Schedule 1 — Amendment of the 1980 Act: Levying, Revision and Application of Tolls

Mersey Tunnels Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 29th October 2003.

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Votes in this debate

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this we may take the following amendments: No. 16, in page 3, leave out lines 38 to 41 and insert—

'(e) where necessary, to make compensatory payments and payments to provide appropriate noise insulation for residential properties at the entrance of the Kingsway tunnel.'.

No. 3, in page 3, leave out lines 38 to 41.

No. 4, in page 3, line 41, at end insert—

'taking into account that monies spent on such policies should relate to the relative proportions of the origin of traffic using the tunnels.'.

No. 5, in page 4, line 2, leave out 'paragraphs (d) and (e)' and insert 'paragraph (d)'.

No. 6, in page 4, line 8, leave out '(a) to (c)' and insert '(a) and (c)'.

No. 8, in page 4, line 11, at end insert—

'(c) unless paragraph (b) of that subsection has been wholly complied with to the extent that monies borrowed for the purposes of the construction and operation of the tunnels have been wholly repaid.'.

No. 9, in page 4, line 15, leave out 'paragraphs (d) and (e)' and insert 'paragraph (d)'.

No. 10, in page 4, line 16, after 'tunnels' insert—

'interest groups, trade unions, the Liverpool and Wirral Chambers of Commerce, the North West TUC and local representatives of Merseyside and neighbouring local authorities'.

No. 11, in page 4, line 24, leave out 'paragraphs (d) and (e)' and insert 'paragraph (d)'.

No. 12, in page 4, line 33, leave out 'paragraphs (d) and (e)' and insert 'paragraph (d)'.

No. 13, in page 4, line 33, at end insert—

'(d) it has sought confirmation by the Secretary of State for its plans, to which end it must submit copies of all such objections and representations and such information and particulars as the Secretary of State requires in approving the desires of the Authority as set out in paragraph 5(a)(i) and (ii).'.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The essence of the amendment is to remove new section 91(3)(d) and (e) and therefore to remove the authorisation for the Merseyside passenger transport authority to make grants to

"the Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive in connection with the Executive's ferries services operating on the river Mersey" and to use tunnel income to make payments to

"the Authority's general fund for the purpose of directly or indirectly facilitating the achievement of policies relating to public transport in its local transport plan, or for other purposes."

The Bill has been discussed extensively in the House, but the amendment encapsulates the main concern about it.

To remind hon. Members of the background, in August 2001, a consultation was conducted by Merseytravel that, although it has been criticised, produced some interesting responses. One question asked whether surplus toll income should be used to cross-subsidise and improve local public transport services, thus benefiting the wider Merseyside community. Of the 312 respondents, 23 per cent. were in favour, 208—or 67 per cent.—were against, and 10 per cent. were undecided. The proposals in the amendment are therefore in line with the wishes of respondents, the majority of whom do not believe that people who use the Mersey tunnels should have to pay extra charges to fund wider travel interests beyond the tunnels. It is a simple issue of cross-subsidy.

Another question asked whether there should be a requirement to reduce tolls when the tunnel debt is paid off or whether that should be removed. The requirement is an inherent part of the tunnels' history, as it was believed that the time would come when the tunnels would be paid for, and those who used them would no longer have to pay for any costs other than running costs. In response to the question in the consultation, 71 per cent. said that the requirement should not be removed and only 17 per cent. said that it should. That is another clear expression of will by people who were consulted on that important issue. If the part of the schedule that we are debating had not been included in the Bill in the first place, its passage through the House would have been a lot smoother, as it goes to the heart of people's concerns.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

That view is widely shared not just in the House but on Merseyside as a whole. If the transport authority had not included the power to tax in the measure, it would have had its Bill many moons ago.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that confirmation, and I know that he is trying to bring sanity to the issue. When dealing with private legislation, the House works best when there is a spirit of compromise. I do not understand why, disappointingly, we have not seen any of that spirit from the Bill's promoter. One of the weapons available to hon. Members involves trying to delay Bills. There is no point trying to delay Bills just for the sake of it—the purpose is to try to provide extra time for consideration so that people can respond to arguments and concerns. It is sad that, despite the time that has been given to the Bill's promoter to reflect on the wisdom or otherwise of this part of the Bill, it has declined to meet concerns expressed not just in the House but by the wider electorate in Merseyside and the Wirral.

I am not going to say much more about the matter, because most of the points have already been made and will be no better for repetition. That is not to suggest that I and other Conservative Members do not feel strongly about it. We record our surprise that throughout the Bill's passage the Government, instead of abiding by the conventions that private legislation should be dealt with as unwhipped business and that hon. Members should be able to decide such issues on their merits, used their majority to force the measures through. That is most regrettable, because it is unnecessary, unhelpful and does not benefit the people of Merseyside. I hope that today we will have the chance, on a free vote, to determine the real will of the House so that it can take a view on the merits or otherwise of using toll income to cross-subsidise other transport projects.

Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South

I want to speak to amendments Nos. 4, 6, 8 and 19, which are tabled in my name and in those of my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford), Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) and Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), and which deal with the various purposes for which the tolls may be applied. I contend that the Bill provides Merseytravel with too great a power when it comes to spending tunnel tolls and that the powers that it already possesses regarding the use of tunnel tolls are poorly applied.

I shall deal first with amendment No. 19. The Bill provides Merseytravel with the power to use tunnel toll receipts for projects other than the tunnels—the principle of cross-subsidy to which Mr. Chope referred. In one sense it already does that in relation to the Mersey ferries. The amendment, although essentially probing, would strike from the Bill the provision that allows revenue from tunnel tolls to be redirected to fund the ferries. That is not intended to harm or question the ferry service, which is famous across the globe as a loved and lauded part of Liverpool's image and heritage. I am sure that the ferries will be a key component of the capital of culture status that Liverpool has acquired.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

My hon. Friend may recall that a previous Member for Wirral, West, who is now in the other placeLord Hunt—was involved in the Bill through which the forerunner of Merseytravel tried to abolish the subsidy of the ferries. It had to give up in the end, having failed to win the measure. When the Bill leaves this House today, it goes to the other Chamber, where presumably Lord Hunt will be waiting for it.

Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South

I was not aware of that, but I can see why he failed, given the emotional attachment of the people of Merseyside to the ferries.

Everything has its place and its purpose, and Merseytravel's is to cater for the public transport needs of the people of Merseyside. It is not entirely clear where the ferries fit into that. Most people would acknowledge that they are not the most efficient form of commuter transport—indeed, they are primarily geared towards round trips and tourism. A quick glance at the website confirms that they are first and foremost a tourist vehicle—and, of course, a successful one. The North West tourist board tells us that they are the second most visited paid admission attraction in the north-west, and they were recently accredited by the north-west visitor attraction quality service.

Merseytravel's function, however, is to

"co-ordinate public transport through partnership initiatives, with the aim of delivering a fully integrated and environmentally friendly public transport network".

The Mersey tunnels, which are primarily for private vehicles and subsidise a commuter service, are an anomaly. Yet the anomaly pales when one considers that Merseytravel operates a tourist attraction with public funds as part of its stated aim of co-ordinating a public transport network. That is at least questionable.

Only one third of ferry passengers are commuters and instead of making a profit, the ferries cost £2.1 million a year, of which £700,000 is made up from tunnel tolls. The nature of investment in the ferries shows that they are a tourist attraction. For example, there has been investment in Seacombe to incorporate an international astronomy and space centre. There is also to be an expanded leisure and corporate entertainment programme in a new terminal building at Pier Head.

The logic of Merseyside passenger transport authority's avowed motives for the Bill is that tunnel users should pay more money now to prevent people in the outlying areas of Merseyside from having to support the tunnels, which, by and large, they do not use. I reject that logic because the Mersey tunnels are the principal commercial artery of our conurbation and they therefore have an impact on the whole of Merseyside and beyond, in Lancashire, Cheshire and north Wales. The tunnels do not simply serve the people who live immediately at either end. Even if the logic held true and tunnel users should pay more money now to prevent people in outlying areas from having to support the tunnels, why does the same not apply to tunnel users being called upon to subsidise the ferries?

The ferries are a long-standing and endearing symbol of Liverpool. Would not it be more fitting if they were funded from the precept? At least in that way, everybody would pay equally rather than some people being unfairly taxed for the purpose. However, Merseytravel

"works to promote the interests of Merseyside's travelling public while providing value for money for its local tax payers".

In the case of the ferries, neither stipulation is fulfilled. Imposing on people who use the tunnels to subsidise the travel of the ever-diminishing number of commuters who use the ferries is hardly in the interests of the wider "travelling public". An operation that loses £2.1 million a year cannot be classed as "value for money".

The charter that obliges Merseytravel to operate the ferries offers no get-out. It might say that it has no choice but to bear the loss with which the ferries are saddled. However, there should be other ways and the amendment is designed simply to pose some questions. For example, could the Mersey Partnership play a wider role? Could the North-West regional assembly or the regional development agency have such a role? Is there a role for the private sector?

Amendment No. 4 proposes greater proportionality of the cost and benefit burden for tunnel users. According to Merseytravel, 65 per cent. of tunnel users come from the Wirral area, 16 per cent. from Liverpool, 10 per cent. from Cheshire and north Wales, 7 per cent. from Sefton and 2 per cent. from Knowsley. Those who support the Bill have long argued that people who by and large do not use the tunnels should not have to fund them through their council tax, as happened in the late 1980s. I believe that that is a false contention. If the argument were accepted, I hope that the Bill's proponents would see fit to ensure that those who pay the most in tunnel tolls reap the funding benefits from the receipts. Amendment No. 4 would therefore create such a quid pro quo.

Merseytravel's spokesman at the Opposed Private Bill Committee suggested that the prospective Mersey tram scheme was an example of a project towards which MPTA might wish to direct toll revenues. It is a top priority for the authority. However, regardless of the tram project's merits, I do not agree with taxing and exploiting tunnel users to build that or any other project from which many of them will not directly benefit. They are ordinary people who work in hospitals and factories. They go to visit friends and relatives, and devote their energies and investment to Liverpool and the wider Merseyside sub-region, yet they are being taxed to pay for a facility from which they will not benefit.

The Mersey has no viable road crossings within transferable distance, so to speak, and there is not adequate public transport to absorb the massive numbers of people who could be forced to abandon using their private vehicles to get to work if the tunnel tolls increase. Merseytravel has not shown how it would invest in providing viable alternatives for those displaced tunnel-users, the majority of whom, coincidentally, hail from the Wirral peninsula.

There must surely be other sources of funding available. Manchester managed to get its tram system without taxing a particular portion of its populace; nor does it have the benefits, in funding terms, of being an objective 1 area. The Wirral gains little or nothing from the allocation of excess tunnel tolls, yet it will bear the bulk of the burden of cost. I can see no justification for that imposition, but I stress that it is the principles of the Bill, and the cost to the whole of Merseyside, that worries me most. This issue does not affect one side of the Mersey more than the other; it is a unitary problem.

Amendments Nos. 6 and 8 propose to restrict spending on other projects until such time as the debt has been paid off. If tunnel tolls are regularly to be increased, at least let it be done in the name of financial propriety. The tolls have been a millstone round the neck of the people of Merseyside since the first half of the last century, and the long and short of it is that the tunnels cost £44 million to build, have collected £500 million from users, yet have debts of £100 million. If it were not for the way in which the tunnels have been managed, and for the money that has been siphoned off, they would now be debt-free and part of the normal road system.

If Merseytravel's current private Bill becomes law, it will be the 13th private Act to deal with the tunnels. Those Acts have served various purposes, including authorising the construction of the tunnels. Many of them also contain sections that have had the effect of postponing the time at which the tolls could be reduced. Under this Bill, that perpetually distant promise would be erased altogether.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:45 pm, 29th October 2003

Will the hon. Gentleman expand on the interrelationship between what he has just said and the fact that there is to be a public inquiry later this year into raising the tunnel tolls with effect from 1 April 2004?

Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South

It is indeed curious that the Merseyside passenger transport authority is applying for an increase under the old regime at the same time as it is applying for automatic increases through the Bill. Merseytravel might have good cause to seek increases under the present system, for purposes for which it claims at the time, and in the past, it has always secured such increases, albeit after a public inquiry. I have no problem with tunnel toll increases that are justified and rationalised. I do have a problem with increases that are automatic and unjustified, except for the fact that the price of a loaf of bread has gone up. On that ground and others, I believe that this is a bad Bill.

Whichever way we view it, the debt is a dreadful burden, and the traditional tactics of prevarication and procrastination must stop. Acknowledging the permanence of the debt's presence is not the answer. Each administration sought to pass the buck to the next, and delayed the fabled time of completion to another distant day. It is my hope that amendments Nos. 6 and 8 might focus minds better and that Merseytravel might even work to pay off the debt faster than is currently required. I suggest that a more formalised relationship between the raising of tolls and the repayment of debt is needed.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West

Has my hon. Friend noticed that the sponsor of the Bill has sat on the Liberal Democrat Bench and on our Bench, and has now disappeared from the Chamber? My hon. Friend's important points are not being listened to and, I assume, will not be answered.

Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South

I have been remiss; I had not noticed what my hon. Friend tells me. I am sure that my hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas, who is absent from the Chamber, will read the record of the debate assiduously.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

It is not so much a question of reading it; we want answers today to take back to our constituents.

Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South

Indeed. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby will reappear shortly to take part in the debate.

There needs to be a more formal relationship between the raising of tolls and the repayment of debt. Following the repayment, should the consultation that the Bill obliges it to stage agree to MPTA using the tolls for other projects, it would then have a healthy pot to work from.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West

It may be that my hon. Friend knows something that we do not. Are the Bill's promoters conceding these points?

Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South

It may be that the quality of my argument obliged my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby to leave the Chamber in despair, but I have my doubts about that.

One would think that if one did what I was proposing, it would be big enough to sate even Merseytravel's burgeoning appetite, and that some thought could be given to reducing tunnel tolls and acting in the best interests of tunnel users. It might also mean that the five authorities received the lost money, which would be of benefit to council tax payers all over Merseyside. I will, of course, not hold my breath.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

I rise to speak to amendment No. 16, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend Stephen Hesford. I welcome back to our proceedings and to our Benches my hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas who represents the promoter of the Bill. I am sure that she will bear down with her normal forcefulness upon the probing amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Chapman so that we can perhaps understand the mind of the Bill's promoter better than we have hitherto.

The amendment would ensure that the residents in the area surrounding the newer of the two tunnels in Merseyside—the residents of Wallasey—were able to claim to have the cost of insulating their homes met by tunnel users. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West and I tabled the amendment so there could be no misunderstanding locally over that issue.

Some Labour Members may have a wider brief in terms of their disputes with Merseytravel, but mine is narrowly drawn. There are many aspects of Merseytravel's activities of which I approve, none more so than its efforts to provide a more adequate bus service for my constituents while running a system whereby they cannot control those people to whom they give licences. That is the equivalent of the NHS buying treatments from the private sector, but the private sector saying, "We will decide what operations we do on the patients you send us."

We have the ludicrous state of affairs in which Merseytravel has to pay taxpayers' money to private suppliers of bus transportation but cannot dictate how that money is used in the best interests of our constituents.

On all those fronts, I have no dispute with Merseytravel, but I do have a central dispute with the Bill, which I want to put on record. The Bill is a taxing measure, so I wish to underscore the points raised earlier by Mr. Chope who, for once, did not make the most of the evidence that he put before the House.

Usually, when voters are asked in surveys whether they would like someone else to pay tax increases so that they can benefit, most of them say, "Yippee, that is a rather good idea". That used to be the attitude of the Labour movement towards increases in income tax when most of our supporters did not pay it. We were rather in favour of increasing income tax in those days. When the tax threshold fell and practically all voters paid direct taxation, sadly, after a rather long spell, we had to learn the lesson that our voters, like everyone else, do not like tax increases. The consultation of people in Merseyside was amazing and it says something about the generosity of character of fellow voters on the other side of the river that, when they could have taxed Wirral residents to their own benefit, they thought that it was not a good idea. That also tells us something about the measure before us.

I may be corrected by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby when she replies to the probing amendments, but I believe that we should have some list to demonstrate the way in which the Bill's promoter has tried to meet the reasonableness of many, if not all, of the amendments. As the hon. Member for Christchurch said, it is a custom of the House—though sometimes broken—that the promoters of private Bills try to engage with those who are worried about certain aspects and, where possible, do a trade-off with them. How does the Bill differ at this stage of its proceedings from when it was introduced? I suggest that the promoter of this Bill has not conceded a dot or comma to the alternative views put forward.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West 4:00 pm, 29th October 2003

Does my right hon. Friend recall from previous debates that Bob Spink, whom I see in his place, sat on the Committee considering the Bill? Not only has the promoter failed to engage with those who have an interest in the issues, I recall that it did not engage very satisfactorily with the Committee. My right hon. Friend made a similar complaint on a previous occasion.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. It would be helpful if hon. Members dealt with the particular group of amendments rather than previous history.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

The message goes out that if we have another private Bill from this source, it would be suitable for some Members of Parliament to object so that they do not have to withdraw at a later stage. The House must be able to give proper consideration to a measure of this sort.

I end where I began. I support much in the Bill, but it is a taxing measure. I am puzzled that the Government have allowed it to go forth without trying to have it amended. I am puzzled that the Government are prepared to use not only the payroll vote to whip the Bill through, but the Standing Orders of the House to allow us to debate it to any hour. Given the danger of a Labour Government being seen as a tax-raising body, the only reason that I can see why the Government are allowing the Bill to go ahead is that they do not understand what is in it. If they did, I suspect that they would have objected to the same provisions to which we object.

Photo of Robert Wareing Robert Wareing Labour, Liverpool, West Derby

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if the Bill is whipped through by the Government—although they say that that is not what is happening—it will be the Government who will bear the blame for the cross-financing of services on Merseyside, and not the Merseyside passenger transport authority?

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

Some of us are doing our best to ensure that individual hon. Members are not to blame when our constituents are taxed in the manner proposed. If I represented Crosby—I have no wish to do so, as I love representing my constituency—I might have been tempted to introduce a Bill to tax people in Birkenhead to the benefit of voters in Crosby. However, even if I did that, in some muddled moment, the Bill would still not be fair or sustainable.

The Government will get this measure for Merseytravel today, but the Bill will then travel to another place. It has aroused such opposition from some local Members that the Government have had to invoke the new procedure that allows a Bill to be carried over to a new Session of Parliament. It is clear that this Bill will begin to break records, in that it will have to be carried over to a third Session of Parliament. We will not be able to stop the Bill today, but the Government and Merseytravel may run into a lot more trouble in the other place.

I hope that that is the case. I shall be working with those forces in the other place to make sure that the Bill does not become law.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

I rise to support amendments Nos. 19 and 16.

Daily users of the Mersey tunnel now pay £500 a year more than most other motorists in Britain. The tunnel was meant to be free: that provision was in the original Bill. Most users want it to be free, and they expect the House to honour the original intention. That would be consistent and fair, and that is why I oppose this Bill.

My hon. Friend Mr. Chope explained amendment No. 19 extremely well, so I shall not repeat his arguments. However, Mr. Field raised a very important matter in relation to amendment No. 16. The amendment would remove the provision in schedule 1 allowing payment to be used for

"the Authority's general fund for the purpose of directly or indirectly facilitating the achievement of policies relating to public transport in its local transport plan, or for other purposes."

That is an extremely wide provision. Normally, general taxation would be used for that purpose. That is what happens in all other areas of the country. The Bill represents a further tax measure imposed by the Government. We have had 60 tax rises since 1997, and this would make the total 61—or is it 63 now? I lose count. Moreover, the tax would be a stealth tax, according to any definition. The proposal would amount to an odious tax, and should be resisted—not least because the tax-raising power cannot be removed once granted. It does not have to be reaffirmed by the authority of this House, which is what normally happens with tax-raising powers.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

Is the hon. Gentleman giving a commitment on behalf of the new leader of the Conservative party that tunnel tolls will be abolished under a Conservative Government?

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

I am delighted to be reminded that there is a vote on that matter this afternoon. I have not voted yet, and must not forget to do so. I am not authorised to give any such commitment.

Amendment No. 16 may be one reason why this private Bill has suddenly become, in almost all respects, a Government Bill. The tax proposed is yet another Government tax, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead noted. The amendment would replace lines 38 to 41 in schedule 1 and insert a provision allowing the payments to be used to provide

"appropriate noise insulation for residential properties at the entrance to the Kingsway tunnel."

If there is one aspect of this whole sorry Bill on which we can all be united, it is the need to provide decent noise insulation for local residents. In Committee we began to get round to defining the area affected, its distance from the tunnel, who would benefit from the work and who would not. Unfortunately there was a stitch-up, and we could not consider those important matters in detail. I agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, however, and hope that if the Bill is passed—although I do not want it to be—his amendment will be incorporated.

I am sure that the Mersey Tunnels Users Association would also agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It says:

"We believe that the Tunnels are making a profit and there is no need for any Toll increases."

It states cogently:

"Large numbers of people use the Mersey Tunnels to get to work, and lots of small businesses need to use it several times a day. The tolls are a barrier discouraging movement between the Wirral and the rest of Merseyside."

That sums it up well.

I hope that the House will support amendments Nos. 19 and 16.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

Amendment No. 3 was tabled by me and also by Mr. Chope. It is an unusual alliance: I think we have travelled together but once—on a train but not, as I recall, through a tunnel.

The purpose of the amendment, and of related amendments, is to enable us to explore an issue that I raised in Committee. It relates to the many users who live outside the catchment area of the shareholders. As we have heard from my hon. Friend Mr. Chapman, a significant number of them come from my constituency, from Chester, from north Wales and from further afield.

I understand the logic of the position adopted by the passenger transport authority in its survey—a survey that may be accurate in so far as it has canvassed the opinions of people in the catchment area. Where it falls down, however—I make this point to the Minister in particular—is in its failure to address obligations in respect of best-value legislation. It is clear from best-value legislation introduced by the Government in recent years that, when examining matters relating to public services, any public authority must consider the impact on all users of those services, and also consult users' representatives. In my opinion, if the passenger transport authority does not accept that obligation in future, within the framework of the Bill, it will be acting ultra vires in respect of the best-value legislation. That will provide an opportunity for the Mersey Tunnels Users Association, for instance, to seek judicial review of the tunnel operators' actions. That puts an obligation on my hon. Friend the Minister because if that were really possible, as plenty of lawyers suggest, the Government would have to point out to the transport authority that it must consult users further afield and must find a proper mechanism for doing so.

It is no surprise that, as the hon. Member for Christchurch said, the survey showed that only a small percentage of people in the authority area did not accept that there should be cross-subsidisation. Bob Spink will recall the questions that Speaker's counsel posed to Mr. Owen in the Committee. In one exchange, counsel asked Mr. Owen:

"would you agree that it is fair to characterise the Bill which your clients are promoting as being innovative?"

Mr. Owen replied that cross-subsidies were provided for in other legislation, but the Speaker's counsel returned to the point, which was never challenged, that such a provision was a first for a private Bill. That raises some interesting challenges, so the Government should be wary; they need to give the transport authority careful advice.

The essence of the best-value legislation was debated fiercely in the House, but all Members are firmly committed to the law, so I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to keep those obligations in mind.

Although the conclusions of the consultation process show that my views are a reflection of only a minority of current public opinion in the five authorities that comprise the shareholding group, I am certain that I express the views of the vast majority of tunnel users, who believe that their opinion should be taken into account when determining future tolls.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point 4:15 pm, 29th October 2003

Is the hon. Gentleman familiar with the term "No taxation without representation"?

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

I have read debates on that subject held both in the UK and in Washington DC. The people of Ellesmere Port and Neston, whom I represent, make a substantial contribution to the economic wealth of the region in which we are privileged to live. They have a right to be consulted about these matters. I do not accept that they should have a veto, but their views should be heard and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas, who represents the promoter of the Bill, to take that point on board.

Photo of Robert Wareing Robert Wareing Labour, Liverpool, West Derby

I want to refer especially to amendments Nos. 10 and 13, which deal with consultation. Before I do so, however, I want to express my agreement with those hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend Mr. Field, who have commented that it is regrettable that the Government have taken sides on the Bill and have only come clean to the House at almost the last moment. Had they made their opinion clear at the outset, perhaps we could have had meetings with Ministers and some real consultation with central Government—which, in the light of what has happened since, would have been highly desirable.

I shall address many of my remarks to the Government. I am glad the Minister is present. I do not think that at this stage, while the Bill is in the House, we can change anything, but I hope that my hon. Friend will take some of these points back to Ministers in the other place, and that when the Bill comes before the House of Lords there will be some consideration of Government amendments dealing with some of my arguments.

There is a real need to reinforce the rights of toll users to be consulted. I know that Merseytravel will say, rightly, that it consults widely already. I concede that it does, but the problem is that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead mentioned, it takes little heed of what is said. It may well listen, but it takes no real notice. It has already made up its mind, although I think that it came under pressure during consideration of the first Bill. You will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there was an earlier Bill, which was removed and replaced by this one, no doubt because Merseytravel felt that the people of Merseyside were opposed to the privatisation of the Mersey tunnels.

My wish is that the Merseyside passenger transport authority should be required to justify its plans for the debt-free but tolled Mersey tunnels to the Secretary of State, and to listen and act on the ideas and views of consumers' representatives. In the year 2000, Merseytravel began a five-year programme of consultations, through its local transport plan, but those consultations have largely been ignored, particularly in respect of the Mersey tunnel. It is wise to remember whose money finances those consultations.

In the consultation programme, four core objectives were identified. The first was to ensure that transport supports sustainable economic development and regeneration. The second was to moderate the upward trend in car use and secure a shift to more sustainable forms of transport, such as walking, cycling, and the use of public transport. The third was to secure the most efficient and effective use of the existing transport network. The fourth was to enhance the quality of life for those living and working in Merseyside.

On the first point, economic development, I do not think it is at all conceivable that economic growth can be encouraged by a year-by-year increase in the tax that toll payers have to meet. On the second point, we all want an improvement in public transport—there is no difference between us on that—but I do not believe that that should be achieved by methods that would, in effect, impose a tax on toll users and local businesses.

I do not think that the third objective—to secure the most efficient and effective use of the existing transport network—can be met by the sort of cross-financing that has been referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead: paying for the ferries out of the funds raised from toll users in order to benefit other services. In any event, I do not believe that to be necessary. Like my hon. Friend Mr. Chapman, I have great affection for the Mersey ferries. "Ferry across the Mersey" means to me something even more important than the song, and I do hope that with the year 2007, when we shall celebrate the 800th anniversary of the city of Liverpool, and the following year, when the city becomes European city of culture, that investment will come—but not by these means—into the Mersey ferries. That is one of the most attractive means of bringing tourists to Merseyside, and not just to Liverpool.

The final point was about enhancing the quality of life for those living and working in Merseyside. Many workers who live in the Wirral and work in Liverpool use the Mersey tunnels to get to their work. Many Liverpool people and many of my constituents travel to work at the Vauxhall plant "over the water", as we say on Merseyside, in the Wirral. Many of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South commute to Liverpool each day. How can their quality of life be improved by these year-by-year increases in taxation? Incidentally, there is a possibility that they will exceed the increases in the retail prices index.

Bob Spink mentioned taxation without representation—he will know all about that because it was a Tory Government, under Lord North, who were told that when the colonies parted from the British empire. I often think that that was one of the greatest disasters in history in view of American foreign policy today, but that is another matter.

In its 2001 consultation, Merseytravel asked, first:

"Should the Mersey Tunnel toll levels be index-linked with inflation?"

The majority of people said no, which shows that consultations are merely something to be gone though, in the view of Merseytravel. Secondly, Merseytravel asked:

"Should the requirement to reduce tolls when the Tunnel's debt is paid off be removed?"

Seventy one per cent. said no. Furthermore, Wirral borough council was among that number—at least one of the local authorities was firmly against that proposal.

Although I accept that no Parliament can bind its successor, confidence in Parliament is undermined when a retrograde move such as that being proposed is made. The treatment of the promise made way back in the early 1930s—that once the debt was covered there would be free runs through the Mersey tunnels—is to be regretted. Incidentally, the tunnel is very much part of the Merseyside economy. It is often said that we are all affected by it. We have a nasal accent and people ask why that it is so—some say it is because of the draught from the Mersey tunnel. The point is that no consideration was given to the case against maintaining tolls, presumably from now until kingdom come, irrespective of whether the tunnel is profitable or makes a loss.

Thirdly, in its consultation Merseytravel asked:

"Should surplus toll income be used to cross-subsidise and improve local public transport services, benefiting the wider Merseyside community?"

Sixty seven per cent.—a majority again—said no.

What is the point of spending public money on consultations if they are never acted upon or are never considered with any serious intent? If the MPTA is to have increased powers and freedoms to spend and charge, it must be made far more accountable. It can be argued, of course, that there is accountability because the MPTA is made up of councillors from all the boroughs on Merseyside. It is a very indirect form of accountability, however. It is very difficult—also, it is rather unusual—for constituents to raise MPTA matters with councillors because only a few members of each of the councils are MPTA members. That is a rather indirect way to keep in contact with the people of Merseyside. The MPTA must be accountable not only to the local people of Merseyside, but ultimately to the Secretary of State.

There was once an all-party river crossing group—perhaps Mr. Chope remembers it—and Eric Heffer, a Labour Member, was one of its leading lights. Many hon. Members believe that the day should come when no tolls are charged. I am opposed to road tolling. Indeed, it is an 18th century concept that goes back to the turnpike trusts, all of which were abolished by 1895, but here we are today debating tolls on a major traffic route that is important not only to Merseyside, but nationally. That is absurd.

We should take our cue from what happens with other natural monopolies. In a 1998 Green Paper entitled "A Fair Deal for Consumers", the Government recommended—and, indeed, later established—a general duties diktat on the regulators, which was enshrined in the Utilities Act 2000. The regulators were to put the interests of consumers first—all consumers: industrial, business and domestic. None of that applies statutorily to the MPTA.

When the Utilities Act 2000 was passed on to the statute book, it dealt with the activities of the gas and electricity industries. The Gas and Electricity Markets Authority was set up, and it can impose financial penalties on utility companies that are in breach of their statutory requirements. Nothing like that exists for the Mersey tunnels. The Secretary of State appointed three members of that authority. The Minister should consider what was done then and what could be done now to ensure real accountability and consultation by the MPTA.

Under the Utilities Act 2000, the Competition Commission was given powers to act if it found that the gas and electricity authorities were not remedying adverse effects on consumers. Nothing like that exists for the Mersey tunnels.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East 4:30 pm, 29th October 2003

I am anxious not to extend this debate and my hon. Friend's speech any longer than is absolutely necessary, but does he accept—he admitted as much earlier—that by no stretch of the imagination are the tunnels a monopoly?

Photo of Robert Wareing Robert Wareing Labour, Liverpool, West Derby

I certainly reject the idea that the tunnels are not a monopoly; of course they are a monopoly. In fact, they are probably one of the most perfect examples of a monopoly that can be found in the British economy. Indeed, there are signs of competition in the gas and electricity industries, particularly since privatisation, so there can be competition between such companies. There is no competition with the MPTA. If my hon. Friend thinks that there is, perhaps he swims regularly across the River Mersey. There is no other way in which heavy traffic can cross the River Mersey at that point. Heavy traffic cannot cross unless its goes all the way round to Runcorn and Widnes to deliver goods or collect materials.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I hesitate to intervene again, and I promise to behave myself for the remainder of the debate, but to put the matter straight, as my hon. Friend rightly said some moments ago, there are ferries and, as he has now conceded, the Widnes to Runcorn bridge, which my constituents use far more regularly than the tunnels, as well as the rail system that runs under the river. I cannot see how, by any stretch of the imagination, that can constitute any kind of monopoly.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Before Mr. Wareing responds, I should direct him back to the scope of these amendments. We are not discussing the Bill as a whole. There may be an opportunity to do that on Third Reading, and it would be a pity if the hon. Gentleman stole his own thunder at this stage. I urge him to look at the terms of the amendments in concluding his remarks.

Photo of Robert Wareing Robert Wareing Labour, Liverpool, West Derby

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My argument, of course, is that there should be bodies to represent the consumers of Merseyside. In one of the amendments I refer to a number of organisations, such as trade unions and the Liverpool and Wirral chambers of commerce, which should be consulted. What I am suggesting is that some form of consumers council, such as that set up under the Utilities Act 2000 for other utility services, could be a model for consultation on the Mersey tunnels. Despite what my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth says—I am glad that he is going to behave now, which he usually does, but one never knows with him—we are considering a monopoly rather than an oligopoly, which exists in certain other utility services.

I do not expect that we will come to a conclusion on this matter tonight. When the Bill goes to the other place, however, the Government should consider seriously—I cannot understand how such a rational idea could be opposed—including the question of consultation and a consumers body in a new Government amendment. It seems to me that there is no reason why both sides of our argument about the Bill should not come together on that. I hope that the Minister's reply will at least come close to what I have been recommending in all good faith.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

I have listened carefully to the arguments presented by my hon. Friends and other hon. Members this afternoon, and I cannot agree with them about the consultation. I have worked with the promoter of the Bill for a number of years, and I am satisfied that it executes the requirements of its work with regard to consultation with a diligence for which I have a great regard. I therefore ask my hon. Friends and other hon. Members to withdraw their amendments.

Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South

I would be grateful if my hon. Friend could elucidate that point by giving a couple of examples of how the Merseyside passenger transport authority has responded positively to points made in consultation.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

I can understand my hon. Friend's desire to extend this debate for as long as possible, but I believe that all the points that have been raised with respect to consultation have already been covered.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

Is my hon. Friend saying on behalf of the promoter of this Bill that people resident in Cheshire, outside the catchment zone of the five district councils that are shareholders, have no rights in consultation? Is she satisfied that that does not breach the statutory duty in respect of best value legislation?

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I believe that the door to Merseytravel has always been open and that it is always responsive to reasoned arguments about improvements and the service available.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am afraid that the contribution made by Mrs. Curtis-Thomas has left rather a nasty taste in the mouth. Does she really think that when summing up a serious debate in which many hon. Members from both sides of the House have participated, all she need do is assert that all the points relating to consultation have been covered, so that is the end of the argument? She does a disservice to the House because we have put pertinent points cogently and coherently—but not extensively—to the promoter of the Bill. In so far as she speaks for the promoter, we assumed that she absented herself from the Chamber for some of debate to take instructions from it so that she could give us responses.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West

Has it occurred to the hon. Gentleman that the surprising reticence of my hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas mirrors exactly the instructions that she has probably been given by Merseytravel? Merseytravel does not want to say anything or engage in debate.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I do not know what instructions the hon. Lady received, but I am aware that she has strong views of her own. If she had received instructions with which she disagreed, I am sure that she would have spoken out. She has fearlessly spoken out on several issues in the House—I agree with that. That is why her reticence when responding to points from the debate is so bizarre.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

Does my hon. Friend think that that is even more extraordinary given that the withdrawal of the opposing petitions in Committee meant that there was no light shone on the matter? There was no clarification, investigation or probing, so it was extraordinary of Mrs. Curtis-Thomas to make no comment on the well reasoned amendments.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes the same point as me.

I doubt very much whether the other place will allow the promoters of the Bill to get away with such an arrogant approach. The conventions that used to apply in this House still apply in the other place, so Members of the other place who respond to a debate actually deal with points that have been raised. Some Ministers and hon. Members in this House have not complied with that convention for some time. If Members of the other place make points that are not answered, they expect to be able to debate them at greater length on another occasion.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the point is not only that the conventions that used to apply here will apply when the Bill reaches the other place? The Government find it more difficult to get legislation through the other place than this House.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point.

The hon. Member for Crosby is not the only person who has refused to participate at length in the debate. The spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, Dr. Pugh, has not said anything. That might be because the Liberal Democrats have a different policy on congestion charging in different parts of the country. London Liberal Democrats say that they are in favour of it, but we are not sure of the Liberal Democrat position on Merseyside. We know that the Liberal Democrats are against tolls for the Skye bridge, but perhaps that it because the leader of the party represents the constituency in which the bridge is situated.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the way in which he is trying to trivialise the debate only goes to prove the pointlessness of trying to engage him in debate?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman will have to judge whether he thinks that I am trivialising the debate. I am trying to be serious, and I have expressed my concern that we have not heard the view of the Liberal Democrats, although that is not unusual.

It is appalling that the Government have not joined in the debate. Why has the Minister not spoken? Mr. Wareing made a good contribution in which he laid down a number of challenges to the Government. Why is the Minister not earning his keep by responding?

The explanatory memorandum says that the Bill will

"assist the Authority in implementing this Government's policies on integrated public transport facilities."

Many of us think that that is a total misreading of the situation. Does the Minister believe that the Bill will assist the authority in implementing the Government's policies on integrated transport? Does it have the overt support of the Government, or are they neutral on it? The Government Whips have been determined to force the measure through. In such circumstances, it is even more despicable that the Minister is not prepared to stand up at the Dispatch Box and allow himself to be exposed to questions from his right hon. and hon. Friends who want to know where the Government stand.

I do not usually get angry in the House, but the past few minutes of the debate have made me extremely cross. The suspicions of people in Merseyside, and on the Wirral peninsula in particular, who think that they are victims of a ghastly conspiracy to do them down and to tax them heavily for their use of an essential route to work are well founded. The behaviour of the promoter and the Minister bears that out.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby made excellent pertinent points. I hope that he will table parliamentary questions to his ministerial colleague to get some answers. Alternatively, perhaps he will complain to his Whips that it is not conventional for a Minister not to respond to points raised by a Labour Member. No one can say that we are short of time. Mr. Chapman spoke extensively in earlier debates and there was no chance for others to join in before the motion for closure was moved. Ironically, the Government were able to hide behind the closure and not explain themselves. That is not possible today because the debate has only been going on for just over an hour. The Minister has every opportunity to explain for the first time the Government's opinion of the Bill and the amendments, but he has manifestly declined so to do. That is typical of the Government's arrogance. If they and the sponsor are not prepared to listen to their own Members, all we can do is hope that they will be forced to change their attitude in another place.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Bob Spink for contributing to the debate. He brings a special expertise because of his experience of serving on the Committee that discussed the Bill before it was withdrawn. Mr. Miller asked some important questions that have not been answered. Mr. Field was right to say that I did not make the most of the strong arguments that should be deployed on how the Bill is a taxing measure, which it is: it is a stealth tax—a stealth congestion charge. It is clear that there is no intention to pay off the debt on the tunnels by using the proceeds of the tolls. The purpose is to try to raise extra charges to deter people from using the tunnels and to transfer money from tunnel users to other parts of Merseyside for various public sector projects. A number of hon. Members have referred to the fact, which is inherent to the debate, that the people of Merseyside will not get good value for money out of the tunnels.

Hon. Members:

Ah.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Well, in the interests of consistency I am required to draw something to the hon. Gentleman's attention. He said that the Bill's object is to deter people from using the tunnels, but the promoter hopes to have lots of money to spend on other causes. How can the Bill achieve both?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

If that is the sum of the hon. Gentleman's contribution, I am sorry that he did not make a speech. That is exactly what is set out in the explanatory memorandum, and a number of us think that it contains inherent inconsistencies, including the one to which I just referred.

The Bill's promoter has provided no clarity about the objectives. It says that, on the one hand, it wants to have the power to increase tunnel charges by the rate of inflation as a matter of convenience, and it wants to be able to pay off the debt. On the other, it says that the Bill will be extremely useful in assisting the authority in implementing the Government's policies on integrated public transport facilities. But it does not say how it will pay off the enormous overhanging debt that we know to be associated with the tunnels, and surely the first objective should be to use the tolls to meet the costs of the tunnels, rather than to cross-subsidise other public transport activity.

This is a stealth tax, and it is part of the Government's congestion charging programme. The toll will be increased well beyond what is reasonable, and the tunnel users will not be able to avoid it. The cavalier way in which the Bill's promoter and sponsors have failed to respond to the debate is significant, and I hope that it will result in the sponsors losing the vote that I hope we will have on the amendment that I have tabled.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

Has the hon. Gentleman noticed that the Government Whips are in place for a coming Division, so the Government's fingerprints are all over the Bill, a tax-raising measure?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and he does the House a service in pointing that out. There will be people on the Wirral, in his constituency of Birkenhead and elsewhere in Merseyside who find it quite enlightening to see how the Government operate.

The Government are unwilling to come forward and openly justify the Bill, but they are determined to push it through the House against the wishes of many people on Merseyside, including those who were consulted about the measure and who overwhelmingly voted against it. I hope that the amendment will be carried. If it is not carried here, I hope that it will be carried in the other place.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 108, Noes 209.

Division number 345 Mersey Tunnels Bill — Schedule 1 — Amendment of the 1980 Act: Levying, Revision and Application of Tolls

Aye: 108 MPs

No: 209 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West

I beg to move amendment No. 33, in page 6, line 27, leave out from the beginning to the end of line 42 on page 7.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this we may take amendment No. 34, in page 7, line 45, leave out

'or Section 92 (Further revision of tolls)'.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West

Amendment No. 34 is consequential on amendment No. 33. Amendment No. 33 would remove existing section 92 of the County of Merseyside Act 1980, which the Bill re-enacts.

We are trying to deal with overkill. The amendments would make the Bill honest. The measure is currently dishonest because it is a con perpetrated on the people of Merseyside, especially the people of the Wirral—my constituents, those of my hon. Friend Mr. Chapman, those of my right hon. Friend Mr. Field, and, in a wider sense, those of my hon. Friend Mr. Miller.

However, we are considering a wider Merseyside issue. Mr. Chope was right to remind us of the consultation exercise. It made me recall the Mersey tunnels' current financial position. I am not talking about fantasy finance; I shall read out Merseytravel's comments on the Mersey tunnels' finances in the consultation document, which has already been mentioned. Paragraph 2.3 states:

"The Tunnels are currently breaking even financially, i.e. the toll income is sufficient to meet annual operating costs of about £12 million, debt (capital financing) charges of £13 million, and refurbishment (safety and renewal) costs of about £7 million. The debt charges stem from the use of borrowing to finance the cost of constructing the Wallasey Tunnel (£44 million), and subsequent operating losses incurred between 1968 and 1992 (£116 million). The current volume of debt outstanding is about £106 million, which is being repaid at the rate of about £4.5 million per annum together with interest charges of about £8.5 million."

It is said that the Bill and the section that I am seeking to remove are before the House because those responsible for operating the Mersey tunnels need access to extra finance. The House has already debated at some length the reason for raising that extra money, not least in relation to the cross-subsidy for other purposes on the wider Merseyside transport front. Some of the extra money is said to be needed for refurbishment and safety work, but I am not entirely convinced by that argument. It is an easy argument to make, because it throws upon those who do not take it at face value the unpleasant suggestion that they are not interested in the safety of the tunnels. I reject that entirely. It would not be an honest or proper position for the promoter to take, and it may be that it does not do so.

A group that has been formed in my constituency and elsewhere to look at the finances of the Mersey tunnels has carried out some research. I am grateful to the group—and in particular to Mr. McGoldrick—for furnishing me and my hon. Friends with certain information. On the question of safety, the group found that the Eurotest 2002 report rated the Wallasey tunnel the safest of those tested in Britain, and that the Birkenhead tunnel was the third safest. That could put to bed the idea that there needs to be access to extra funds, certainly for that purpose.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

Will my hon. Friend give the House some more information about the group that has provided him with that research? Specifically, will he tell us what its members' qualifications for making these assertions are?

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West

I do not think that it would be helpful for me to go down that particular road, attractive though the question is. Those on whose behalf my hon. Friend speaks—if I may put it that way—know very well who these people are, and he knows very well that they know that. They have had substantial correspondence with the group.

Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South

Does my hon. Friend agree that the principal qualification of the group's members for making these statements is that they are users of the tunnel and that, as such, they make representations to the passenger transport authority? Would it not be good if—in these circumstances, if in no others—the authority were, for once, to listen?

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West

My hon. Friend makes a relevant point. The principal qualification of the group's members is that they are users of the tunnels, and as users—and, indeed, as taxpayers—they have tried hard to seek basic information from Merseytravel so that they can understand the situation better and make a genuine and dispassionate observation of the finances of the operation. They found, however, that those responsible for keeping that information were not forthcoming; they said that it was like getting blood out of a stone. It is wrong of my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth to ask what their qualifications are. They are simply users trying to understand the situation as best they can.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I am mystified as to why this is such a big secret. My hon. Friend says that I know who these people are, and he knows who they are, but no one else is to be given this information. Would it not be sensible, if my hon. Friend is praying in aid a group that has provided information, that he should tell us who its members are? He knows that these minutes will be read in another place and that people will expect to be told exactly what the qualifications of those providing that information are.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West 5:15 pm, 29th October 2003

The group calls itself the Mersey Tunnel Users Association, which answers my hon. Friend's question, a blind alley down which I am sure he did not take me purposely.

Why do we need a twin-track approach? The operators of the Mersey tunnel can use the section 92 procedure to raise tolls, a matter that the House has discussed previously. Curiously, while asking for a further toll-raising measure, the operators are also seeking to use the old procedure. As Mr. Chope said, there will be a public inquiry on that soon.

Current practice can deal with increasing tolls, but the Bill's promoter seeks to retain the section 92 power—I am seeking to remove it—while having the new, more flexible power that can raise money more easily. I ask a simple question that the promoter has so far not even bothered to address; why does it need both?

If the promoter is sure that the new system will provide flexibility—with a 10p toll rise every three years—without a public inquiry, fine. I am against it having the new power, but why does it need the existing power as well? If the Bill becomes law and the promoter can raise the funds that it thinks it can—bearing in mind that the tunnel, as I said, is breaking even—why does it need the fallback position? It adds insult to injury for it to have both.

In an ideal world, I would want the Bill to go away, and that we left in place the current system, which is being used successfully to increase tolls at the moment. I suspect that my wish will not be granted, and the House must deal with the point about section 92.

It is not as though the Secretary of State—his assistance must be sought—after having a public inquiry to raise money has ever disappointed anyone. When people went to the Secretary of State under the old system seeking the money to secure the finances of the tunnels, their request was always acceded to. It was never refused. Indeed, the point needs to be reiterated, so I do so. The tunnel tolls have never been denied under what I call the old, or the current, system. Clearly, it works well, because if it did not, the tolls would not be in financial equilibrium. Under existing legislation, the terms are broadly for the tunnel to break even—to pay its way, so that eventually the running costs, the debt and other costs are paid off and the tunnels become free.

Of course, there is another element of my objection to the re-enactment of section 92, which would provide for the current system and the new system. I look forward to a response, which we did not have in the previous debate—[Interruption.] I hear a sotto voce indication that there might be a response this time, and I am pleased about that. I look forward to it, if it comes. It seems objectionable because I have not had an answer to the basic question, "Why both?" Is it because the Bill's promoter has a suspicion that the new system that it wants will somehow not be effective? Does it think that something will go wrong with it? If so, I would be interested to know what that might be.

I am sure that the House would also want to know if it is passing a measure whose promoter believes that there is an inherent probability of something going wrong or an element of mismanagement. I do not mean purposeful mismanagement, but a problem inherent in the system. The system might throw up a set of circumstances that requires the promoter to use a fallback position to raise extra cash.

In opting for the new fast-track procedure, as I call it, to raise money more easily, the promoter has criticised the current system as old-fashioned, cumbersome, dated and responsive to an era that has now gone. I believe that those criticisms still exist, so is it not strange that the promoter wants to keep such an archaic system? Why does it envisage that, at some as yet unspecified time and in some unspecified circumstances—the promoter says that its fears are genuine, so they must be—the despised old-fashioned system will be used?

The promoter calls the current system into question, but it remains on the statute book, even though for one purpose it hates it. It wants the House to believe that it is useless and works against the people of Merseyside and the Mersey tunnels in general, but it wants it to stay on the statute book to use as a fallback position, with all the problems that it acknowledges that it has. Those problems include requirements to publicise the matter in the newspapers, to go to the Secretary of State and to hold a public inquiry. That causes delays and means that the promoter does not get the money when it needs it.

I have said that I do not understand why there are two parallel systems for raising money. The current, criticised system is the fallback position, and it takes a long time. What is the rationale for retaining it?

I and my constituents could understand the Bill better if it contained one simple proposition. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead has dealt with elements of the Bill, such as insulation, so I shall not discuss them. My constituents might be more sympathetic if the Bill stated that we need a new system because the current one gets gummed up and does not work, and is an old-fashioned and expensive waste of time. That is a simple proposition that we could all understand, but that is not what we are faced with.

Why do we need to keep section 92? That is my simple question. I do not understand why the Bill contains that provision.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Mr. McNulty, is listening with care to my speech. We have not heard from either the promoter or the Government about this matter. From the point of view of business management, the Government want the Bill to go through today, as this is the third or fourth time that it has been discussed on the Floor of the House. The Bill is like a bad penny that keeps coming back. The Government want it to get through, and they will use the heavy hand of whipping to ensure that that happens. The fact that the debate is not time limited means that the business will almost certainly go through in the manner that they envisage.

I oppose the Bill and so do not find the Government's approach attractive, but there is more to it than that. I do not believe that the Government have not read the Bill and do not know what it is about. In fact, I know that that is not the case, as a delegation of which I was a member met the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Mr. Jamieson, and talked about it face to face. The Government know what the Bill is about.

I have addressed my propositions to the Bill's promoter and to the House in general. I hope that the House has some sympathy with what I have said, but I now address my comments to the Government.

What is the Government's logic in this matter? The rules laid down in the original Act are currently being used by the Bill's promoter to raise the tunnel charges. In one way or another, those rules have been used successfully for about 70 years. What are the Government sanguine about, given that the Bill wants not just the new fast-track procedure but the retention of the current procedure as a back-up? If they are, in fact, not sanguine about the use of two parallel tax-raising measures, perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us now.

My hon. Friend the Minister remains steadfastly seated. It would be easy enough for him to reply to me in a few words. We are not happy about a twin-track procedure for raising money at the expense of my constituents, and we are not persuaded that there is any reason for it. As my hon. Friend is not tempted by my invitation, I must assume—as my constituents must—that the Government are indeed sanguine about the forcing of the two tax-raising measures on them in circumstances that no one has yet explained. The purpose is not to refurbish the tunnels or to get the authority out of debt, because it is not in debt. It is not even to secure a more sensible way of raising tolls—a fast-track approach. If that were the case, the old procedure would not be needed.

What can my hon. Friend and the promoter point to that will go wrong? In what circumstances will the old system be used? Can someone please tell us what the fallback position is?

As I hope the House appreciates, I am doing my best for my constituents. I have asked the promoter and the Government for answers, but for the moment there is a stony silence. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East will serve as official spokesman for the promoter, but he indicated, sotto voce, that he wished to speak. I shall sit down now, but I look forward to elucidation from someone—if not for my benefit, at least as a courtesy to the House.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East 5:30 pm, 29th October 2003

I shall try to be brief.

Listening to my hon. Friend Stephen Hesford, I was reminded of a line from a song on The Beatles' "Abbey Road". I quote from memory, but I think it ran, "You never give me your pillow, you only issue your invitations". My hon. Friend seems to have issued invitations to everyone rather liberally in the last few moments.

I think that my hon. Friend rather over-egged the pudding. He spoke at some length about the promoter, Merseytravel. I should emphasise that I represent my constituents, and do not directly represent the promoters.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I have not begun to develop my argument yet.

My hon. Friend says, in effect, that the promoters of the Bill want to take a belt-and-braces approach; as well as the new powers that they seek, they want to reserve the power to continue to use the old system. That is the core of his argument, which I have managed to put in two minutes but which took him 30 minutes.

The simple answer to my hon. Friend's question is that, for all intents and purposes, in all normal circumstances, the promoters intend to use the new system. They want the straightforward power to be able to increase the tunnel tolls in line with inflation, measured by the retail prices index. Whether the increase will be 10p every three years or some other figure will obviously depend on the rate of inflation. However, the promoters want a further option in case something unforeseen happens. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has any experience in public finance, but in every public finance system that I have dealt with—whether in local government or national Government—provision is always made for unforeseen circumstances. I cannot predict what they might be, but any civil engineering project could go wrong. The circumstances might not be within the control of those responsible for managing the project; for example, there could be an act of terrorism or some engineering fault that was not originally evident. There must be some way of dealing with such eventualities.

The promoters have sensibly taken the view that the old arrangement, as my hon. Friend describes it, would be the fair way to deal with such circumstances. There would be a public inquiry. The authority would have to go back to central Government and justify why they wanted to exceed what they had asked for under the initial powers.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I do not want to put words into the Government's mouth, but my hon. Friend is nodding in agreement. I may have saved him from the need to make a speech.

The arrangements that I have described always apply in any public finance system. Unless my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West seeks only to make mischief, I do not know why he could not have figured that out for himself.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

My hon. Friend Mr. Howarth has half-answered the question that I was about to put to the sponsor of the Bill, my hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas. I, too, spotted the Minister nodding earlier, so that was helpful.

When I added my name to the amendment, it was to enable me to probe the circumstances in which the promoters would make such an application. What are the circumstances in which the Secretary of State might be minded to accede to them?

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I shall finish asking my questions and then I shall welcome her answers.

I have made a particular examination of the reports prepared by the German automobile association—ADAC—on the safety aspects. One can see that there could be exceptional expenditure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East described. He made a fair point. He also threw up other possibilities, though God forbid that there should be terrorism. I noticed, on a website, that the

"chairman of tunnel operators Merseytravel, says tolls will have to rise to meet the cost of the revamp" that stems from the ADAC report, although as always in these matters, different figures are floating around.

That led me—I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby has been considering this, as she is an engineer by background—to look at some of the engineering issues that have cropped up in previous tunnel incidents. Some awful tragedies have taken place around the world. Thank goodness—and I say, well done—Merseytravel has avoided some of the awful incidents that we have seen.

I looked at the ADAC report, at some work done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology examining damage to concrete walls in the event of fires, and at an extraordinarily detailed report entitled, "The Prevention and Control of Highway Tunnel Fires" published in the United States about three years ago, which went through very detailed evidence surrounding a range of fire situations, and created models of potential fire situations that thus far had not occurred in real life. It is a scary report.

The single question that I should like answered is, am I right that the promoters envisage clause 92 being applied only in circumstances relating to safety? If there are any other circumstances, I want to know; it is a fair question to ask. If it is safety only, I am for keeping clause 92 as it stands. If it is broader and the promoters want to leave it fairly vague, that is not good enough.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to make this intervention. He, like me, will have heard announcements—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Is the hon. Lady intervening on the hon. Gentleman?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

In that case, the hon. Lady is actually making a speech.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

Given that I am on my feet, perhaps I can address the comment that has just been made. I believe that the exceptional circumstances are unforeseen but would be more than likely to include safety matters.

My hon. Friends will have heard today that the EU intends to formulate a directive on all manufactured chemical products and to determine their impact on members of the public. I was working in the chemical industry when the EU had its first go at that in the mid-1980s. Catastrophic shock waves travelled through the chemical industry as people began to consider the consequences of the general products that had already been produced for the public who were purchasing them. At the time, products that had been on the market for 20 years were exempted from that consideration. It is now proposed to bring all products into the EU directive, so all companies providing products must be able to provide technical appraisals and toxicity appraisals to indicate the impact of those products on the population. I do not know the likely consequences, but I can well imagine that some products that have been used in the construction of the tunnels and other structures might well have an impact on the population that we currently do not assess.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

I am grateful; that is helpful.

In what circumstances might the clause be used other than to deal with emergency major engineering works that stem from things like the safety case? If there are no other circumstances, that is fine and the provision ought to remain in the Bill. If there are other circumstances, beyond safety, the House is entitled to know of them.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby 5:45 pm, 29th October 2003

I cannot foresee any other circumstances in which those powers would need to be used. However, I have worked for 20 years in an industry where unforeseen incidents do unfortunately happen. One still has to have provisions and arrangements that accommodate those exceptional circumstances. If one does not have them in place, one is criticised by the public for failing to do so.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

I agree entirely that there needs to be a contingency arrangement. It is particularly important in the context of safety—the safety of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend when travelling through the tunnel and that of the people who work in it. That is a mission critical. Is she saying that those contingency arrangements would extend to the inability of the passenger transport authority to balance its books on some other service?

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me an opportunity to clarify the situation. If there were exceptional circumstances, regardless of how they were arrived at, the matter would be referred to a public inquiry. At that point, I believe that the merits of the arguments put forward to substantiate an increase would be roundly discussed. We cannot prejudge what those unforeseen circumstances might be, but in the case of managerial neglect, huge criticisms would be made of the sponsor and justifiably so. I suspect that they would be told to look for alternative means to balance budgets.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West

This has been a curious little debate. My hon. Friend Mr. Howarth was expansive—if he gets his way, it will also be expensive for my constituents. He said that if one knows something about public finances, one always needs a fall-back position. I do not believe that that is an accurate statement of general public finance, but it appeared to be his point.

I disagree profoundly with my hon. Friend Mr. Miller. It is my constituents who are more likely to have to pay for those contingencies. Perhaps I did not make myself sufficiently clear in the general debate. When trying to understand what might be the nature of the unforeseen circumstances, there is no substitute for considering what has happened. One of the tunnels has been in existence for 70 years and the other since 1968. None of those unforeseen safety problems has arisen. Perhaps, I did not make it sufficiently clear that, according to my information, one of the tunnels is registered as the safest and the other as the third safest in the country.

I am profoundly not persuaded by the safety argument. It is suggested that some such situation may arise. Do the promoters not have something called insurance? Are they not insured for such things? Is not insurance designed to insure against unforeseen things? That is a rhetorical question, because the insurance industry exists for that purpose.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

My hon. Friend has a way with words: to describe my speech, which was four minutes long, as expansive, having spoken for 28 minutes himself, seems an odd use of the English language. For the sake of the record, given the argument that he is now using, can he tell me the last time he was able to insure against a terrorist disaster?

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but he knows, as I do, that those parts of the country that suffer from terrorist activity receive Government funding—for example, when Manchester was rebuilt—so I am afraid that he makes a very bad point.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West

No. My hon. Friend has had his chance. He makes a seriously bad point because the idea that some terrorist atrocity would be paid for by such a procedure is nonsense.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

My hon. Friend argued, until I intervened, that insurance could cover all contingencies. When it was pointed out that it cannot, he changed his argument. He cannot have it both ways.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West

Terrorism will not be paid for by such a procedure. When I made that point, my hon. Friend nodded because it is an obvious point. Let us not overplay this. Let us not be stupid about the idea that there is a prospect of terrorism in the Mersey tunnels; there is not. Let us not go too far down that road.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Labour, Wirral West

No.

I described this as a curious little debate because of the frequent references to the unforeseen nature of the circumstances. I have dealt with the idea that people can insure against risk. I have dealt with the idea of terrorism. When my hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas was asked whether there were any other circumstances, the answer was no. There are no other circumstances in which she could envisage the procedure being used. Therefore, in my submission—whether the House agrees with me I know not—I have heard nothing to persuade me that clause 92 needs to stay in the Bill.

Given the way the debate has been organised—that has been aired already—I do not intend to press amendments Nos. 33 and 34 to the vote tonight. Those arguments will go to another place, as has been indicated. I am sure that those in the other place will read with interest the report of this curious little debate, and I hope that their lordships will have some sympathy with my argument about clause 92. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.