My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will talk about the Mersey Gateway later, because we have another very difficult situation there.
As my right hon. Friend says, many people have no option but to cross the Mersey to get to work. Many of those people work in public sector organisations such as the police and the NHS, and have not had a real pay rise for almost a decade. They often work shifts. The only way they can get to work is with their own transport, because public transport does not operate on the routes or at the times they need to get to work.
For example, an Ellesmere Port resident works as a physiotherapist specialising in treating head and neck cancer patients from across the north-west at Aintree Hospital. She pays at least £400 more per year than Wirral residents to get to work. What about the band 5 staff nurse who recently began working at the Royal Liverpool Hospital and, due to her shift times, has to drive from Ellesmere Port to Liverpool? She says she finds it financially crippling to pay tunnel tolls and car park fees. She also makes the point that colleagues who live down the road from her on the Wirral and in Liverpool can pay the lower toll, but they have better public transport options anyway.
We know how hard it is for the NHS to recruit and retain staff, particularly nurses, but this policy seems to be forcing them out. One nurse told me that
“the individual cost of the Toll fees on my current wage may force me to leave my nursing post at the Royal Liverpool NHS Foundation trust and seek employment elsewhere. I find my situation ironic due the desperate need for nursing staff at the hospital but am being forced out by unfair and discriminatory postcode politics.”
I could not have put it better myself. Then there are the people who have to travel across the Mersey at both crossings to get treatment at more specialist healthcare services, such as Broadgreen and Alder Hey. Why should people with the most serious conditions be treated in that way?
I have been given dozens of examples of people who use the tunnels for work and who are thinking of taking their talents elsewhere. Ultimately, this is an economically damaging policy. There are also those who go to visit their family, including elderly relatives. I have a constituent who travels over the Mersey nearly every day to care for her 80-year-old mum, who has dementia. She saves the council a fortune in social care costs, but her contribution does not appear to carry any weight. There are others, including the British Sign Language interpreter, the paramedics, the teachers and the Leahurst veterinary school students. None of those people have been considered, because there has been no assessment of the impact of the decision.
Those are just some examples of the hardship faced by my constituents and others who have no choice but to cross the Mersey—hardship the metro Mayor actually appears to recognise. Last year, he said:
“The introduction of additional tolls has proven to be a significant imposition to many from lower socio-economic groups, who are already struggling to make ends meet.”
He was talking about the Mersey Gateway tolls, but it could just as easily have been the Mersey tunnels tolls. I agree, and his argument applies to both crossings. I also agree with him when he said:
“The economic wellbeing of our city region is a joint responsibility between the combined authority and Government.”
I ask the Minister to set out what he will do to ensure that my constituents no longer face these rip-off charges.
If the Minister does not think it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure citizens of this country do not face postcode discrimination, he must agree that they do have responsibility for promises made by members of the Government. I refer specifically about the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who made promises about the Mersey Gateway that have not materialised. In a tweet on
“Confirm we’ll extend free bridge tolls to residents of Cheshire W &
Chester + Warrington”.
One of my constituents was understandably a little sceptical about that comment, so he emailed the Conservative party candidate for Ellesmere Port and Neston in the 2015 election, who responded in unequivocal terms:
As we know, the Conservatives did win a majority, but the promise was reneged on. As my constituent said, it was a clear and simple promise on which they have totally failed to deliver in any way whatever.
While we are on the subject, I draw the Minister’s attention to a statement by the then Chancellor during the 2015 election regarding Mersey tunnel fees. He said:
“They will definitely be cut. I think we might be able to go further. I’m quite optimistic that we might be able to go further and abolish them altogether”.
Please, Minister, do not say in responding that this is for local operators to determine. When the Chancellor of the day makes clear statements—promises, no less—it is incumbent on the Government to deliver them. The reputation of this place has had a real shaking in recent times, and no wonder when unambiguous, incontestable promises are made just before an election and jettisoned without a second thought. It destroys the very essence of what politics should be about—honesty and integrity—and replaces it with cynicism and callous disrespect for the public.
I turn to our continuing problems with the Mersey Gateway, to which my right hon. Friend Mr Howarth referred. According to the local campaign group, hundreds of thousands of fines have been issued, and so far about 7,500 penalties have been appealed to the Traffic Penalty Tribunal, which I understand have all been allowed. If that is correct, it must surely encourage the Minister to make enquiries about what on earth is going on. I urge him to look into how these fines are arising. It is clear there are regular issues with people seeing the signs and paying in time. It is far from clear when people have to pay by and how they should pay. Why does it have to always be online?