Merseyside Passenger Transport Authority

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:54 am on 9th February 1988.

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Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Aberdeen North 12:54 am, 9th February 1988

This has been a fascinating little debate. I had never realised that there was so much in common between my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields), the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter). On many issues, there has been almost complete agreement, right across the spectrum.

Some might argue that this was special pleading on behalf of Merseyside. If it was special pleading, I agree that it was justified for Merseyside has many problems. The hon. Member for Wirral, South has said that he had made no special pleading; it just so happens that Merseyside has unique problems. I do not wish to destroy this nice little coalition. It has all been very friendly, at 12.54 in the morning.

However, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the other passenger transport areas in the country, where rural land and conurbations are mixed up, have particular problems. Conservative Members are prepared to join a coalition for their own areas but are not prepared to recognise our points about the need for integration and for special problems to be dealt with across the board.

The Minister has never given any justification for maximum precept orders of this kind. Why does he think that he knows better than the people on the ground? It is clear that the Members of Parliament for Merseyside accept, if not every line of Merseyside's submission, at least a sufficiently large part of it for its claims to be justified.

It has been calculated that the average ratepayer on Merseyside will save 5p a week as a result of the drop in the precept from 28·5p last year to 27p this year. For that extra 5p a week, we could have alleviated some of the problems that we face. I do not know why the Minister is so rigid in his belief that he and Whitehall know best.

There has been a strong plea for the tolls for the Mersey tunnel to come off. The trouble with the Government is that they do not know what they want to do. There is no consistency. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to the Humber bridge. I do not think that the Government felt particularly generous towards the Humber; it was simply that the Humber faced a real financial crisis and unless something was done, the local authorities would have gone bankrupt. Therefore, the Government acted. Such an ad hoc solution does create resentment and lead to charges of inconsistency which, in many cases, are justified.

It is perfectly reasonable for the hon. Member for Wirral, South to ask where the Labour party stands on toll estuarial crossings, whether on tunnels or bridges. No doubt, if he had not done so, the Minister would have. I have made it perfectly clear in all my discussions with the motoring organisations, the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association, that I would be perfectly happy to see tolls disappear tomorrow. The only snag, which I would have made clear, is that I do not want the cost of that to fall on the Department of Transport budget.

There are those who say that they want more and better roads and rail and bus services. If the choice is doing away with the tolls today with the cost falling on the Department of Transport budget, or spending more money on roads, rail or bus services, I know what my choice would be. I would rather have the money to spend on new and improved services. As somebody once said, one cannot spend the same pound twice. However, there is another way of dealing with the matter, as the Select Committee on Transport suggested in the previous Parliament. I cannot remember the detail, but it entailed partly a write-off by the Secretary of State on the Treasury budget and partly the phasing out of the local authority share over a period of years.

The Minister must have some policy on all the toll crossings, and he must try to deal with people fairly. To some extent, he is hoist by his own petard with the Dartford-Thurrock crossing, which will be a toll bridge. He faces problems with leaks concerning the massive expansion of toll facilities on motorways and elsewhere. He will have to resolve that problem quickly.

The Minister rightly pointed out in the earlier debate that section 42 of the Transport Act 1985 permits district authorities to opt out of the PTA system. People are worried that the Department or the Ministry — either inadvertently, because they are not explaining themselves properly, or because they do not understand properly—is encouraging people to opt out. Will the Minister say that he is neutral on this matter and that he is not encouraging people to opt out? I would prefer him to go further and say that he is not neutral, but that he is positively encouraging district authorities to remain in the PTAs.