merseyside on Merseyside for the people of Merseyside. I do not want Parliament to have a veto over what the people of Merseyside decide. I do not want the Transport Department to be deciding matters.

If we give the Bill an unopposed Second Reading, despite the doubts and fears which have been expressed, we can find the time for consultation and consideration. Real objections can be made decisive on Third Reading. Until that happens, I ask hon. Members to permit the Bill to go into a Committee.

7.32 p.m.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) has put the case for this Bill in a persuasive and informative way. Perhaps he was more persuasive as regards the discontinuance of the ferries than he was when dealing with the controlled fares, or what I prefer to call "fines on the spot". When he was talking about the ferries he was asking the House to use its head rather than its heart, but at the same time he found a little difficulty in hiding his own emotions.

We are all very emotional and over-sentimental about Merseyside transport. We shed a tear in the old days over the demise of the trams, although heaven knows what chaos the traffic would have been in if we had retained them. We wept when the overhead railway was demolished. I still retain a ticket for the last trip from Seaforth to Dingle. I treasure that ticket. We fought for and succeeded in retaining in my area the Exchange to Southport line against the then Dr. Beeching and Mr. Marples.

Now we are faced with the discontinuance of the ferries which have been made famous outside Merseyside by a pop group. We treasure the ferries more than that on Merseyside. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, know the song we have about our Liverpool home in which we admit that we speak with an "accent exceedingly rurr" and we regret the fact that we have a statue "exceedingly burr". The last line of the song is: If you want a cathedral, we've got one to spurr. That has now been changed to: If you want a few ferries, we've got some to spurr. That is very regrettable.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby has put forward the financial case, that there is a loss on the ferries and that, therefore, we must have a Bill of this sort which seeks to prevent that loss by discontinuing the feries. The Bill does not do that immediately, but gives the county council the power to hold an inquiry and decide whether the ferries shall cease to run. Clauses 4, 5 and 6 deal with the discontinuance of the ferries.

I refer to the statement of the county council on its intentions with regard to these ferries. I notice that paragraph 4 of that statement says: It is intended that, if a decision is taken to close the Seacombe Ferry, existing cross-river bus services through the Kingsway Tunnel would be augmented and bus services in Wallasey restructured to provide feeder services to stations on the Liverpool to New Brighton Line of the Mersey Railway. I warn those who use the Liverpool to New Brighton line that if they have to rely on the kind of feeder services which have already been put into operation in my constituency they will suffer greatly. The buses from my constituency to Liverpool have almost ceased to run. They dump their passengers at a windy roundabout in Waterloo, where old ladies and schoolchildren and the rest of us have to cross a busy road and go down some very steep steps. The Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive ought to consider the public more than that. If it is suggesting that it will introduce that type of feeder service to replace the ferries I shall be disappointed.

That is why I am glad that it has put forward the proposition that there should be a public inquiry before any decision is reached. I am grateful for the undertaking that, although the Bill does not include any provision for a public inquiry at present, it is the intention of the promoters to move amendments in Committee to give effect to assurances which have been given about the public inquiry. I hope that whatever assurances are accepted by the Committee they will be spelled out in the Bill rather than there being any kind of side undertaking.

As I understand it, the assurances are in the annexe to the statement. They say: 1. A Public Inquiry will be held on Merseyside. 2. The Chairman of the Inquiry will be selected by the six Merseyside local authorities. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) intervened earlier to ask that it should be an independent inquiry. The hon. Member for West Derby suggested that the hon. Member for Walton should be the chairman of the inquiry. I made some such aside as "heaven forbid". I was not really joking, because it should be an independent inquiry. The chairman should not be appointed by the Merseyside County Council or by the Merseyside districts. He should be appointed by the Secretary of State for Transport, from the panels of inspectors, or else by the Lord Chancellor.

The assurances continue: 4. Before a final decision as to possible closure of the ferries is taken, all the Merseyside District Councils will be asked to make recommendations to the County Council. It will be seen—I am sorry but I have a bad cough. According to paragraph 4 the district councils will make recommendations to the county council and not to the inquiry, while the representations of Members of Parliament will be made to the county council and to the inquiry. Why cannot the district councils make recommendations to the inquiry?

I now turn to Clause 6. According to subsection (1)(b) the owners will be put under a liability to carry out certain directions, but I am not sure whether those are directions from Trinity House or the Secretary of State and if the owners disobeyed those directions—

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have no wish to interrupt, and it would be foolish to try to stop the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) but he has a nasty cough. I do not know whether he is for or against the Bill, but would it be possible to have a commercial break so that the right hon. Gentleman could take a rest for a little while? This is an occasion that does not often arise. This is not just another Bill or committee that we are discussing. If the right hon. Gentleman were willing to stop—by leave of the Chair—and then come back to continue his remarks later, I think that would have the support of the House.

Photo of John Horam John Horam , Gateshead West

Perhaps I could intervene to state the Government's position. I have no desire to delay the House, but that would give the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) an opportunity to finish his speech in a proper manner. As this is merely an intervention I shall be brief in stating the Government's attitude to the proposals in the Bill that has been introducd by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden).

My hon. Friend has stated the proposals clearly, and we have no objection to them in principle. The ferries issue is a matter for the passenger transport executive. It has to decide where its priorities for economies should lie. Nevertheless, I welcome the proposal to provide for a local inquiry into the ferry closures. That will allow an opportunity for all aspects of what is essentially a local matter to be fully considered before a decision is made. It has been suggested that the Secretary of State for Transport should have some say in this matter. I wholly disagree, and I want no say. My hon. Friend the Member for West Derby is right to stress that this is a local issue and that it should be decided as such.

As for the overriding on buses, we have considerable sympathy for the promoters' wish to prevent non-payment of fares. The problem is widespread and has been referred to before during such debates. However, the way in which the promoters propose to achieve their objective raises some difficult questions of principle, which are of particular interest to the Home Secretary. These matters are under discussion with the promoters, and although the proposals, as they stand, involve a substantial departure from the principles that have always governed the provision of financial penalties, I hope that these questions will be resolved before the Bill reaches Committee.

I suggest that the House should follow the convention on Private Bills and give the Bill a Second Reading so that it can go to Committee and the proposals can be examined with the benefit of expert evidence.

Perhaps we may now return to the speech of the right hon. Member for Crosby, who is certainly an expert in these matters.

Photo of Mr Leslie Spriggs Mr Leslie Spriggs , St Helens

Before the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) continues his speech may I intervene to point out to him that St. Helens, which is one of the new districts of the metropolitan county council area, is interested in the ferry service? Many of my constituents would not like to see the service go—at least not without full and proper inquiry being made and without some kind of justice being shown to both taxpayers and ratepayers. We feel that the Bill should have a Second Reading, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) who moved the Second Reading, certainly made a case for that. I should like the right hon. Member for Crosby to bear in mind that the surrounding districts have an interest in this matter because of the many problems that would be involved in the withdrawal of such a service. We should like the Bill to be given a Second Reading and to be sent to a Committee of independent hon. Members who could examine all the proposals that have been made during the Second Reading debate tonight.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

With the leave of the House I should like to express my apologies, and my gratitude to those who have interrupted in order that I may continue.

I am not speaking against the Bill in order to defeat the Second Reading. The Bill does not contain the provisions that are needed to satisfy the public. It is all very well for us to discuss the Bill on the basis of the raw phrases that it contains and a statement from the promoters, but there is a lot more that the public want to know—not only about why the Bill is necessary, but the details of the provisions that will be made for those who now use the ferries frequently.

Earlier in my speech I began with this rather extraordinary Clause 6 which makes it an offence for the owners not to obey directions. I think that the Bill means only directions from Trinity House, but there is some doubt as to whether it might mean directions from the Secretary of State as well. It is unusual to make a public body responsible for an offence if it does not obey a direction. Normally, if a public body does not carry out the terms of an Act of Parliament one relies upon prerogative writs of mandamus to make it do so. It seems strange to impose such a penalty on the executive—and the end of Clause 6 makes clear that the executive is the owner.

I now turn to Clause 7, which refers to the overriding on bus service vehicles. The hon. Member for West Derby put forward a convincing and persuasive case for the first part of the Bill, but he was not so persuasive or convincing on the second part. I have read the promoters' statement, but I am not clear about their intentions, Subsection (3)(a) is not acceptable. It says: Where an authorised officer has reason to believe that on any occasion a person is committing or has committed an offence under this section, he may demand from that person payment of a fixed charge of fl under this subsection. The promoters tell us in their statement that they realise that this sort of provision is not acceptable and that they propose to replace it with a provision for charging standard fares for overriding, with those fares being subject to the determination of the traffic commissioners.

I understand that they intend to retain the collection of money on the spot by an authorised officer. This is an entirely new principle in our law. Only the Customs and Excise has such a right at present. It has never been included in our traffic laws. I am sure that traffic wardens would be only too happy to collect money on the spot, but we have never given them that right. I know that there are strong arguments of convenience, and savings in administrative expense, in favour of the collection of fines on the spot, and I know that they may have worked well in other countries, but there is a great danger to the public in allowing such a provision to creep into a Private Bill. It is a matter of principle in our law that we do not allow even the police, let alone other authorised officers to collect fines on the spot. Because such a proposal gets into a Private Bill it will be regarded as a precedent for Bill after Bill, and eventually will be introduced into our general law, on the ground that it has been included in a number of Private Acts.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

An almost identical system is in operation in Cardiff. That is not necessarily an argument for suggesting that it should be introduced on Merseyside, but it is operated not only in Europe, but in the United Kingdom. It is one way of dealing with the problem. We could discuss others in Committee. That would certainly be better than doing nothing about it and condoning these people who deliberately withhold their fares. They are robbing their fellow passengers. The objections voiced by the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) could be explored in Committee.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

I appreciate that those who escape payment are merely putting a greater burden on the ordinary passengers. This is a difficult problem. I have no doubt that it involves considerable losses, but the proposed system should be debated in the House on a Public Bill and not on a Private Bill. We should not introduce this new concept of law into a Private Bill. Once it gets there it can be a precedent for other Private Bills and eventually it will creep into our general law, and without proper debate.

If money is demanded from a passenger who appears to be overriding, he will be extremely embarrassed. There are defences provided under the Bill, including reasonable excuse, and a fare not being tendered for that person by someone else—say, a relative at the other end of the bus; but the normal person, if accused of overriding, will not argue with an authorised officer, but will pay up even though a considerable injustice may be done.

I have no objection to the system of paying parking fines by post if a person does not wish to go to court, but I have strong objections to the idea of payment on the spot. I understand that the police also have objections, and it was rather remiss of the council not to have consulted the police at an early stage. Indeed, I understand that the police have still not been formally consulted and that they have serious objections to the collection of fines by authorised officers. Even if the police had to collect the money themselves they would object to having a new concept in law introduced in a private Bill without proper debate. I hope that the Committee will remove that part of the Bill, leaving a provision to pay fines by post, but taking out the provision for on the spot fines.

Photo of Mr Leslie Spriggs Mr Leslie Spriggs , St Helens

Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves this important point, is he aware that there is a precedent, if not for this sort of charge, at least for taking the names and addresses of people who commit an offence, particularly if they have done so on several occasions? If an officer or employee of British Rail has reason to believe that a person regularly evades payment of the proper fare, that person's name and address is taken and the authority takes whatever steps it believes necessary against that person.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

I have always understood that if one is unfortunate enough not to have the money to pay one's fare, it is possible to give one's name and address and to pay afterwards. I do not object to that system, but I think that demanding money on the spot will cause great ill feeling between the travelling public and Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive.

There are difficulties in the Bill, and I realise that something will be done about the collection of fares. I shall give the Bill fair wind till it comes back from Committee. If the things to which I object are still there, I shall not vote for it.

7.58 p.m.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

I shall make a brief speech because the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) has said many of the things that I would have said.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) that we all have a great affection for the ferries and do not wish to see them disappear. I hope that we shall find some way of allowing them to continue, perhaps as an amenity for the people of the area. For example, many pensioners use the ferries for trips across the river. It is sad that the ferries no longer go to New Brighton, because that used to be a marvellous trip. Sometimes the old folk did not even bother to go ashore. When I was convalescing after a nasty illness I took that trip every day for three weeks. It was refreshing and delightful. In those days the river was filled with ships and was a wonderful sight.

Under an existing Act, the Wallasey ferry can be removed anyway, whatever is done to this Bill. The Bill must get through in order to remove the Birkenhead ferry.

I should like to see an independent inquiry. It must be a local and not a national inquiry. It should be conducted independently, not by someone from the county council or the local authority. An independent judgment should be reached by someone who is in no way responsible to the county council. I know that even if such a person were appointed people would argue that he was not independent, but I hope that my suggestion will be taken on board when the matter comes up. There is deep feeling in the area. My hon. Friend the Member for West Derby said that the Labour Parties of Wallasey and Wirral want an independent public inquiry. The members of those parties say that we should vote against the Bill until that promise is made. I shall not go that far, but I want my hon. Friend, who is in touch with the sponsors, to ensure that that is done so that when the Bill comes back to us we may support it.

Nobody wants overriding. I do not want my rates to sustain people who do not pay their bus fares. I used to object to such people when I travelled regularly on the Liverpool buses. However, it is not as simple as that. My hon. Friend said that at the moment the maximum fare is only 56p.

I was interested to note that the statement issued by the promoters of the Bill says that the practice of overriding on buses is a serious problem for bus operators and that it has become regrettably prevalent on Merseyside, particularly since the introduction of one-man operated buses. There is a high level of unemployment on Merseyside. If the unemployed believe that they can go further than they should without paying their fare they probably feel that they have some justification. I am not saying that all the unemployed do that.

When one-man bus operations were discussed in the House I spoke strongly against my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle). I was in a delegation to the House. My hon. Friend suggested that the unions accepted one-man buses. It was not quite that way. They accepted them only after 16 weeks' strike and after the members of the union had marched up and down the streets of Liverpool. I received very few letters about the matter, but I had a few telephone calls. Eventually an agreement was reached, but it was not a happy one. I have never believed in one-man buses, because they are a step back. They should be reconsidered. They cost £2 million or more. Whatever the figure is, it is a large sum of money, which could be used to employ conductors. That would mean that more people would be employed. That possibility must be examined.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Toxteth (Mr. Crawshaw) said that we should follow the example of the Paris Metro, where there is a standard fare. There is also a standard fare on the New York buses, which applies whether one travels half a mile or 15 miles. That could be the answer. Machines are installed and passengers are seen to put money into them. I should prefer to employ more work people by operating two-man buses. That would be more civilised, and it might also speed up the routes. The one-man operated bus trips that took 20 minutes when I lived there now take half an hour.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Dick Crawshaw Lieut-Colonel Dick Crawshaw , Liverpool Toxteth

One could eat one's lunch while one was travelling.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

My hon. Friend is correct. Services have not improved. I do not blame the passenger transport authority, because it has done as much as it can. There is a vicious circle, because higher fares lead more people to look for other means of transport.

I ask the Government to consider my suggestions, because if they do not and if the clause remains as it is I shall not support the Bill. I feel like voting against it tonight, but if I am given an assurance that that matter will be examined I shall support the Bill on that basis.

I now turn to the Merseyside ferries. Hon. Members may remember the Liverpool Echo record called "Sounds of the Mersey". I remember one of the lads singing "Bring back a parrot"and another replying" I shall try, but I am only going to Birkenhead". That sums up the attitude of the people towards ferries. They are an institution in Liverpool. We love them. We have discarded too many institutions. The guts have been torn out of our city. It has been ruined. It is not the city that I went to as a young fellow. Its guts have been torn out.

We cannot let everything go. We cannot let things such as the dockers' umbrella go. Many things have gone. We must not allow the ferries to go like that. I hope that something will be done to ensure that some ferries at least will be left to provide an amenity for the people.

8.9 p.m.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral

I shudder to say that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) brought tears to my eyes. I confess that I, like him, have Liverpool in my blood, and that has conditioned my attitude towards the ferries. I come from a family that has been involved for generations in shipping in Liverpool. As a young kid at school I constantly used the ferries and I know many others who did the same.

I shall explain to the House why so many of my constituents, those living on the Wirral Peninsula and on the Liverpool side, are angry about the way in which the Bill has been brought forward. It was an astute move of the sponsors to appoint such an amiable, friendly and wise person as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) to move the Second Reading of the Bill. The words that I wish to use are difficult to use when faced with such an impressive countenance, but that will not stop me, because my constituents are very angry.

I have a document that was passed to me by Peter Saunders, the local correspondent of the Liverpool Daily Post. I refer to the publication by the Merseyside County Council, called MPTE—Keeping Merseyside on the move. It has a beautiful picture of the ferries on the front. That document was published in May 1975. It is an authoritative document. It states quite clearly: No, despite rumours to the contrary there will always be a ferry 'cross the Mersey. It goes into great detail about how the ferries are part of our transportation heritage on the Mersey. Yet we have had a shabby Bill brought before the House called the Merseyside Passenger Transport Bill, with inadequate consultations and virtually no discussions before it was brought forward.

Had this Bill slipped through, as it might well have done but for the vigilance of my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) and other hon. Members, it would have entitled Merseyside County Council to close down the ferries without any public inquiry on giving one month's notice. The hon. Member for Walton said that the council could have closed down the Wallasey ferry without coming to Parliament, but there would have had to be a public inquiry. If the Bill had slipped through before my hon. Friend had spotted this, the council would have been able to close the Wallasey ferry without any public inquiry. The council said to her, to myself and to other hon. Members that it was much easier to put the Wallasey ferry in with the Woodside ferry, but it did not convince us and it has not persuaded us since that it was not seeking to close this wonderful Merseyside institution without any public inquiry or proper consultation in which my constituents and those of other hon. Members could have participated.

Therefore, today we have this debate, thanks to the blockage of the Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey and other hon. Members. I do not want to labour the point, but my hon. Friend is fast becoming known as the Britannia of the Mersey—

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

The hon. Gentleman knows what happened to Britannia.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral

—over whom no waves will sweep the ferry aside. I give her every credit for having made quite certain now that the people of Wallasey will have a say. However, I am afraid that my hon. Friend the Member for West Derby may well become known to the 3½ million passengers who use the ferries every year as the man who sank the ferries.

It is not just a historical accident that the Merseyside County Council and the MPTE have to ask the House for permission even to think about closing the ferry. It is really a measure of where history has put the ferry. My hon. Friend has mentioned the 14th century, but it is quite clear that the ferry service across the Mersey goes back to 1130, and probably further, when the right to charge a fee for crossing the Mersey was granted by royalty.

However, in reference to history and the analogy, perhaps I may explain why my constituents in Merseyside and Wirral and constituents of other hon. Members are so angry about the whole procedure that has taken place. The reason is that the Merseyside County Council is now clearly seen as the body that is trying to close the ferry without any real public participation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) mentioned an independent inquiry, as other speakers have. My constituents will never see an independent inquiry as one in which the Merseyside County Council takes the decision.

Let us now see what will happen if the Bill goes through. There will be a local inquiry, whether or not it is chaired by the hon. Member for Walton. I would regard him as being independent, because he almost brought tears to my eyes during his speech. He would be independent, he would let all the arguments generate, and make a fair report.

Whoever is the independent chairman, we have a local inquiry. The Merseyside County Council then gets the report from the local inquiry. There is nothing in the Bill that would in any way inhibit Merseyside County Council from receiving a report that says quite clearly that the ferries must not be closed and lays down a whole series of statistics and arguments why they should not be closed, and then saying "It is a very interesting document, and we have read it, but we shall close the ferries." That is why the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral and many other people say "We are not happy about Merseyside County Council taking this decision by a simple majority."

My hon. Friend and I have suggested that a compromise solution would be to say that if the chairman said "No, you must not close the ferry. We have had a five-week inquiry and all the evidence shows that it must not be closed", there should be a two-thirds majority of Merseyside County Council in order to upset the inspector's decision. That was a very fair suggestion. But no; it seems that Merseyside County Council still wishes to take the decision by a simple majority.

I warn the sponsors of the Bill that although we may not oppose the Second Reading tonight, if there is no way in which fears such as these can be met—either by a two-thirds majority, under whatever circumstances, or by Wirral council, which provides from within its boundaries the vast majority of the people who use the ferry consistently and daily—the Wirral council should have an opportunity of making a decision of equal validity to that taken by Merseyside County Council, either before or afterwards, to ratify the county council's decision.

I suggest all these things because there are real fears that if we in the House of Commons release the control that we have over this situation, the ferries will sink and pass into history. This is not just a matter of a dockers' umbrella; it has been an umbrella for many Liverpool citizens, and it has gone and people now regret it. Perhaps the saddest thing about the ferries is that if they go—as Merseyside County Council originally wanted, at just one month's notice, published in a document to be fixed at the pierhead—they will not return. There is no chance of a return.

I should now like to mention some of the arguments that have been put forward very impressively by a whole host of my constituents. I do not know about other Members' postbags on this issue, but I have had many hundreds of people contacting me, by letter and in person and with petitions, saying that they do not want the ferries closed. It may be useful to the House if I read just one or two extracts to indicate exactly what is in the minds of those who do not wish us in the House of Commons to release its present control of the ferries.

As hon. Members may know, my constituency is rather large, and encompasses part of Cheshire as well as Merseyside. One gentleman wrote to me from Willasston. Living there, he is many miles away from the ferry, but he says, Every day I use either the Birkenhead or the Wallasey ferry in order to commute to and from Liverpool. I travel by bicycle and use the ferries in company with a small but growing number of cyclists for whom the withdrawal of these services would cause much inconvenience. There are many hundreds of other users too at rush-hour times who apparently prefer, for reasons of convenience, or price, or both, to use the boats —rather than to go underground. He continues, More importantly for myself and for many others, the stopping of these ferries would cause hardship and inconvenience. Another constituent also cycles—the cyclists are very important in this matter—and points out that there are no real alternative facilities for cyclists to get across from my constituency and those of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Dell)—the Secretary of State for Trade—the hon. Member for Bebington and Ellesmere Port (Mr. Bates) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey. He says that those who wish to cycle cannot really do so at present unless they go by ferry.

There are no real facilities through the road tunnel. One of the tunnels is banned to cyclists and the other allows them through only for limited periods. One of my constituents who lives in the Irby area tells me that when he tries to cycle through the tunnel it is rather like dicing with death. It is a narrow lane. Certain suggestions have been made, but they are not real alternatives.

If the ferries are closed, it is proposed that cyclists should try to use the escalators to go down into the depths of the underground and use an auxiliary truck that will be put on the back of the underground train. On reaching the other side they would have to haul themselves up the steps of the escalator. I understand that that would be possible only at great additional expense, at a price far above what cyclists now pay to travel on the ferries. I hope that the sponsors will take very much into account the feeling of cyclists.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

I was expecting an intervention from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen)—Liverpool's own sleeping beauty. I know of the hon. Gentleman's interest in cycling. I am advised that there have been the very greatest consultations between the MPTE and the cycling organisations. There is a proposal for extending the time during which cycling is permitted through the Mersey Tunnel. I confess that I have never seen a cyclist going through the tunnel. It has never happened in my experience. However, there has been some agreement about alternatives and I understand that national and local cycling organisations are reasonably confident. They have made exactly the same points as those made by the hon. Gentleman on behalf of his constituents. I hope that they will continue to do so until they get real guarantees of an improved and alternative service.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral

I hope that those endearing comments mean that by the time the Bill returns we shall have had some clear assurances of what will happen to the poor cyclists.

A number of associations have contacted me, including the Wirral Federation of Townswomen's Guilds. Mrs. Olerenshaw wrote: on behalf of all the guilds of the Wirral Federation … we wholeheartedly support all your efforts in the fight against the closure of the Mersey ferries. Another constituent in Birkenhead—my constituency goes right into Birkenhead, and many of my Birkenhead constituents use the ferries daily—writes that the ferry is something that must not be valued in money but by its intrinsic value as an amenity today and also as a right of way. Another constituent, who lives in Preston, writes: I am writing to you with an impassioned plea against the proposed closure of the Merseyside ferries, which first came into existence in 1122 when the monks from Birkenhead Priory made crossings across the River Mersey. This is 854 momentous years of Birkenhead, Merseyside and British history and tradition". The next letter that I quote is from a very well-known gentleman from Birkenhead, namely, Mr. Allison, who is President of the Birkenhead History Society. Mr. Allison was Chairman of the Society for 31 years. He is Chairman of the Geographical Association. He writes: The ferry is much more than a means of transport: it performs an important social purpose (or purposes) and its closure would be a blow to the folk from Merseyside's poorer streets. There are many other examples that I could read to the House but I leave it at that, except to say that my hon. Friend the Member for West Derby mentioned the Ferry Forum or the Friends of the Ferries. I welcome very much the initiative of those who have set up the organisation, who include some of those I have spoken of already, including Gordon Lindsay. I hope that the Friends of the Ferries will receive the support that they deserve.

The amount of mail that I have received demonstrates that there is real concern that there will be a closure of the ferries if the House suddenly releases its hold over them. That is a real concern, which has not been met completely by the words of my hon. Friend the Member for West Derby. Before we can support the Bill when it returns from Committee we shall need more positive assurances about the type of inquiry that is to be held and about the way in which it will be conducted.

Many people may ask whether there has been a proper survey of the cross-river facilities in Merseyside. I have not heard my hon. Friend the Member for West Derby mention an enormous report, which was made at great expense and which has been shelved by the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive. The Cranfield Institute of Technology produced a study in 1974, after a lengthy process of consultation and deliberation. The study is entitled "A Study Of The Future Need For Service And Transport Facilities Across The River Mersey". This great work examined the ferry service. It examined the cost and the number of people using the service and put forward a series of major conclusions most of which have not been considered properly and in detal.

The first major conclusion was that although the closure of the ferry would minimise the financial burden there was significant scope for cutting the operating losses of the ferry services without major degradation in the level of service offered. We have not really seen any serious attempt made by the MPTE—I have heard all the arguments—to minimise the losses of the ferry. My constituents and others in Merseyside have the impression that it has already decided to close the ferry. Already the paint is peeling. The people are starting to lose heart. The ferry services are beginning, slowly but surely, to increase the arguments for closing them altogether. Where have the real investigations taken place into the scope for cutting the ferry services? What did the great Cranfield Institute mean?

First, it said that new and smaller ferries could operate satisfactorily from existing landing stages. It said that three new 500-place vessels would offer the cheapest solution to continued operation of both the Woodside and Wallasey routes, in spite of outstanding depreciation and interest payments on current vessels. It then stated that The introduction of more automatic ticketing would offer substantial economies for the ferry operation. It concluded: To many users, the ferries are an attractive means of travel, and factors such as the river view, fresh air and the ride itself play a significant part in many choices to use the ferry mode. This massive report—I am not doing it justice, because other hon. Members wish to speak—summarised the position as follows: There are several other factors which should play a part in the taking of a decision on the future of the Mersey ferries which this study has not been able to consider, e.g., employment effects, educational cruises. This must be borne in mind by those who may use this study to aid in the taking of decisions. That is a pious hope. Who has seriously used this study to aid the taking of decisions?

My constituents do not believe that real research has been done on ways in which the ferries could be kept as part of the transportation system. It was shrugged aside by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derby. He said that there was a future for the ferries but not as part of our transportation system. I say to him "Yes, as part of the transportation system."

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

If we have to have Conservative Members on Merseyside, let me say that I admire the hon. Gentleman, but will he stop calling me his hon. Friend, especially after what the Tories tried to do to us last night? He should not let the others know that occasionally we speak to each other.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral

I shall not stop calling my hon. Friend a friend. I am one of those who believe that on Merseyside we should have an all-party approach to Merseyside problems.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

We are working towards it.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral

Unfortunately, there is still some slippage on the Government but not on the Opposition side. The sooner we get an all-party approach the sooner we shall start tackling the fundamental problems. I am sorry that I have upset my hon. Friend by calling him a friend, but I shall certainly not call him an enemy.

The concessions by the sponsors of the Bill are insufficient for my constituents. First, it is said that there will be a local inquiry. But that will be an inquiry similar to inquiries held into the closing of a minor road. It is not good enough for such a decision to be taken following such an inquiry. It must be a much wider and longer inquiry, with more authority.

Photo of Mr Robert Parry Mr Robert Parry , Liverpool Scotland Exchange

I understand that there is a panel of chairmen connected with the Department of the Environment. Would the hon. Gentleman agree to one of those independent chairmen chairing the public inquiry?

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral

Yes, I would. That would be a very satisfactory way to deal with the matter. I am not committing anyone else. It may be that someone else who is just as independent but not on a panel of chairmen would be suitable, but once we had such a chairman we should have to have a good independent inquiry. I should like to be assured by the hon. Member for West Derby, when he returns to the Chamber, that the inquiry will not be concerned with economic questions in isolation. I should like to be assured that it will be able to consider social, economic, historical, cultural and other factors as well. If the only consideration in these matters were money, we should close down libraries and all sorts of recreational centres. All these other issues should be taken into account.

I should also like an assurance that anyone who feels strongly about the closure of the ferries will have an equal opportunity to put his views. There should be no limit because of the rules of evidence on written representations, petitions or oral evidence. The chairman should have full discretion and should be encouraged to make the inquiry as wide as possible.

The question of the Wallasey ferry is separate from the question of the Woodside ferry. They should not be dealt with in the same inquiry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey will no doubt stress, there are many factors to be considered. One is that there is no alternative facility for those who live near the Wallasey ferry.

I am quite willing to admit that if my constituents walk up the road they can get on a rail link that will speed them across the river. But the situation is very different in Wallasey. Therefore, we should have two separate local inquiries, one for Woodside and one for Wallasey, just as we had a separate one for New Brighton. The two ferries simply cannot be lumped together.

My constituents want an assurance that before the final decision to close the ferries is taken there will be a chance for the loop line and alternative facilities to be examined to see whether they can work and take the alternative flow. Before the Merseyside County Council reach a decision there must be an equal opportunity for the Wirral Council, Members of Parliament and anyone else to put forward their arguments. Some people may ask why there should be the enormous rigmarole of consultation. The answer is simple. If it had not been for the fact that an attempt is being made to force this shabby Bill through the House my constituents would have had far more trust and faith in the Merseyside County Council. But because of the history of this episode they want this sort of undertaking before a final decision is made.

What are the alternatives to the Woodside ferry? We have not yet considered properly the question of triangular services. This has some possibilities. There is also the question of the use of hovercraft. The Cranfield survey pointed out that there was a possibility of using hovercraft on the river in place of ferry boats. If one looks at the figures one sees that the reason for the very high cost of the ferry boats—£900,000—is that they must be manned for 24 hours. Because of the tidal estuary waters on the River Mersey there must be a full crew on each ferry boat for 24 hours a day. The boat does not leave the river, but stays around on it, and therefore must be manned full-time. There are other reasons why a smaller boat or surface craft would be a better and cheaper way of keeping the Mesey ferries going.

Clause 7 refers to the offences of overriding. The police have a right always to be consulted about a Bill that seeks to create a situation in which their services may be called upon far more frequently than at pesent. I can think of many instances in which an angry Liverpool man might be absolutely outraged at being asked to pay an on-the-spot fine for overriding. It is no use the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive saying to the police that this does not mean extra work for them, because the police know that at any time they may have to face a situation in which they have to soothe people.

This is another reason why the whole thing is so inadequate. The police were not consulted before Clause 7 was put in the Bill. I have been privy to a letter written by the Chief Constable to the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive which says: It is unfortunate when considering the enforcement connotations that the police were not consulted at the drafting stage of the Bill. In fact, it might even be considered discourteous in view of the implications. How can my constituents have any faith in a party that seeks to put through this Bill in such a way? It all adds up to a general feeling of serious disquiet on Merseyside.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Derby said that this decision should be taken on Merseyside by Merseyside people. I could not agree more, but I feel that I am a Merseyside person and that I have been elected to this place to represent the part of Merseyside that comprises my constituency.

I look round me in the House and see a number of Merseyside people. We have have every right, because of historical considerations, to impose a veto on the closure of these ferries. It is wrong to say that we should give up all control and influence and to pass it on to the Merseyside County Council. The Merseyside County Council has no more right to say that it alone represents Merseyside people than do we as Members of Parliament. If the council has a right to make a decision, so do we, as the House of Commons. I do not accept the argument that we should not seek to impose any control on the Merseyside County Council in reaching its decision.

The chairman of the county council has said that so far as he is concerned there is no other decision that requires a two-thirds majority in the council, and he wonders why there should have to be such a majority on this issue. I challenge him and say that there is every right for the House of Commons to say that there should be a two-thirds majority in return for the fact that we are to give up our veto on the closure of the ferry service. That is a logical argument. I hope that when the sponsors consider this Bill after this debate they will decide to accept the reasonable approach of the Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council and authorise, just on this issue, a two-thirds majority in the county council if the ferries are to be closed.

My constituents, and no doubt many others on Merseyside, have a clear impression that Merseyside County Council has decided to close both ferries. Indeed, that decision was advertised.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

I am sorry to intervene in the hon. Gentleman's speech, because he has been speaking at some length and there are other Members who would like to take part. This is an important matter. I have expressed my feelings strongly, but there is a nagging doubt about the deficit of nearly £1 million. That deficit must be dealt with. Since the hon. Gentleman belongs to a party that does not believe in public expenditure and wants to cut it, will he tell us how we are to get rid of that deficit? That is an important consideration in this discussion.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral

In reply to the first point put by the hon. Gentleman I would point out that there is a great deal of time left for this debate. I should not be speaking at such length if I felt that I were taking away the right of other hon. Members to express their views.

On the second point, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the large deficit is worrying, but I have explained that there are ways in which it could be got rid of. That is not my opinion; it is the opinion of an institute that has studied the matter in detail and over a great length of time.

We must also examine the deficit in the context of Merseyside passenger transport generally. The subsidy being paid for a ferry passenger is not that much more than the subsidy for a rail passenger. What I argue, and have argued on several occasions, is that someone should now follow up the institute survey and report by doing a survey into all Merseyside passenger transport in order to see whether savings can be made in other areas. Why pick on the ferries? It seems to my constituents that everyone is picking on the ferries as scapegoats for the enormous losses—this is just a small proportion—of the MPTE. My constituents ask "Why pick on the ferries?"

Before we take an irreversible decision to close what everyone accepts in Merseyside as an institution, should there not be more thought and research into ways in which savings could be accomplished over the whole wide range of Merseyside passenger transport? Many of my constituents have already pointed out to me where £1 million could be saved here or £500,000 there, whether or not it is in some part of the MPTE. They unanimously say "Do not close our ferry until someone has taken a closer look into the workings of the MPTE".

My major concern in the debate has been to point out that although we may allow a Second Reading we are not satisfied with the concessions so far made. It is a bad and inadequately discussed Bill, and insufficient consultation has taken place. I hope that after this debate those who have anything to do with the Bill will take it away and bring back a very changed Bill on Report. It should be a Bill that gives the people of Merseyside a right to have a say in the destiny of the ferries. For historical, cultural, economic and social reasons the "Ferry 'Cross the Mersey" is a way of Merseyside life. If that disappears, part of our heritage will have gone.

The people of Merseyside have had so much stuffing taken out of them with the high rate of unemployment and the very serious inner city deprivation that if we taken the ferries away a lot of them will take the ferries away a lot of them will to the sponsors "Take this Bill away and bring us another one that will give real democracy in Merseyside".

8.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr Robert Parry Mr Robert Parry , Liverpool Scotland Exchange

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden), who sponsored the Bill, has covered the historical background and the reasons for the MPTE promoting the Bill. I disagree with some of the points that my hon. Friend made in his opening remarks. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) has covered many of the points that I would have raised, and my speech will therefore be rather brief. We have had from hon. Members on both sides of the House a bit of nostalgia and a trip down memory lane. My hon. Friends talked about the one-legged diver and the old cartoons. They were both a bit before my time.

I was born practically in the shadow of the overhead railway. The right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) quoted one or two lines from a song made famous by the Spinners, "In My Liverpool Home". I think that the only Members who were born in Liverpool dockland are myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden). The opening words of the song are I was born in Liverpool, down by the docks. The third verse tells of the bombing of Liverpool dockland during the last war and says: When the smoke and the dust had cleared from the air, 'Thank God', said the old man 'The pierhead's still there.' If we close the ferries, if we close the landing stage, the promoters will have achieved, in finishing the pierhead, a feat that even Hitler could not manage.

I have strong reservations about any closure of the ferry. The issue was discussed at a meeting of the general management committee of my constituency Labour Party. Although very few of my constituents use the Birkenhead ferry or the Wallasey ferry, it was the overwhelming wish of those present that we should support the retention of the ferries. They are part of our heritage, our culture, our way of life. They should be kept, even if it means subsidies from the local authority, from the Merseyside County Council.

Another issue that concerns a number of my constituents and hon. Members is the future of the "Royal Iris". We believe that we should still have leisure trips for aged people and educational trips for the schoolchildren. It is imperative that there be some form of transport on the Mersey.

No one needs to be reminded of the sad decline of the port of Liverpool. We remember how, years ago, the great passenger liners were to be seen in the river, the great ships of Cunard, White Star and Canadian Pacific. They have all gone. As recently as Tuesday of this week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that when he visited Liverpool in 1948 as a young junior Minister the port was a bustle of activity. On his visit as Prime Minister last September he found it very quiet. It would be tragic if we closed the ferries and stopped leisure trips.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Derby said that the Wallasey Labour Party was opposed to the withdrawal of the ferries. I have received a letter from the prospective Labour candidate, Miss Hilary Hodge, saying: The MPTE requires no Parliamentary permission to close the Wallasey Ferry but only the Birkenhead Ferry which is under Royal Charter. All local Labour Parties support the retention of the ferries and on 21st March Councillor Sefton met and discussed the matter with influential representatives of both the Wirral and Wallasey Labour Parties. He promised a public inquiry—but not before the Bill goes through. The local representatives of the Labour parties are not happy with this and still want the Bill deferred until after an indelendent inquiry has been held. I fully support hon. Members' pleas that there should be a full, independent, public inquiry on Merseyside before any decision is made on the withdrawal of the ferries. I would warmly welcome such an inquiry, under an independent chairman, to look into all the points raised by hon. Members in this debate.

The question of overriding on buses concerns me very much. It was also discussed at my party meeting, when members expressed their concern about the effects that this proposition could have. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for West Derby said that the promoters have decided to withdraw the question of fines on the spot and further fines if those concerned have not the correct money with them at the time. My objection is not so much to the fining of a person £1 on the spot, or £2 at a later stage. It is with the great possibility that more disorder, more chaos and more trouble would be caused on the Liverpool buses, particularly at weekends, and especially after young people had been into Liverpool and enjoyed themselves and were then approached by a bus inspector and told "You have gone past your stop. We will now charge you a minimum of 56p."

The hon. Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) is right—the police have not been consulted, at least not in any great depth. This afternoon I spoke to the Deputy Chief Constable of Merseyside and asked for the views of the force on the question of on-the-spot fines and the obvious involvement of the police if any trouble were to break out. I made a note of the points he raised.

The deputy chief constable's view was that this would not be progressive legislation and would lead to all forms of trouble for the bus crews and to additional work for the police. As far as he was aware—and as far I am aware—there is no such legislation covering any other form of public transport in this country. When representatives of the MPTE discussed the Bill with Labour Members of Parliament I asked whether any other authority had these powers, and the answer was "No".

I understand that some years ago London Transport tried to introduce a Bill with a similar proposition but withdrew it in face of great opposition. I think, therefore, that it would be wrong for Merseyside now to try to give a lead to other parts of England and Wales in this respect. The deputy chief constable said to me today that although we on Merseyside are proud of the progressive legislation, particularly the social legislation, which Liverpool and Merseyside have pioneered, he does not think that this proposition should be supported, and he believes that Clause 7 would cause more trouble than it is worth.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

Does not my hon. Friend agree that unless we get an assurance that Clause 7, even as it stands, will be withdrawn, we should vote down the Bill?

Photo of Mr Robert Parry Mr Robert Parry , Liverpool Scotland Exchange

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. It was my firm intention, before coming into the Chamber, to divide the House and vote against the Bill. But it appears that the consensus on both sides of the House is that we should give it a Second Reading and that these matters can be thrashed out and clarified in Committee. However, I fully support the view that if Clause 7 is not completely withdrawn we should vote against the Third Reading of the Bill.

Finally, I shall deal with the trade union point of view. This afternoon I telephoned the regional organiser of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Mr. George Hodgson, who is responsible for bus crews—the drivers and conductors—and inspectors. I asked him whether he was satisfied with Clause 7. He said that as far as he and his members were concerned it was a non-starter and would lead to all sorts of difficulties for bus crews. It would cause more aggravation and more punch-ups. The crews already have enough problems dealing with drunks and difficult passengers at weekends without having these extra worries and responsibilities placed on their shoulders.

I am prepared to allow the Bill to receive a Second Reading, but, in view of the obvious concern shown by hon. Members on both sides, a number of issues will have to receive very close examination in Committee.

9.1 p.m.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

This evening's debate has been interesting. I apologise to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) for not being able to hear his speech. I had to slip out of the Chamber, having been here for a rather long time.

It seems that in looking at the Bill, there has been a real Merseyside spirit, which is very welcome. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt), who said that if we could manage to put our heads together more often to discuss some of Merseyside's problems we might even do more for Merseyside than we do individually. Last year we had a joint meeting with Merseyside County Council. It did not do anyone any harm, and I think it did us a lot of good, to know more of what the county council officers thought and also what Labour Members from Merseyside thought about the issues that arose.

I make an earnest request to Labour Members that we should put our heads together on more occasions. It usually seems to have a productive outcome. I am not prepared to enter into a coalition, except on Merseyside issues, but this is essentially a Merseyside issue and, therefore, I am prepared to go into the subject at perhaps slightly shorter length than is my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral.

It is important that we understand the Bill. The first intimation that I received in writing of the onset of the Merseyside Passenger Transport Bill was a letter on 10th November last. I immediately wrote at the top "Please get very full briefing for me from all quarters". I knew even at that stage that some hard decisions would be put before us.

After that, information started to trickle through, although not at that time from the Merseyside PTE. We eventually had a meeting on 25th January last which came at the same time as or perhaps a couple of days in advance of the Bill becoming available in the House. From that day forward my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral and my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) and Labour Members have been resolved to make sure that the Bill should not proceed one step further unless there was a full and adequate procedure for a proper public inquiry on each of the two ferries, taken individually because the needs of the communities served by the ferries are slightly different.

The fight which started in January, after the preparation of two months before, also led me to look at who else had been consulted. If it serves as a warning to any other county council or body seeking to promote a Private Bill in the House, the experience that we have had in the last four months will have been useful.

When I met the Chief Constable of Merseyside two months ago and casually mentioned to him the coming of the Bill, he said "What are you talking about? What do you mean about on-the-spot fines?" I began to feel that there had been a slight lack of consultation. I immediately put in his hands all the information I could which affected Clause 7. I also discussed with him the other implications of the Bill, because any change in transportation across the Mersey which called for increased bus traffic within Wirral obviously must have implications for the police. Thank goodness I did all these things, because the contact between the Chief Constable of Merseyside and myself, I am reliably informed, was the first he had had on the issues in the Bill which affected the Merseyside police force.

In the course of my other inquiries about the feelings of people towards the proposals, I discovered that the trades council members were apprised through the Press and by individual Members of Parliament. They were relatively uninformed and had certainly not been consulted during the drafting of the Bill.

There is an important lesson here for government, be it local or national. It must be realised that gone are the days when anybody could or should rule from on high. People, irrespective of their position, expect to be consulted. They wish to participate. I hope that the efforts that have been put in by hon. Members and others will now ensure that they are fully consulted on future occasions when their views will be of immense value.

We had a battle for the public inquiry. I say that because, although I have had nothing but help from the officials, there were times when I thought I was more likely to be called a battle-axe than a Britannia over this issue. In all our requests for the public inquiry, our principal concern has been that it should be open. I have been at variance with some of my party colleagues on the Wirral Borough Council on whether a decision on the outcome of the inquiry should be taken at local or national level. I believe that this is a Merseyside issue and that it should be decided on Merseyside.

I shall come in a moment to some comments by the borough council concerning a proposed alternative should we fail in Committee in putting forward the interests of Wirral and Liverpool.

I was a little taken aback by the surprise of people at our request for a public inquiry. The statements made about the Bill, copies of which hon. Members received through the post yesterday, give us some grounds now, however, for reasonable contentment. Two months ago I would never have believed that we would see such a thing as the annexe and the statement and that there would be every intention of introducing them in Committee.

The annexe is headed Public consultation before a decision is taken for closure of either of the Mersey ferries. It states: A Public Inquiry will be held on Merseyside". There is to be one public inquiry, but I am assured that the future of the two ferries will be decided separately and that if decisions are made to close them they will be embodied in separate orders.

The annexe continues: The Chairman of the Inquiry will be selected by the six Merseyside local authorities. That, I believe, is very fair. If there should be any difficulty in appointing the chairman, I would readily agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Scotland Exchange (Mr. Parry) that he should come from the panel of chairmen and be someone who is used to such procedures.

At one stage during our deliberations with the promoters' parliamentary agents we suggested that there should be a limitation, as in normal planning inquiries, on the time that any one local authority could hold up the appointment of a chairman. If this matter goes to a public inquiry, the time should be spent on the inquiry and not in arguing about who is or is not acceptable. I am sure that we can overcome those problems provided that we eventually have a full public inquiry.

The third item of the annexe reads: Any person or organisation will be entitled to make verbal or written representations to the Inquiry. This is important, because there was a time when the promoters suggested that the "person or organisation" should be more or less at the discretion of the county council. That would not have been right, and I am glad that in putting forward this statement they have withdrawn their limitation on who could give verbal or written evidence.

The fourth item reads: Before a final decision as to possible closure of the Ferries is taken, all the Merseyside District Councils will be asked to make recommendations to the County Council. That is one on which the chairman of the county council, Councillor Sefton, is hoping to persuade the Wirral District Council to drop one of its requests.

The fifth item reads: All local Members of Parliament will be specifically requested to submit their comments to both the County Council and the Inquiry. If they thought that they were going to get away without our submitting our comments to the public inquiry and the county council, they have another think coming.

The sixth and final item reads: If called for, public meetings will be held on both sides of the river. If public meetings are called for, they should be held in both Birkenhead and Wallasey. As I have already said, the situation is different and there should be three different meetings, in Liverpool, Birkenhead and Wallasey. I have requested these meetings, in addition to the public inquiry, because there will be many people who will be utterly intimidated by the proceedings at a public inquiry. I cannot say that I am not one of them. People would be quite prepared to go along to a public meeting whether it was organised by the Friends of the Ferries, now being set up, or by some other local body. Whatever happens, full consultations will take place.

I am delighted that there has been a constructive attitude from all parties concerned. I was particularly happy that the leader of the Labour group on the Wirral Borough Council, Councillor Bill Wells, after a full council meeting on 26th February, announced: I have come in recent weeks, personally, from a position where I felt that because of the enormous losses on the ferries, they would have to go. I'm becoming more and more concerned that because of the public reaction second thoughts must be had by the Merseyside County Council on the closure of the ferries. Anyone who knows Merseyside and Bill Wells, will know that his shift in opinion is important in this fight over the future of the Mersey ferries.

I cite Bill Wells because he has long been associated with the needs of Wallasey and Wirral and he is a doughty partner, to put it mildly. Sometimes we find ourselves on the same side, just as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) and I find ourselves on the same side occasionally.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

The hon. Lady says that we should all join together and work together. I do not disagree with that, up to a point. I must ask her an important question. The Labour Party has always believe that there must be subsidies. The hon. Lady's party is constantly talking about getting rid of them. I do not want a hypocritical answer from the hon. Lady. Does she believe in subsidies? It is important to have an answer, otherwise all our arguments are simply sentimental nonsense. If the ferries are to continue, either as amenities or as a regular service, we must recognise that there will be either sky-high fares or subsidies on a quite substantial scale. The hon. Lady must give me an answer on that.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

The hon. Gentleman has beaten me to the little paragraph I was going to put in on that subject. I noticed the excess expenditure by Merseyside County Council on passenger transport. It spent £23·8 million in excess of income for 1975–76. For the ferries, we are talking about a figure of £1 million. I know that we are talking, in terms of the overriding loss, of around £2 million. It all adds up. I have been looking through the many reports that have been written about Merseyside transport and at the number of ways that have been examined with a view to reducing the overall deficit which arises because of the cost limits imposed on the county council and the subsequent reduction in the money available to implement the transport policy.

There is always the argument—fairly and rightly used for historic buildings—that a case exists for some subsidy. It cannot be as great as the subsidy currently applying on the ferries. We have heard that the subsidy on a 12p crossing fare is about 20p. Perhaps we should move a little more towards asking for a greater contribution from the user, as has happened on the railways crossing the Mersey.

There are a number of ways in which the overall cost of the ferries could be reduced. The inquiries and discussions which will come about, partly as a result of this debate and partly because of these proposals, can do nothing but good in making the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive examine possible ways of cutting expenditure. I am sure that that will be done.

I return to the decision taken by the Wirral Borough Council. We have heard from the hon. Member for West Derby that it wanted a two-thirds majority should the county council wish to take a vote against the decision of the chairman of the inquiry. That was a compromise position. The original request of the borough council was that there should be a two-thirds majority in any event. I am told that at a meeting yesterday with Councillor Sefton, the leader of the Merseyside County Council, there was an instruction from the Wirral Borough Council to be tabled to the MPTE which read: That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the BPTE Bill to require the consent of the Secretary of State to the discontinuance of any of the ferry services referred to in Clause 4 of the Bill. I do not know whether that will be a clause which will be accepted in Committee. That is the resolve of the committee, made up of all political parties on the Wirral Borough Council.

Negotiations were taking place yesterday morning with Councillor Sefton in the hope that further assurances could be obtained from him on behalf of the county council and to see what more could be clone to bring the two sides together. Those consultations will continue, and the Wirral Borough Council will continue to send its view to members of the Committee which examines the Bill.

Throughout the discussion leading to the Second Reading—on which we have had to insist—we have had a number of suggestions about alternative transport. Even before the Bill was produced there was, in the MALTS Report on the needs of Merseyside and local transport, a paragraph about a Wallasey alternative. It is important to realise that there has been concern over at least a 10-year period about the needs of the Wallasey community as opposed to the Birkenhead community.

For those who do not know the area of the Wirral, of which I am speaking, let me explain that a little way up a slight incline from the Woodside, the Birkenhead ferry, is the Hamilton Square Station which links to the Loop and Link Line now being built at a cost of £40 million by the passenger transport executive on behalf of British Rail. There is a walk of slightly over three minutes from the Woodside pierhead. The traveller can be in the station and boarding a train which will take him under the Mersey—not so pleasant, but very often convenient—

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

It takes four and a half minutes. I walked it every day for years.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

Perhaps the hon. Member for Walton walks slowly, or perhaps the road barriers have changed during the last few years since he did that walk regularly.

To Wallasey the railway line goes via Hamilton Square and then through my constituency. It curves round the northern part of the Wirral peninsula and ceases at New Brighton. Between there and the landing stage of Seacombe Ferry, which is on the Mersey side of the Wirral, there are only bus routes and no train routes. There is a delightful promenade but there is no means—except for occasional buses, and believe me, they are occasional, or so it seems when one has to wait for them—to get to New Brighton rail terminus from the Seacombe area.

There are many people who live in that part of the Wallasey constituency who are on lower incomes and who walk to the ferry daily. Some of them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral said, go by bicycle. A tremendous number of people from that area have never thought of going to Liverpool by any other means than the ferry. They are the people who live in the Egremont and Liscard districts of Wallasey. They and people who live in Seacombe and Poulton have always found that that way of crossing the Mersey is not only pleasant but useful. People from this area have been crossing the Mersey by ferry for many years. We know that people come from other parts to join the Seacombe ferry, and it can be argued that the buses they use could be sent elsewhere. Some people arrive by car, but they are few compared with those who walk or who come by bus.

As an alternative to the Seacombe to Liverpool ferry, we have had shown to us by the MPTE maps of bus routes that could be put in its place. These bus routes look fine now, but we note the experience of my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby in his area. We have seen details of the routes given in the Liverpool Press, but we wonder how they would work and whether they would be as easy as they seem on the planners' piece of paper when it comes to reality for the people of Egremont, Poulton, Liscard and Seacombe in using that means of transport through the tunnel.

But that is not a part of the Bill. The Bill gives the power to remove the existing service. I looked at the costings that have been given to us by the MPTE and others and I wondered how many of the ferries and how much of our heritage could be protected by a limited subsidy. I know that other ferries in the country, such as the Humber ferry, receive subsidy. When the Humber Bridge is finished, that ferry will go, but the Humber Bridge is a different and direct form of replacement compared with the alternatives for crossing the Mersey.

There are other problems in the Bill that must be faced. I received a request tonight from a constituent who was waiting outside but whom I unfortunately could not see because of business in the Chamber. My constituent had come to London from Wallasey on behalf of a group of people who live in the New Brighton area. They say in a letter that they believe that the Wallasey ferry is a vital means of transport to Liverpool. I have had many letters saying that the new rail link is not the way in which people wish to cross the Mersey. They take the ferry for a variety of reasons. If the ferries were to remain, I believe that people would be prepared to pay a little more on their daily fares than at present.

Hon. Members have received many such letters on this subject, and so have my colleagues in the constituency. They also ask that the Bill should not receive a Second Reading and that a public inquiry should be held first. It would be possible to deal with the Wallasey ferry under the old Wallasey Corporation Act, but that would not give protection for the Birkenhead ferry and, because of the need for that ferry, I am not sure that this would be the best way to proceed.

Since the beginning of the argument, we have made a great deal of progress with the MPTE leading up to the annexe to the statement that I read earlier. There is information in the MALTS Report, and paragraph 338 deals with the potential demand through the Wallasey Tunnel and similar demand on the railway. Information has been quoted from other reports on transportation in the Merseyside Region and many transportation reports have been prepared by the county council. A lot more information must be given at the public inquiry before an order is made to do away with either of the ferries.

I am assured that the proposals in the statement from the promoters will be put into the Bill in Committee. If that happens, and if we have a satisfactory Committee manned by hon. Members from regions other than Merseyside, I do not believe that the Bill should be held back. We can block it if we wish at a later stage. If the assurances that we have been given are not fully carried out, I shall have no hesitation in seeking to persuade my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite to block the Bill.

I do not often stand around in Liverpool late at night. It is not a sensible thing to do. However, on occasions I drive through Liverpool late at night, and I should be reluctant to put on bus inspectors at any time of the day the responsibility for collecting control fares.

One has only to see how a normally calm person deals with a traffic warden putting a ticket on his car to see how tempers can be unreasonably raised when someone is caught doing something that he should not be doing. If we multiply the vexatious driver in London's temperature by the heat of the moment that sometimes occurs on Merseyside, with all the passion of Scouseland, I should be unwilling to see inspectors putting their heads in a noose by being forced to collect control fares.

I recognise the problem faced by the executive in trying to stop people using buses illegally. I sympathise with the view of the hon. Member for Garston that this did not happen when we had conductors as well as drivers. We must consider zoning fares or some other way of getting round the £2 million loss that, we are told, results from people travelling with inadequate tickets.

I hope that the Committee which considers the Bill will bring together the views of the trade unions and police on this issue and of the police and all those involved in the transportation changes and in assessing alternative transport systems. I hope that my constituents, the people of Wirral and Birkenhead and the other users of the ferries will see that they have the chance and voice to fight the county council over the closure of the ferries, thanks to the pressure of hon. Members.

If the inquiry decides that the ferries should remain as they are, that will be a challenge to the MPTE to find the resources. If the inquiry decides to close either one or both of the ferries, I want to see in the coming weeks how we can resolve the current anxiety of the Wirral Borough Council against the Merseyside County Council about the way in which the final decision should be taken. It is important that we should resolve that at a time when we can amend the legislation, and not afterwards.

On an earlier Bill tonight the Government literally came to us at the eleventh hour and tabled an important amendment. It was an amendment that we saw only this morning. That ability is vital. The Government tabled the amendment during the passage of the Bill. If they had not done so, they would have had to come back to the House with yet another piece of legislation. That is a good lesson for the promoters of this Bill. We should look at it while we have the chance and ensure that whatever emerges at the end is right. We must also ensure that the public inquiry provides a proper hearing for the people of Wallasey, Wirral and Liverpool.

9.32 p.m.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) made an impressive contribution to the debate. She has fulfilled the promise that she made when she first came to the House. If we must have Conservative hon. Members representing Merseyside constituencies, let them be of the quality of the hon. Member.

Our agreements in the debate have been greater than our disagreements. Hon. Members on both sides have correctly voiced their particular anxieties and concern about the proposed Bill. No hon. Member is actively seeking to sink the ferries. No hon. Member is happy that people do not pay the right fare for travelling on Liverpool buses. I have accepted responsibilities that I have no reason to accept, but someone had to do it. There is no reward or glory attached to promoting a Bill. I did what had to he done. I am drawing heavily on the regard, affection and trust of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members.

I have given assurances, but I must tell hon. Members that the interest that I have taken in the Bill is no more than that taken by anyone else. I have given assurances on behalf of the MPTE. My good name is at stake if those assurances are not carried through. If they are not there will be no sponsor of the Bill.

Photo of Mr David Hunt Mr David Hunt , Wirral

Are there any assurances for which I asked in my speech that the hon. Member is not prepared to give?

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

I cannot remember everything that the hon. Member said but I shall carefully read all that was said in the debate and so will members of the MPTE. There will be replies and a continuation of the discussion. This is not my Bill. It is not the Government's Bill and it is not the MPTE's Bill. It is the Bill of the hon. Members who represent Merseyside constituencies. I shall carry the matter through, and there will be a special report.

The only thing that I am asking is that the House should give the Bill a Second Reading. As my hon. Friend the Minister has said, let the convention apply and let the Bill go to Committee.

Our interest is constant and continuing. All of us, I hope, want the same kind of thing, on the basis that if the promises that I and others have made are not carried through on Report and Third Reading there will be united opposition in the House and the Bill will get no further. With those assurances I ask the House to give the Bill an unopposed Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.