I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I move the Second Reading on behalf of other Members from the region who are in the Chamber, including Alan Johnson, the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), my hon. Friend Martin Vickers and my right hon. Friend Mr Knight. We have been united on this Bill, which seems to have attracted some interest from other parts of the country. We welcome that, and thanks to my hon. Friend Mr Chope highlighting the existence of the Bill, we look forward to hordes of visitors to our region from his area and elsewhere.
Let me explain in a few words why across the Humber and across the political parties we jointly believe the Bill to be necessary. We ran a long cross-party and cross-estuary campaign to get action taken on the very high tolls on the Humber bridge. As we know, this was successful when we received a grant from the Chancellor of £150 million to enable the tolls to be halved. That has had a huge impact on the numbers crossing the bridge, which was absolutely necessary given the challenges in the region, with two of the poorest boroughs in the country.
While the Minister is in his place on the Front Bench—and I see that the former Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend Justine Greening has joined us—I would like to pay tribute on behalf of myself and colleagues for the work they did to make this happen. We are indebted to them for their efforts and hard work. Without their personal involvement, I am not so sure that we would have got the results that we have seen.
I want to refer in a little detail to some of the changes introduced by the Bill and to explain their necessity. Somebody once said to me that the bridge was built on the back of a 1950s Bill, constructed in the 1970s and opened in the 1980s. Indeed, I was three years old when it opened, and we have worked out that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes was nine when the original Bill for the construction of the bridge was introduced back in 1959. The bridge board building has been constructed for some considerable time, and those who have visited it will appreciate that; it is almost in a time warp and is like stepping back in time.
There used to be 22 members from the various local authorities serving on the bridge board, and I declare an interest as a former member of that board. I was not one of the 22 members, but one of the 22 reserve members—in total, we had 44 potential members of the Humber bridge board representing the four local authorities in the region. It has to be said that the local authorities were different at that time. It was an unwieldy institution, and the Bill will formally reduce membership to four and add two members from the private sector, which we all believe is necessary to give the bridge a new look and a new drive. Those two additional members will be drawn from the business community, and there is provision to allow for their reasonable expenses. This might have been a cause of concern to some people, but I assure Members that the four members of the local authorities will continue to draw their expenses for attending the bridge board from the local authority remuneration scheme, and there is no intention at all to draw any salaries or additional expenses from the Humber bridge board. This provision is necessary just for the out-of-pocket expenses of the two private sector members, so that they can reclaim their travel expenses, which they cannot do at the moment. There is no intention of creating director salaries for the local authority members.
According to clause 5,
“The Board may pay to each director of the Board such allowances and expenses as the Board may from time to time determine.”
I am not entirely convinced that the Bill imposes a great deal of restraint on the directors. Perhaps my hon. Friend can help me out.
Obviously, all members of the board will be created equal. It is essential for private sector members to be able to claim out-of-pocket expenses, but local authority members will continue to be remunerated by their authorities through local government schemes. Given that they are elected representatives, if they made any attempt to draw salaries they could expect a backlash at the ballot box.
It could be argued that the bridge is more advantageous to people living on the south bank of the Humber, but at present 98% of liability for the burden of debt lies with the city of Hull because of the way in which it was constructed. Protracted negotiations took place involving one authority in particular, but the objections of that authority were overcome. It was agreed that the bridge was of equal importance to all four, and that the burden should therefore be shared equally between them.
I hesitate to say this, given the political beliefs of some of my colleagues who are in the Chamber, but no traffic enforcement is currently possible on the Humber bridge. I was told recently that it was possible to drive through the tolls at 100 mph naked on a motorbike without committing any traffic offences. Not many people do that, of course, but we cannot allow such safety issues not to be addressed. Those who do not pay the toll cannot currently be pursued, and the current speed limit is not enforceable. Allowing the board to deal with that is simply a practical measure.
I will not be drawn down that path. I understand that the person who apparently holds the speed record on the bridge may be well known publicly, but I will not name that person. It is certainly no one in the House.
At present, the board is allowed no flexibility in regard to dispensation from tolls. For those of us who represent the south bank, that is an important issue. Health and other services have increasingly been concentrated on the north bank over the past decade or so. Certain cancer and heart treatments are offered in Hull, but it is not currently possible for any toll dispensations to be given to the cancer and cardiac patients who must travel to the north bank regularly for their treatment.
It causes outrage locally that, while the Home Office will pay the tolls of the families who visit prisoners on the north bank and jobseekers can claim support through Jobcentre Plus, health patients receive no such support. It will now be up to the bridge board to decide whether it wishes to exercise such a discretion, and it has indicated that it is sympathetic to the requirements of certain types of patients who require regular treatment on the other side of the river.
As I said at the outset, there has been a cross-party campaign to modernise the bridge. We feel that the current structure is too rigid, that it does not give the board the commercial freedoms that it requires, and that consequently this change is essential.
It appears that the Bill does not allow the board to increase the maximum toll, although it can vary tolls. Will it be able to increase them in future, and what will be the implications for people more widely?
The situation in respect of the tolls is that they could be raised and returned to £3 overnight under the order currently in place without any consultation with the public.
This is what happens at present. A toll inquiry is held—at great cost to the board—at regular intervals, to which local MPs, including myself and many other Members present, trot up and argue passionately against any rise in the tolls, often on social or economic grounds. The bridge board’s primary responsibility and function, however, is, and will remain, repaying the debt so those arguments are completely irrelevant.
Huge sums of money are spent whenever an inquiry is demanded and is granted by the Secretary of State, and at the end of that process the inspector’s recommendation has always been that the tolls must be raised. The Bill will allow the bridge board to raise the tolls in line with the retail prices index, should it wish to do so—although I hasten to add that the bridge board has recently said it expects to hold the tolls at £1.50, so there would be a real-terms cut year on year for the next three or four years at the very least.
The charade of a process that has gone on until now in respect of toll rises did not give the public any real say. There was a lot of debate and a lot of hot air was generated, but at the end of the day the situation fundamentally came down to the bridge board’s finances and therefore every toll rise was always consented to, with the exception of one, when a Minister intervened in the run-up to an election.
We may all be dead and buried by the time that happens—I include myself in that. The freedoms introduced by the Bill will allow the bridge board to refinance in a way that it currently cannot, and it will be for the bridge board to determine what it wishes to do with the bridge once the cost has been repaid. It may want to start raising money for a replacement bridge, because I am assured that the existing bridge will reach the end of its lifespan at some point.
Under the Bill, the bridge board will be entitled to raise tolls in line with RPI. As part of the changes, it has for the first time established user groups and business groups to engage the public properly in any consultation. The situation will be largely unchanged, however: the primary focus will always be whether the bridge board’s finances are sound and whether it can repay the debt, which is its No. 1 legal responsibility. That is done through the tolls, as has always been the case. It is not done at general expense to the taxpayer. Indeed, we have paid for the bridge four times over and still owe about £150 million. The situation in respect of tolls will be unchanged, therefore, except that we will not have to go through this potential charade of having an inquiry at the end of which there is no real discretion.
We are all in agreement about this Bill. We have all supported the campaign for a long time. The fact that tolls have halved has had a huge impact locally.
I rise to emphasise that there is cross-party, cross-Humber support for the Bill. I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), Mr Knight, my hon. Friends Nic Dakin, for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), and Mr Davis, too. We have all worked together to establish a new way of looking at the Humber bridge. I also pay tribute to the Secretary of State for International Development for the work she did in her previous post. To emphasise the cross-party consensus, I should point out, too, that the Minister who will be replying to the debate is a Liberal Democrat.
It is said that the way to bring two communities together is to build a bridge. We did that to bring the communities of east Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire together. In a way, that bridge became a cause of division, however, and it certainly did not allow us to fulfil the economic development potential of the region. This Bill changes that, not least because the bridge board will have the power to promote and participate in the economic development of our sub-region.
Because of the tolls and because of the archaic, centralised and almost Stalinist way in which the Humber Bridge Board was set up—it was a creature of its post-war time—it was impossible to use that bridge between the two communities to maximise our economic potential. Now, with the local enterprise partnership, with an emphasis on localism, we are determined to make that work. We have done an awful lot by halving the bridge tolls, which is very important, but we need to set up a new structure, reducing the 22 board members to four local authority members—and we need to include all the local authorities, because one was not included under the current structure. We also need to add to that the knowledge and expertise of the business community. Allowing those things to happen will mean that we can take advantage of the huge potential in renewables, chemicals, logistics and digital gaming, which are all huge for our sub-region.
I agree with every point that the right hon. Gentleman has made, but will he join me in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend Justine Greening, who, when she was a Treasury Minister, played such a role in not only finding the money to halve the tolls, but setting out the vision, which he has just described, of a more dynamic board, rather than the Stalinist one we had before?
I clearly recall paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Putney, but I am happy to do so again—she is so good, they pay tribute to her twice.
I do not want to speak for long. This Bill is very important for our little corner of the world. There is not a person, organisation, agency or business opposed to this development, and I very much hope the Bill gets its Second Reading this evening.
I wish briefly to set out the Government’s position on the Bill and the background to it. In short, the Government supports this Bill, and in recognition of that I am joined on the Front Bench by not only my right hon. Friend Justine Greening, but the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend Mr Burns. We see the Bill as an essential part of a sustainable settlement for the management and finances of the Humber bridge to endure for the next 25 years or so. This is the outcome of considerable work by all the local MPs—of all parties—the four Humber area local authorities and the Humber Bridge Board, working together to respond positively to the Government’s Humber bridge review. I would like to record my appreciation of that work.
The Government launched the Humber bridge review on
The bridge board and local authorities responded positively, and came forward with a proposal for reforms, which the Government accepted, and a deal was struck on
Looking at the reform package as a whole, the core principles for the governance of the bridge set by the Humber Bridge Act 1959 do not change. The first of those is that the bridge is owned by the Humber area community through the Humber Bridge Board, with democratic accountability through local authority members forming a majority on the board. The second is that the costs of building and maintaining the bridge be borne by its users, through the charging of tolls. That is the long-standing practice for major estuarial crossings in England and Wales. The third principle is that the bridge board has the responsibility to run the bridge efficiently and safely, and to set an adequate level of toll to meet its costs. Any shortfall in toll revenue is made up by a levy on the bridge board’s constituent local authorities. Turning to the component parts of the reform package, two reforms were enacted by the Government in 2012. First, the Humber Bridge (Debts) Order 2012 wrote down £150 million of the £332 million bridge debt, and set a fixed interest rate of 4.25% on the remaining debt. That enabled the bridge board to reduce the bridge tolls substantially on
In the first nine months of reduced tolls, 429,000 additional vehicle trips were made across the bridge, an increase of 9.2%. Secondly, the Humber Bridge Board (Membership) Order 2012 reduced the bridge board from 22 local councillors to four, one from each of the Humber area local authorities.
This private Bill provides for those parts of the reform package that require primary legislation. I want to draw attention to two reforms that meet the Government’s requirements for the February 2012 deal. First, clause 3 brings representatives of the local enterprise partnership on to the board, giving the Humber area business community a stake in the good management of the bridge and the opportunity to bring its energy and commercial expertise to its day-to-day running. Secondly, clause 7 ensures that the incentive on the bridge board to set a toll adequate to meet its costs is shared equally between all the Humber area local authorities. That is a major improvement from the previous arrangement, when approximately 98% of the cost of any revenue shortfall fell on the council tax payers of the city of Hull.
The other provisions in the Bill have been worked up by the bridge board and local authorities to modernise the powers of the bridge board to manage its affairs efficiently and transparently and to allow it to act commercially to develop sources of revenue other than tolls while remaining democratically accountable to the local community. On that basis, we have agreed as a Government to support them. I shall not go through them all now, but I want to draw attention to clause 11, which removes the Secretary of State from the decision-making process on setting the level of tolls while retaining the local community safeguards and rights to be consulted on any change in the tolls. That will save much time and taxpayers’ money and is a good example of the implementation of the Government’s localism agenda.
The Humber bridge review provides an affordable and long-term sustainable solution for repaying the Humber bridge debt and allows the bridge to play its fullest possible part in the success of the Humber area economy and community.
The Minister will be aware that 70% of the bridge’s capacity, with the highest tolls in the country, was unused in an area of high unemployment and low average income. This is a tremendous step forward for the area and, when we combine it with the improvements to the A164 and the Beverley southern relief road, he and other Ministers can be proud of the coalition Government’s contribution to the area and its transport infrastructure at a time of such general austerity.
I am grateful for those comments and concur with the analysis that this will make a significant difference to the economy of the area, for which Members across the House have argued successfully.
The agreed reforms support effective local management of the bridge and accountability to the local community, taking into account the views of all stakeholders and ensuring value for money for the taxpayer. The private Bill is an essential part of the reform package, and I commend it to the House.
I want simply to make a few points. First, I recognise the contribution many people have made to the management and governance of the bridge over many years. They have done a good job within the statutory requirements that the bridge board has placed on them, but now is the time for the changes in the Bill to release the dynamism that is necessary if the bridge is to be fit not only for the present but for the future. Hon. Members who have already spoken have emphasised the opportunities that the Bill presents, and it is also an opportunity to deliver localism in action. That localism is represented by the fact that MPs from across the parties and across the region have worked together in unison, as have local authorities, the business community and the local enterprise partnership. Not just the reduction of tolls, in which Justine Greening assisted and for which she has properly been recognised in this debate, and the setting up of local enterprise zones and the local enterprise partnership have helped to drive the local area forward. That is localism in action, which will be further underscored and driven forward if we support the Bill tonight.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. It has been a long time coming in many ways and I thank the Minister for his résumé and for his efforts. I also thank the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Justine Greening, who, right from the start, saw the area’s potential and the impact the bridge tolls were having on the local economy. Like my colleagues, I thank them for that. As Alan Johnson said, we build bridges to unite people. We did not quite succeed in that respect, but we have now shown that united action by politicians of all colours on both sides of the river can achieve something. I hope that we will push forward with other enterprises for the Humber. It is a great economic area with fantastic potential, and I am sure that the Bill will seal the deal.
My hon. Friend Andrew Percy said that I was eight or nine when the original Humber Bridge Bill was first introduced. Sadly, that is the case. I am also one of the campaigners of longest standing. I was looking it up; in 1986 I spoke in a debate in the former Grimsby borough council to demand abolition of or a reduction in, the tolls.
What has been said of the business potential of the local economy is particularly important. My area, especially around Immingham docks, is a major centre for the haulage industry and it has greatly benefited from the changes. But in many ways it is the personal cases that emphasise the point. People on the south bank have to travel to Hull for cancer treatment and treatment for other serious illnesses and the tolls have been a particular burden on the families of many people whom I represent and those in neighbouring constituencies. Unless we get this Bill on the books, the board cannot reduce the tolls for those seeking treatment, and it is important that we get it as soon as possible.
My hon. Friend has reminded me about Humber Action Against Tolls and in particular Jenny Walton, who has struggled with a terrible illness and has been on the receiving end of the high tolls. She should get a lot of credit for the work she has done.
My hon. Friend has stolen my words. I was going to mention Jenny and the great work that she has done.
Some colleagues may express fears about the powers of the board. They need to remember that four out of six members of the board will now, in effect, be directly elected and accountable to their local communities, and that will be a restraint. Only if you live in the area do you appreciate how big an issue this is locally. Public opinion will ensure that the board drives tolls down to their absolute minimum not only in the foreseeable future but beyond that. It has already announced that it can maintain tolls at the present level for another three years.
As my hon. Friend may know, I used to live in the area, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Mr Davis. My hon. Friend spoke about the concerns about and the opportunities presented by reducing the cost for people who have certain medical conditions. Does he feel that it would be worth putting any of those things in the Bill so that they are not left to the discretion of the board members, so that we can guarantee the outcome that he seeks—reductions for patients and control of future price rises?
I can see why my hon. Friend would consider that desirable, but if we start listing illnesses that qualify for exemption from the toll, we will discriminate against other perhaps lesser known illnesses. It is easy to say that we will exempt cancer patients, but what about others with equally serious diseases? It would be wrong, and it is surely for local people to determine these things.
One important part of Cleethorpes is the tourist trade. We have already seen the tourism industry pull together with some initiatives to attract people across the bridge such as “With entry into Pleasure Island you get your toll back.” It has clearly been a boost for the local economy, which is desperately needed in an area of high unemployment where growth is the key to the future. I urge colleagues to give the Bill a Second Reading and support it throughout its various stages.
I rise very briefly to put on record the Opposition’s support for the Bill; to congratulate Andrew Percy and his colleagues on making sure that it was debated this evening; and to thank my right hon. and hon. Friends for indicating the cross-Chamber support for the Bill.
The Minister outlined in some detail the nature of the Bill and we look forward to discussing it more fully in Committee. It is also nice that Justine Greening is in her place to hear the nice things that have been said about her. We have crossed swords on several issues over the years, and it is nice when sometimes we can congratulate Members on the other side, rather than criticise them. We support the Bill and we look forward to its swift passage.
It is because of me that this debate is taking place at all. I was much criticised by my hon. Friend Andrew Percy for saying that we should have a debate. I said to him privately, and repeat publicly, that I thought that such a debate would redound to his benefit, because he would be able to explain the good work that he had put into trying to achieve the objectives of the Bill. I said to him that if the Bill were not debated on Second Reading, it would—because it is an unopposed Bill and there is no petition against it—go to an Unopposed Bill Committee, and then come back to the House for Third Reading, without a Report stage, so there would be no opportunity for people to move any amendments or make any points about it, whether good or bad. I hope that my hon. Friend now understands the virtues of a debate. The fact that other Members are in their places shows that they, too, understand the importance of being able to articulate concerns about, or the good points of, a piece of legislation.
It is great to hear support from those on the Opposition Front Bench for the principle of the Laffer curve—reductions in price can increase the volume of activity. We have heard that, in relation to the top rate of tax, they do not believe that the volume of activity would increase. I suggest that they are now speaking with forked tongue, because on this Bill they have conceded the point that reducing the costs increases the activity and thus the yield. I have at home on the back of a napkin the Laffer curve drawn by Dr Laffer himself, and I will revisit that as a result of this debate.
On a serious point, I hear what my hon. Friends say about local control, but the Bill would give up any direct control over the level of tolls in the future—that is the impact of clause 11. As my hon. Friend the
Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) implied in his intervention, there is something to be said for having on the face of the Bill some safeguards for local people against possible future increases in the level of tolls beyond the rate of inflation. At the moment, they have been halved, but nothing in the Bill would safeguard against the introduction of differential tolls, for example.
I take my hon. Friend’s point, but the primary responsibility of the bridge body is to service the debt, so either way local taxpayers pay. Either the road user pays through the tolls or responsibility reverts to the local authorities. So there is no safeguard because the safeguard of not having a toll rise is that it would then revert to the local taxpayers to pay for anyway.
I take my hon. Friend’s point, and the arrangements are now for a much more equitable relationship. Certainly when I was a Transport Minister it was an impossible subject to deal with, because there was no incentive for the other local authorities involved to be reasonable on these issues. However, that would not stop something being written on the face of Bill. Even if there is no demand locally for it and there are no petitions against the Bill at this stage, it would still be possible for people to petition against the Bill when it gets to the other place if they are concerned about the lack of any assurances in relation to tolls.
I raised with my hon. Friend the issue of the maintenance fund. Clause 9 says that the maintenance fund can be reduced. Money can be taken from the maintenance fund and spent on other things. I believe that we have too much crumbling infrastructure in this country, much of it owned and managed by local authorities that have refused to use the money that has been given to them, often by central Government, for the purposes of the proper maintenance of that infrastructure. In my constituency, the A338 Bournemouth spur road comes to mind as an example. I am concerned that we give power in the Bill for money that has specifically been put aside for the maintenance of an important structure to be spent on something else.
We know that bridges decay, and what is happening with the new Forth bridge is an example. I hope that when he responds to the debate, my hon. Friend will explain why the promoters of the Bill feel that the existing maintenance fund is topped up too high. If it is topped up too high and they want the power to reduce it, why was that not taken into account in the negotiations over the reduction in the debt and the taxpayers’ money that went into it?
Those are reasonable questions to ask in the context of a debate such as this. I was chided for asking what this had to do with my constituents. My constituents are national taxpayers and they do not want to be told that the Humber bridge needs to be rebuilt and the only way it can be rebuilt is with national taxpayers’ money because the maintenance fund was not used for the purposes for which it was set up. That is my concern and that is why I ask these questions in relation to clause 9.
I do not and never did wish to prevent the Bill from making progress, but it is important that we establish a principle that such legislation does not go through on the nod, so that we all know what we are talking about and we give it our express consent, rather than letting it go through by default.
I commend all my colleagues on both sides of the House from east Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire for their efforts in coming together to get the Bill to this stage. Clearly, they all work together well. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Chope on making sure that we can have a debate about these matters.
People may ask what this has to do with the people in Shipley. Well, people in Shipley use the Humber bridge too. On their many visits to east Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire they are expected to cough up when they go over the Humber bridge, just as much as anybody in east Yorkshire is expected to cough up when they go over it, so of course we all have an interest. As I made clear in an earlier intervention, I lived for a number of years in Haltemprice and Howden and at that time was a regular user of the Humber bridge. I am delighted about what the Government have done in reducing the cost for people using the bridge, which will be warmly welcomed in that part of the world. I am all for reducing taxes and costs.
I have no objection to the Bill. It is a good rule of thumb that if it is good enough for my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), it is good enough for me. But like my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I would not want the Bill to have any unintended consequences. I think that it is incumbent on us to point out any problems we think there might be with the Bill, and then it is ultimately for its promoters to decide whether they want to take heed of that view or ignore it. If they have considered it, do not have a problem and want to ignore it, that is fine by me, but I think that it would be remiss of us not to flag up some issues so that people can take them away to consider.
I do not want to go through the whole Bill and so will focus my remarks on the two main considerations that I think might impact upon, and potentially upset, local residents. One relates to the bridge toll. It seems slightly bizarre to me that after the Government have reduced the charge for crossing the bridge, which I think we all approve of, we might be about to allow other people effectively to overturn that reduction in the not-too-distant future and start putting up charges.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes indicated that he thought that the matter should be decided locally, and that because those people would all be elected locally, they faced the prospect of being voted out if they put the fees up and it proved unpopular. But that is not necessarily how I read the Bill. If the members of the Humber Bridge Board were directly elected, there would be some merit in his argument, because they could be directly elected on the basis of their record on the board—but that, of course, is not how it works.
Schedule 1 makes it clear that the board members will not be directly elected at all; they will, in effect, be appointed by the various local authorities. They might well be elected councillors in their particular field, but when they come up for re-election to Hull city council,
North Lincolnshire council or the East Riding of Yorkshire council, they will not simply be voted in for their particular ward based on their track record on the Humber Bridge Board. They might represent a ward in which there are not many people who use the bridge, so it might not be a big consideration when they come up for re-election. They will face re-election based on their track record of working hard in the local ward and on the other work they do on the local council.
Therefore, I do not see that there will be direct elected legitimacy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes would have us believe, based on how he responded to my earlier intervention. I still fear that people will be able to use their position on the board to vote through toll increases that are unpopular with the local community but will not face the sanction that he would like them to face at a subsequent election.
My hon. Friend is making a perfectly good argument for having more directly elected officials and politicians, and in principle I am very much in favour of that, but the reality, of course, is that he could apply the same argument to the role of Government Ministers, who are not directly elected. It is just an impossible situation. As I said in my contribution, the key is that four of the six board members are elected. Because of the importance of the issue in the locality, I can assure him that it would be very foolish of the board members to act irresponsibly in any way when it comes to toll increases.
I take my hon. Friend’s point, and he might be satisfied that there will be sufficient accountability. I merely wanted to flag up the fact that people might want to consider some additional safeguards in the Bill to prevent tolls from reaching levels that would be unacceptable to the local community. I know that that is not his intention or, as far as I can see, that of any Members from Humberside—an awful term that I object to greatly. I do not think that it is the intention of anyone from both sides of the Humber to see fees go up. I do not think that anyone supporting the Bill wants to see that. My concern is that that might be an unintended consequence of the Bill without additional safeguards.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Bill gives the board the power to have differential charges for the residents of the four local authorities concerned and for non-residents, so there is the possible scenario whereby the charges for residents of the four local authorities would be kept down while the charges for visitors, such as my constituents and those of my hon. Friend, would be pushed up. Should not the Bill provide a safeguard against that?
I have enormous respect for my hon. Friend, and I understand his argument, but I think that he is failing to understand that the primary purpose of the board is to service the bridge’s debt. That is what it is there to do and that is what the tolls are necessary for, so the idea that it is suddenly going to shove them up to five quid overnight is wrong—it is not going to happen, to be polite about it. We must remember that the primary purpose of the board is to service the debt, and that is done either through the tolls or through a levy on the local authorities.
I take my hon. Friend’s point and his reassurance. However, he must accept that although we have seen a change in strategy this evening, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has noted, some people will believe politically that the best way to raise money to service the debt is to increase taxes or, in this case, charges. The people on the board may not accept the idea of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole that the best way to increase the revenue stream is to reduce the price—they may take the view that the best way to service the debt is to increase prices—so there is no guarantee that what he suggests will always prevail. I will not go on for too much longer because I do not want inadvertently to talk out his Bill, but there is a concern about what might happen, and it is worth putting that on the record and asking him to think a little more about whether a provision should be inserted into the Bill to prevent any potential problem further down the line.
I have two final points. The first is about the people whom my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes wants to be given a full or partial relief from the toll, perhaps because of medical conditions. He said that when one makes a list one might inadvertently miss something off and cause a problem, and I understand that. However, an intention to give certain people a relief is only that—an intention. Nothing in the Bill would force it to happen or guarantee it. People could have their hopes raised and then see them dashed. It would be unfortunate if the board had a change of heart, or its personnel changed, and it no longer felt that a relief was appropriate or affordable because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole says, their primary responsibility is to service the debt.
It might therefore be worth inserting a provision—it does not have be as specific as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes perhaps inferred from my intervention—to make it clear that there should be some form of relief for people with, for example, serious medical conditions. It need not specify anything in particular but would make sure that what he intended happened in reality. One of the many unfortunate things in politics is people’s hopes being raised and then dashed when other people have made promises that they cannot keep. It would be good if we could demonstrate in the Bill that this provision would be an inevitable consequence of its being passed, whereas at the moment it is just an aspiration and a hope that cannot be guaranteed.
My final point is about clause 5 on allowances and expenses, about which I made an intervention earlier. I took the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole about out-of-pocket expenses. I do not think that anybody will reasonably object to people being able to recover their out-of-pocket expenses, but that is not exactly what the clause says. It says:
“The Board may pay to each director of the Board such allowances and expenses as the Board may from time to time determine.”
With the best will in the world, whatever the intention and whatever expectations people may have, that gives an awful lot of scope under the Bill for people to be paid allowances and expenses that local residents may consider at some time to be excessive. This kind of thing can often build up resentment if it does not come with the support of the local public. If the intention is for people to have their out-of-pocket expenses repaid—I would not object to that and I am certain that the vast majority of local residents would not, either—perhaps the Bill should make it clear that that is what it means, rather than say
“such allowances and expenses as the Board may determine from time to time,” which would give people scope to vote for considerable amounts of money that others would find unacceptable or offensive.
My hon. Friend is right. The Bill gives carte blanche to the board to vote for any amount of money it chooses. There does not seem to be a restriction, aside from the expectation voiced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes that the four elected people would be voted out on their ear at the next election. There is no guarantee, however, that that would happen. People will not be judged on that alone. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole to consider these points. I understand what he and Members from all parties and from both sides of the Humber intend to happen, and I would not wish for the Bill not to deliver on their or their constituents’ hopes and expectations.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch on allowing us to have this debate. All the private Bills we have debated over a number of years have involved certain points that the promoters have not given consideration to or that, with hindsight, they might have done differently. This debate has given us an opportunity to look at such points. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole will take some of our concerns on board and even table some modest amendments when the Bill goes to Committee.
This has been a good debate. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Chope, who has not spoken for a very long time, for allowing us to have it, although I do not think I would have thanked him if his intention had been to talk the Bill out. I take on board his genuine principle that legislation should be properly scrutinised in this place, frustrating though that may be for us locally. His contribution was welcome for its content and its length. I will ask the bridge board to respond to him about the maintenance fund. My understanding is that, at present, it has to be set at a certain level, even when it is not necessary to spend it all. The Bill does not allow the board to use the maintenance fund to offset interest payments and suchlike. I understand that that is where the flexibility comes from, but I will ask the board to respond.
I do not agree with my hon. Friend on taxpayers’ national liability. As I have said throughout the debate, the liability rests ultimately with local people through either the money paid by users or the levy on the local authorities. If the bridge fell down overnight, it would be put up, I hope, according to the same principles on which the original bridge was constructed. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Norman Baker has set out those principles, which are that those who use the bridge pay for it. I do not think there would be any recourse to taxpayers. Obviously, they put up the loan originally, but the payments would come from the tolls.
I thought we would get through this debate without any mention of the dreaded “H” word, but I forgive my hon. Friend Philip Davies for using it and will respond to his reasonable point about allowances, which I am sure all local MPs will want to pursue. However, the new members—the four members from each authority—would have to be appointed every year through their full council meeting, so if they went a bit bonkers and sought to pay themselves £100,000 per year, they could be thrown off the board by their local authorities. That is an extra check of democratic accountability, because they are accountable to their local authorities. That could have happened in the past—although it never has—because a local authority, had it wanted to, could have used its own procedures to introduce a special responsibility allowance to pay the chairman of the bridge board. It would also be foolish for board members to suggest payment of anything other than out-of-pocket expenses. I think that local MPs from all parties would be particularly critical of them if they tried to do that.
On the toll rise, I understand the point about safeguards. However, the current safeguard, which I think is what my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Shipley are asking for, does not provide much of a safeguard, because when a toll increase is sought, it is always granted on the grounds that it is necessary to fulfil the primary responsibility of the board, which is to repay the debt and maintain the bridge in good order. That will remain the primary responsibility and tolls will be set to reflect that.
Given that the board is finely balanced between two Conservative members and two Labour members, the politics of the situation mean that a rise would never happen. I do not suspect that the business community will be coming to the bridge board wanting to put up the bridge tolls—probably quite the reverse.
Some excellent points have been raised which I and other local MPs will want to pursue. I am delighted that we have got to this stage and that we have not run out of time, because this is a much-needed change for our local area. We are all delighted to have been involved in making it.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.