I take this opportunity to congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your appointment. From my experience in the House, I know that it is well deserved.
I am glad to have the opportunity on the first day of the new Parliament to raise the subject of toll charges on the Severn bridge. Standing Order No. 20, which deals with requests for emergency debates, refers to
the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration".
Tonight's debate is in the same category.
The vast majority of the people of Wales live on the narrow coastal strip stretching from Carmarthen to Chepstow. The Severn bridge serves that district and is the main access point for traffic travelling in and out of Wales. It was opened in September 1966 by Her Majesty the Queen and was built at a cost of £8 million, which was a charge on the Consolidated Fund—no bank charges were involved.
That figure of £8 million was a flea bite compared with the overall level of public expenditure, but it has caused problems. It has been repaid many times over in toll charges. I understand that, up to 25 April, £113.4 million had been collected in tolls. However, the taxpayer, who initially paid for the bridge, is being fleeced and is having to pay interest charges on the money provided. To compound that farce and add insult to injury, the Government handed over the bridge to a French-American backed consortium. It was also given the power and authority to build a second bridge, under the Severn Bridges Act 1991. I understand that the new bridge will cost about £300 million. Further powers under the Act were given to enable tolls to be collected for up to 35 years, and over the next 30 years the consortium is expected to collect at least £1 billion. To my simple mind, it seems that the consortium is being given a licence to print money.
Since the bridge was opened in 1966, traffic flows have increased dramatically. In the first year of its operation the average daily flow was 15,600 vehicles—5.7 million a year. Now, about 19 million vehicles a year use the bridge, which is 52,000 a day. These figures seem to illustrate that the forecasts by the Department of Transport were way out.
This massive increase in traffic had a detrimental effect on the structure of the bridge. In November 1983, I revealed to the House the contents of what had been until then a secret report from an independent firm of consultants; it showed that there was serious cause for concern about the state of the bridge. The Government were forced into a programme of repairs and strengthening. According to the Department of Transport, in the period to September 1991, that programme had cost £83 million, but we were originally told by the same Department that the work would cost just over £30 million. There seems to be a question mark over the forecasting accuracy of the Department of Transport—the same Department whose spokesman recently advised us that
there is no evidence that tolls cause any significant damage to the Welsh economy.
He could have fooled some of us.
The cost of the repair work was added to the original cost of the bridge. The interest charges were added and the overall debt spiralled. On 25 April, when the handover took place, the debt stood at £125.2 million. So the bridge cost £8 million, £113.4 million was collected in tolls, and the debt left over is £125.2 million. That is farcical.
In the year 1990–91, road users paid £19 billion in vehicle and fuel taxes, which I am reliably informed represents 12 per cent. of all tax revenue. Less than 24 per cent. of that £19 billion is spent on roads. With all this revenue coming into the Exchequer, surely a tiny portion could have been used to pay for the strengthening work on the Severn bridge—the principal access point of Wales. After all, the bridge is merely a two-mile stretch of the M4. Some 10 miles away, the bridge on the M5 serving Avonmouth has no tolls. One does not have to be a racist to suggest that the Government are prejudiced against Wales.
Given the huge amount of £19 billion accruing to the Exchequer from motor taxation, why should there be tolls on this short stretch of motorway leading into Wales? Wales has tremendous economic problems and heavy unemployment. The coal industry has been virtually wiped out and there have been massive redundancies and closures in the steel industry. There is a basic need to attract new industry, and I acknowledge that there has been a measure of success, but much more is needed. Despite all those difficulties, this "caring" Government have chosen to place a huge tax burden on our principal traffic network.
The new French-American backed consortium took control on Sunday 26 April and the following morning there was absolute chaos on the bridge. I spent an hour at the toll booth and saw things at first hand and spoke to drivers who had been escorted off the bridge because, coinciding with the takeover, there was a massive increase in toll charges.
Perhaps it is symbolic that the consortium has changed the tolling arrangements so that motorists are penalised for coming into Wales. Cars now pay £2.80, small vans pay £5.60 and lorries and buses pay £8.40. It is reckoned that our supermarkets need to be serviced twice a day. Close to the bridge there is a major Tesco distribution centre. Surely the £8.40 toll charge will be reflected in prices in the store. The same applies to buses. People are encouraged to use public transport, but the massive toll charges will undoubtedly increase fares.
On the morning of 27 April there was a large police presence on the bridge. I have written to the chief constables of both Avon and Gwent asking who paid for that operation. The police did a good job, but, bearing in mind the ever-escalating crime rate, surely police time could be better spent than on a bridge owned by a foreign backed consortium assisting in the process of extracting tolls from increasingly alienated motorists. Our police deserve better than that.
Many vehicles had to be escorted off the bridge because their drivers were not carrying sufficient money to pay the increased charges. Some positively refused to pay. A hostile atmosphere was generated. There was a particular grievance over small vans which previously paid the same toll as a car but were now being made to pay the second category of £5.60, the same as the charge for a minibus. That must be especially damaging to one-man businesses. What a burden those tolls must be on, say, a plumber or a small builder who may need to cross the bridge several times a day. Yet these tolls have essentially been imposed by a Government who claim to be the champion of small business.
I spoke to drivers who had handfuls of vouchers that had been issued previously by Avon county council. The vouchers were no longer valid and the drivers were escorted off the bridge by the police. There were even instances of drivers who were lop short of toll charges being turned away. How ridiculous can we get? In the days of the Berlin wall it must have been easier to cross from East Germany to the west.
The greed of the consortium seems to know no bounds. I shall give two examples, the first of which is phone charges. For many years crossing the Severn bridge has been fraught with difficulties, and I am well aware that many hon. Members have had personal experience. Motorists tended to phone to check on the situation at the bridge before embarking on their journey. That applied to business appointments or to a husband or wife waiting at home. They paid as little as 10p for recorded information. The new service introduced by the consortium costs 28p a minute between 8 am and 6 pm. The cost is £2.76 for the full message between those times and £2.07 at other times. The new owners' share of income from telephone calls—as many as 5,000 motorists a day can use the system—will range up to £1,000 a day. Did the Government agree to this extortion beforehand?
One constituent, Mr. Francis, of The Mooring in Newport, asks specifically to whose coffers the money will go. The answer is pretty clear.
Secondly, there are postal charges for pre-paid toll tickets. The members of the consortium, these latter-day highway robbers, are charging £2.35 for this service. It was previously provided free of charge by Avon county council. Mr. M. A. Boden, the managing director of a large Ford dealership in Chepstow, is sorely grieved. In a letter addressed to me of 30 April he wrote:
We attempted to buy advance tickets. In the past we applied for these from Avon County Council and paid by cheque for the book of tickets. Our driver presented herself at the Advance Ticket Unit today with a company cheque to purchase books for our use, only to be told that they could not be released until the cheque had cleared. Obviously our previous creditworthiness with Avon County Council counts for nothing with the new administrators and we then expected to be told to come back in three days' time when the cheque had cleared. Not so, we are not allowed to collect the books until the 11th May 1992.
As I have said, Mr. Boden is sorely grieved.
Another of my constituents, Mr. Roberts of 21 Victoria way, Magor, wanted a book of 25 tickets. He had to queue for 45 minutes. He has expressed his disgust with the entire situation on the bridge. Many will endorse his sentiments.
I have a further reference to make about the foreign-backed consortium. It has tried to sugar the pill. Severn Crossing plc has appointed as its chairman a Member of the other place and former Member of the House of Commons—a Liberal and a Welshman, Lord Hooson. Breathes there a man with soul so dead? What has the Liberal party come to? David Lloyd George must be turning in his grave.
One of the most famous social and historical incidents in Wales was the occasion of the Rebecca riots. Those riots were all about the fight against toll charges on our roads. Now, the Government are trying to justify their exploitation of Wales by attempting to misrepresent the position of the Labour party.
When Labour came to power at the end of 1964, the Severn bridge was at an advanced stage of construction. All the plans had been made, and all the agreements had been signed under the outgoing Conservative Transport Minister, Mr. Ernest Marples. Moreover, Welsh Labour Members had opposed the introduction of toll charges. An outstanding example was the late right hon. Ness Edwards, who represented Caerphilly. He had long advocated the construction of a Severn crossing.
When the first toll charges were introduced, the amount was in any case relatively small—two shillings and sixpence—and the bridge was a relative novelty. What is more, Wales was experiencing a period of full employment. How different things are today.
Had a Labour Government been elected last month, it is clear what it would have done. The intention was to phase out toll charges through the rescheduling of debt. On 5 March, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), the deputy leader of my party, stated categorically, "Tolls must go." He went on to say:
While we will not break contracts there are ways of renegotiating contracts.
That was clearly a reference to the two Severn crossings.
The Government have been in power for 13 years, and have enjoyed all the benefits of North sea oil revenues. During that period, the original cost of the bridge has been paid for over and over again. Surely, if the Government felt any concern for the welfare of Wales, they would have wiped out that fictional debt on the Consolidated Fund long ago. The fact that they did not do so illustrates their contempt for Wales.
Individual Welsh firms have protested, but unfortunately Welsh business has no real champion. CBI Wales is impotent; it is hand in glove with the Government. How different has been the attitude of our local authorities. Gwent county council has been adamant in its opposition; so have the three Glamorgan county councils. The same applies to the Gwent district council association. Chepstow county council—which is near the bridge on the Welsh side—has a senior economist, Mr. Steve Hill, as its mayor this year. He has conducted a detailed analysis, and has concluded that the toll charges are seriously detrimental to the economy of the area.
I believe that the Government should enter into fresh negotiations with the consortium. They should insist that small vans be returned to their original category. Also, people living within a 20-mile radius of the bridge and working on the other side of the estuary should be eligible for a discount of up to 50 per cent. on the toll charge. The same should apply to the transport used by firms operating within the same radius. The Government should tell the consortium that, if it is prepared to reduce tolls correspondingly, they will wipe out the debt on the existing bridge.
Tolls are an anachronism and should be phased out on all estuarial crossings. They are an illogical disruption of traffic flow and impose considerable wear and tear on vehicles. The Select Committee on Transport, in its report in 1986, recommended the abolition of tolls.
I notice from the Western Mail today that Mr. John Prosser QC has joined our fight. He was held up in a three-mile tailback yesterday and was three quarters of an hour late for a hearing at Cardiff Crown court. He said that it was a disgrace and advised others, as well as himself, to protest to the Department of Transport.
The Severn Bridges Act 1992 is little short of an obscenity and the Government will regret its passing. This time they have gone a bridge too far.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) on having the perspicacity last week to obtain this Adjournment debate, the first of this Parliament, on such an important issue. It is not just a constituency matter as it affects the entire region of industrial south Wales. He has spoken passionately about it and has done so for many years. I wish to add what I can on behalf of the residents of the three Glamorgans, to which my hon. Friend has already referred. He has spoken on behalf of us all, but particularly on behalf of the county of Gwent. The only point on which I disagree with him is his suggestion of a 20-mile radius. I should prefer a 30-mile radius so that my constituency would be included in the area eligible for discount for frequent use of the bridge by those who commute from south Wales to the Bristol area for their daily employment.
The problem is not so much with the formula, which we have become used to even though we do not approve of it. The formula involves setting a price and then, as the Government would put it, capping the price increase each year by relating it to the rate of inflation—for example, retail price index plus so and so. We are used to that with water, gas, electricity and British Telecom. The problem is with the baseline on which the formula is set. If the old toll amount of 20p per car, which I believe was the price no more than three or four years ago, were still in existence, 20p plus a certain amount every year according to inflation would be seen as fairly reasonable by everybody in south Wales. However, over a very short time an unbelievable 700 per cent. increase has taken place in the basic car toll and I believe that the increase is similar for lorries and other heavyweight vehicles such as vans. It is no use the Government saying that they have concluded a beneficial arrangement for the consumer—whereby after 1 April this year prices cannot go up by more than the rate of inflation plus an allowance for any unexpected difficulties that the company may find—when the baseline for that annual increase formula has been jacked up to an unbelievable degree in the past three or four years.
First, the charge went up from 20p to 50p, which in itself was a 250 per cent. increase; then there was a 100 per cent. increase to £1. Finally, a further 40 per cent. increase on 1 April this year took it up to £1—40 for a one-way ticket and £2.80 for a return. I believe that that represents a 700 per cent. increase over four years. No doubt the Minister will correct me if my memory does not serve me well.
Even over a 10-year period, a 700 per cent. increase would be gross and unbelievable—and no basis for a fair formula for the constructors of the new bridge and the users of the old bridge. Any fair formula would be related to the original 20p, which in itself was a big increase on the formula set in the 1960s. It is ridiculous to increase the charge from 20p to £1—40 and then claim that a fair bargain has been struck between the producer—the constructor of the bridge—and the ordinary consumers, the users of the bridge. The formula is utterly one sided, and is intended to produce for the constructors of the new bridge a licence to print money.
We heard a lot in the Loyal Address earlier today about the need for more consumer choice, and the need to introduce accountability through the citizens charter, for the benefit of ordinary citizens and the users of public services. But we do not get anything like that with the bridge.
If a private company wants to build a new Severn bridge and thinks that it can beat the costs of the existing public sector bridge, why not have two bridges? Why not have one private sector bridge and one public sector bridge? But do we have choice? We certainly do not. To produce a guaranteed monopoly income which can go into the bank and produce profits for the company mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East, we have to sell the company the existing public sector bridge. That means that the company owns both bridges and has a total monopoly on crossings of the Severn south of Gloucester, and that we in south Wales have no other way of travelling along the national motorway system to London, to the south-east of England or to the continent without passing through the usurious, monopolistic privatised bridge set-up. There is no competition, no choice, no two-sided reasonable fair bargain for the road users of south Wales, whether commercial or individual.
The Government have created a Frankenstein's monster, and they will regret it in years to come. I believe that they have already been amazed by the serious adverse reaction to the new tolls. Now they will realise that the general public in south Wales—possibly in the Bristol area, too— does not regard the formula of "RPI plus X" as fair. The truth, as seen in south Wales, is that that formula really means "RIP plus off'.
Such a set-up is part of the Government's general method of saying that they will continue the drive towards decreasing the basic rate of income tax from 25p to 20p in the pound. Of course that can be done, but only if they increase the fees, levies, supplementary charges and contributions that the public have to pay for everything else—things that are normally regarded as part of the purchase price for civilisation. When people pay income tax, they should get their roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, libraries and so on. They do not expect to have to pay income tax and then have to pay again through user charges, fees, contributions and levies. Wage earners do not care so much about what is taken out of their wage packets in income tax deductions as about the totality of stoppages, and what is left in their pockets at the end of the week to spend on the things that the Government do not provide. They expect things that the Government provide to have been taken care of already in the stoppages.
That shows the essentially fraudulent nature of the Conservative contract with the British public. The Government will lower income tax but jack up every other tax they can think of, whether it be national insurance contributions, user charges for bridges, or other contributions that people are expected to make, plus other forms of taxes. There are 56 different kinds of taxes. Income tax will be brought down by a penny a year, or whatever, but everything else will cost a lot more.
The Severn bridge has brought home to everyone in south Wales the deceptive way the Government have with taxation. They reduce income tax, but increase every other form of taxation one can imagine. That is why we are making representations to the House on behalf of the whole of industrial south Wales. I am sure that Conservative Members, including the one or two here tonight who have been elected under Conservative colours, must be aware from correspondence from their constituents that the charges are regarded everywhere in industrial south Wales as a toll tax.
The charges are very unpopular and are regarded as an unfair bargain carried out behind Parliament's back. The details were withheld from the public in south Wales and in the south-west of England until the election was over. The Government will pay the price for that at the next election.
I join in the congratulations offered to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your appointment. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) on securing this debate. I agree with virtually everything that has been said and I will not repeat earlier points.
We are in an extraordinary situation. I have had more letters and more complaints from my constituents on this issue than on almost any other over the past five years. The reason is that many of my constituents in Newport, West choose to live in my constituency, and in my hon. Friends' constituencies in south Wales, and to work on the other side of the bridge. There was a considerable migration two or three years ago from the Bristol area to south Wales.
We find ourselves in the crazy position that, when Wales had campaigned for a bridge for over a decade, a Mephistophelian bargain was struck with the Government: if one had to have a bridge, one had to pay for it. That bargain seems to be doomed to continue for eternity. The alien consortium, to which the bridge and the second crossing were handed over, has proved in the first fortnight of its existence that it will screw every franc and every sou out of the people of south Wales.
I crossed the bridge on Tuesday, and we knew that there would be problems in the early days with the unfamiliarity of the toll and with change. On Tuesday, which is not a time of peak travel, and at midday, which is not a peak time of day for travelling, there was a six-mile queue coming into Wales. That means a wait of at least one hour.
Although Conservative Members may argue that the extraordinarily high rate of tolls is not a great additional cost on motoring, the perception of the cost is greatly magnified because the tolls have to be paid again and again as a single item. Many of the other costs of travel, such as the cost of vehicles and of petrol, and taxation, are taken care of and are not perceived as being such a burden. At present, Wales is seen as an area that is inaccessible and it seems that a great psychological barrier has been erected which deters people from coming in.
We know that there has been a devastating effect on people coming into Wales. It is rather like going into a safari park because people have to pay to go into Wales. Although there is some merit in charging for one way only —it has been effective in other countries—the charge has to be made for going into Wales because the inevitable hold-up if the charge was made on people coming the other way would mean that traffic would have to stand on the bridge, which would have many detrimental effects.
Why are we being penalised in this way? Is it the responsibility of the people of Wales for demanding the bridge? The responsibility lies with the design of the bridge. As we well know, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East suggested, the design was experimental, like that of the box-girder bridge.
The expectation of traffic was greatly underestimated —not so much for cars but certainly for lorries. The Government have been extremely permissive in respect of lorries on the bridge and elsewhere. The chance of being stopped with a lorry that is overloaded is one in every 5,000 journeys. When the trading standards department of the Welsh counties carried out a trial recently, it found that a third of the lorries on the road were overloaded. It is overloaded or badly loaded lorries that have shaken the bridge into early senility, and costs have mounted—not because of the price of building the bridge originally but because of the price of the repairs. The people of Wales are being penalised for a rotten design.
As hon. Members have said, the road is the main artery into south Wales. It is also a great European route—the main route from the continent of Europe to Ireland—and is enormously important.
In conclusion—[HON. MEMBERS: "Carry on."] I am encouraged by my hon. Friends' enthusiasm to continue.
The story of the bridge has been an extraordinary one. We hear, for example, about the charge for the telephone call. It seems an extraordinary bit of money-grabbing on the part of this alien consortium that it should have changed the telephone call system. Everyone will have to ring up because we are talking about the most unreliable piece of road in the country—more unreliable even than the M25 around London. A daily hold-up can almost be guaranteed. At one time, it was possible to avoid delays if one avoided peak hours, but that is no longer the case. The bridge is virtually guaranteed to be congested at virtually every time of day, so the telephone call is important to identify the odd window of opportunity to get across the bridge in less than half an hour.
The consortium has used the same technique as the pornographers—the obscenity industry—getting itself an 0898 number. Those who have used the service know that one has to listen for several minutes before hearing the punchline—the information that one requires. I congratulate the Western Mail on printing the whole five minutes of vacuous waffle produced by this alien consortium to get more money out of the unfortunate people of south Wales who use the bridge.
In my constituency and in other constituencies in south Wales, an entirely new phenomenon is affecting jobs. The phrase "inward investment" is an ugly phrase used with some pride by the Government. We now have the phenomenon of outward divestment, whereby good jobs, jobs for the future, jobs in the sunrise industries—jobs at Inmos, at Parke-Davis in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), and in Llanelli—are disappearing. The firms are not closing down, disappearing or going out of business: jobs are being siphoned out of Wales.
Yes, as my hon. Friend says, Renishaw. Those jobs are leaving Wales and most of them are arriving in France. Many of the Inmos jobs are going to Sicily, while other jobs are going to the third world, to Malta and Malaysia. Welsh jobs are disappearing from Wales by the process of outward divestment. When we bring people into Wales in an attempt to convince them that it is a suitable home for new industries, the barrier of the Severn bridge, with its daily queues, is a great disincentive to them to settle in south Wales.
My son owns a small van, and he was caught on the first day—he had to make two journeys across the bridge. I declare a financial interest: I was horrified by the new charge. The charge is not only extraordinarily high—the increase for small vans is crazy; it also involves change. One has either to wait for change or produce four or five different coins to the value of £5.60. That is totally unjustified. We know of the great problems that small businesses have suffered under this Government. The many business men who have written to me expressing their great anger want their voices to be heard here tonight. The Government must make a move on that. They cannot allow the charges to increase as they have now, and as they will in future. Wales is being subjected to highway robbery by a foreign Government.
I join in the congratulations to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your new appointment. We on the Conservative Benches are delighted about that. I had the good fortune to experience your firm but sensitive handling of Committees upstairs. If you can bring that skill to the Chamber, as I am sure that you will, your appointment will be extremely popular. I wish you well.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) on obtaining the first Adjournment debate of this Parliament. I would expect no less from him, although it is quite an achievement. I welcome his colleagues, the hon. Members for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) and for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), who have taken part in this important debate. This is my first reply from the Dispatch Box as Minister responsible for roads and I am certain that I will have the pleasure of attending many Adjournment debates in the next few months.
The House well knows the close interest that the hon. Member for Newport, East has long taken in the Severn bridge. Therefore, it is no surprise that he has used his experience of the House to seize this early opportunity to raise last week's changes at the bridge. I hope in my reply to set out the background to those changes and to consider the wider aspects of what we are trying to do in that area.
The importance of the Severn crossing for the economy of south Wales is undeniable. Over the 25 years since the Severn bridge was opened in September 1966, traffic at the present bridge has grown threefold to a total approaching 19 million vehicles a year—more than 50,000 a day. The growth in traffic has been particularly rapid during much of the past decade, matching the recovery of the Welsh economy over that period. It is honest to admit that the economy of south Wales over the past decade has been transformed. We have seen the most encouraging level of foreign and other investment in that area—(Interruption.]
No, I am replying to the hon. Member for Newport, East.
The natural consequence of the growth has been that the capacity of the existing bridge is reaching saturation point. It will not be sufficient to meet the predicted levels of demand in future. Therefore, the Government gave a commitment as long ago as 1986 to provide additional capacity at the crossing. As a consequence, they set in train measures to provide that extra capacity. Work has now started on the construction of the second Severn crossing three miles downstream of the present bridge.
The new bridge and the link roads that will connect it to the motorway network will be open to traffic early in 1996. It will provide a major improvement in communications between England and Wales. In fact, it will more than double the road capacity across the Severn estuary and it will also offer shorter and more reliable journey times. It is a crucial development for the area and especially for south Wales where it should help to sustain the pace of economic regeneration and encourage further inward investment. More immediately, the construction of the new bridge will generate up to 1,000 jobs, the majority of which will be supplied locally.
The second bridge is very important for south Wales. It shows that we are keeping faith with Wales. Our determination to complete the bridge as soon as possible is just what Wales wants. Two inquiries into tolls have concluded that tolls do not affect the economy of south Wales.
The bridge is very important for south-west England, too. The whole Bristol area is developing, and the good links between south Wales and the Bristol area will help to make that whole region of the United Kingdom even more prosperous. I do not believe that it should be seen as just a Welsh problem or an opportunity for Wales; it is an opportunity for the whole United Kingdom.
It seems to me that the growth in traffic across that bridge counteracts what the hon. Gentleman says. As I have said, two inquiries have shown that tolls do not affect the economy and certainly do not affect the volume of traffic. In any event, as we know, enterprise on that scale simply does not come cheaply. The new bridge alone will cost £300 million to build.
Equally clearly, however, the hon. Member for Newport, East finds it objectionable that users of the crossing, who will of course derive most benefit from the provision of the new bridge, should contribute to those costs. As he knows full well, for many years it has been the policy of successive Governments, both Labour and Conservative, that those who enjoy exceptional benefits from the provision of major estuarial crossings should contribute through tolls to the costs of providing them.
Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman does not need reminding, although the plans for the tolling of the Severn bridge had been prepared under a Conservative Administration, as he pointed out, in 1965 a Labour Government decided to bring in legislation which originally imposed tolls on the bridge. Therefore, it seems to me that, unless there has been a sharp U-turn, tolls are good Labour policy. There was no difference between the two main parties about the need to pay for such major crossings by tolls.
The new tolling arrangments which came into force on 26 April, and about which the hon. Gentleman has expressed so much concern, reflect proposals which were submitted to the Government, in the competition to provide the new bridge, by the Laing-GTM consortium, later to become established as the Severn River Crossing company. Its proposal to design, build, finance and operate the new bridge, and to take over the financing and operation of the existing bridge, offered the best overall value for money of all those submitted, whether involving private finance or public finance. It follows that any other option for providing the new bridge would have meant that users of the crossing would sooner or later have had to pay more, rather than less, by way of tolls than is now to be the case. Indeed, there could have been delay in building that bridge.
Despite the hon. Members' concern about what they rather haughtily called a foreign-backed consortium, it is in fact a British registered and based company. The French company GTM-Entrepose has a 35 per cent. shareholding, but, as hon. Members will accept, it is simply the mirror image of the way in which many British firms have a stake in foreign companies and invest overseas.
The new tolls, which have been the subject of much comment, have been fixed under a formula laid out in the Severn Bridges Act 1992. The basis of the new arrangements, including the principle of tolling in only one direction and the likely level of tolls for each category of vehicle, was explained by the Department as far back as April 1990, when we announced the award of the concession to the Severn River Crossing company. Subsequently, the details of the final proposals were set out in the Severn Bridges Bill, which Parliament naturally had every opportunity to debate during its passage.
I fully appreciate that the new tolls involve a sharp increase, especially for the users of light vans, but it is fair to point out that at no stage during the passage of the Bill —including the Standing Committee, on which the hon. Member for Newport, East served—was any comment, adverse or otherwise, made about the treatment of those vehicles relative to that of other vehicles. Moreover, although it was a hybrid Bill, which provides the opportunity for objections to be raised by way of petitions, no petitions were deposited against the Bill by groups representing road users and none which argued against the proposed treatment of light vans.
The hon. Member for Newport, East therefore had time to make those points during the passage of the Bill but never made them clearly and did not seem interested in them.
Could my hon. Friend help us on this one? My constituents, especially in Chepstow, drive small vans across the Severn estuary. As the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) said, they treat the Severn bridge as just another piece of the M4. How has it come about that the charges have been such a shock? They certainly were not appreciated until it happened.
First, I welcome my hon. Friend to the House. I look forward to his maiden speech with great anticipation, having already seen something of his verve. I congratulate him on his great victory in Monmouth. He will appreciate that the pattern of tolls for different vehicles was incorporated in the Bill. It was not challenged by Opposition Members. Indeed, one must bear in mind that if we had reduced the tolls for vans, we would inevitably have had to increase the tolls for cars by a greater amount to pay for the bridge. I wonder what Opposition Members would have said to that.
Does the Minister appreciate that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) served on the Standing Committee and opposed whole scale the toll charges in the Bill while his colleagues on the Conservative Benches sat like dumb mutes? They did not say a word in opposition. We have been basically against toll charges as a whole. When we talk about vans in the second category which will pay a toll of £5.60, it is reasonable to suggest—
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but the truth is that when the Bill was going through the House he never criticised the formula and balance of tolls between the different sorts of vehicles. That was the point that I sought to make.
In the circumstances, given the benefit in journey times and costs provided by the Severn crossing, and the greater benefits which will accrue once the new bridge is opened —that is the vital point—the Government believe that the new tolls are reasonable for all categories of vehicle. Vehicle users can obtain discounts on the tolls of 20 per cent. in the case of cars and light vehicles by buying books of tickets from the concessionaire.
The hon. Member for Newport, East also reported that some of his constituents had experienced difficulties in obtaining the discounted toll tickets. Obviously, I am sorry about that. But the sale of the tickets is a matter for the concessionaire. I understand that the company is aware of the problems which have arisen as a result of the unexpectedly large initial rush of demand for tickets. It is dealing as quickly as possible with the backlog of applications. I hope that the problems will soon disappear.
The House may also be interested to know that people who are disabled and those who ride motor cycles can use the bridges free. Lastly, I emphasise that the tolls are essential to help build a new bridge rapidly within four years. The new bridge will be of huge benefit to the economies of both south Wales and south-west England.
The hon. Member for Newport, East raised some points about the financing of the bridge. I did not follow the figures that he used or recognise them. I understand that there is £120 million of debt on the existing bridge. Of course, during the period of existence of the bridge much has been spent, for example, on repairs and other measures. Under the concession agreement, the Severn River Crossing company is entitled to collect a total of £976 million in revenue over the concession period, provided that the period does not exceed 30 years. The £976 million figure is justified on the basis that the company is financing over a period of some 20 years or more construction work costing about £300 million and the repayment of the deficit of about £120 million outstanding on the existing bridge. In addition, it is now responsible for the costs of maintaining and operating both bridges throughout that period. Given the considerable interest costs inevitably also involved over the period, the total revenue requirement is certainly not unreasonable.
No. The hon. Gentleman was not involved in the debate and I have several more points to cover.
Before I comment on the traffic delays which have just now occurred at the bridge, I should first inform the House of the tragic accident that happened yesterday when the driver of a vehicle died in an accident on the approaches to the bridge. The House will appreciate that I cannot say anything that might prejudice the formal outcome of the inquiries being made by the coroner and the police. However, I understand that shortly after midday a van collided with stationary vehicles at the rear of a queue of traffic leading to the bridge. The driver of the van died and three people from other vehicles were taken to hospital. Initial reports from the coroner suggest that the van driver died of natural causes. I should like to offer my sincere condolences and sympathy to the bereaved and injured.
With regard to the traffic delays at the bridge, which have been described, the Severn River Crossing company—which is, of course, responsible for levying the new tolls—put out a great deal of publicity about the new arrangements, with the assistance of the Department of Transport and the Welsh Office, during the two weeks before the changeover. A press conference was held in the area, leaflets and press releases were issued, and prominent signs were put up on the approaches to the bridge. However, no publicity campaign can ever hope to reach everybody and, inevitably, many people were caught unawares on that first Sunday and the following Monday morning, without the right money to hand. The practical difficulties of dealing with the new toll amounts and the extra handling of change required also caused some initial problems for users and toll collectors alike. In addition, regrettably, a small minority of users stopped to complain to the toll collectors about the new system, or refused to pay, thus causing further delays to other users. The end result, as the House will know, was that for a time there were long tailbacks of westbound traffic, heading towards Wales. By an unfortunate coincidence, there were also problems in the eastbound direction on that Monday morning because of the breakdown of a lorry.
After the first Monday until this Tuesday morning, including the bank holiday weekend, there were no undue delays at the bridge. Yesterday morning, however, one of the toll booths had to be closed for urgent safety work, leaving only five available. This led to some delays to traffic during the day. These were compounded in the afternoon by more serious disruption arising from the aftermath of the tragic accident that I described earlier. The safety work at the toll booths is scheduled to be completed this evening so that, while there have been further delays today, the situation should be back to normal from tomorrow onwards. I greatly regret any inconvenience caused to motorists.
Notwithstanding yesterday's events and the temporary disruption to traffic arising from the need for urgent safety work at the toll booths, the general picture has been that all concerned—users and toll collectors alike—have quickly adapted to the new arrangements. I should also remind the House that traffic in the eastbound direction now passes through toll-free, so is no longer interrupted by the need to stop for toll collection. In time, that change will be greatly welcomed by the bridge users.
Work is in hand to increase the capacity of the toll plaza at the bridge for one-way tolling. This includes the construction of two new toll lanes and the provision of tandem toll booths in three lanes, providing a total of up to 1I toll booths. The concessionaire is making every effort to provide the full capacity as soon as possible, to minimise the possibility of delays to the summer holiday traffic. Those arrangements will provide ample capacity for the period until the new bridge is opened.
In addition, the concessionaire is planning to introduce, later this year, automatic vehicle identification systems for the automatic collection of tolls, which should help to streamline the arrangements for regular users.
Although it was not mentioned in the debate, I know that there have been some complaints about the telephone information service. The service has been altered to improve it, so that the current traffic and toll information is given first. Other news, such as weather conditions, is now given later so that people need not wait for it. We are also seeking faster updating and there will be more telephone lines—up to 600.
It was likely that the introduction of a wholly new system of tolling at such an important and busy location as the Severn bridge would cause some temporary disruption, however thorough the preparations. As I have said, I regret any delays during the first day.
To return to the main theme of the debate, it is important to remember that the ultimate purpose of the changes is to enable the financing and construction of the second Severn bridge.
Are there any circumstances in which the concessionaires can come back to the Department of Transport and ask for a further increase, over and above the formula? I read in the press that they could say that they had now uncovered unexpected difficulties and wished to increase the toll charges over and above the already highly injurious formula that exists.
These are my first few days in the Department, but I understand that the formula is laid down in the Act and that the company must abide by that formula. However, if I am wrong—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand the position—I shall write to the hon. Gentleman to put the record straight. I believe that the formula is laid down by an Act of Parliament, which has been thoroughly debated by both sides of the House.
Thanks to the Government's commitment to progressing the scheme as a matter of the highest priority and the way in which we have managed successfully to tap into the initiative and resources of the private sector, work on the project is already under way. Within four years the new bridge will be open, when it will provide huge benefits to the economy of the area, not only south Wales but the whole of south-west England.
In paying attention to your words, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall conclude by saying that the Government's actions and belief in attracting private sector money into those schemes have enabled that area of the United Kingdom to look forward to that much needed bridge long before it might have done so under any other Government. The current arrangements and the drive that is going ahead to provide the bridge, which is being paid for by those who use it, are the right approach. Ultimately, they will be widely welcomed by local people, who do not want quibbling and delay. We are determined and committed to get the bridge in action as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at tiventy-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.