On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your advice and guidance on a matter. In the edition of the Liverpool Echo published yesterday,
"We shall be there, ready to object whenever and wherever it crops up . . . It will be guerrilla warfare."
Would not the use of guerrilla warfare tactics in a debate such as this be distinctly unparliamentary?
If I see anything in the nature of what the hon. Gentleman and I might consider to be guerrilla tactics, I am sure that the powers of the Chair will be adequate to deal with them.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As a Merseyside MP, I am proud to be sponsoring the Mersey Tunnels Bill on behalf of the Merseyside passenger transport authority. The proposals for this Bill were the subject of widespread consultation on Merseyside, in line with Cabinet Office guidance, and the House will wish to know that a formal statement from the promoters is available in the Vote Office.
For the benefit of hon. Members who may not be familiar with the role of PTAs, there are seven of them in Great Britain—Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Strathclyde, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands, and West Yorkshire. They are comprised of locally elected councillors nominated by the district, city and borough councils in the former metropolitan counties. All the PTAs are currently led by Labour party supporters.
Passenger transport authorities are accountable to the local electorate and set the transport policy framework for their respective areas. The policies are then implemented by the full-time staff of the passenger transport executives. The PTEs were the creation of a Labour Government under the Transport Act 1968, a piece of legislation masterminded by my late and noble Friend, Baroness Castle.
All PTAs and PTEs are required to ensure the quality and availability of public transport services in their area. That includes giving financial support for the local rail network, funding socially necessary bus services, managing local concessionary fare schemes and providing public transport information. They have played a truly extraordinary role in improving public transport in our great metropolitan areas outside London, and deserve far more recognition than they currently receive.
On Merseyside, the PTA, which is promoting the Bill, and the PTE have been fused together to operate under one banner—Merseytravel. That body is the principal architect of the Merseyside local transport plan, drawn up in partnership with other public and private sector interests in the area, in line with the Government's 1998 White Paper and the subsequent Transport Act 2000. Merseytravel has been awarded the status of a centre of excellence by the Government in both integrated transport and integrated transport planning—an accolade of which I am extremely proud.
The Bill fits exactly into the context of the Merseyside local transport plan, which is a serious attempt to create a holistic solution to the current and anticipated needs of both Merseyside and the wider travel-to-work area. The plan was drawn up after full and thorough consultation with the five district councils on Merseyside and—importantly—with neighbouring authorities, such as the Cheshire and Lancashire county councils.
It is a further mark of Merseytravel's success that the Government are in the process of transferring from the Strategic Rail Authority to Merseytravel the full panoply of powers over the local rail network. That change, too, is endorsed by Cheshire and Lancashire county councils. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has played a leading role in making that change, which will give a unique degree of local control of the heavy rail network to the community that it serves.
The five local authorities represented on the Merseyside PTA are Knowsley borough council, Liverpool city council, Sefton borough council—in my constituency—St. Helens borough council and Wirral borough council. My right hon. and hon. Friends should know that two of those authorities are currently held by Labour; two are hung, but Labour councillors are in leading roles; and one is led by the Liberal Democrats. All five support the Bill.
Merseytravel itself has a majority of Labour councillors, so I point out to my hon. Friends that the Bill is being promoted by a Labour-controlled authority, established by Labour, carrying out the policies of the Labour Government.
As well as carrying out the normal duties of a PTA and a PTE, Merseytravel owns and manages the famous Mersey ferries and the two Mersey road tunnels that run under the river between Liverpool and Wirral. The Queensway tunnel, between Liverpool and Birkenhead, opened in 1934, nearly 60 years ago. The twin bores of the Kingsway tunnel, between Liverpool and Wallasey, opened in 1971 and 1974.
The Mersey tunnels are an important strategic transport asset for Merseyside. They are the only estuarial crossing in Britain to be found at the heart of a conurbation.
Perhaps my hon. Friend would bear with me.
The tunnels provide an important route for commerce, and commuting and leisure travel between the Wirral and Liverpool and for journeys further afield.
I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point, as it is a recognition that we are dealing with journeys that go much further than Merseyside. In the light of that, does she agree that as I represent constituents in Ellesmere Port and Neston it would be appropriate for me and people such as me to be part of the consultation process under best-value legislation?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; I understand his motivation, but I stress that the five Merseyside authorities bear the cost of the tunnels so the future of the tunnels is largely at their discretion.
Although the tunnels are the responsibility of the Merseyside PTA, research has shown that the tunnels are used by only 3 per cent. of the people of Merseyside. Car ownership in the area is relatively low by national standards, and I am pleased to say that its citizens are far more reliant on public transport than those in most conurbations. As I shall explain, it is questionable on grounds of fairness whether the 97 per cent. of Merseysiders who do not use the tunnels should be called on to subsidise them through their council tax when additional financial support is needed. I repeat: 97 per cent. of Merseysiders are called on to subsidise tunnels that they do not use.
The Mersey tunnels are an important strategic transport asset for Merseyside. They are the only estuarial crossings in Britain to be found at the heart—
Please bear with me.
As I have already pointed out, the tunnels provide an important route for commerce, and commuting and leisure travel between the Wirral and Liverpool and for journeys further afield.
Merseytravel has an obligation to put the tunnels on a sound financial footing, to invest in them to ensure that they operate at the highest practicable levels of safety, and to provide alternative public transport services for those increasingly congested river crossings. That is what the Bill does.
Let me make it absolutely clear that the Bill does not privatise the tunnels in any way—despite what some hon. Members have been led to believe. It is true—
Perhaps my hon. Friend will bear with me while I finish this part of my speech.
It is true that a previous Mersey Tunnels Bill envisaged letting the operation of the tunnels on a long-term concession to a private sector operator. At that time, Merseytravel saw that as the only way to achieve the modernisation of working practices essential to the spirit and letter of the Labour Government's best-value principles. The proposal was scrapped by the Labour leadership of Merseytravel, which is why the current Bill is but a third of the size of the original.
A year ago, the political leadership of Merseytravel offered the five trade unions representing the 300 or so employees of the tunnels the opportunity to be involved in negotiations on the modernisation of working practices while remaining in the public sector. Such modernisation is exactly what the TUC claims is the alternative to private sector involvement in public services. Thus far, however, the trade unions have not attended a single meeting to take that process forward; instead, four of the five unions and the north-west region of the TUC have chosen to petition against the Bill, even though it poses no threat whatever to their members.
I must make progress.
The exception was Unison, which has written to its members who serve in this place urging them to support the Bill. It is a source of great regret to Merseytravel that the trade unions did not take up the offer to negotiate the creation of a modern public service. Nevertheless, Merseytravel remains fully committed to the principle of public sector operation and is still ready to enter negotiations with the trade unions at any time. The Bill is not about privatisation.
Having set out the role of Merseytravel and clarified what the Bill does not do, I shall explain what it is actually about. First, it is designed to put the Mersey tunnels on a sound financial footing. Since the abolition of the Merseyside county council by the Conservative Government in 1986, Merseytravel has been responsible for the management, operation and maintenance of the Mersey tunnels.
All Labour Members accept that the sound management of our public finances is necessary if we are to raise the quality of public services. In the case of Mersey tunnels, that ambition is impossible under the current legislation. They are financed through the collection of tolls from the drivers of cars and other vehicles that pass through them. Current legislation stipulates that toll revenue must equal only the cost of operating, refurbishing and financing the tunnels. The tolls must not explicitly produce any surplus revenue that can be aggregated in anticipation of the need for future investment. That means, in reality and actuality, that Merseytravel can seek to raise the tolls only after the tunnels have been pushed into deficit by rising maintenance and other costs.
The process of raising the tolls to cover additional costs can take up to two years. That is because Merseytravel has to apply to the Secretary of State for Transport for authority to raise the tolls. He, in turn, is obliged to call a public inquiry if objectors oppose the rise so requested, and they inevitably do. The toll revision process can take up to two years and will cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. Therefore, the elected councillors of Merseytravel find that they have responsibility for the finances of the tunnels with no power to finance operating losses other than through the levying of the five district councils until a public inquiry, which could take two years, has been completed and the Secretary of State has made his decision. That is exactly what has taken place in the past and it is what the Bill seeks to avoid in future.
The last time that the Merseyside PTA was compelled to request financial assistance from the five district councils for the Mersey tunnels was in 1992. Hon. Members may well ask whether that request was made to advance public transport on Merseyside. The answer is absolutely not. The finance was used to subsidise the private cars, vans and lorries using the Mersey tunnels. This ridiculous arrangement resulted in £28 million having to be paid to the tunnels by the five Merseyside district councils and, hence, by council tax payers. That debt is still being paid out of income from tolls. The authority in my constituency is owed £5 million. The 97 per cent. of Merseysiders who do not use the tunnels subsidise the 3 per cent. who do. Should Parliament fail to enact this Bill, the beast of 1992 will again pick the pocket and purse of every council tax payer on Merseyside. Some of our authorities can least afford that.
Moreover, users of the tunnels resident outside the conurbation have been immune from any additional burden whatever. Research has shown that as many as 10 per cent. of the users of the tunnels reside outside Merseyside and therefore never incur the consequence of the debt that accrues to the facilities.
I fully acknowledge the contribution that commuters from outside Merseyside make to the economy of the county, especially those "workers by brain", as we used to call them in the Labour party, who are employed in the burgeoning financial, technical and academic sectors of Liverpool's economy. We do not doubt their contribution, but we wish to make the situation more equitable for all concerned. Can it be right that the council tax payers of the conurbation, many of whom are on very low earnings compared to the outside commuters, should be called upon to subsidise the travel-to-work costs of those able to reside in the more affluent shires? I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends, especially those representing constituencies in London and other great cities, whether their constituents would be prepared to countenance that.
Clearly, Merseytravel is under an obligation to its constituents to put the tunnels on a sound financial footing so that there is no need for future subsidies from the council tax. We have already paid far too much, and we are already owed a great deal. The Bill, which is promoted by Labour-led Merseytravel, seeks to right that wrong. It would reconfigure the economics of the madhouse in such a way that neither the tunnels nor importantly the council tax payers on Merseyside would be forced to go into debt. That has been the reality for some of the authorities concerned.
A resolution to the problem is even more pressing in the light of a recent report on safety in the Mersey tunnels. An urgent need now exists for additional funding for investment in the tunnels. Let me explain. In April this year, the Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil Club—the German motorists' organisation—published its latest report on safety in 30 road tunnels throughout Europe. The report was commissioned by, and carried out in conjunction with, a range of European Union organisations, including Britain's Automobile Association. Merseytravel volunteered to co-operate with the study, enabling ADAC to examine the Mersey tunnels. The report awarded good marks to the Kingsway tunnel between Wallasey and Liverpool, which came seventh overall in Europe. That reflected, in large part, the relatively modern design from the 1960s and 1970s. However, the Queensway tunnel between Birkenhead and Liverpool scored less highly, rating as acceptable and coming 21st out of 30. That was mainly a result of the way in which it was designed and constructed in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Queensway tunnel's weaknesses include it having only one tube with oncoming traffic, no emergency lanes or lay-bys, narrow traffic lanes, inadequate emergency walkways, 1,500 m gaps between emergency exits and no automatic detection of traffic congestion. The emergency telephones are not soundproofed, the fire ventilation system is not automatically activated and the tunnel is not automatically closed in the event of a fire. Merseytravel has examined the report in detail and has provisionally costed the works recommended to bring both tunnels up to European safety standards at about £8.5 million.
Merseytravel has long anticipated that the need would arise for substantial expenditure in the Queensway tunnel. However, the ADAC report, following on from a number of serious fires in road tunnels on the mainland of Europe in the past few years, has now produced a compelling need to act swiftly and in additional areas.
My hon. Friend makes a serious point about the ADAC report, which I have read in great detail along with reports from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other United States studies. The money must be spent whether we have the Bill or not. Therefore, does she not think that it is a bit ingenuous of the Bill to talk in terms of using resources to develop other passenger transport services when, for years to come, any surplus that is generated by the tunnels will have to be used to invest in safety?
I am grateful that my hon. Friend has raised that point. If he bears with me, I shall address it shortly.
The money must obviously be found and the PTA has recommended that tolls be raised to meet the high costs of refurbishing the tunnels. The alternative—which is to ask local council tax payers to foot the bill, possibly by cutting spending on other services—is simply not on. However, as a result of the arcane procedures to which I referred earlier, raising tolls means a public inquiry that may take up to two years and that will also cost the council tax payers who currently subsidise the tunnels.
I argue strongly that the PTA must be given the authority to take whatever action is necessary to meet the highest safety standards as quickly as possible. That would be achieved by enactment of the Bill, which would allow the PTA to increase tolls in line with the retail prices index.
That in turn would allow tolls to rise by 10p next April, from £1.20 per car to £1.30, thereby enabling the safety improvements in the tunnels to get under way almost immediately. Merseytravel envisages that all the additional revenue raised from the indexation of tolls would be spent exclusively on improvements to the tunnels in the first four years or so after the Bill's enactment; which brings me neatly on to its second main purpose: improving Merseyside's public transport network.
As I said, the Bill contains powers to allow tolls to rise in line with the retail prices index. Thanks to the Labour Government's sound economic policies, the RPI is at an historic low, and the estimated increase for motorists using the tunnel is 10p over three years. Given that the fares for crossing the Mersey by any other means—train, bus or ferry—rise at least in line with inflation, it is eminently reasonable that motorists should be subject to a comparable increase.
It is important to know that, although the Bill empowers Merseytravel to increase tolls in line with the RPI, it would not require Merseytravel to exercise that power. Its use is at the discretion of the elected members of the PTA. For example, if economic circumstances are such that a toll increase would be harmful to the Merseyside region, the councillors could choose not to apply it either in full or in part. Users would be protected from an increase above the level of the RPI, under agreements similar to those currently in force. In very exceptional circumstances, Merseytravel would be able to apply to the Secretary of State for an increase in tolls above the level of inflation.
In deploying arguments about the financial case, will the hon. Lady address the concerns of the district auditor, who was unable to get access to sufficient management information to assess whether the figures produced by Merseytravel were accurate?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, but it is a matter for the authority and the auditors. I note his concern and will write to him in due course.
Merseytravel would have to justify its request for an increase in tolls above the level of inflation to the Secretary of State, as it does now—for example, on the grounds of emergency maintenance—and the Secretary of State would continue to have the power to hold a public inquiry. Having provided for indexation, the Bill would allow Merseytravel to use creatively any surplus toll income over and above the cost of operating the tunnels and maintaining them to the highest safety standards. Merseytravel would be empowered to use the surplus to fund improvements to public transport, enabling the Merseyside local transport plan, which the Government commended, to be delivered faster.
It is necessary to deliver these improvements at the earliest opportunity so that we provide alternatives to the car for those very people who believe that they have no choice but to drive through the tunnels. The tunnels are operating at, or near, capacity at peak times. As the economy of Merseyside continues to recover and grow, the need for travel will similarly expand. Shall we stand aside and allow the tunnels to become even more congested, causing tailbacks and pollution in Wallasey, Birkenhead and Liverpool city centre; or shall we act now to manage demand by modestly increasing tolls in line with inflation and providing genuine public transport alternatives?
I refer my hon. Friend to the front page of the statement by the promoters, which states:
"Merseytravel sees the level of tunnels' tolls as a device to help manage traffic growth in the tunnels, by making sure that tolls keep pace with inflation".
We know that wages keep pace with—and indeed exceed—inflation. We also know—this is confirmed in the document—that the cost of motoring has been decreasing for some time. Why would a toll increase that is linked to the RPI reduce or even manage traffic in the tunnels?
Clearly the dynamics and utilisation of the tunnel are a matter for considerable debate. We can project the use of the tunnels on existing figures, which suggest that it will increase to an unbearable extent. I do not believe that the measures are onerous. As my hon. Friend has said, the cost of travel is decreasing. For a small increase in Merseytravel's fees, we will introduce something that might not only contain the level of traffic growth, but offer viable alternative public transport opportunities.
Let me outline some of the projects in the local transport plan which will benefit the Wirral and could be delivered quicker as a result of the Bill. They include: the transformation of the quality of bus services from Liverpool and Birkenhead in the A41 corridor to Eastham and Mill park via Bromborough, in the A552/A551 corridor to Heswall via Woodchurch road, and in the A553 corridor to West Kirby via Bidston and Upton; a major upgrade to the Birkenhead Hamilton square underground station, which is desperately needed; and the progressive upgrade of all Merseyrail stations in Wirral to offer an enhanced passenger waiting environment, including closed circuit television, which is in great demand, real-time passenger information, interactive help points, seating, and secure cycle storage, and the provision of better interchange opportunities with connecting bus services. Who would not want those services in the Wirral, and who would not want them now?
The projects also include: electrification of the mid-Wirral diesel rail line between Bidston and Woodchurch; the creation of a major new multi-modal interchange and strategic park-and-ride at the new station close to the junction of the M53 and A552 at Woodchurch; a new station and a park-and-ride at Beechwood; a major refurbishment programme to the Merseyrail train fleet; an integrated ticketing system including smart cards; improvements to the main underground rail station in Liverpool city centre; and further investment in Merseyside ferries.
A 10p increase in tunnel tolls every three years is a pretty small price to pay for the earlier delivery of that package of improvements, especially as tunnel users would help to fund measures that will provide them either with a real alternative or with a reduction in congestion if they must use the roads.
I intervene only because my hon. Friend admirably cited Birkenhead. I will support the Bill on Second Reading because there is much sense in the reforms that she proposes. Nevertheless, does she accept that some of us who support the Bill in principle may be more concerned, on Report, that moneys from the tolls will go to far distant areas in Merseyside and not to Birkenhead, Beechwood and Wirral, West, areas on which she cleverly concentrates when setting out the advantages? We would like to see all those reforms, but many of my constituents and I are less keen on a council tax increase to fund improvements to the far stretches of Merseyside, whose people never use the tunnel.
Birkenhead will benefit, as will many areas inside the Wirral, but much of Crosby will not. We have a list of priorities that need to be addressed, and the areas that I have identified clearly rank far higher than my own. The local transport plan is available for consultation and open for negotiation. I have expressed my concerns and aspirations, and I encourage my right hon. Friend to do the same. However, if I were in his place, I would be very grateful that at least some aspects of my kingdom had been referred to and that they were to have a definite opportunity to secure improvements in the short term—rather than the long term, as I fear it will be for some of us.
On congestion, I point out to the House that the Bill empowers Merseytravel to carry out noise insulation works for about 200 homes near the Kingsway tunnel portals on the Wirral. The Bill will close a gap in the law which has prevented Merseytravel from providing that help in the past.
Does my hon. Friend share my happiness about that? The mistake allowed 200 houses in my constituency which directly abut the tunnel entrance to be plagued with noise for 30 years, and the inhabitants could have no relief because it would have been ultra vires to soundproof their houses. Does my hon. Friend understand how grateful my constituents are that the error has been rectified in the Bill? I shall support its Second Reading simply for that reason, but I share some of the worries expressed by my right hon. Friend Mr. Field about the distribution of other largesse.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. It is well understood on Merseyside how hard she has argued for significant support for the 200 homes directly affected by the problems associated with the Kingsway tunnel portals. I thank her in advance for her support for the Bill, which will make recompense available to the people who have been placed in that difficult position for many years. I am sure that all hon. Members receive complaints from constituents about noise levels at major road junctions. I am delighted that the Bill will enable the PTA to address such concerns.
Many will benefit from the enactment of the Bill. First, the people of Merseyside will benefit. They are currently required to bear the financial burden of the tunnels, irrespective of whether they use them or even own a car. The current legislation effectively means that the tunnels must be operated at a loss, and the debt must be passed on to local authorities and thus to council tax payers before tolls can be raised to cover any deficit. The Bill corrects that anomaly.
Secondly, the tunnel users will benefit. I referred earlier to the cost of meeting the recommendations of the ADAC report on tunnel safety. Without the guaranteed additional income generated by the Bill, tolls will in any event have to rise significantly to meet the £8.5 million cost of the additional safety works required to bring the tunnels up to the recommended European standards.
Thirdly, those who use or would like to use public transport will be significant beneficiaries. Once operating and safety costs have been met, surplus revenue from the tolls will go towards accelerating the implementation of the local transport plan, benefiting tens of thousands of people on Merseyside. Motorists quite reasonably say that they will be persuaded to leave their vehicles at home only if public transport improves. The Bill will generate additional investment in local buses, trains and ferries, and give Merseyside motorists a genuine alternative, which they are currently denied.
Fourthly, the environment and the quality of life for those living near the tunnel portals will also benefit. So too will the health of others in the region, particularly our young people. Between 1992–93 and 1999–2000, despite a small population decrease on Merseyside, there was a 9.6 per cent. increase in traffic using the Mersey tunnels. The tunnels are now operating at 92 per cent. of capacity at peak times, and queueing times at the entrances in the morning peak have increased from approximately 20 minutes in 1991 to 45 minutes today, despite the use of additional contraflow lanes at peak times.
The Bill is not anti-car or anti-motorist, but it reflects the growing awareness, in particular on the part of my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Transport, that public bodies have a duty to manage traffic growth. The increase in traffic noise and pollution at the portals of the Mersey tunnels affects some of the most deprived areas on Merseyside, where poor health is already experienced owing to a number of factors. Those areas naturally include several schools.
I draw hon. Members' attention to research commissioned by the National Asthma Campaign which points to a conclusive link between car exhaust fumes and the growing incidence of asthma in children. The Bill is designed to manage traffic growth through modest toll increases and improvements to public transport. That can only be of benefit to the health of Merseyside children.
Fifthly, business will benefit from the Bill. According to the Confederation of British Industry, traffic congestion costs the British economy £20 billion a year. In its progress report on the Government's 10-year transport plan, published on
I should now like to deal briefly with some of the arguments against the Bill. Some people claim that there is massive local opposition to the Bill. That is nonsense. A petition to Parliament opposing the Bill contained 251 signatures. Of the written representations to the former Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, 950 were tear-off coupons from the Liverpool Echo and the Wirral Evening News.
As I said earlier, the Bill has the full support of all five local authorities on Merseyside, as well as a number of public and other bodies including Transport 2000, which has petitioned the House in support of the Bill, and, significantly, Friends of the Earth. The Bill is backed by Unison and the railway union ASLEF. The latter has also petitioned the House in favour of the Bill.
Opponents claim that Merseytravel should be seeking to cut the tunnels' operating costs rather than index- linking the tolls.
Good. Perhaps my hon. Friend could bear with me a little longer.
The tunnels are a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year business. At £11.8 million a year, their operating costs are relatively modest. Even if there were cuts, that would do nothing to manage traffic growth or to generate additional revenue for safety improvements and public transport. In any case, like other public services, the tunnels are subject to the best value process, and that will continue irrespective of the Bill.
It is claimed that index-linked tolls will damage local businesses. Given that earnings generally rise faster than prices, tolls linked to the RPI will fall in relation to average earnings; therefore the economic effect of index-linked tolls on commuter traffic and thus on employees in Liverpool will be, at worst, neutral. Finally, opponents claim that commuters have no alternative means of getting to work and accuse Merseytravel of holding them to ransom.
Before my hon. Friend winds up, I would like to address a point made in a previous intervention. It has been suggested that the revenues from the proposed modest increase in tolls would result in users of the tunnel subsidising wider areas of Merseyside. Does she accept that, for more years than is fair, the constituents whom I represent have been subsidising the users of a tunnel that they themselves do not use in large numbers?
I thank my hon. Friend for that valid and accurate observation. It is of course true, and it applies not only to his constituency but to many others on Merseyside.
The Bill reflects the need to change an arcane and damaging piece of legislation which forces the Mersey tunnels to be operated at a loss before tolls can be increased, and which compels local authorities on Merseyside to pick up the tab in the meantime. It is combined with a real opportunity to improve safety in the tunnels, to manage traffic growth and to provide additional investment in public transport.
I am grateful for having been given the opportunity to sponsor the Bill. I am proud to be associated with Merseyside passenger transport authority, which is chaired in an exemplary manner by Councillor Mark Dowd, who has spent the best years of his life trying to improve transport provision on Merseyside. His authority has been motivated by the single objective of trying to do all it can to improve transport opportunities and provision for all the people of Merseyside. The authority has been uniquely successful, but there is much more to be done.
I hope that the House supports this sensible Bill, which is welcomed and needed by the vast majority of people on Merseyside. I commend it to the House.
I rise to speak about something that I have known all my life. I was driven through the Mersey tunnel as a child, anxiously looking up from the back seat of the car to see whether water would come in through the ceiling. That remains a residual fear even today, even though it has been explained to me—with drawings—why it is not a realistic likelihood. I recall there being traffic lights in the old tunnel, and the people of Liverpool proudly walking through the Kingsway tunnel when it was first opened. All my life I, as a Liverpudlian, have been proud that we have such excellent tunnels. I regard the tunnels as engineering marvels—structures of which we can be genuinely proud. Whenever I had visitors, I would make some excuse to take them through the tunnels—thus increasing by some measure the traffic congestion—because I wanted to display what is undoubtedly an engineering wonder.
At that stage, I did not regard the tunnels as being remotely problematic. Only when I became a councillor did I realise the burden of substantial historic capital costs that falls on every council tax payer on Merseyside. I was a councillor during the period when Mr. Benton occupied a senior position on the same council. From 1998 to 1992, when we were both councillors on the same authority, the operating loss on the tunnels was £28 million. Both of us know what a substantial effect that loss had in terms of having to make cuts in the council's budget. Sorely needed services were not provided, and one of the reasons they could not be provided was the £28 million that should have been available for Merseyside but simply was not available.
The loss on the tunnels represented a £28 million loss of services. It had to be made up in some way if we were not to cut services indefinitely, but it was funded by a range of people who had little connection with the tunnels.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify which year he is talking about? According to the accounts, there is only one year in which total expenditure was £28 million, and that was 1999–2000. Expenditure in all the other years was substantially less.
Anyone who pretends that there has been no substantial loss on the operating costs of the tunnel is not living in the real world. We could argue the figures indefinitely—the hon. Gentleman and I both have figures in front of us—but I genuinely believe that there was an operating loss that had an effect on services. However, even if the operating loss were only small, and not substantial, the fact remains that it has to be made up—elderly ladies in Speke, Crossens, Prescott and elsewhere have to play some part in making up the loss. In effect, such people are subsidising the haulier and the motorist.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that my hon. Friend Mr. Miller might feel a little differently about the £28 million cumulative loss if he, and his local councillors in turn, had to explain where the transport precept was going? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that my hon. Friend does not have to face that reality, unlike MPs representing the five boroughs on Merseyside?
It is not only MPs but councillors who every year have to deal with the Merseyside passenger transport authority precept and explain the basis on which it is calculated.
The fact is that there was a loss—it happened—and there is nothing in the system as currently defined that can stop it happening again. Regardless of the details, the facts and the figures, what we have is a system of deficit financing that is cumbersome, unpredictable and incapable of dealing with a range of perfectly likely scenarios. Any long-term safety issues or requirement to meet new standards cannot be dealt with under the existing funding system. Environmental problems affecting people living near the tunnels increase as traffic increases, but they are not addressed in any way by the current funding regimes. The present system contains no mechanism to deal with major structural problems that might give rise to an emergency in the tunnels. There is no mechanism to deal with any change in fiscal rules, VAT treatment or interest rates.
The system is absolutely inflexible, and it cannot guarantee that granny will not end up subsiding Eddie Stobart. I have nothing against Eddie Stobart—he is a very fine chap in his own way—but I see no reason why people who have no use for the tunnels should end up subsiding something that does not specifically concern them.
Any council leader on Merseyside knows the yearly agony of trying to fix the budget while waiting for input from the Merseyside passenger transport authority. The PTA can make a substantial difference to what the council has to tell council tax payers, and to the taxpayers themselves. A feature of the system that has been identified year after year is its sheer unpredictability, and the tunnels and the various associated charges contribute to that unpredictability.
To confirm the hon. Gentleman's comments, I well recall the many torturous hours spent in budget preparation in Sefton, and I have no doubt that other local authorities had the same experience. Does he agree that that experience of having to wait until the last minute before we could set a rate arose because it often depended on the Merseyside PTA levy? Does he agree that the Bill is motivated by the desire to modernise the system and overcome the arcane process that councillors on Merseyside still have to undergo?
I certainly do agree, and I am grateful for that intervention. In fairness, I have to say that sometimes budget negotiations within Sefton council were torturous for reasons that were not related to the MPTA, but that is another matter.
It would be disingenuous, wrong, inaccurate and dishonest of supporters of the Bill to say that it is designed solely to establish a stable financial platform. If the Bill does that, that is in itself sufficient reason to support it, but I think it is designed to do other things, and it is fair to identify what they are.
Perhaps, like me, the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to examine the Mersey Tunnels Bill briefing update produced by the Promoter of the Bill, Merseytravel. In no year since 1992–93 has there been an operating loss. The hon. Gentleman talked about stable financing, which is precisely what we have as a result of the increased tunnel toll in April 1992 and a further rise in November 1999. He is talking about history, which is not relevant to the position today.
The hon. Gentleman is slightly missing the point—he is a bit like someone who tries to persuade me not to take an umbrella tomorrow because it did not rain this afternoon. There is nothing in the present system to inhibit or prevent a loss, but the Bill includes a provision that leads one to believe that a loss is far less likely. As a loss is undesirable in principle, I support that provision.
The Bill allows the people running the tunnels to create an operating surplus—I am not against that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Bill seeks to acquire for people the power to increase tolls in line with inflation if necessary? His point is perfectly valid: if there is no need for an increase, the tolls will not necessarily go up; but if a rise is required, there is the power to increase the tolls appropriately.
The Bill provides the people running the tunnels with a tool to prevent a loss, should one be on the horizon. I do not think that anyone in the Chamber would seriously claim that such an enterprise as the one operating the Mersey tunnels should never have an operating surplus in principle. Lots of tunnels across the world have a surplus, as do many traffic management schemes.
I am much obliged for the graciousness with which the hon. Gentleman gave way. Did he see in the Merseytravel briefing that there will be a surplus on the Mersey tunnel tolls by 2005, which could be hypothecated and used for other purposes? Is not that why the Freight Transport Association and the Automobile Association oppose the Bill?
I shall not explore the reasons why the AA opposes the Bill but, as Mrs. Curtis-Thomas made clear, if there is an operating surplus, it will be needed by the operators to meet considerable demands to comply with European safety requirements. I went through the tunnel as a child so it must, by definition, be fairly old and in need of substantial refurbishment. We need a system that enables us to tackle that. A key feature of the Bill is that it creates the possibility of integration with the local transport plan; it brings the tunnels into the frame so that we can achieve a coherent and sensible local transport plan. There is not a political party on the planet that does not support local transport plans that propose an integrated transport system. Rejecting the possibility of such a system is crass stupidity and against the spirit of the Government's own 10-year plan. It is simply not possible to have integrated transport nationally, but not locally.
It is only sensible that a transport body should have the power and tools to secure economic prosperity, social inclusion and a wholesome environment. The body that we charge with the task of executing an integrated transport plan for Merseyside is the MPTA. What is there to fear? I do not understand the force of the objections to the Bill. The MPTA is a democratically elected body of people who have been nominated by their own councils because they know something about transport and have a grasp of the issues. The MPTA is not the haunt of slavering Trots, and it is not a bunch of misguided anoraks. I dare say its members have their faults. I know many of them personally, including Councillor Dowd who will acknowledge that he is by no means perfect in every respect. None the less, he is recognised for his vision, abilities and skill in determining what is needed on Merseyside, and has been nominated as transport personality of the year.
It is a pleasure to intervene in this debate. Is the hon. Gentleman talking about the same Councillor Dowd who was chair of the authority which sponsored the previous Bill, which would have privatised the management of the tunnels? Is that the same perspicacious person?
I understand the hon. Gentleman's confusion, as there are two well-known Councillor Dowds on Merseyside. However, it is the same Councillor Dowd.
The MPTA, the Minister will concur, has received tangible praise from the Government for its vision, and for its ability to understand what might be required in a transport plan for Merseyside. It submitted a transport plan which was so good that the Government, most peculiarly, asked whether it wanted more money. It was given more money as it was thought to be able to spend it properly.
The people sponsoring the Bill therefore have an acute idea of Merseyside's transport needs. Where is the danger in giving them a power that they need? Why the animus against some of the benefits that may flow from the Bill? The MPTA predicts that there will be £2.5 million of additional revenue. That figure may vary, and may be a little less, but even if it were only £1 million, that would make an appreciable difference to people on Merseyside, who could have better bus networks and stations; various environmental improvements to soften the effects of transport congestion at the tunnels; and park-and-ride schemes. They could have a range of things once money is available from the transport plan. At the moment, however, there is no guarantee that there will be any further income coming their way.
To conclude, the Bill solves the long-standing problem of unpredictable finances. Even its opponents must accept that it offers potential benefits. It is thoroughly in line with integrated transport and modern thinking. Importantly, it is subject to appropriate safeguards. If I am wrong, and if the MPTA ends up as the haunt of slavering Trots or anoraks, the only way it can damage the motorists of Merseyside is to go to the Minister and ask whether it can do so, as ultimately he has control over whether it can raise charges above the retail prices index. I hope that all Labour Members would trust the Minister to make a sensible and reasonable decision in that respect. They should be assured by the fact that he is nodding and agreeing that the safeguard will be in place when the legislation goes through.
Given that the measure is so thoroughly in line with Government thinking, the mystery is why the Government have not thrown their weight behind it—why it is a private Bill and not a Government Bill. After all, as I said earlier, if they want a national integrated transport scheme, they must support local integrated schemes as well. The tragedy may be that if the Bill falls tonight, it will be the Government's fault. In a sense, it will be the Government's tragedy, because a slice of their own national integrated transport plan will not be accomplished.
I differ on a number of points from the Bill's sponsor, my hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas, but I recognise the sincerity with which she holds her views and the commitment with which she has pursued these ends. I wanted to begin with that introduction.
Before I go on to the main body of my speech, I shall address some of the particulars of the points that my hon. Friend made. She referred to the benefits that might flow to the Wirral. There may have been a suggestion that there was a quid pro quo—that the Wirral was looking to get benefits out of the measure that would not otherwise have come its way. However, the projects that are mentioned are in the transport plan and would have come to the Wirral anyway.
It is not, let me stress, a matter of us and them. I do not object to the Bill because it disadvantages the Wirral or favours other parts of Merseyside. I take a different view from the sponsor of the Bill in that I object to the principle.
Will my hon. Friend admit that there is at least one group of people in the Wirral—my constituents who live in those 200 houses next to the Wallasey tunnel—who will not get the benefits unless the Bill or something like it closes the loophole in the law which currently makes it illegal for them to get their soundproofing, just at a time when the ro-ro which is likely to open soon will increase the weight of heavy traffic through the tunnel and make their plight even worse? They have been waiting for 30 years.
I intended to deal with that point. Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. Those provisions of the Bill have my wholehearted support. I fear that there are not many others that do.
If my hon. Friend accepts that there are provisions in the Bill that will benefit people—notwithstanding any debate about the projected rises in the tunnel fees—if the Bill is talked out tonight, will there not be a grave danger of our throwing the baby out with the bath water? The Bill is part of an integrated transport plan for the whole of Merseyside. Does my hon. Friend accept that many aspects of the plan would be contingent on those increases, and presumably a diminution in the amount of money taken out of the precept in order to support the tunnels as they are?
By definition, because of the ADAC report and the comments about the £2.5 million a year for safety improvements in the first four years at least of the Bill being in force, if such a thing were ever to happen, the money could not be spent on the projects that have been outlined. In any case, those are not contingent on the Bill; they are part of the local transport plan.
I return to my point that there is no quid pro quo. The concerns of the people who oppose the Bill relate to the effects on Merseyside as a whole, not on the individual components of Merseyside. We are not saying that one part suffers more than another, or that one part gains more than another, but that the Bill—in my view, at least—damages the whole of Merseyside, or has the potential to do so.
As it was mentioned in the opening remarks, I shall touch on the fabled 10p increase that is always spoken about—only 10p, we are told, every three years. So it may be while inflation continues at its present level, but even with the present Chancellor and the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, global economic circumstances change, interest rates may not be at their present level for ever, and there is a potential, as I shall demonstrate later, for the increases to be very much larger than the mythical 10p that is often quoted.
It was said that the consultation was effective and in accordance with Government guidelines and God knows what else, but in my view at least, the consultation was inadequate. For example, as my hon. Friend Mr. Miller said, it did not include him. He was not consulted about the matter, nor were other Members of Parliament who have an interest in the tunnels but who are not Merseyside Members. It did not include, for example, the Federation of Small Businesses, which has 6,000 members on Merseyside. It did not include a great many people.
Does my hon. Friend recall that one of the great offences in respect of the previous Bill—he may agree that it has been rolled over to this Bill—was that nobody was consulted about it? It came out of the blue to most hon. Members and merely appeared on the Floor of the House. Representations were made about that, and does my hon. Friend recall that between the appearance of that Bill and the introduction of the Bill before us, it was suggested that there should be a Merseyside forum—
Order. The hon. Gentleman's interventions are getting longer as the debate progresses. He must remember that there is distinction between an intervention and a speech. If he is hoping to catch my eye later, he might like to avoid spending too much time on interventions.
My hon. Friend made two points. He said that the Bill that was formerly proposed to deal with Mersey tunnels has, to some extent, merged into this one. I think that that is true, although the difference is that the former Bill was a de facto privatisation measure. At least this Bill drops that suggestion entirely. Of course, that is very welcome.
I should like now to move on to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby. It was suggested that the MPTA was merely a vehicle for carrying out Government policy in all that it did, and that all that was proposed in the Bill was in accordance with Government policy. I take some issue with that suggestion, but I shall deal with it later.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby also said that the petition carried only 251 signatures. That is often said, and I should like to lay that theory to rest, as it was me who presented the petition to the House. There were petitions, e-mails and filled-in forms cut out from the newspapers. A variety of signatures were collected in the streets and at railway stations by people who saw the iniquity of what was proposed. The urgency of submitting the petition and the fact that House of Commons petition procedure meant that some petitions were not regarded as appropriate ensured that the number of signatures handed in was less than the 2,000 figure that was roundly proclaimed. However, the fact of the matter was that there were many more than 2,000 signatures. Let that not be doubted. Equally, let it not be doubted that, if we had allowed the petitioning to continue, the number would have been in multiples of 2,000. Let there be no doubt that the bulk of the people of Merseyside, given the opportunity, oppose the measure. There is no question about that, so let us not get carried away with talking about 251 signatures. It is simply not so.
I say again that it is not the case. I was the hon. Member who submitted the petition and I can tell the House that there were many more than 2,000 signatures. That is the fact of the matter.
Would it not be very interesting to know how many individual constituents have written to hon. Members suggesting that they support an increase in the tolls and are in favour of the Bill?
It would indeed be interesting to have those figures. I can give the figures for my constituency, but I fear that I cannot speak for other Members. To be fair, I received one letter saying that it was a good idea to increase the tunnel charges. I think that it was from an employee of Merseytravel, but I am sure that it was a neutrally made point, for all that.
May I enlighten my hon. Friend in another sense? I have not had a single letter against the proposed changes to the tunnel fees, but if it will help him, I will, as his constituent, write to him and let him know that I do not object—I want the fees to go up.
Some points were made about the affluent shires, and I shall deal with those later on.
The Bill is promoted by the Merseyside passenger transport authority, about which I shall have more to say. I also want to deal with the generic issue of passenger transport authorities, which is relevant not only because the powers in the Bill are unique in the context of a private Bill, but because my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby dealt with the issue of the PTA generically as well as particularly.
I want to deal with the history of the tunnels and of their financing, together with the nature, role and powers of the PTA, because that is crucial in setting the Bill in context. I shall also discuss other forms of transport on Merseyside, since one of the arguments advanced in favour of the Bill is that it will move people on to other forms of transport. I need to deal with that in terms of the other forms of transport in Wirral, South, because that is the area of which I have the closest experience. I shall also talk about the orientation of the Wirral, because it is relevant to what the Bill would do to the whole of Merseyside.
The Bill relates to the Mersey tunnels, which comprise the road tunnel between Liverpool and Birkenhead—the Queensway tunnel, also known as the Birkenhead tunnel—and the two road tunnels between Liverpool and Wallasey called the Kingsway tunnel, but also known, unsurprisingly, as the Wallasey tunnel. The Queensway tunnel was completed in 1934 and the Kingsway tunnel was completed in 1974. I mention those dates because they are relevant to the financial issues.
Although the Wirral is clearly and demonstrably part of Merseyside in local government terms, its allegiances and economic linkages vary. Some people hark back nostalgically to the time when it was part of Cheshire, which in a physical sense it still is. Rightly or wrongly, and although it was more a matter of form than substance, many very much welcomed the change to the postcode some years ago that meant that it began with "CH", not "L". That did not mean that services improved; if anything, they deteriorated. However, people in some parts of the Wirral are comforted simply by having "CH" as part of the postcode.
Economic links matter not only with Cheshire and Chester, although people go to Chester for shopping, the races and work in the business park and firms such as MBNA. People also work in north Wales, not least at Airbus. The Deeside economy is unitary in many respects. Our links with Ireland are historic and remain strong. King Billy sailed to Ireland from the Wirral. People remember cattle from Ireland coming into the lairage at Birkenhead. The new roll on/roll off ferry service will further strengthen our links with Ireland. We have connections with Ellesmere Port, where people work at, for example, Vauxhall. We also have links with Halton, where people work in the chemical industry.
However, our cultural and leisure links are overwhelmingly with Liverpool and the rest of Merseyside. For both sides of the Mersey, the tunnel is a vital artery and a daily lifeline. Unnecessarily increasing the charges for using the tunnels is deeply damaging and divisive. The Wirral and the rest of Merseyside have been connected throughout history, but it was in the first part of the 20th century that Liverpool traders, ship owners, brokers, merchants and business people started to move across the Mersey to live in the Wirral and enjoy what were viewed as its bucolic pleasures. The relationship is almost umbilical.
In 1922, Sir Archibald Salvidge tabled a motion in Liverpool city council to inquire into and report on the feasibility of a tunnel or a bridge to improve traffic facilities across the Mersey. The engineers' report emphatically supported a tunnel. They pointed out that although a high-level bridge would add to the appearance of the port and river, it would be a susceptible target in the event of war. If subject to a direct hit, it could lead to the closure of the port of Liverpool. A bridge would be impossible to guard. That was wise counsel in view of the bombing of Liverpool in the second world war. Furthermore, the cost of continuous painting and maintenance of a bridge was viewed as astronomical.
It was therefore reported that a road tunnel would cost less to construct and offer considerable economy in maintenance. On
The tunnels are part of our psyche on Merseyside. King George V opened the Queensway tunnel on
My hon. Friend has been speaking for 20 minutes but he has reached only the 1930s. Will he give us an idea of the likely proportions of the rest of his speech so that we can pace ourselves?
Yes, to modern times.
The people walking through the tunnel in 1934 did so secure in the knowledge that, in the fulness of time, the debt would be paid off and the tunnels would belong to them.
As a matter of interest, my hon. Friend might like to know that I am now the only hon. Member in the House to have walked through the tunnel in 1934, my father having paid a small amount of money to local charities.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will remember the sense of well-being that he felt in the knowledge that, one day, the tunnels would belong to him, to his family and to the rest of the people of Merseyside.
I hesitate to cover all the details that I have before me, but they are relevant. One million bolts tightened the iron lining of the tunnel, and some 140 miles of joints were caulked. Some of the rubble was used to build the nearby Otterspool promenade, which was part of a scheme to reclaim the land along parts of the foreshore of Liverpool and the River Mersey. I make that point because it reinforces the fact that the two sides of the Mersey are wholly interdependent.
The main tunnel is 40 ft in diameter and carries four lanes of traffic for more than two miles between Liverpool and Birkenhead. The fact that it is only two miles long is relevant, too.
My hon. Friend asks why. There are two branches of tunnels. The Birkenhead dock branch, which at one time carried traffic to and from the Birkenhead dock estate, is now closed. The Liverpool dock branch is still in operation for exit traffic into the docks area.
I was going to deal with some of the environmental aspects of the project, but in the light of the haste that people are urging on me, I shall move forward to the 1950s.
I do not want to upstage my hon. Friend Mr. Wareing, but he may not be aware of how the tunnel was used by young scallywag kids in the 1950s to access the coastal resorts of the Wirral, by jumping on the backs of wagons, which were very slow-moving in those days.
During the 1950s, because of the post-war boom in motoring and the expansion of local industry, the need for a second crossing became evident. Detailed studies of cross-river traffic and the flows thereof provided definitive evidence of the need for an additional crossing. The arguments about the form that that crossing should take followed the earlier lines of argument. I shall spare the House the explanation of that, but the matter was investigated at great length and the same conclusion was arrived at. There was to be a second tunnel, and, in 1965, Royal Assent was given for the reconstitution of the Mersey tunnel joint committee. In 1966, work commenced.
The Kingsway tunnel, which was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in June 1971, is a twin-tube tunnel. Each tube has two traffic lanes that are 12 ft wide—compared with the 9 ft width of the lanes in the Queensway tunnel—and slightly under two miles long. The Mersey tunnels are unlike any other estuarial crossing in the country, in that they are situated in the heart of a conurbation. Patronage of the tunnels is predominantly local, but not, of course, completely so. Recent surveys show, for example, that 82 per cent. of tunnel users are Merseyside residents and that the majority of journeys through the tunnels are work oriented.
Current debt relates to the construction of the Wallasey tunnel, costing some £44 million, and the use of borrowing to finance the operating losses incurred between—
Will my hon. Friend explain that point? The outstanding debt for 2000–01 is £110 million. The first published figure of which I am aware is for 1968–69, when the outstanding debt was £17.1 million. How did the debt reach its high point of £140 million? That is well beyond the difference between income and expenditure.
Absolutely. If my hon. Friend permits me, I shall come to that in a moment.
The use of borrowing to finance the £116 million operating losses incurred between 1968 and 1992 added to the original inherited debt. From my time as Department of Trade and Industry director on Merseyside, I recall that the debt was contributed to by shenanigans during the Militant years, but I have been unable to do the research to confirm or deny that proposition, which may be apocryphal. That was my understanding at the time, but it may not be correct.
On that serious point, my hon. Friend refers to the Militant years, although I hope that I have misheard him. Of course, before the county council was abolished, it was responsible for the tunnel authority. As far as I am aware, the residuary body that took over the Mersey tunnels and the whole transport infrastructure was never, in any shape or form, infected or dominated by Militant Tendency or its influence.
That may be so, but what I have referred to was common currency when I worked in Merseyside. I accept my hon. Friend's point, however.
Deficit funding by borrowing was authorised by legislation, but it continued for far longer than was envisaged and involved much greater amounts due to higher costs and less traffic than was anticipated. According to Merseytravel's website, and there can be no better authority, Merseytravel inherited the tunnels in 1986 with £100 million of debt and operating losses of £10 million per annum. Annual operating costs were £20 million and toll income £10 million.
Tolls increased in 1986 and 1989—I hope that this addresses the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston—but total debt rose to £140 million before Merseytravel raised tolls again in 1992, from 60p to 100p for cars, and was able to balance operating costs and revenue. According to Merseytravel, toll income is £30.6 million and expenditure consists of £11 million operating costs, debt charges of £14 million and refurbishment costs of £5.6 million.
The outstanding debt is, I understand, £106 million, which includes borrowing of £65 million raised in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s at relatively high interest rates. The balance of debt is pooled and it is being repaid with interest at variable rates.
Like many west London MPs, I have a passionate interest in seeing the Bill make progress, but I am starting to doubt that I will ever see the light at the end of this particular tunnel. Would it be presumptuous to suggest that my hon. Friend should produce a handsomely blocked booklet containing all these extraordinarily interestingly facts, although he should allow us to read it on another occasion? Might we proceed to the vote some time this decade?
I may take that suggestion up, or at least produce the bound volume for people to read after the event. All that I am saying is relevant to the position that we find ourselves in today, and it needs to be said in this debate here and now.
The purpose of the Bill is to amend the statutory provisions relating to the levying and revision of tolls for the use of the tunnels, especially so that in future tolls are revised annually with reference to the rate of inflation. The second purpose is to remove the present requirement to reduce tolls once debts arising from construction and operation of the tunnels have been repaid. The third is to allow the authority to use surplus toll income to improve public transport in Merseyside, and the fourth is to allow the authority to undertake and finance noise insulation work to properties adjacent to the Kingsway tunnel approach on the Wirral. As I told my hon. Friend Angela Eagle, I can say without fear or favour that I have no problem with the fourth item relating to noise insulation in Wallasey.
I do, of course. I accept that legislation will probably be required for that purpose. However, I do not accept what I regard as pernicious provisions, which outweigh the benefit of the fourth item.
I am not trying to destroy anything. I am putting the arguments that I believe should be made. I have made a valid point. I approve of one aspect of the Bill, but not the others. That needs to be said.
I am interested to hear that. Given my hon. Friend's stated position, would not the logical course of action be to allow the Bill to receive a Second Reading and to try to make suitable amendments during the Committee stage?
I am trying my best to follow the logic of my hon. Friend's argument. As I understand it—perhaps he will correct me if I am wrong—his position is that the Bill has some good aspects and some less good. If so, is not the logical course of action to allow the Bill to have a Second Reading tonight, and to raise those concerns in the form of amendments or in points that he can make in Committee?
I may be reacting rather hastily to my hon. Friend's comments, as I know that he means well and is trying to be helpful, but the fact is that I approve of only one item in the Bill. It is not a matter of trying to destroy or to save the Bill. I am merely pointing out that I have a distinct objection to three provisions of the Bill, but not to the fourth. I am engaging in the debate on the provisions of the Bill as a whole.
As the proponents of the Bill point out, the financial stability of the tunnels depends on the tolls collected from people using them. That is apparent, and I agree up to a point. They also argue that the tunnels' financial stability cannot be guaranteed in the longer term, and I agree with that. It is to some extent a matter of management. The tunnels need to be managed so as to ensure financial stability. The evidence does not suggest to me that that is happening at present. The proponents also say that further toll increases will be necessary in due course to ensure that the tunnels continue to break even. There is thus an admission that they are breaking even, and I have no hard evidence to suggest that they will not be able to continue to break even, given appropriate management.
My hon. Friend, unlike the proponents of the Bill, mentions management, which was dealt with specifically in the previous Bill. One of the reasons for that was that the tunnel had been mismanaged for years, an element with which the present Bill does not deal. Does he agree that if it did, it might receive a fairer wind from us?
There are ways of catering for that; this Bill is not the way to do it. I shall come on to that subject in greater length later, if I may.
In any organisation, there is scope for efficiency improvements. The chairman of Merseytravel always challenges me to say what those might be. Frankly, it is the job of the chairman of Merseytravel to identify them. The MPTA has been reluctant to tackle management issues, but I would look at whether there was a need for 80 policemen for four miles of tunnel. It is no doubt apocryphal, but it is said that there are often more policemen in the tunnel than there are simultaneously in the rest of Liverpool.
The passenger transport authority wanted to cop out of the management under the previous Bill, and proposed to sell a long-term concession to an organisation in the private sector to run the tunnels.
I cannot speak for Merseytravel but, in my view, it wants to get out of tackling the issues and to transfer its burden, just as the burden is being transferred now to a readily available increase in tunnel tolls, whether or not they are justified. These increases must be justified. Those involved must demonstrate their stewardship and their prudence in financial management. It must be demonstrated that there are consultation processes and checks and balances before there are toll increases.
That is entirely true. Perhaps we will hear from others as to why that is so.
Such was the keenness of the MPTA to sell a long-term concession to run the tunnels to an organisation in the private sector, it was prepared virtually to privatise the tunnels, removing the fact that the tunnels hitherto had been operated by the people of Merseyside for the people of Merseyside in the public sector and for the advantage of the people of Merseyside. It may be that that mentality arises from an absence of management skills.
If the authority has such skills, it is a random occurrence, because there is no requirement to that effect.
As my hon. Friend Stephen Hesford said, to rid itself of its responsibilities, Merseytravel was even prepared to risk the imposition of VAT on tunnel charges by virtual privatisation. How much would that have cost the people of Merseyside and its economy? Moreover, given that, apparently, no Merseyside organisation could offer the services that the concessionaire required, it seemed likely that the operation would be run by a profit-making organisation from elsewhere. That would have involved siphoning off loads of money to another part of the United Kingdom, much to the detriment of the people of Merseyside.
As I said, there is an element of copping out in the Bill.
I was trying to point out that the attributes that characterised Merseytravel's attitude to the previous Bill are still apparent. Rather than justifying increases in tunnel tolls or accounting for its stewardship of our funds, it simply wants to have the money given to it on a plate without any justification, other than the fact that inflation has risen.
I have considered my hon. Friend's comments about the 80 police officers who are employed to maintain safety and traffic throughput in the tunnel. I remind him that the tunnel operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. By my reckoning, that equates to 12 police officers on duty at any given time across what are in fact two tunnels: in other words, six officers per tunnel, with three on each side. I believe that six officers is the minimum necessary to attend to any major emergency that might occur. Does he disagree?
Up to a point, I do. Even to the layman, the figure of 80 policemen and women for a what is a very short stretch of tunnel merits examination, however it is presented. A crisis involving the fire service might arise, yet the Merseyside passenger transport authority employs no fire service personnel; it relies on the external fire service to provide for such emergencies. Why, therefore, does it need a separate force of 80 policemen and women in the tunnel? I am simply suggesting that that is a point for examination, were I to be tempted down that road.
The authority wants increases to be granted to it on a plate. Moreover, as has been pointed out, it wants the ability to raise charges, where appropriate, by more than the rate of inflation. Given that the authority is unskilled as a tunnel operator—or, indeed, as much else—and given that it provides the equivalent role of a board of directors, I am not sure that this is right. A proper board of directors might reasonably include representatives of tunnel users and businesses on Merseyside, and people with expertise in transport, tunnels, finance, accountancy, the environment and management. However, I fear that, by and large, nominations to the authority are based on the principle of Buggins's turn.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that the MPTA contains no representatives of tunnel users, but he will accept that a lot of tunnel users live on Merseyside. He will also accept that many MPTA members—in fact, all of them—are representatives of Merseyside people. In other words, the MPTA does include representatives of tunnel users.
I am listening to my hon. Friend with increasing incredulity. He has the privilege of speaking in the House by virtue of the fact that he is an elected representative of the people of Wirral, South. He appears to be saying that those local authority members who sit on the passenger transport authority, who are in their turn elected by the people of their wards, are in some way unfitted to sit on the authority. Is not that a case of pots calling kettles black?
Indeed, and things might be done better if a board of directors had appropriate expertise on it. I am not impugning the motives of those on the MPTA, but I think that things could be done better. I asked questions about the qualifications of people assigned to PTAs or fire authorities or police authorities, and the response came that none are sought and none are particularly held.
I do not understand why my hon. Friend cannot accept the simple fact that the qualification of members of PTAs is the fact that they have been elected as local councillors in their own areas and that they, as individual members of the authority, have the confidence of those councils that have sent them to sit on that body. Surely that is just as much a qualification as my hon. Friend has for standing here and making his speech tonight.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend takes that view. I am trying to describe a way in which the Mersey tunnels might be run more efficiently, and I am determined so to do. The organisation has 880 staff, 320 of whom work in tunnel operations. I am determined to examine whether the balance between administrators and deliverers is right. I have asked any number of people on Merseyside to guess the number of people involved in running the tunnel for Merseytravel and the tunnel police, and nobody has ever come near guessing the actual numbers.
I have no doubt that the workers are dedicated, committed and hard-working. However, we need an effective management structure, and I am not sure that we have one. In questioning that, I am posing questions not only about the MPTA but about PTAs generically, and that is appropriate, especially as the point was originally raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby. Operationally, Merseytravel is responsible for the tunnels and the ferries. Administrative matters such as timetables, pensioners' passes, bus subsidies and fast tags are not operational matters as such. If I were on the board of Merseytravel, I would want to examine the degree of overhead that was involved.
The proponents of the Bill said that by increasing tolls at the rate of inflation, their proposals would be administratively simple. That may be true, but it would not necessarily make them justifiable. The Bill would give no right of appeal on inflationary increases either to the MPTA or to the Secretary of State. That is not right. At the moment, if Merseytravel wishes to increase the tunnel tolls and some groups object to that, a public inquiry process has to be followed. That gives people the opportunity to give evidence for and against the issue. The effect of the Bill would be to take away that right, so it is even more important that those groups that would be affected are given an opportunity to give their evidence before that right is taken away. That is something that Merseytravel has attempted to prevent, although it failed to do so at the Court of Referees.
I do not think it right to use the RPI. Mr. Fleming, the Federation of Small Businesses representative at the Court of Referees, said that the move to raise prices in line with inflation sounds good, but that people have to remember that the normal rate of RPI is based on a basket of prices for products such as food and fuel, and so on. He said that an annual RPI of 5 per cent. does not apply to the Mersey tunnel or to public utilities, because they do not eat food and or use fuel. In a nutshell, Mr. Fleming said that Merseytravel was not just trying to balance the books, but that it was trying to create cash using the RPI index proposal.
The proponents of the Bill say that the proposal will make revenue forecasting easier, but I am not so sure. When Mersey tunnel price increases have been pursued through the public inquiry process, they have always been granted. If a case is justifiable, there is no reason why it should not be granted.
The proponents say that an increase in tunnel tolls would increase use of other transport, as if people drove back and forth through the tunnels for fun. I have discovered today that Dr. Pugh does just that.
Does not my hon. Friend agree that if Merseytravel had not introduced a Bill in November 1999 but had applied instead for a toll increase, that proposal would have completed the public inquiry stage already? That original Bill, incidentally, contained an element of privatisation. By now, a small toll increase would have been secured. Instead, Merseyside's council tax payers have had to fund parliamentary advisers, public relations people and others to draft this Bill, and its predecessor.
I agree with my hon. Friend.
The Bill's proponents postulate that raising the tolls would increase the use of other transport, but I doubt that other forms of transport are up to the job. I have a mental picture of people sitting at home on spare afternoons and choosing to go for a drive through the tunnel. I fear that people do not do that—although the hon. Member for Southport is an exception. The scenario is unlikely. People go through the tunnel because they have to.
The local train and bus services are no great shakes. My mailbag is full of complaints. I shall say more about that later, as I shall about the ferries. The alternative to the tunnels is the Runcorn bridge, but that involves a round trip of nearly 50 miles. The bridge is massively congested, and the Halton authority is seeking an additional Mersey crossing to alleviate the burden.
It is worth noting that the authority that supposedly manages, operates and maintains the tunnels levies tolls, from which the income is used to defray operational costs and the expenses involved in paying off the principal of moneys borrowed to finance the construction and operation of the tunnels. The authority also makes payments to maintain a reserve fund in respect of the tunnels. That seems to me to be exactly appropriate: money raised from the tunnels should be used for the tunnels, without any element of cross-subsidisation.
If other transport services are needed, they must be justified, by and large, on their own account. I believe that cross-subsidisation ultimately leads to uneconomic or unjustified services—
I am trying to follow my hon. Friend's logic. He seems happy with cross-subsidisation when it means that my constituents subsidise those who travel through the tunnel, but he objects to it when it works in the opposite direction.
Will my hon. Friend reflect on why the burden was devolved to the five local authorities? It was because the previous Conservative Government refused to allow Merseytravel's predecessor to raise the money in the way that it wanted, so it was forced to raise the precept?
The measure proposes a form of hypothecation that is entirely without precedent in private Bill provision. I am not against hypothecation in all circumstances but it needs to be tightly defined—there must be horses for courses. In any case, it appears from the MPTA's pronouncements that the matter will be dropped for a few years while the safety measures are implemented.
There is provision in other funding mechanisms for transport schemes. Have steps been taken to examine those sources? Cities in other parts of the north-west have managed to create substantial projects without recourse to a private Bill such as this one. They do not have the same problems as Merseyside, but they do not receive objective 1 funding. Merseyside has that advantage although it has disadvantages. Why does an area with recourse to objective 1 funding need a Bill such as this? Is it another cop-out? Is there a lack of the financial engineering that is needed to put together projects that involve a multiplicity of funding schemes—matching contributions and so on? Perhaps the proponents could specify what has been done to find sources other than the mechanism that we are discussing?
Who will benefit from the proposals? I agree that transport on Merseyside is not merely of concern to the local area; there is massive interdependence.
I am deeply concerned about some of my hon. Friend's comments. He has implied that the management structure of Merseytravel is excessive and that its reduction would lower the costs of the organisation. He has inferred that the tunnel is overstaffed in terms of the number of police and, I guess, operators. Do I rightly understand that his principal objection is that the tunnel infrastructure is overstaffed and that his solution to that problem is to cut jobs—
I realise that the tunnel workers and the police are working hard and make a considerable contribution. All I am suggesting is that there may be a need—I put it no stronger than that—to examine the overheads. If they are as they should be, everything will be right and proper.
One side of the Mersey depends on the other; there is a mutuality of interests. Those who advocate that only the users of the tunnel should pick up the tab need to understand that. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Is not the giveaway the fact that the previous Bill would have privatised the management? It was recognised that there was a problem. The previous Bill addressed it, but this one does not.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point.
All Merseyside can benefit from, or be detrimentally affected by, the tunnels. It is not true that those who are closest to them benefit more and those who are furthest away benefit less. Many organisations are Mersey wide and not just based on the Wirral or elsewhere in Merseyside. That is how it is. Wirral is part of the Mersey partnership, and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company and hosts of other organisations have interests on both sides of the Mersey. The recent inaugural sailing of a roll on/roll off ferry from Twelve quays to Ireland shows how the weighting of the mutuality of interest has increased on the Birkenhead side. However, a considerable flow of commercial traffic goes through the tunnels between the docks, and that traffic takes goods to Knowsley, Southport and Crosby. They all benefit from the use of the tunnels.
Cancer patients on Merseyside—whether they live on the Wirral, Merseyside or in Southport—often have to make their way to Clatterbridge hospital on the Wirral for radiotherapy treatment. How do the Bill's supporters think that such people get across the river? Do they swim across? I suggest that they go through the tunnels. Does my hon. Friend realise that, in 2001-02, the ambulance service on Merseyside—
I was about to come to that. A preponderance of traffic may begin on the Wirral, but it goes to work in Liverpool and in other parts of Merseyside. It is a matter of mutual benefit, with the balance of advantage going to Liverpool and other parts of Merseyside rather than the Wirral. Every delivery from a store in Liverpool that is dispatched to the Wirral makes a contribution to the Liverpool economy. People go from the Wirral to work and invest in Liverpool; and many organisations benefit the people of Merseyside and not just the areas close to the tunnel.
Does my hon. Friend have any idea of when, as a result of the Bill, additional money would be released to support other public transport initiatives in Merseyside, and when those sums would be made available?
As I understand it, the proposal is that, for the first four or five years, the extra money that might accrue from the Bill would go to fund health and safety mechanisms in the tunnels rather than to other projects. I hope that covers my hon. Friend's point.
People from the Wirral who travel to leisure facilities and to football matches contribute massively to the Liverpool and wider Merseyside economy. People travel through the tunnels from all parts of Merseyside and beyond. People from Southport may go to north Wales, and people from north Wales may go to the philharmonic. Lorries and commercial vehicles do business in one way or another all the time. The tunnels are a hive of activity and an essential one.
I grew up on Merseyside, and I am well aware of the promise made to the people of Merseyside that the tunnels were a gift to us all and that, when the debts were paid off, the tolls would be reduced or removed. Will my hon. Friend spell out whether the economics of the tunnels depend on the Bill, or will the Bill turn the tunnels into a milch cow that will finance other transport initiatives and break the promise to the people of Liverpool?
The Bill does indeed establish the tunnels as a milch cow. It specifically and explicitly breaks the promise to the people of Merseyside.
Those who work or live far from the tunnel entrances might think that they are not affected by them or do not benefit as much from them, but they are wrong. Travel-to-work areas are extensive and interlinked, and it is not always the case that those people are affected to a lesser extent. Some 40,000 people use the tunnels regularly. There are 80,000 vehicle movements a day through the tunnels, which amounts to 25 million—perhaps 35 million—vehicle movements a year. Those journeys affect all the people of Merseyside.
The Bill would allow the authority to use tolls to provide public transport facilities in the county of Merseyside in such a manner and for such purposes as it thinks fit. That goes a wee bit too far. The Bill proposes to give the Merseyside PTA an entirely free hand in financial matters and to use moneys raised for such purposes as it thinks fit. Would that include items such as the refurbishment of the chairman's office, recently refurbished at a cost of £24,000 when the location of the headquarters was in question? The facelift features include trendy light wood and glass, cabinets with subdued spotlights that highlight the chairman's Everton memorabilia on glass shelves built into a wooden wall-mounted unit, a matching light-wood conference table—
I am trying to explain that if we give an entirely free hand, we need to know how the money will be spent.
The authority claims to have spent £100,000 on promoting the Bill. I would wager that it has spent substantially more than that, perhaps even multiples of it, and it covers only the direct costs. Does that sum include the fees for lawyers and, perhaps, barristers, public relations companies, a public affairs consultant and parliamentary agents? Does it include all the opportunity costs of management time that was spent on developing and promoting the Bill, which is largely unwanted on Merseyside?
It would be something if that were so, but judging by the amount of literature that I have received from various sources within Merseytravel, it is evident that phenomenal sums have been spent, with or without my efforts. Do the figures include travel and subsistence costs?
In respect of the balance sheet, and before my hon. Friend pleads guilty to sole responsibility for opposing the Bill, does he accept that there is another side to the £500,000 or so that has probably been spent on promoting it? Does he acknowledge that he may have to share the credit for opposing the Bill with the North West Trades Union Congress, a collection of Labour MPs, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Mersey tunnels shop stewards committee, the Merseyside TUC, the Wirral TUC, the local Daily Post and Liverpool Echo, and a huge number of people on Merseyside? The confederation of local authorities may not be in tune with the confederation of local people.
My hon. Friend referred to the £100,000 used to fund the Bill, but he did not refer to the likely £500,000 cost of a public inquiry if the Bill does not get through. I regard this as investment today to save money tomorrow. How does he regard it?
Frankly, I think that Merseytravel has to justify its proposed toll increases, and people need to be able to raise objections to them. We should not, whatever the circumstances, give Merseytravel carte blanche to raise its tolls with no justification besides the fact that the cost of living has risen. Toll increases would have a massively detrimental effect on the Merseyside economy, notwithstanding the points that were made earlier.
Merseytravel is, after all, the organisation that reportedly sent 20 people to an entirely abortive hearing at the Court of Referees. Apparently, it failed to foresee the need for safety measures, despite the fact that safety ought to be its first priority. It is now saying that it needs £14.2 million, and it will use the Bill to raise that money. Do we really think that we should give that organisation rights that are, in terms of private Bills, unprecedented when questions are posed about it?
It has been argued that the £14.2 million is the reason for Merseytravel's pursuit of the Bill, but in my view that is a red herring. It is not as though the ADAC report was unanticipated; it is not as though provision for health and safety had not been made. It is not as though the report's recommendations were mandatory or set in a time frame. It is not as though the tunnels were worse than others. The Wallasey tunnel got a good grade; indeed, I think that it may have come out on top. Even the Birkenhead tunnel was regarded as acceptable. We are not talking about tunnels that are bottom of the table.
Merseytravel, having said that it would strive for a public inquiry to raise the money, has apparently had second thoughts and suggested that safety might be a good argument for getting the Bill passed. It has been added to the arguments at a late stage. As I said, the safety argument cannot stand alongside the argument that the money will be used for other transport schemes on Merseyside, because it would prevent that.
My hon. Friend Alan Simpson intervened a few moments ago—obviously, the Bill is of great concern to the people of Nottingham—and listed some of the opponents to the Bill.
Is my hon. Friend Mr. Chapman aware of a letter to the Secretary of State for Transport dated
Of course I am aware of that letter. I am also aware of the opponents to the Bill mentioned by my hon. Friend Alan Simpson. They include the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians, the North West Trade Union Congress, Amicus, the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union and the Unison members who work in the tunnels rather than in the Merseytravel office.
My hon. Friend mentions the involvement of the AEEU. I am member of the AEEU. Is he sure that he is not confusing one branch of the AEEU with the entire union?
Sorry, I meant to say that some of us are scousers by birth and expatriate scousers by affliction.
Does my hon. Friend Mr. Chapman accept that the interests of the people of Merseyside are not necessarily expressed by the leaders of the local authorities? Whatever weight he gives to those views, they ought to be set alongside the trade union resolution supported nationally by the TUC, which states:
"local people, who work on the opposite side of the Mersey to which they live, already pay up to £780 per annum for a one-and-three-quarter mile each way journey. In an area of high unemployment and poverty those tolls"—
My hon. Friend has covered the points made by my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth, but he did not mention the fact that the Automobile Association, the Freight Transport Association and many others also object to the Bill.
Let me list the current scale of tolls, because it is worth considering the effect of the Bill's proposals in that light. A charge of £1.20 each way applies to motor cycles with sidecars; three-wheeled vehicles; private or light goods vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight; and passenger-carrying vehicles with seating capacity for fewer than nine persons. The £2.40 each way charge applies to private or light goods vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight with trailer; heavy goods vehicles over 3.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight, with two axles; and passenger-carrying vehicles with seating capacity for nine or more persons, with three axles. The £3.60 each way charge applies to heavy goods vehicles of more than 3.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight with three axles; and passenger-carrying vehicles with seating capacity for nine or more persons, with three axles. The £4.80 charge applies to heavy goods vehicles over 3.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight with four or more axles.
Thus an ordinary motorist in an ordinary car going through the tunnel once each way pays toll charges of £2.40 a day; that is £12 a week, or £600 a year. That strikes me as quite enough to take out of an ordinary person's pocket simply to get to work, or to get to hospital for cancer treatment, as my hon. Friend Mr. Wareing said. The fellow with a sidecar, who pays a similar sum, is similarly taxed. For a goods vehicle of 3.5 tonnes with four or more axles, the daily cost of a single return journey is £9.60 but, for argument's sake, let us say that the same lorry from George Henry Lee goes back and forth four or five times day, making the cost £12,000 per annum. If that calculation is applied to all the lorries going through the tunnel, all the people travelling on business from factory to warehouse, from dock to dock, from shop to wholesaler, and from builder to building site, it can be seen that the proposed increases will have a massive effect on the Merseyside economy, which will not be experienced by the economies of other sub-regions which compete with Merseyside.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the main dock for exporting goods to Northern Ireland is in Birkenhead? For all those companies that export goods from Liverpool to Northern Ireland or southern Ireland, there will be an inevitable additional cost for moving their goods through the tunnel to the port for export. What estimate has been made of the additional costs of an inflation-led increase in charges on the Merseyside economy?
I fear that I cannot provide a figure, but it would be substantial. As I said, the effect is unique to Merseyside. The passenger transport authority has proposed an increase of 10p every three years, but that may not necessarily be the case. The inflation rate in 1980 was 18 per cent.; in 1981, 11.9 per cent.; in 1982, 8.6 per cent.; in 1983, 4.6 per cent.; in 1984, 5 per cent; in 1985, 6.1 per cent.; in 1986, 3.4 per cent.; in 1987, 4.2 per cent.; in 1988, 4.9 per cent.; in 1989, 7.8 per cent.; in 1990, 9.5 per cent.; in 1991, 5.9 per cent.; in 1992, 3.7 per cent.; in 1993, 1.6 per cent; in 1994, 2.4 per cent.; in 1995, 3.5 per cent.; in 1996, 2.4 per cent.; in 1997, 3.1 per cent.; in 1998, 3.4 per cent.; in 1999, 1.5 per cent.; in 2000, 3 per cent.; and in 2001, 1.8 per cent.
If we took the years 1989 to 1991 and applied the authority's three-year yardstick, the increase would be 29p, not 10p as projected. The increases would therefore have a massive effect. The projected charges apply to the lowest common denominator—the ordinary vehicle. If they are applied to lorries, the overall increase is much greater. The rise is not necessary, as it does not result from increased operational costs. Charges will certainly not be reduced because of increased operational efficiency. Charges are not determined by a formula, which could provide for negative inflation; increases are made simply because the cost of living has gone up. However, if that is the case, people do not want to pay unnecessary charges. Life is tough enough. We are already taking £600 from the motorist's pocket, so we should give the people who use the tunnels a break and operate the tunnels efficiently. Let us use the revenue raised from the tunnels for the benefit of their users and the Merseyside economy, not for other purposes for which there are alternative sources of funding.
If the House agreed to the shift from a cost-based increase in charges to an inflation-based increase in charges, and if there were a war in the middle east later this year that resulted in a dramatic increase in oil prices, would not the charge increases applied to people on Merseyside be based on the increase in petrol charges, as well as on an increase in tunnel charges arising not from costs but from external factors unrelated to the tunnel? If so, how on earth would my hon. Friend justify it?
That is entirely the case. We could be faced with massive increases that had nothing to do with the economy of Merseyside or the operation of the tunnels, but which were due to wholly external factors that could have a massively detrimental effect on the Merseyside economy through the provisions of the Bill. It is not a free lunch. One cannot impose increases on the nod; one must justify them. What is proposed is simply a drive to profitability, and in no sense a drive to efficiency. It is about raising money from the tunnels to use for other purposes.
That is not the end of the matter. According to the formula for index-linked rises, if the formula produces a sum that is neither a multiple of 10p nor an amount which, on division by 10, produces a remainder of 5p, it should be rounded to the nearest 10p; and if it is an amount which, on division by 10, produces a remainder of 5p, it should be increased by 5p. That is a balanced provision, but the fact remains that in some years, under just the basic provisions of the Bill, the rounding provisions could result in an automatic inflation-plus increase, quite apart from the circumstances that my hon. Friend Alan Simpson mentioned.
Matters get worse. It is also provided that
"that in the circumstances then existing or in prospect—
(a) all or any of the tolls fixed by or by virtue of this Act should be increased by more than the increase authorised by subsection (6) of section 91 (Classification of vehicles, level and application of tolls) of this Act, or
(b) any classification of traffic then in force for the purposes of the levying of tolls should be revised".
In other words, in addition to the automatic increase and the possible rounding-up, and on the say-so of the MPTA alone, the Secretary of State may be asked to increase any of the tolls by more than the increase authorised in the basic provisions of the Act, or to revise the classification of traffic. The chap with the motorbike and sidecar could be paying a different category of charge to that which he is paying at present. The initiative lies purely with the Merseyside passenger transport authority. It is true that the final decision would be with the Secretary of State, but under the terms of the Bill nobody is allowed to ask for a reduction if operating costs go down.
Before the Bill appeared in its present form, I went to see the MPTA, at its request, to discuss the Bill. I said that one might want to consider a formula-based inflation-minus proposal that had a built-in provision for independent reflection on what was proposed, or a proposal that contained constraints and checks to prevent the free-for-all that is proposed in the Bill, or one that had inputs by users, consultation and appeal mechanisms.
I think that the authority must have failed to understand me. The response that it has given in the Bill is to the effect that it will reflect on the increases before applying them. That is the equivalent of turkeys voting for Christmas—it is not likely to happen. The Bill states:
"On each occasion that an order is made under section 91 (Classification of vehicles, level and application of tolls) of this Act"— the County of Merseyside Act 1980—
"the Authority shall consider, having regard to such matters of an economic or social nature within the county of Merseyside as the Authority considers to be relevant—
(a) whether it is necessary or appropriate in relation to any or all classes of traffic to exercise its power in subsection (1)(c) above to reduce tolls or to continue to exercise that power (as the case may be); and
(b) if the Authority considers that it is necessary or appropriate to do so, for how long tolls should be reduced or continue to be reduced."
The authority is the promoter of the Bill. Why should it want to raise money for other projects by imposing unnecessary increases, but then say that it will not need the money after all? The provision makes absolutely no sense.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that there is a huge difference between an agreement to reflect on the part of the authority and a concrete agreement with the people of Merseyside that once the costs of the tunnel are met, the charges for using it will be reduced? One of those positions is a concrete commitment, but the other is little more than a lick and a promise.
That is absolutely right, and as I said, it is contrary to the overall thrust and purpose of the Bill. As my hon. Friend says, it is unlikely that any such reduction will happen.
Having run speedily through the provisions, I should like to explore some aspects in greater detail. Wirral people and others on Merseyside have to use the tunnels for both business and leisure purposes. They need to do so if they are going to work, whether in insurance, shipping, retail, banking, manufacturing or whatever. My hon. Friend Mr. Wareing made a telling point about Clatterbridge centre for oncology, but even if people go to hospitals in the other direction, the same problems would apply. For example, the same would apply in respect of going to Alder Hey or to Liverpool Women's hospital. Although we have good hospitals on the Wirral, just as Liverpool has good hospitals, people need specialist treatment such as that provided by the centre for oncology, and they have to use the tunnels.
For leisure purposes, whether Merseysiders want to go to nightclubs such as Cream, watch the blues and reds at Goodison and Anfield, listen to music, catch planes or ferries, listen to the opera, watch plays, as we have done, or visit or worship at either of the cathedrals, they need to go through the tunnels. There is no realistic choice. They use them for work, education and leisure.
It is not a roundabout way. That is part of the importance of the debate about the sub-regional infrastructure. As it happens, my home is equidistant to the centre of Liverpool going by either route. There are merits in considering the regional infrastructure, not just the tunnels.
People go through the tunnels to the many festivals on both sides of the river, to the Tate and to the splendours of national galleries and museums on Merseyside. They go, as colleagues and I are going to go, to eat in Chinatown and to see the Chinese arch. Then, the money stays on the Liverpool side of the river, as is right and proper. They might go to work in motor vehicle, timber or hi-tech industries. On the other hand, people go through the tunnel to the Wirral for country pursuits, to walk, to visit Port Sunlight, to visit the Williamson art gallery, to see the splendours of the estuary and to watch Tranmere Rovers. They go for bird-watching, to work on Deeside, to climb Moelfamau—for a whole variety of reasons. It is a continuing, permanent heavily flowing artery that is essential to the life of people on Merseyside. Of the tunnel traffic, about 40 per cent. originates in the Wirral, 17 per cent. originates in Liverpool, 15 to 20 per cent. originates in the rest of Merseyside and the balance is from elsewhere. The tunnels are an essential artery for all of us. For people on the Wirral, Liverpool is our sub-regional centre. We have to go there.
The Bill is certain to lead to increasingly higher tolls being imposed on tunnel users, for the following reasons. Merseytravel has admitted that the last 20 per cent. increase to £1.20 each way, bad though it was, was less than the increase that would have occurred if the retail prices index trigger had been in place since 1992. Moreover, the Bill would provide for increases in excess of inflation. What utility is allowed to increase charges like that? It would think it fantastic were it permitted to do so. Normally the best that is offered is an inflation-minus figure, and that drives efficiency.
This proposal would drive profitability. If, as is argued, the tunnels could be more efficient, the profits could be large. Where would they go, who would account for them, and how would they do so? The people of Merseyside would not experience the future reduction in tolls that they have been promised. Under current legislation, the tunnels' operating surpluses must be used to accelerate the repayment of debt, and once the debt is repaid tolls should be reduced to cover operating and maintenance costs. That promise would be broken were the Bill to become law. The aspirations of 1934 would be dead and gone and the public would feel cheated.
The proposals would be detrimental to the economic relations between Merseyside and Northern Ireland, especially because of the new ferry operation that is starting to develop from Birkenhead, which will be a new centre of trade and commerce between our two parts of the United Kingdom. If we were to accept the proposals in the Bill, those areas would be massively damaged by them.
It is unfair to our constituents and their families to impose massive increases in tunnel tolls. As has been pointed out, it is not only the local economy that will be damaged and it is not only local jobs that will be put at risk by the effect on business. We are considering a second-by-second conduit of business and life. The tunnel is crucial to investment and business flow. We cannot afford to allow the toll to fund other schemes or cover inadequate provision for health and safety. Investment would not come to Merseyside—